A few months ago I wrote a piece on some of the most amazing scientific predictions to come out of classical literature. From IVF to space travel, it seems that an unexpected number of major technological innovations have been proceeded by the imaginations of great historical authors. But, if amazing scientific breakthroughs can be predicted before they happen, then surely the reverse must also be true. Indeed, history must be littered with examples of respected authorities confidently postulating the possibility of a discovery one minute, before shame-facedly back-pedalling in the next. So, with that in mind, here’s a run-down of science’s top-5 greatest hypothetical hick-ups.
5) Theory: Planet Vulcan, Proponent: Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier
During the 1800s, astronomers were struggling to explain certain peculiarities in Mercury’s celestial orbit. Several scientists, led by Le Verrier, suggested that these disturbances arose due to the existence of another planet or moon, which was named ‘Vulcan’, after the Roman god of fire. The theory drummed up a considerable amount of excitement in the scientific community, and for years there were regular reports from amateur astronomers claiming to have observed the mythical ‘Transit of Vulcan’. Indeed, when Le Verrier finally died in 1877, he was still widely regarded as having discovered a new planet in our solar system.
But, as we all know, this theory was never destined to either live or prosper…(Sorry). After Le Verrier’s death, doubts rapidly began to circulate amongst many senior astronomers. The professional search was finally abandoned in 1915, after Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity provided a workable alternative to explain the discrepancies in Mercury’s path. However, there were still some ‘enterprising’ individuals in the ‘next generation’ who remained ‘unphased’ by the scientific facts and continued to search for the fictitious planet, right up until the theory finally fell out of favour in the early 1970s.
4) Theory: A Waste of Space, Proponent: Richard van der Riet Woolley
Often it’s not the promotion of a particular view that leaves a respected scientist red-faced, but rather the stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the credibility of another’s work. A pertinent example is the famous 1956 quote from Richard van der Riet Woolley, England’s then ‘Astronomer Royal’, who claimed, “space travel is utter bilge”. Working from a position of simple financial logistics, Woolley believed that nobody would ever “put up enough money to do such a thing”. Fortunately he failed to account for the monumental game of political point scoring that was currently in full flow between America and the USSR. Thanks to this petty school-yard squabble, and a quite staggering availability of natural resources, Sputnik was launched less than one year later.
3) Theory: Phlogiston, Proponent: Johan Joachim Becher
This theory, first proposed in 1667, reads more like the lesson-plan from a Hogwart’s potions class than a serious scientific suggestion. It’s basis was that all combustible objects contain a special element, termed ‘Phlogiston’. Colourless, odourless and tasteless when in its natural native form, Phlogiston was said to be released during burning and touted as the component responsible for making the whole process of combustion possible. Of course, once all of the Phlogiston had been released, the burnt object was said to once again exist in its true form, known as ‘Calx’…(Don’t worry, you’re not the only one that’s confused). But all this complicated phantasmagoria wasn’t just used to explain combustion. Oh no. Becher went on to apply his baffling principles to try to understand the process of breathing, referring to pure oxygen as simply ‘Dephlogistated air’…
Fortunately, as complicated as it all sounds, the theory itself was pretty easy to disprove. Simply burning certain metals revealed that they gained weight during combustion; a result which was consistent with the principles of oxidation, but not the loss of Phlogiston. Thank God.
2) Theory: Aids is Easy, Proponent: Dr Peter Deusberg
There are times when prevailing public opinion means that it’s best to avoid making a particular prediction. This occurred in 1988, when, during the height of the global AIDs epidemic, molecular biologist Peter Deusberg gave his opinion on HIV, stating calmly that “this virus is a pussycat”. Now, to be fair to the Prof, he was probably describing the virus purely in terms of its native infectious properties, which are actually pretty poor. In fact, many other common communicable diseases, from Herpes Simplex Virus to the common cold are far more readily transmissible. Still, it may explain why he’s never been invited to give a lecture tour of Africa.
1) Theory: The Static Universe, Proponent: Albert Einstein
Before the arrival of the Big Bang Theory (and the brilliant TV show that shares it’s name), most scientists believed that the size of the universe was both finite and constant. In fact, the theory’s biggest adherent was non-other than the legendary Albert Einstein. Subscribers believed that the total volume of the universe was fixed, and that the entire construct effectively operated as a closed system. Einstein was so sure of his position that he even made space for it in the calculations which eventually led to The General Theory of Relativity.
Interestingly, the theory was plagued with problems from the start. One of the starkest of which, was the idea that a universe of fixed size would eventually get so crowded that it would collapse in on itself like a giant black hole; a fact Einstein compensated for with the implementation of his Cosmological Constant. The killing blow was finally struck when Edwin Hubble discovered the relationship between red shift and distance, thereby demonstrating that the universe was in a continuing state of expansion. Like all good scientists, when confronted with irrefutable evidence, Einstein graciously abandoned his position, referring to it in later references as “the biggest blunder” of his career.
I wanted to write this piece, because it’s very easy, and often highly warranted, to laugh at other people’s failures. But the great thing about all of these scientific misadventures, is that the people behind them were willing to get up and give it a go. They looked around at the wider world and were keen to explain just a little bit more about how it all works. And that’s the whole basis of science. There is no shame in getting things wrong…Unless you thought that ‘Phlogiston’ was the element responsible for combustion…then you really need to take a long hard look at yourself. But for the most part, failure is an intrinsic part of the scientific process. We often have to eliminate what doesn’t work, but we can finally figure out what does. And this is why, throughout history, some of science’s greatest minds have made some of its greatest mistakes.
P.S: You may be surprised to find omitted the famous quote from Thomas Watson that there would be “a world market for maybe five computers”. This is because there is very little evidence to suggest that he ever actually said it. However, in 1946, Charles Darwin (grandson of the great man himself) did say that a single computer in England would “suffice to solve all the problems that are demanded of it from the whole country”. Which just goes to show that genius isn’t hereditary.
P.P.S: The inspiring title comes from Samuel Beckett’s brilliant Worstward Ho.