Top 10 revolutionary scientific theories

Alfred Wegener, shown here on a trip to Greenland in 1912–1913, proposed his ideas about continental drift as early as 1912, a concept later incorporated into the revolutionary theory of plate tectonics.

Archive of Alfred Wegener Institute/Wikimedia Commons

Most scientific fields have been made over with a revolutionary theory at least once in recent centuries. Such makeovers, or paradigm shifts, reorder old knowledge into a new framework. Revolutionary theories succeed when the new framework makes it possible to solve problems that stymied the previous intellectual regime. Here are my favorite revolutions. I’m hoping for more before I die.

10. Information theory: Claude Shannon, 1948
It’s not exactly the most revolutionary theory, since there really wasn’t a predecessor theory to revolutionize. But Shannon certainly provided the mathematical foundation for a lot of other revolutionary developments involving electronic communication and computer science. Without information theory, bits would still be just for drills.

9. Game theory: John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, 1944 (with important embellishments from John Nash in the 1950s)
Developed for economics, where it has had some successes, game theory didn’t quite completely revolutionize that field. But it has been widely adopted by many other social sciences. And evolutionary game theory is an important branch of the study of evolutionary biology. Game theory even applies to everyday activities like poker, football and negotiating for higher pay for bloggers. There is also even such a thing as quantum game theory, which is bound to revolutionize something someday. John Nash won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to game theory, and his troubled life inspired the excellent book A Beautiful Mind. But don’t expect to learn anything about game theory by watching the movie version.                   

8. Oxygen theory of combustion: Antoine Lavoisier, 1770s
Lavoisier did not discover oxygen, but he figured out that it was the gas that combined with substances as they burned. Lavoisier thereby did away with the prevailing phlogiston theory and paved the way for the development of modern chemistry. It was a much safer revolution for Lavoisier than the political one that soon followed in France, so revolutionary that Lavoisier lost his head over it.

7. Plate tectonics: Alfred Wegener, 1912; J. Tuzo Wilson, 1960s
Wegener realized that the continents drifted around as early as 1912. But it wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists put the pieces together in a comprehensive theory of plate tectonics. Wilson, a Canadian geophysicist, was a key contributor of some of the major pieces, while many other researchers also played prominent roles. (Keep in mind that plate tectonics should not be confused with Plates Tectonic, a good name for a revolutionary science-theme restaurant.)

6. Statistical mechanics: James Clerk Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann, J. Willard Gibbs, late 19th century
By explaining heat in terms of the statistical behavior of atoms and molecules, statistical mechanics made sense of thermodynamics and also provided strong evidence for the reality of atoms. Besides that, statistical mechanics established the role of probabilistic math in the physical sciences. Modern extensions of statistical mechanics (sometimes now called statistical physics) have been applied to everything from materials science and magnets to traffic jams and voting behavior. And even game theory.

5. Special relativity: Albert Einstein, 1905
In some ways special relativity was not so revolutionary, because it preserved a lot of classical physics. But come on. It merged space with time, matter with energy, made atomic bombs possible and lets you age slower during spaceflight. How revolutionary do you want to get?

4. General relativity: Einstein, 1915
General relativity was much more revolutionary than special relativity, because it ditched Newton’s law of gravity in favor of curved spacetime. And opened scientists’ eyes to the whole history of the expanding universe. And provided science fiction writers with black holes.

3. Quantum theory: Max Planck, Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born, Paul Dirac, 1900–1926
Quantum theory ripped the entire fabric of classical physics to shreds, demolished ordinary notions of the nature of reality, screwed up entire philosophies of cause and effect and revealed peculiarities about nature that nobody, no matter how imaginative, could ever have imagined. Seriously, it’s hard to believe it’s only Number 3.

2. Evolution by natural selection: Charles Darwin, 1859
Darwin showed that the intricate complexity of life and the intricate relationships among life-forms could emerge and survive from natural processes, with no need for a designer or an ark. He opened the human mind to pursuing natural science unimpaired by supernatural prejudices. His theory was so revolutionary that some people still doubt it. They shouldn’t.

1. Heliocentrism: Copernicus, 1543
One of the greatest insights ever, conceived by some ancient Greeks but established only two millennia later: the Earth revolves around the sun (as do other planets). It’s Number 1 because it was the first. Where did you think word revolutionary came from, anyway? (It was only rarely used to mean what it does today before Copernicus put revolutions in the title of his revolutionary book.)

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

More Stories from Science News on Science & Society