When discoveries stay discovered

In what sense did Christopher Columbus discover America? Obviously he wasn’t the first human to step foot on the New World. Columbus wasn’t even the first European. Norwegian explorer Leif Erikson seems to have arrived 500 years before Columbus. But as Stephen Mills famously stated,

There have been other people before Columbus, but when Columbus discovered the New World, it stayed discovered.

The same principle could be used to resolve debates about priorities in mathematical discoveries.There is some debate over whether John Tukey or Carl Gauss discovered the Fast Fourier Transform (FFT). But there is no doubt that after Tukey discovered it, the FFT stayed discovered. The algorithm is now used in digital signal processing applications everywhere.

Gauss and Tukey were both brilliant mathematicians. Tukey, however, also had an aptitude for creating memorable names. For example, you may have heard of “software,” a term he coined.

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7 thoughts on “When discoveries stay discovered

  1. America became a colony because the knowledge of America persisted. If Columbus and his crew had suffered collective amnesia before returning to Europe, America would not have become a colony until someone else came and remembered.

    The first Asians who walked to America discovered the land in the most fundamental sense. But they didn’t send postcards back to Asia saying “Exploring a new continent. Wish you were here.” So Asia didn’t discover America, a group of Asians discovered America. But Columbus’ discovery wasn’t private. He successfully informed one continent about the existence of another.

  2. This was a ‘European’ invasion not a discovery and millions of native Indians were murdered in the process. Like you have already mentioned this land had already been inhabited and thus discovered. Are you saying just because Columbus went back to Europe and said ‘look what I’ve discovered’ makes it knowledge persistent? Just because the knowledge of America was not known amongst the Europeans at the time means it was not discovered at all?

  3. The building of a world culture and knowledge bases has been a long and bloody one. Using terms like ‘European’ and ‘native american’ oversimplified and distorts the violent paths both areas of the world have traveled to get where they are today. Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas have been in a state to constant conflict since before recorded history as various nation have vied to influence and dominate. The native cultures of the pre European Americas were violent warrior cultures. The Maya, Aztec and even iraquoi nation were warrior states that grew large by attacking, killing and enslaving their nieghbors. For better or worse Columbus brought the Americas into the global collective. Nothing more and nothing less significant than that.

  4. Alejandro Weinstein

    So it seems that Tukey “discover” the term software in the same way he discover the FFT. According to wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Tukey):

    “The term “software”, which Paul Niquette claims he coined in 1953,[5] was first used in print by Tukey in a 1958 article in American Mathematical Monthly, and thus some attribute the term to him.[6]”

  5. I’m not defending anything that Europeans or native Americans did after Columbus’ voyages. (By the way, I had ancestors on both sides.) I’m simply saying that in a meaningful sense Columbus really did discover the Americas.

    This is like so many other stories of discovery. First you learn that Morse invented the telegraph, Edison invented the light bulb, etc. Then later you learn that the stories weren’t so simple. But if you keep going, you realize that the people credited with these discoveries really did do something noteworthy, even if their discoveries weren’t totally unprecedented.

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