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Background

I am interested in scientists and mathematicians that were afraid to publish their findings during their lifetime, and to what degree such fears hinder scientific progress.

So far, I've identified three famous scientists that were afraid to publish their important findings:

  1. Nicolas Copernicus. He delayed the publication of his work on a heliocentric model of the solar system for fear of either astronomical objections, or objections based on religious grounds.
  2. Carl Friedrich Gauss. Though fear might not always have been the main reason for him to delay the publication of his work -- he often waited quite some time before he published anything. He was a perfectionist, so perhaps one might describe it as a fear for not publishing something that was up to his high standards.
  3. Dan Shechtman. He was afraid of publishing his findings on quasicrystals publishing alone, because he needed the expertise of his coauthors to explain his observations regarding quasicrystals. Moreover, he faced strong opposition from one of the most celebrated scientists of his time: Linus Pauling.

Some also believe Charles Darwin was afraid to publish his theory of evolution and avoided doing so for 20 years, but this has been refuted.

I am also aware of cases of scientists and mathematicians that were scorned for their ideas (Ludwig Boltzmann, Ignaz Semmelweis, Georg Cantor), or ignored (Gregor Mendel, George Zweig). Although these are interesting (albeit tragic) cases as well, for the purposes of this particular question I would like to restrict the examples to those that were afraid of publishing -- for whatever reason.

Question

What other well-known scientists were afraid to publish their findings, and why?

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  • $\begingroup$ You mention Gauss. He decided not to publish his work on non-euclidean geometry; so history credits Lobachevskii and Bolyai for that. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 12, 2023 at 14:22
  • $\begingroup$ Dan Schechtman observed 10-fold symmetry in April 1982 and published in November 1984. I don't think this is a good example of "afraid to publish their findings during their lifetime" or even of "waited quite some time before he published anything". Yes, he received some resistance, notably from Pauling, but "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". $\endgroup$
    – jeguyer
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ @MaxMuller But two years is a completely normal amount of time to go from observation to publishable result, and Schechtman needed the expertise of his co-authors to explain his observation in order to make it a result. $\endgroup$
    – jeguyer
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 16:55
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    $\begingroup$ Probably plenty of Soviet geneticists and agricultural scientists during Lysenkoism, linguists during Marrism, I imagine some also many economists, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Pilcrow
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Mauricio In my eyes - if that means the scientists were afraid to share their findings with the rest of the world - yes. $\endgroup$
    – Max Muller
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 14:37

8 Answers 8

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Mikhael Gromov started his career in the Soviet Union. When he decided to try to leave (which was not an easy thing to do at the time, as it is now), he stopped publishing his work, fearful that if the word gets around about him being a great mathematician, the Soviet authorities will prevent him from leaving. His last paper in Russia was published in 1973:

Gromov, M. L. Convex integration of differential relations. I. Izv. Akad. Nauk SSSR Ser. Mat. 37 (1973), 329–343.

His next paper, already in the West, was published five years later in 1978:

Gromov, M. Manifolds of negative curvature. J. Differential Geometry 13 (1978), no. 2, 223–230.

This was followed by an explosion of publications: by 1981, he published 12 new papers, all of them ground-breaking in their respective field.

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have any reference confirming your stated reasons for Gromov not publishing in 1973-1978? This gap in publication can have many alternative explanations. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 10:56
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko, this story is well known to differential geometers at Stony Brook and elsewhere. Anthony Phillips was personally involved and may be able to provide some input if you are interested in contacting him. media.scgp.stonybrook.edu/newsletter/… $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 11:09
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    $\begingroup$ See also the wonderful anecdote about this at mathoverflow.net/a/200657 $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 23:20
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The moment I saw this Question , I connected it with $\sqrt{2}$ , which I think is the Earliest Example of hiding ( Mathematical ) Discoveries out of fear.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Square_root_of_2#History

Pythagoreans discovered that the diagonal of a square is incommensurable with its side, or in modern language, that the square root of two is irrational. Little is known with certainty about the time or circumstances of this discovery, but the name of Hippasus of Metapontum is often mentioned. For a while, the Pythagoreans treated as an official secret the discovery that the square root of two is irrational, and, according to legend, Hippasus was murdered for divulging it. The square root of two is occasionally called Pythagoras's number or Pythagoras's constant, for example by Conway & Guy (1996).


That text contains my high-lights :

  • Pythagoreans did not "publish" or "publicize" the irrationality of $\sqrt{2}$ ...
  • who-ever considered doing so would have the fear of getting murdered ...
  • a little fancifully , the secret is still not revealed regarding the who or the when of that Scary Discovery ...
  • the truth has been totally buried , lost & forgotten , ensuring that we may never ever know all the facts of that matter ...
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    $\begingroup$ I think that entire Wikipedia paragraph (except the last sentence) is fanciful. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 22:00
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Schrödinger was afraid of publishing what is now known as the Klein-Gordon equation because it did not describe experimental data correctly. Instead, he published the nonrelativistic version, which described the data correctly (without relativistic corrections). Reference: Dirac, Recollections of an Exciting Era//History of Twentieth Century Physics: Proceedings of the International School of Physics "Enrico Fermi". Course LVII. - New York; London: Academic Press, 1977. -P.109-146. Dirac recollects his conversation with Schrödinger that took place in (approximately) 1940.

