Library Simple Science
Click to enlarge Click to watch video Click to follow link
The Sleeping Beauties of Science
The Sleeping Beauties of Science

We all know the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Due to a curse, a princess falls into a deep sleep. Only a hundred years later, a handsome prince awakens the beautiful woman, after which they live happily ever after. But what does a fairy tale have to do with science? The fact is that scientists like to give poetic names to things and phenomena. Hence, there are genes called Hamlet and Superman. Sleeping Beauty, as it turns out, is a well-established term for scientific publications that have not received immediate recognition1. Such works may 'slumber' in relative obscurity for decades (and sometimes more than a century!), until other studies, like the prince from the fairy tale, wake them up suddenly, bringing them to light and demonstrating their value. Having been awakened, 'Sleeping Beauties' receive long-awaited recognition - following in the 'princes' footsteps, more and more specialists begin to quote them.

One of the most famous 'Sleeping Beauties' was that of an Austrian monk, Abbot Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, whose work received wide recognition only after the author's death. The works of Mendel in the field of plant genetics, published in 1865 in the journal of the Brunn Society for Natural Sciences, had been gathering dust in libraries for over 30 years, remaining unnoticed even by his progressive contemporary Charles Darwin. Mendel’s discoveries were so revolutionary that it took decades for the scientific community to acknowledge them 1,2.

A subject, which is ahead of its time, can even turn the works of well-known and widely recognised scientists into a Sleeping Beauty. In 1935, Albert Einstein, together with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, published a thought experiment (now widely known as the EPR paradox), in which an attempt was made to demonstrate the incompleteness of quantum mechanics as a theory3. After publication, this experiment was discussed purely theoretically, but real interest in it arose only at the end of the 20th century, when physicists acquired the experimental capability to test quantum entanglement. As interest in quantum mechanics grew, the number of citations for this work increased from ten in 1994 to more than one hundred per year in the mid-2000s 4.

Researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington, USA, recently conducted the most extensive study of the phenomenon of 'late recognition' in science4. After analysing more than 22 million scientific papers published over the past century, they concluded that 'Sleeping Beauties' are not as uncommon among scientific papers as was previously thought and they can be found even in the works of famous scientists, including the aforementioned Einstein et al. paper.

Using elegant mathematical methods, scientists proposed the so-called 'beauty coefficient' or 'B’, showing how much one work or other can be considered a 'Sleeping Beauty'. If the citation history of the article is regular - i.e. the citation rate increases gradually - the value of the coefficient will be zero. However, if the work went unnoticed for, say, 100 years, and then suddenly became popular, this coefficient may be more than 10,000. With the help of this coefficient, it was found that the brightest 'beauties', which had languished in the dark for the longest before receiving close attention from the scientific community, came from chemistry and physics. However, there was a fair share of 'Sleeping Beauties' in other disciplines4. Scientists have published a rating of the 15 scientific papers with the highest 'beauty coefficient’: the amount of 'sleep' averaged between 50 and 100 years! So, if nobody has noticed your work, do not worry, maybe in 50 years it will become famous!

The chemistry paper On adsorption in solutions tops the list (B=11,600), having 'slept' from 1906 to 2002. This paper proposed the first mathematical model of adsorption, in which atoms or molecules adhere to surfaces. Today, both ecological recovery and cleaning in industrial installations are largely dependent on adsorption. The aforementioned EPR paradox is 14th in the list at B=2,258. The longest time in obscurity was more than a century (from 1901 to 2002), spent by the work of the founder of mathematical statistics, Karl Pearson, entitled On lines and planes of closest fit to systems of points in space, receiving B=3,978.

The Sleeping Beauties of Science

Source: Scientific American

What can awaken Sleeping Beauties? In many cases, interest from other disciplines plays the role of the 'prince' 4. The 'dormant' discovery suddenly finds an application in completely different fields. For example, methods of mathematical statistics have become widely used in biology. John Turkevich and his colleagues, who published an article in 1951 about the dissolution of gold nanoparticles in liquid, did not even suspect that their work, having aroused little interest for 46 years, would suddenly find widespread application in medicine,4 where gold nanoparticles are now used to detect tumours and in targeted drug delivery.

