2002 William Beaty

THE LIST: scroll down, also LINKS

Major 4/17 traffic from SLATE STAR CODEX?

Hey Scott,

First, I think you're confusing your readers by calling it "top ten." Many may miss the fact this is an alphabetical list. You've simply gone through the entries with names A-D. Some pretty weak examples there; no Semmelwise, no McClintock, Barry Marshall, etc. It's no way a Top Ten list of vindicated mavericks. That's an OK approach, if you'd presented it as a somewhat random sampling. As it stands, you seemingly "win the fight" by demonstrating the great weakness of the top ten examples, but without actually using a list of the top ten examples. I hope it was just a mistake.

Second: this is a list of: Ridiculed. Then vindicated. The duration between the two isn't an issue. Were they ridiculed, and later proved correct? That's my requirement. My original intent was to debunk the claims of 1990s SCI.SKEPTIC newsgroup and others, whose members absolutely insisted that, other than the Galileo event, such problems Don't Exist In Science (since if they did, they'd be quite important, and obviously their textbooks would have presented the many instances!) On the contrary, the contemporary ridicule-vindication thing makes science look bad, and hence is a taboo topic. I found no lists like this anywhere, so slapped one together myself. (That's a key point. Where are such lists? Several have appeared online in later years, even some using my words but adding more prose.) But what about the century 1900-2000?

Only ten years, that's almost immedate? Or, acceptance took nearly forever: typically ten years! Ahem. :) If each vindication came after a few years, I very specifically DON'T pretend the ridicule never happened, nor do I dismiss it as easily-forgivable, as you seem to. Yes, the typical timeline is ten entire years before vindication. Ten years of postdocs entering a field, ten years of folks achieving tenure. You suggest that, before the ridicule can become a problem for science, it needs to persist thirty years? "Only" ten brief years of blocked publications, that's nothing? So, all victims of such ridicule-suppression should have no reason to complain? Me, I insist that it's supposed to be zero years; that this ridicule-then-vindication is a symptom of a quite serious, (if suppressed and hidden) disease in modern science.

As statistics it's frightening, since these small and large instances must be part of a distribution. It's a distribution where any major successful suppressions are completely erased. Truely suppressed breakthroughs, the ones with no later vindication; they don't appear in records. We have no clue about their number, except by examining these known instances of the nearly-suppressed. By definition, only the suppressed-vindicated breakthroughs can be detected. Perhaps this list only lacks a tiny percentage of ridiculed-never-vindicated. Or, instead my list may be the tiny, visible statistical tail on a huge number of never-vindicated, lost breakthroughs. (Chilling thought: the next Einstein has died unknown, refused publication, having lacked the necessary aggression to fight for ~ten years before eventual vindication. More chilling: what if there have been twenty lost "next Einsteins?")

Third, read again, Doppler never tested the Optical Doppler Effect using trains and trumpets. His optical theory was rejected by physicists, and not accepted until astronomical red shifts were discovered after his death.

Fourth, JL Baird's televisor: the Royal Society members coming out of the meeting were being interviewed, and they sneered at Baird, convinced that his demonstration was a hoax. When "they didn't believe it," it was because they'd decided Baird was a swindler running some sort of scam. I'm not finding that ref. online. Perhaps it was the book "The Experts Speak."

Finally, we differ as to our views of this process. I see these people as heroes who had to actively fight for numerous years to prevail against a biased, ignorant, hostile hoard, with the constant possibility that the hoard would win, and their breakthroughs be ignored or even go unpublished. Various autobiographies go into detail about it all. But you seem to see the same events as examples of normal science, as if there was no danger of complete suppression, as if all these researchers would somehow be automatically vindicated, no need for their years of battle. Also, if you see all this as ignorable and forgivable, I see this as visible flames out the seams of the solid rocket boosters! All these events are danger-signs for much larger events, yet they're being minimized, tolerated, "made normal" by the scientific community, same as you do in your posting. Clearly these automatic hostile responses to new ideas are no part of the scientific process. (Planck isn't supposed to be correct when he insists that science can only progress, funeral by funeral, because the current crop of experts would rather die than change!)

