Looking forward to Einstein's general relativity centennial in 2015, I was thinking about how cool it would be if LIGO detects gravitational waves in 1916 (centennial of Einstein's "weak field" paper) or more likely 1918 (centennial of his quadrupole formula paper).

Are there any other examples in physics in the modern era (i.e., post scientific method) where the experimental confirmation of a theoretical prediction took so long to achieve?

  • $\begingroup$ en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth seems a nice article :) $\endgroup$ – Phoenix87 Dec 29 '14 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ Energy conservation has still not be "proven", neither has any other law of nature. We can only invalidate hypotheses by giving counterexamples. Energy conservation, even in modified form, still goes strong after two centuries. I would give the cake to Democritus, though. That was a really long wait. $\endgroup$ – CuriousOne Dec 29 '14 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ "There are countless suns and countless earths all rotating around their suns in exactly the same way as the seven planets of our system. We see only the suns because they are the largest bodies and are luminous, but their planets remain invisible to us because they are smaller and non-luminous. The countless worlds in the universe are no worse and no less inhabited than our Earth.” Giordano Bruno (1584) in De L'infinito Universo E Mondi $\endgroup$ – ProfRob Dec 29 '14 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries we still have no evidence of other worlds being inhabited :) $\endgroup$ – Ruslan Dec 30 '14 at 6:54
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This seems like a good question for History of Science, a SE site which didn't exist when the questio was first asked. $\endgroup$ – rob Feb 12 '16 at 19:13

The oldest has to be atomic theory of Democritus circa 400BC

  • $\begingroup$ good answer! I meant to add a qualifier about "real theories," i.e., those based on modern understanding of the scientific method, as opposed to quasi-philisophical ideas in ancient times. But I didn't want to sound overly prejudiced:) $\endgroup$ – Jeremy Dec 29 '14 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ Even then, modern atomic theory took a very long time to "prove". All the evidence was indirect until we could image single atoms. $\endgroup$ – user56903 Dec 29 '14 at 15:52

The Bose-Einstein condensate was predicted in 1924 and first observed in the lab in 1995: 71 year delay


I don't know the longest, but the worst (a negative statement soon proved false) was perhaps this from August Compte in 1835:"I regard any notion concerning the true mean temperature of the various stars as forever denied to us".

But 14 years later, Kirchhoff discovered that the temperature and chemical composition of a gas could be deduced from its electromagnetic spectrum viewed from an arbitrary distance. This method was extended to astronomical bodies by Huggins in 1864, who first used a spectrograph attached to a telescope


Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.