The practical needs of society can also rouse Sleeping Beauties. According to one of the leading experts in bibliometrics, Anthony van Raan, who coined the term 'Sleeping Beauty', about half of the works with late recognition in physics, chemistry and engineering are 'sleeping' innovations 5. For example, a study on the propagation of light pulses through non-linear fibres became important because non-linear optical fibres are necessary for significant improvements in telecommunication 5,6. Also, a paper describing the behaviour of small particles in turbulent flows significantly assisted both respiratory hydrodynamics and the medical application of nanoparticles 5,7.

Van Raan also raised an interesting question about the geographical distribution of Sleeping Beauties. Perhaps there are more of them in developing countries and unknown institutions? Are there any Sleeping Beauties in the countries and universities at the top of global research rankings? As it transpired, there were no surprises: the distribution of Sleeping Beauties corresponds to the scientific productivity of the country. Where there are more scientific articles, there are more 'Sleeping Beauties'. So, the top three for 'Sleeping Beauties' in the field of physics: the USA (38%), Japan (12.4%) and the USSR (6.7%), published 32.6%, 9.9% and 6.6% of the total number of articles in physics respectively 5.

Nowadays, due to the high availability of scientific literature, it seems that it is becoming increasingly difficult for revolutionary discoveries to go unnoticed. On the other hand, the huge number of modern publications can 'bury' excellent work. Paradoxically, as knowledge becomes more open, there are more and more 'Sleeping Beauties' among scientific publications 5. Their emergence is an unpredictable process, and their proportion of the total number of scientific publications can be from 0.1 to several percent, according to different assessment methods 4,8. Often these are discoveries that are ahead of their time, and that the scientific community was not ready to recognise at the time of publishing. Some of the Sleeping Beauties resulted in Nobel Prizes (Hermann Staudinger, Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1953; Andrei Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, Nobel Prize in Physics 2010), more than 1% of the works of Nobel laureates are Sleeping Beauties 9.

Read more interesting articles on Ultrahigh dilutions Facebook page


1.    van Raan, A.F.J. (2004). Sleeping beauties in science. Scientometrics, 59 (3), 467–472.

2.    Garfield, E. (1970). Would Mendel’s work have been ignored if the Science Citation Index was available 100 years ago? Essays of an Information Scientist, 1, 69–70.

3.    Einstein, A., Podolsky, B., Rosen, N. (1935). Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete? Physical Review, 47: 777-780.

4.    Ke, Q., Ferrara, E., Radicchi, F., & Flammini, A. (2015). Defining and identifying sleeping beauties in science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112 (24), 7426–7431.

5.    van Raan, A. F. J. (2015). Dormitory of physical and engineering sciences: Sleeping beauties may be sleeping innovations. PLoS ONE, 10(10), e0139786.

6.    Anderson D, Desaix M, Karlsson M, Lisak M, Quirogateixeiro ML (1993). Wave-Breaking-Free Pulses in Nonlinear-Optical Fibres. Journal of the Optical Society of America B-Optical Physics 10(7) 1185–1190.

7.    Li A, Ahmadi G (1992). Dispersion and Deposition of Spherical-Particles from Point to Sources in Turbulent Channel Flow. Aerosol Science and Technology 16 (4) 209–226.

8.    Ye, FY, & Bornmann, L. (2018). ‘‘Smart Girls’’ versus ‘‘Sleeping Beauties’’ in the sciences: The identification of instant and delayed recognition by using the citation angle. Journal of the Association of Information Science and Technology, 69 (3), 359–367.

9.    Li, J., Shi, D. B., Zhao, S. X., & Ye, F. Y. (2014). A study of the ‘‘heartbeat spectra’’ for ‘‘sleeping beauties’’. Journal of Informetrics, 8 (3), 493-502.