, Volume 86, Issue 2, pp 245–250 | Cite as

Quantifying the ease of scientific discovery

  • Samuel Arbesman


It has long been known that scientific output proceeds on an exponential increase, or more properly, a logistic growth curve. The interplay between effort and discovery is clear, and the nature of the functional form has been thought to be due to many changes in the scientific process over time. Here I show a quantitative method for examining the ease of scientific progress, another necessary component in understanding scientific discovery. Using examples from three different scientific disciplines—mammalian species, chemical elements, and minor planets—I find the ease of discovery to conform to an exponential decay. In addition, I show how the pace of scientific discovery can be best understood as the outcome of both scientific output and ease of discovery. A quantitative study of the ease of scientific discovery in the aggregate, such as done here, has the potential to provide a great deal of insight into both the nature of future discoveries and the technical processes behind discoveries in science.


Discovery Difficulty Ease Model Mammals Elements Minor planets 



Thanks to Nicholas Christakis, Jukka-Pekka Onnela, and Steven Strogatz for reading drafts of this manuscript and providing helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, Hungary 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Health Care PolicyHarvard Medical SchoolBostonUSA
  2. 2.Institute for Quantitative Social ScienceHarvard UniversityCambridgeUSA

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