Life of Galileo Galilei was not simple, predictable, or rational. Being as great as he was, Galileo, for example, did not accept Kepler's laws of planetary motion. At the same time, he believed with all his heart in the Copernicus`s theory of the solar system. Because of his personal belief in the heliocentric doctrine, Galileo was heavily criticized by the church, and in 1616 was sentenced by the Inquisition to life imprisonment in his home in Florence.

It was outrageous that a person such as Galileo was forced to spend the remainder of his days in house exile. Nevertheless, he continued to work and write books while in exile. One of the books was the famous "Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems."

Galileo died in 1642 after having suffered blindness in the last four years of his life and leaving his inventions, discoveries, books, and his devotion to science to future generations, that is, to us.


Are there any other examples in the history where a physicist was criticised socially or by his peers for his idea/theory/ work, but was later accepted wholeheartedly by the society?

One such instance that I know is the case of Galileo Galilei. I don't know any other example of such a case and I had no idea where to ask. (I am also afraid for the duplication of this question.)

  • $\begingroup$ Could Einsteins discarding of the cosmological constant not count? $\endgroup$
    – Neil Meyer
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @NeilMeyer I wouldn't think so. At the very least, there are probably better examples to pull from Einstein's career. The initial reception of GR, for example. $\endgroup$
    – David H
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ To be precise, the Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was published in 1632; the book was banned subsequently, with the sentence delivered by Inquisition on 22 June 1613, after the trial. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 15:41
  • $\begingroup$ @David H I agree, the situation with no Nobel prize for GR is a good example theguardian.com/science/across-the-universe/2012/oct/08/… Einstein is also an example of someone criticised (for his stance on quantum mechanics) and celebrated (for relativity) at the same time since 1930s. Although it is hard to compare what happened in more modern times to inquisition, perhaps persecution of some scientists in Nazy Germany and Soviet Union. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ Honorable mention for nonequilibrium thermodynamics: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Pavlovich_Belousov $\endgroup$ Commented May 8, 2015 at 23:27

4 Answers 4

  1. Boltzmann. He is one of the main founders of atomic theory. Atomic theory was strongly criticized on philosophical grounds, by some prominent philosophers, including Mach. Boltzmann committed suicide in a state of depression in 1906. I do not claim that criticism was the only reason of this depression, but I suspect it contributed to it.

The paper of Einstein was published in 1905 and Smoluchowski in 1906. Experiments of Perrin in 1908 confirmed the theory of Brownian motion, so the final proof of existence of atoms was obtained.

By the way, Mach was not only a philosopher. He made some contribution to physics as well (Mach's number, for example).

  1. Influential philosopher Eugene Duhring (and other philosophers) strongly criticized Riemann (they worked in the same university), and I suppose created some troubles for him. The thing which philosophers did not like were non-Euclidean geometries and multi-dimensional spaces. Few people remembers Duhring today. (Thanks to Conifold who taught me how to spell his name correctly).

By the way, Galileo was prosecuted and criticized mainly not by his peers but by the Catholic Church. Of course not all scientists accepted his theories, but discussions within science are normal. It is mainly philosophers, church and communist authorities that prosecute scientists.

EDIT. To answer the objection of Tom Crowel. I read the article he refers to. Does not look very convincing to me. I cite

Boltzmann was involved in various disputes. But this is not to say that he was the innocent victim of hostilities. In many cases he took the initiative by launching a polemic attack on his colleagues.

Exactly the same can be said about Galileo. Some of his enemies were also respected scientists (Scheiner, for example). History shows that Galileo was right in the main dispute. Same can be said about Boltzmann. Therefore I think that comparison is legitimate.

Further, I find in the article the following argument:

He was elected to membership or honorary membership in many academies (cf. Höflechner 1994, 192), received honorary doctorates, and was also awarded various medals.

This is about Boltzmann. But this also applies to Galileo:-)

But thanks for the reference anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ Wikipedia does have an article about Dühring en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugen_D%C3%BChring Academic discussions of science, including philosophical criticisms, seem as normal to me as discussions within science. They may not be fruitful, but they hardly compare to prosecution by inquisition or communists. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks! I misspelled him:-( The reason why most former Soviet educated people know this name is that Engels wrote a book "Anti-Duhring", and the study of this book was mandatory in Soviet Union:-) But of course we memorized Russian spelling. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 8, 2015 at 22:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Conifold: I disagree with "philosophers did not wield political power". Unfortunately some did. And I experienced this on myself:-) This happens when philosophy becomes a "state ideology". Which was the case in Soviet union in my time as well as in Italy in Galileo's time. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 2:01
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Conifold: Antisemitism was also very common among philosophers. Especially German philosophers of 19 century. But some French in 18th century as well. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 9, 2015 at 2:04
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Sorry to have to downvote, but the most reliable information I've seen is that the stuff about Boltzmann is largely a myth: Uffink, "Boltzmann's Work in Statistical Physics," 2004, plato.stanford.edu/entries/statphys-Boltzmann $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 22:03

Another well documented example is Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar ... "Chandra" who gave the first mathematical description of black holes. His conflict with Sir Arthur Eddington is portrayed by Arthur I. Miller in Empire of the Stars: Obsession, Friendship, and Betrayal in the Quest for Black Holes. Also see K.C. Wali, "Chandrasekhar vs. Eddington: An Unanticipated Confrontation", Physics Today, vol. 35, no. 10, pp. 33–40 (October, 1982).


Hugh Everett was heavily criticised by his peers, for the "Theory of Universal Wave Function" also known as "Many World Interpretation" of quantum physics. To a point where he decided to end his academic career in physics after his PhD.

His work, published in 1957, was only recognized during 1970's.

See the documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives.


Julius Mayer -conservation of energy and kinetic origin of heat -gravity is not a force (prior to Clifford and Einstein, who showed it's curvature)

Bernard Riemann (AE mentioned him below; his work inspired Clifford on gravity and was directly important for differential geometry, the core of relativity theory)

John Waterston (see Haldane, J. (ed.) (1928) The Collected Scientific Papers of John James Waterston. This is all his works in one place, but an incredibly rare edition. You'll only get it from a university library. Would be nice if somebody scanned it to make more widely available---although too late for me as I made notes.)

  • kinetic theory of heat in mathematical detail (the only predecessor was a page in Bernoulli's hydrodynamics, a diagram in fact)
  • neural networks / connectionism prior Darwin and Ziehen
  • first statement of the ergodic problem
  • phase transitions must be accounted for energetically (Kelvin ignored them and thought for a couple months he found disproof of energy conservation ... )

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