The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Do geniuses get the credit for their work?

Often, no.

Why do I say this? Well, history is littered with examples of brilliant people whose creative work is either misappropriated or just wrongly credited to someone else. This does no-one any good (apart from the person receiving credit for work they didn't do).

I will give you an example. Have you heard of Peter Desaga? Think hard. Nope? Well, I am not surprised, but I am fairly sure that almost all readers will know of his invention. If you have ever been in a chemistry lab it is something you will have used. Any wiser? No? Well, think of the name Robert Wilhelm Bunsen. Is that familiar in some way? Yes? I bet you remembered then, the "Bunsen" Burner. I say "Bunsen" deliberately, because Bunsen didn't invent the Bunsen Burner, at all. His assistant, Peter Desaga did, by modifying an earlier design of Michael Faraday's.

Now, I think it is rather wrong that Robert Bunsen got the credit for this invention when it was actually his assistant who did the work and created the product. But, the tale gets worse. You see Bunsen did something rather magnanimous with his assistant's idea: he gave it away for free! That's right, Peter Desaga wasn't even rewarded for his invention - and Bunsen looked very generous in giving away, for nothing, something that was not his to give.

Only a few specialists in Chemistry would have heard of Bunsen were it not for the odd fact that the Bunsen Burner - which he didn't invent - is named after him. Bunsen is now an immortal - in name, at least - but Peter Desaga, the man who actually invented it, is an unknown. That is terribly wrong. In writing this article I have just increased Desaga's fame many times - and this is just a blog. How sad that is.

So, no, geniuses don't always get the credit - and often the ones who do are simply socially more important and therefore in a position to leverage credit towards themselves - it is not right and is not good for the health of science, culture or the arts - or wherever this phenomenon occurs. So, Mr. Bunsen, I am going to start calling it a Desaga Burner, from now on. (Or maybe the Desaga-Faraday Burner.) Perhaps you should too. It would only be right.

Oh, by the way, it was Ainan, my seven year old son, who tipped me off about Bunsen's undeserved credit: he didn't like it either.

(If you would like to read about Ainan Celeste Cawley, a scientific child prodigy, aged seven years and four months, or his gifted brothers, Fintan, three, and Tiarnan, fourteen months, please go to: I also write of child prodigy, IQ, intelligence, gifted education, child genius, baby genius, adult genius, savant, the creatively gifted, gifted children and gifted adults in general. Thanks.)

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 10:30 AM 


Blogger EbTech said...

In those days, professors always got credit for the work of their students and assistants. This was the tradition. Bunsen may not have been personally at fault.

Fortunately, academia is a lot more strict regarding intellectual rights and plagiarism these days, so credit is generally given where it's due.

By the way, I looked up Desaga's name on Wikipedia. It turns out "the Desaga family held the right to market the burner for generations, as part of an agreement made with Bunsen." There was also a link to an article on misattributed inventions:

I never cease to be amazed by the truth-spreading power of the World Wide Web!

6:54 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Hmm...I wonder when that linked article was written because its core theme is the same as my post. I have certainly never heard of the author or his work...

Anyway, I am glad that you think things are better these days. Though, I must say, I saw evidence at university that there were still problems in this area. Unscrupulous people still thrive in the modern university - even if they are not supposed to.

The source I came across said that Bunsen gave away the burner for free (the rights to it) so I am not sure about Desaga's right to market it. It seems strange that if his family had the rights to market it, that it should not be named after him.

Anyway, Desaga deserves to be remembered for having made a useful contribution.

Thanks for your comment.

12:24 AM  
Blogger EbTech said...

Sorry for taking so long to respond; I nearly forgot about my comment here!

Do you suspect the author may have copied your article? The page info lists the Modified time at
November-05-99 12:53:59 PM

I don't know how bad plagiarism is nowadays, but at least it is greatly frowned upon by nearly everyone. Student work is no longer automatically attributed to the supervising faculty member.

By the way, what do you think of Wikipedia? While such sites would seem untrustworthy in theory, in some cases it is more accurate than traditional encyclopedias. For example, the Bunsen burner article's history section does mention Desaga.

12:45 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Well, Wikipedia can be good - for the very reason that it can also be bad: anyone can edit it. However, that means quite often that anyone could also pick up a mistake and correct it.

So, Wikipedia is often alright...the problem is we don't often know where the information ultimately came from and there is no one body saying: "This has been checked" there is with an Encyclopaedia Britannica etc.

I am glad Wikipedia makes mention of Desaga. Perhaps it will ultimately be known as the Desaga burner!

2:30 PM  

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