What is the best word to describe the creator of a scientific theory? As in:

Einstein was the _____ of the theory of Special Relativity.

Creator, author, originator, and inventor are possibilities, but which is the most appropriate/accepted term?


“Father” seems to be the best fit for the example I gave, but is less apt for theories not as widely recognized as relativity or evolution. What would be the term for a less renowned scientist who has proposed a more controversial theory?

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    Searching through the first few pages of results in Google Books for "Einstein/Darwin/Newton/etc. was the" "of the theory" confirms my suspicion that Anglophones in general don't often use OP's specific construction in this context (I didn't notice a single written instance where my two "quoted" search strings appeared either side of a suitable candidate noun). – FumbleFingers May 4 '14 at 20:48
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    What about the construction “Einstein, _____ of the theory of Special Relativity, was a really smart dude.”? – Will May 4 '14 at 21:00
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    Will, that is precisely the same construction, is it not? This is @FumbleFingers' point; that construction is uncommon. To comment on your construction, it would be *Einstein was a really smart dude. He developed the Theory of Relativity. – anongoodnurse May 4 '14 at 21:02
  • @medica: As the comments under your own answer would suggest, part of the problem here may be that we're not really sure exactly how to characterise the "role" of the leading inceptor of a major new theory/paradigm. Firstly because they rarely achieve such feats in complete isolation and secondly because we're never sure if they "created" or "discovered" the new knowledge. There's more of the former in creating [the theory of] relativity, and more of the latter in discovering [the existence of] DNA, say. – FumbleFingers May 4 '14 at 21:13
  • @medica, Yes, but the construction’s usage in that sentence is probably more common than its usage in my original example, which may explain why FumbleFinger's Google search didn't return many results. – Will May 4 '14 at 21:22

Einstein was the "father" of the theory of Special Relativity.

Charles Darwin was the father of the theory of natural selection.

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    I'm sure it's not exactly the kind of word OP was looking for, but it seems like the best fit to me. I'll also just say I found more instances of "Einstein, the father of the theory..." in Google Books than the total for all variations using OP's four suggested alternatives. – FumbleFingers May 4 '14 at 21:22
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    @Will, there is no implication in this phrasing that Einstein is dead. For a parallel, consider Noam Chomsky who is still alive and has been called the father of modern linguistics for many years. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 5 '14 at 0:15
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    @Will Also, if something is not accepted by most scientists in the field, then it's very difficult to even call it a theory. It's more of an hypothesis. – Cruncher May 5 '14 at 14:40
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    The problem I have with it is that this is a gendered word; many people would balk at being described as the ''mother'', ''father'', ''queen'', ''prince'', etc. – Andrew Coonce May 5 '14 at 18:40
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    @Cruncher (2) A theory need not be widely accepted to qualify as a theory. For example, Lamarck's theory of soft inheritance is a theory, but it is not accepted by most scientists in the field. – Will May 5 '14 at 20:34

Most of the professors I know wouldn't refer to themselves as inventors, creators, or any such word denoting actual creation of a physical phenomenon. They see themselves as founders rather than creators; they don't invent the rules, they merely describe them. For that reason, I would consider the following over a synonym for "create." Note that I think a verb would probably work better than a noun, but given the placement of the blank and the words you provided...

Founder, pioneer, presenter, developer.

But when they are described by others who don't reflect the modesty of the founders themselves, inventor is the word I see most often.

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    I don't think you can be a pioneer of a theory, you can be a pioneer in the field of something. But the founder of such and such theory, fits in quite well imo. – Mari-Lou A May 5 '14 at 5:57

I would insert 'formulator' into your blank space, on the grounds that it is probably the best choice out of a problematic set of possibilities (as is evident from the comments elsewhere in this thread). The nouns 'proposer' and 'propounder' are also possible, but don't sound very natural.

On the other hand, the associated verbs all sound perfectly idiomatic to me. So given the option, I would prefer to reword your sentence slightly:

It was Einstein who {formulated / proposed / propounded} the theory of Special Relativity.


Developer and discoverer are possibilities; Einstein established the theory of relativity, rather than invented or created it.

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    Establishing a mathematical theory of physics is creating and inventing it. There was no mathematical theory of relativity before Einstein. – John Lawler May 4 '14 at 20:47
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    Relativity existed before Einstein discovered it. He did not create relativity; did he create its theory? That is debatable; he uncovered it, he developed it, he discovered it. Scientists use a different language than linguists, despite your objections. Watson and Crick uncovered/discovered the structure of DNA. Makers create the laws that govern the universe. Finally, few people discover things independently of scientists before them; developer is probably the most accurate descriptor for people who prove a theory proposed (even in part) by someone before them. – anongoodnurse May 4 '14 at 20:55
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    I would say that Einstein did not create relativity per se, but he did create the theory of relativity. At least to me, the meaning of the word “theory” is the body of human knowledge that describes or explains a phenomenon. Humans create theories, but not necessarily the phenomena they explain. – Will May 4 '14 at 20:59
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    @Will - to create implies doing something de novo. Einstein did not exist in a vacuum. He relied on the work of his predecessors, whether they were right or wrong (ruling out the incorrect). The definition of Theory itself is perceived differently among scientists and laymen. Newton famously stated "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants." And he was not even the first to make that statement. – anongoodnurse May 4 '14 at 21:11
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    Formulated is probably the best word for this. Interestingly, it's disputed how much credit should go to Einstein in formulating the two theories: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relativity_priority_dispute – Matthew May 5 '14 at 2:52

"Creator" seems fine, and originator ok, but I dislike the other two.

