Wednesday, September 03, 2008

An eponymous flower

click photo to enlarge
The other day I came across Stigler's Law of Eponymy. This was proposed in 1980 by Stephen Stigler, a US statistics professor, and can be summarised thus: "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer." So, apparently Halley's Comet was not discovered by Edmund Halley, nor was the Fibonacci Sequence discovered by Leonardo of Pisa (known as Fibonacci), and the attribution of Gresham's Law to Sir Thomas Gresham is for reasons other than the important part he played in its discovery.

What Stigler found that made him propose his "law" was that names are often attributed long after discoveries are first made, and they frequently refer to someone well-known, but not seminal, in the field. Interestingly Stigler's Law is self-referencing since he credits the sociologist, Robert K. Merton with first proposing the idea!

I was reflecting on this interesting, but obscure law as I photographed this orange dahlia. I remembered that dahlia was an eponym, being named after the Swedish botanist, Anders Dahl (1751-1789), a pupil of Linnaeus. Did he, I wondered, discover them, name them, breed them, popularise them - or what? How did his name come to be associated with the plant? It seems that this Central American flower, probably known to the Aztecs, was first described by a European, Francisco Hernandez, in Mexico in the late 1500s. However, it was not called "dahlia" until Antonio Jose Cavarilles of the Royal Gardens of Madrid named the plant after Anders Dahl some time after 1789. The Swedish botanist, as far as I can see, was being honored by having his name attached to the plant, but played no part at all in its discovery. Stigler's Law strikes again!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 35mm macro (70mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f11
Shutter Speed: 1/15
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.7 EV
Image Stabilisation: Off