Kronig did not publish the idea of electron rotation as the cause of "duplicity" of atomic spectra because of Pauli's critique. Reference: A. Pais, Phys. Today 42(12), 34 (1989);

If I understand correctly, Pauli was afraid of publishing what is now known as the Yang-Mills field because he believed it implied existence of extra zero-mass particles, which are not observed. Reference: A. Pais, The Genius of Science. A portrait gallery of twentieth-century physicists, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp.243-245.

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  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! Do you have any sources describing their fears? $\endgroup$
    – Max Muller
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 6:57
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    $\begingroup$ @MaxMuller : I gave a reference and will try to give more later. $\endgroup$
    – akhmeteli
    Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ A scientist not publishing a result because of fear that the result is wrong, must be very common ─ one is supposed to have confidence in a result before publishing it. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 0:10
  • $\begingroup$ @MaxMuller : so I added the remaining references. $\endgroup$
    – akhmeteli
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ @akhmeteli "X was afraid to publish because theory did not match experimental data" is what scientists should do, no? Lumping that in with not publishing for fear of persecution is absurd. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Nov 15, 2023 at 4:50
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Newton. Newton was afraid of controversies and of being involved in public disputes. As a result he was reluctant to publish his results, preferring to communicate them to a narrow circle of his correspondents, or just keep to himself. Many of his mathematical works were published with large delay, or after his death. His most important work (Principia) was literally wrestled from him by Halley, who published it at his own expense.

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William Thurston did not publish many of his results. Instead he circulated them in unfinished form in some narrow circles. Some reasons for this he explained in his article

On proof and progress in mathematics. Bull. Amer. Math. Soc. (N.S.) 30 (1994), no. 2, 161–177.

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    $\begingroup$ What was Thurston afraid of? $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Mikhail Katz: read his paper where he explains. It is freely available on the web $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ Answers around here are supposed to be self-contained. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2023 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ In fact, it is far from clear to me that Thurston's explanation was truthful. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 10:18
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(Not sure if this is the kind of answer you're looking for, but since both questions are HNQs, I thought I'd write it.)

duncster94 appears to be doing research related to machine learning as applied to the biology literature. They are hesitant to publish their results, because the data source they used for the research is illegal, and they are afraid of blowback.

I don't know how much this is affecting the field, however.

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    $\begingroup$ Based on the question, seems like the illegal dataset is yet to be collected, and such "the data source they used for the research is illegal" is (not yet) true, since they haven't used (or even obtained) it yet. (although probably the question could have been phrased in a hypothetical to get plausible deniability) $\endgroup$
    – justhalf
    Commented Nov 14, 2023 at 9:42
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Another good example of a scientist who was afraid to publish is Jeremy Bentham.

According to the following section of his wiki biography, he argued for the liberalisation of laws prohibiting homosexual sex in the c. 1785 essay "Paederasty (Offences Against One's Self)". The essay remained unpublished during his lifetime for fear of offending public morality, and was not published until 1978 (!).

Incidentally, the story of Bentham was put forth by philosopher Peter Singer to illustrate the importance of initiating the Journal of Controversial Ideas. According to their website, the journal is

... the first open access, peer-reviewed, interdisciplinary journal specifically created to promote free inquiry on controversial topics.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas offers a forum for careful, rigorous, unpolemical discussion of issues that are widely considered controversial, in the sense that certain views about them might be regarded by many people as morally, socially, or ideologically objectionable or offensive. The journal offers authors the option to publish their articles under a pseudonym, in order to protect themselves from threats to their careers or physical safety. We hope that this will also encourage readers to attend to the arguments and evidence in an essay rather than to who wrote it. Pseudonymous authors may choose to claim the authorship of their work at a later time, or to reveal it only to selected people (such as employers or prospective employers), or to keep their identity undisclosed indefinitely. Standard submissions using the authors’ actual names are also encouraged.

We welcome submissions in all areas of academic research insofar as the topics discussed are relevant to society at large.

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Albert Einstein I don't know if it could be out of fear, or the reason was a contrary, earth-shaking implication that embarrassed him because it did not line up with his worldview. However, the Theory of Special Relativity---and General Relativity---implied the beginning of the universe and that did not set well with him or his colleagues who advocated a Steady State Universe with no beginning.

So fearful he was of upsetting the apple cart (and fearful of its philosophical implications) that he invented the infamous fudge factor (universal constant). Which he later admitted was the worst mistake of his mathematical career!

Fortunately, Einstein overcame his fear, and admitted that the beginning of the Universe was a definite possibility.

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