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I find researchers and writers who published very little, yet were influential in their respective fields of study, interesting. A good example of such a researcher was the mathematician C. F. Gauss, whose motto was "Pauca sed matura" ("Few but ripe"). Authors who seemed to have adhered to a similar motto were Harper Lee, J. D. Salinger, and G. T. di Lampedusa.

What are some good examples of scientists and other academics who were not prolific, yet were nonetheless able to leave their mark?

Let's set the bar the for maximum number of publications at 20, so as to include more possible scientists as answers to this question

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    Not really a complete answer, but Ising comes to mind, or even Gödel. Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 19:52
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    Related to academia.stackexchange.com/q/151174/109931. Galois certainly, though he died so young he could not become an academic. Littrow is another.
    – Ed V
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 20:00
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    Science/math, publications, and research were all very very different in process when Gauss was alive relative to the modern day.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 20:50
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    I believe Ian Grojnowski is a good example, considering 10 papers in the 29 years since PhD.
    – T K
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 11:19
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    I think it is being labeled as a "shopping question", but after reading this I personally don't think this should be closed as a shopping question. Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 4:46

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Gregor Mendel had only a small number of publications (in fact, really only one major publication, "Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden"—"Experiments on Plant Hybridization" in English), but he laid the groundwork for the modern understanding of genetics.

He was not influential in his own time; his work was, in fact, all but ignored when it was published in the 1860s. Most of the leading biologists of the time, including Darwin, were unaware of Mendel's experiments. However, in the early twentieth century, Mendel's work was rediscovered and duplicated, and since that time it has been incredibly influential. Had his work on pea plant genetics gotten the attention it deserved at the time, he might have been able to continue his work; as it was, when he became abbot at St. Thomas's Abbey in Brno in 1867, he no longer had time to pursue his experiments himself.

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Arguably, Claude Shannon, who started the field of information theory. Peter Higgs is another.

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Two mathematicians, both working in geometry/topology and both with <20 papers:

  1. Andrew Casson has been extraordinarily influential, but only has 17 papers on MathScinet. Much of his most important work (e.g. on the Casson invariant of homology 3-spheres) was written up and published by other people.

  2. Steven Kerckhoff is also a very important mathematician. MathScinet lists him as having 20 papers, but one of them is his thesis (which is not a real publication -- the main result was published in the journal Topology), so he has 19 "real" papers.

By the way, I didn't have to remove Casson's thesis since he did not have a PhD. He did attend graduate school at the University of Liverpool, but his dislike for writing began early and he didn't write a thesis.

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  • FYI, someone who wrote a well known monograph in 1992 on (an extension of) Casson's invariant graduated from the same high school I did, 4 years after I did -- a small and rural HS, at least then (the school since relocated and expanded). Your mention of Casson reminded me of some comments of mine that I was thinking of deleting (not all under that question, but some of them) because of the (possibly) personal details of other people. Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 13:36
  • As far as I know, I am the only mathematician (or academic scientist more generally) to ever graduate from my high school. This was back in 1998 and I don't follow it very carefully, but given how rough an area it is in I doubt this has changed.
    – Jean
    Commented Aug 16, 2021 at 2:09
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Henry Moseley had a very brief career and published only eight papers before being killed during the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. In Isaac Asimov's estimation, "his death might well have been the most costly single death of the War to mankind generally." However, the works Moseley did complete included pioneering applications of X-ray spectroscopy in physics that, among other things, established the concept of atomic number as a non-arbitrary quantity, refined our understanding of atomic structure, and let him predict the existence of several new elements.

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Though Gauss published little in his lifetime, he wrote quite a lot, and many of his writings have been subsequently published and are now publicly available --- his are quite substantial. In any case, an obvious place to look would be major mathematicians who died young. For example, Évariste Galois made a major contribution to abstract algebra and then died in a duel at the age of twenty, so consequently his published output was small, despite its large impact.

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Jack Silver had a tremendous influence on set theory but published only 11 papers. (MathSciNet lists 14, but one is his thesis and two are solutions of problems in the American Mathematical Monthly.) His contributions include the theory of indiscernibles for the constructible universe (later named 0^#), the theorem that the generalized continuum hypothesis (GCH) cannot first fail at a singular cardinal of uncountable cofinality, the "countable vs. perfect" dichotomy for co-analytic equivalence relations, the proof that GCH holds in the model of sets constructible from a normal measure, and the proof that analytic sets have the Ramsey property. Each of these has been the foundation for a great deal of continuing research.

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