I'd like to ask a similar question from Math.SE for the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology and allied disciplines).

What are examples of scientific results that were discovered surprisingly late in history? For instance, a paper where all the technology has been available for years, and the theoretical underpinnings necessary are not recent, so in principle the same research could have been conceived and published years ago.

I am particularly interested in actual publications in peer-reviewed journals.

By way of example, I think Gibson assembly would be a good one: It is a simple modification of the standard PCR technique invented in the 70s. I imagine by the end of the 80s polymerases and buffers had been developed to the point that they could handle a simple Gibson assembly, and sequencing to confirm integrity of the product (or alternatively screening a library of products until a correct one is found) would also have been feasible. Whether the scientific community at large would have been more or less receptive to this idea at the time is another matter -- and something I specifically want to disregard for this question (ie. being "late" means late in terms of only technology and theory, not politics, funding and similar non-scientific prerequisites of scientific research).

  • $\begingroup$ To clarify the scope, you are interested in recent results, say in the last 100 years (peer review was rare before 1900, and only became common in 1950s en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peer_review#History), and reference to technology suggests "inventions" rather than theoretical or empirical discoveries, is that correct? $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Jun 10 '15 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Conifold Maybe it will be clearer if I ask like this: "What paper published in prestigious journals like Nature, Science and PNAS could have been published earlier (based on the theory and technology it builds on)?" I am not interested in inventions (unless they were published in prestigious peer-reviewed journals). I am interested in theoretical or empirical discoveries. $\endgroup$
    – Superbest
    Jun 10 '15 at 21:39

More of an engineering feat, but I'd go for the Steam Engine (or at least a Segner Wheel), the basics had been there for about 1500 years (The use of compressed air in pumps, the idea that boiling water produces steam) and had been been used for sort of toys/novelties but the jump to powering machinery wasn't made.




One "late" contribution might be the discovery in the late 20th c that Rome's Pantheon, built in the 2nd c AD, was not "replicable" using modern technology and construction principles without the aid of a computer. In other words, the intricacies of design and materials that went into the Pantheon's construction were so rigorously conceived that our civilization's advanced machinery could not emulate the Romans' skill without the invention and addition of computer-aided design.

On the Structure of the Roman Pantheon Robert Mark and Paul Hutchinson The Art Bulletin Vol. 68, No. 1 (Mar., 1986), pp. 24-34


  • $\begingroup$ I don't have access to the paper, but do the authors actually say this or is it your interpretation? $\endgroup$
    – hjhjhj57
    Jun 14 '15 at 6:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Javier Does it matter? $\endgroup$
    – DJohnson
    Jun 14 '15 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ MikeHunter - This could be an excellent answer, but @Javier's point does matter. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jun 14 '15 at 14:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @MikeHunter You're citing an excellent source; Javier's trying to understand if what you say is purely what the source's information is or your interpretation of the source. Citing a source isn't good if what you say isn't at all what the source says. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Jun 14 '15 at 16:23
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 I don't agree that interpreting a source is weaker than what the source says. That said, my interpretation is supported by this source but the explicit statement is not in this source. Regardless, the statement stands. $\endgroup$
    – DJohnson
    Jun 14 '15 at 16:40

Don't have recent peer reviewed examples but just for interest there are some odd detours in the history of science.

In biology a famous example is Mendelian genetics which was made in the mid-1800s but utterly unrecognized at the time only to be independently rediscovered by two different researchers circa 1904. It's possible a lot political ugliness of the 20th century might have been blunted if population genetics and thus synthetic Darwinism had got an earlier start.

I've read that relativity could have been deduced from Maxwells equations on electromagnetism but I don't have the source off the top of my head.

The big bang is innate in Newtonian physics. When ask why the universe didn't collapse as his models predicted, Newton said god had made the universe balanced precisely to be stable.

The big bang was evident in Hubble's work, but speculation on it was ignored until Bell labs stumbled into the cosmic background radiation.

Edison, Tesla and other electrical inventors of their day were repeatedly told by scientist that many of the inventions would not work because the primary scientific model for electricity, especially in plasma like Edison and Cathode ray tubes, was seriously flawed. Not sure if that counts as late discovery, as the inventors made things thought impossible which sent scientist scrambling.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I'm curious. How would an earlier start to "synthetic Darwinism" have blunted "a lot political ugliness of the 20th century"? $\endgroup$ Jul 28 '15 at 19:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ A lot of the statements in this answer sound to me like they're oversimplified or based on an incorrect understanding of historical reality. Tesla was in many ways a charlatan, and many of his ideas were impractical. It's a vast oversimplification to say that "the big bang is innate in Newtonian physics." Newtonian physics has trouble formulating a static, stable model of the cosmos. That's very different from saying that people in Newton's era could have inferred the existence of a big bang. Re Hubble, you simply have the sequence of events wrong. Le Maitre was 1927. $\endgroup$
    – user466
    Sep 26 '15 at 23:48

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