"Creator" seems appropriate. "X created Y" implies that prior to X's creative action Y did not exist and afterwards it did. Causing a theory to come into being may involve rearranging existing parts (mathematical operators, and paradigms that help understand formalisms at an intuitive level) and helping physicists understand it.

"Author" seems inappropriate. "X authored Y" implies that the significant part of the act was finding the right terms (broadly interpreted) to convey something. That was not the case here. The idea itself was novel.

"Originator" seems somewhat appropriate. "X originates from Y" implies that without Y there would be no X, but after the originating event X is no longer dependent on Y for continued existence. Many other words convey the former, but "originator" seems a poor choice unless you really want to convey the latter.

"Inventor" seems inappropriate. Inventors create inventions and "invention" is usually a physical device or process of some sort. It seems odd to use the word invention for a set of closed-form expressions and accompanying explanatory framework.

If what you wish to convey is that Einstein had an idea (a concept), did much of the hard work to formalize it, and presented it to the community of physicists, then maybe "conceiver."

  • I would actually prefer "originator" over "creator" because of the idea that a major, well-accepted scientific theories is a fundamental truth not a creative enterprise, but I agree with all your other comments. – AmeliaBR May 5 '14 at 21:05
  • @AmeliaBR, I disagree with "is not a creative enterprise" because it's not obvious to me that finding a way to make a fundamental truth accessible is not a creative enterprise, so creativity and fundamentality seem to be separable concerns. If by "fundamental truth" you mean "true analytic statement" then I also disagree because I'm not convinced that the synthetic/analytic distinction is coherent. Third, theories are descriptive, not proscriptive so one could create many descriptive theories that equally accurately track some underlying proscriptive natural law. – Mike Samuel May 5 '14 at 21:27

Since science is a cooperative effort, and many different scientists contribute to a theory, in cases like this I would use the word "original", as in

Albert Einstein was the original author (contributor, developer, ...) of the theory of Special Relativity.

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    Why not "Albert Einstein was the originator of the theory..."? – Ray May 5 '14 at 0:43
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    In this context, "originator" is not a clearly defined word. For example, Michelson & Morley, performed an experiment that was the basis of the SR. Lorentz and Fitzgerald provided a formula for the length contraction in said experiment. Both things arguably "originated" the theory, although none of the above scientists initially develop the theory... – gbaso May 6 '14 at 1:17
  • Discovered (incorrect)

What is really discovered is the underlying phenomena, not the theory itself.

  • Invented (incorrect)

The purpose of a theory is to describe phenomena that already exists in nature. This is distinct from an invention, which rather a creation that originates more completely within the author's mind.

  • Formulated

A scientific theory like this one is neither invented nor discovered. The theory only "spells out", or explains something that already exists in nature. Therefore, formulated seems like an appropriate choice.

Also, as others have pointed out, science is a collaborative effort, and Einstein is rather the scientist who is most popularly associated with the theory.


Scientists themselves find it hard to determine whether they "invent" theories or "discover" them. Surely Darwin's theory of evolution was invented, since it's a qualitative birds-eye view of evolution. And surely the continent of America was discovered, not invented. But were Newton's laws discovered or invented? I'd saw the atom was discovered, not invented. And the speed of light?

As you can see, it's pretty hard to distinguish between the two, therefore you shouldn't call Einstein the discoverer nor the inventor of the Theory of Relativity, unless you want to take a side in the argument. I don't like "father" either: it's too partial. Maybe you should call him "originator of the Theory of Relativity".

  • One could equally well say that Darwin discovered evolution, since it operates whether or not humans are aware of it (and many still aren't!). As I've mentioned in other comments, I think it's important here to distinguish between theories and the phenomena they describe or explain; people create theories, but not the phenomena. Thus I think it's fair to say that, e.g., Darwin created the theory of evolution, but discovered the process of natural selection. – Will May 5 '14 at 15:36
  • For that matter, Columbus discovered an already-existent America (the matter of other Europeans, and of course, native inhabitants, already have been there, aside). Einstein discovered the rules of Relativity, and formulated his famed Theory, but light already traveled at a fixed speed c, time and length and mass varied with speed, etc. – Phil Perry May 5 '14 at 16:43
  • @Will and Phil: IMHO neither of you understand the difference between scientific discovery and invention. Which is fine: it's pretty off-topic here. But let me explain, anyway: Evolution or natural selection cannot be discovered, because they are not phenomena, just like capitalism is not a phenomenon, or love is not a phenomenon. The fact that people notice these things and give them names does not mean they are natural phenomena. Evolution and Natural Selection are something else: perhaps "explanatory principle" is the right term. They are not something that exists in nature (1) – mobius dumpling May 5 '14 at 16:53
  • @mobiusdumpling, that is a philosophical position on which we differ—it is not a fact. – Will May 5 '14 at 16:57
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    Relativity itself wasn't invented. It was observed, or possibly discovered (if it turns out to be real). The theory describing it, on the other hand, is an original work; "invented" is an odd word for it IMO, but the theory was created, not discovered. Same as how evolution was observed/discovered, but the theory describing it was created. – cHao May 5 '14 at 18:48

I mean, doesn't it sound natural something like

Einstein is widely credited with having developed the [or you could even use "his"] theories on gravity and special relativity. Einstein's work largely influenced later work on physics such as the development of the atomic bomb and even metaphysical , such as in unified field, gravity, and black hole.

Wikipedia uses developed. That's not an authoritative source but I would say this is a question of style. Inventor, discoverer, Patentor, creator... they might all sound more or less natural depending on context, no?

If anything I think father maybe is a bit out there. For Einstein maybe, but that seems like a tenuous assertion generally speaking. But yet again, in the specific phrasing context of your question, that ("father") might be the best single-word choice... :/

protected by RegDwigнt May 6 '14 at 9:12

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