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There are a lot of questions on the site that have the format "Who first [____]?" or "When was [____] discovered/created?". Some examples:

The problem with these is that it is extremely hard to prove that a certain person was the first to discover/create/whatever them. As Alexandre Eremenko said here,

It is always difficult (if possible at all) to prove that someone did something first.

I'd argue that, in some cases, it's outright impossible to prove that someone was first.

How can we address this?

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  • $\begingroup$ Many questions of this sort essentially ask "Can you please do a literature search for me on X?" That's almost as hard as proving who did something first. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Apr 27 '15 at 14:23
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Forgive this possibly-naive answer from a newcomer, but...

This site is about history. AIUI it is the nature of history that one cannot prove (in a physical-sciences sense) what happened in the past, but that one arrives at the most likely explanation from the evidence that is available. I don't think that that is fundementally any different if trying to answer who discovered something first than it is for any other question in history.

In some cases it may be that we simply don't know - that there is not sufficient evidence to arrive at a firm, or even likely, conclusion, and in these cases the answer should state this.

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First off, let me agree with Simon W's basic point: answers do not need to be provably correct; it's enough if they are well-reasoned and well-sourced. And there's nothing wrong with careful wording: "Leucippus is usually credited with inventing atomism" (backed up by a reference, even if it's Wikipedia).

However, "who invented", "who discovered" present a special problem. To quote Kuhn:

The concept of the unit discovery is constitutive of the scientific life as we know it... Among historians, however, it is by now virtually a truism that that concept will not do. Discoveries are extended processes, seldom attributable to a particular moment in time and sometimes not even to a single individual. ---Afterword to Black-Body Theory and the Quantum Discontinuity, 1894-1912

There are exceptions to this ukase, but it seems especially apt for the "big topics": energy, atomism, inverse-square law, etc.

I think this can be dealt with in two ways:

  • In answering a "who discovered" question, outline the extended development.
  • In posing a "who discovered" question, rephrase as asking for this development.

Narrowing to a specific period is usually a good idea. Not, "Who invented the concept of energy?", but something more like this:

  • How did the modern energy concept develop, starting with Newton and Leibniz?
  • What are the antecedents of our modern energy concept in ancient or medieval times?
  • Did non-European cultures (e.g., Ancient China, the Islamic Golden Age) have a concept of energy? If so, what are the similarities and differences to the modern concept?

Etc.

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The question of the type "who did this first" really has no definite answer in most cases. For example, "Who created topology, and when, and what problems lead to this creation?" A more reasonable question would be "How was topology created?". An answer would include some story, with several people. In this particular case, Leibniz, Euler, Gauss, Riemann, Mobius, Betti, Cantor and Poincare should be mentioned. "Creation of Topology" was a development which occupied 300 years.

Instead of "Who discovered the "Comet" as a celestial object?", one could ask "When and how it was understood (or proved) that comets are celestial objects" (rather than optical illusions like rainbows, or atmospheric phenomena like lightnings). Which I think is a meaningful question, to which one can give a reasonable answer.

The question "who discovered integers", on my opinion cannot have any reasonable answer.

Even such discoveries like logarithms or universal law of gravitation, which are commonly credited to one person, the true story is usually more complicated, and one can see a development in which many people participated.

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