Statistics: as "automobile accidents," these examples are the numerous "near misses" implying a population of "fatal crashes." The existence of these instances indicates much larger and invisible events: some probable major disasters. But think about it. Unfortunately any such disasters become completely concealed, by definition. How many Einstein-scale breakthroughs have been completely lost so far? None? None, because we have no evidence of any? But since they're lost, we can't detect them, and their number could be anything.

"Those we see are in the daylight. Those in darkness don't get seen"
- Bertold Brecht, Threpenny Opera's final line.

OK, who are the actual "Top Ten" vindicated discoverers Scott should analyze? Everybody will have a different list!

  1. Galileo
  2. Semmelweis
  3. Wegener
  4. McClintlock
  5. Nottebohm
  6. Bretz
  7. Prusiner
  8. Zwicky
  9. Marshall
  10. Shechtman

One I missed: J. Edgar Lilienfeld, who invented the transistor in 1923, but after a decade had made no headway against disbelief, and finally retired and gave up. Two decades later Bell Labs stumbled upon the modern Bipolar transistor when trying to find some way to get around the expired 1925 Lilienfeld patents on the Field Effect Transistor. (Heh, not part of official transistor history! Neither is Lilienfeld.)

Want a free online book referencing some of this? The 1950s edition of Beveridge "The Art of Scientific Investigation" has a whole section on Difficulties in science, including resistance to new ideas. And about Scientific Concensus, Thomas Gold points out a serious instability in the peer-review process, almost guaranteed to produce false concensus which halts progress for long periods.

Weird science versus revolutionary science

While it's true that at least 99% of revolutionary announcements from the fringes of science are just as bogus as they seem, we cannot dismiss every one of them without investigation. If we do, then we'll certainly take our place among the ranks of scoffers who accidentally helped delay numbers of major scientific discoveries throughout history. Beware, for many discoveries such as powered flight and drifting continents today only appear sane and acceptable because we have such powerful hindsight. These same advancements were seen as obviously a bunch of disgusting lunatic garbage during the years they were first discovered.

In science, pursuing revolutionary advancements can be like searching for diamonds hidden in sewage. It's a shame that the realms of questionable ideas contain "diamonds" of great value. This makes the of judging crazy theories far more difficult. If crazy discoveries were always bogus, then we'd have good reason to reject them without investigation. However, since the diamonds exist, we must distrust our first impressions. Sometimes the "obvious" craziness turns out to be a genuine cutting-edge discovery. As with the little child questioning the emperor's clothing, sometimes (but rarely, of course,) the entire scientific community is misguided and incompetent. Sometimes only the lone voice of the maverick scientist is telling the truth.

Below is a list of scientists who were reviled for their crackpottery, only to be later proven correct. Today's science texts are dishonest to the extent that they hide these huge mistakes made by the scientific community. They rarely discuss the embarrassing acts of intellectual suppression which were directed at the following researchers by their colleagues. And... after wide reading, I've never encountered any similar list.[1] This is very telling.

"When a true genius appears in this world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him." - Jonathan Swift

THE LIST: scroll down

To add: B Belousov, Carl Woese, Gilbert Ling, John C. Lilly

"Concepts which have proved useful for ordering things easily assume so great an authority over us, that we forget their terrestrial origin and accept them as unalterable facts. They then become labeled as 'conceptual necessities,' etc. The road of scientific progress is frequently blocked for long periods by such errors." - Einstein

"Men show their character in nothing more clearly than by what they think laughable." -J. W. Goethe

Some ridiculed ideas which had no single supporter:
  • Ball lightning (lacking a theory, it was long dismissed as retinal afterimages)
  • Catastrophism (ridicule of rapid Earth changes, asteroid mass extinctions)
  • Child abuse (before Kempe 1962, doctors were mystified by "spontaneous" childhood bruising and broken bones)
  • Cooperation or altruism between animals (versus Evolution's required competition)
  • Instantaneous meteor noises (evidence rejected because sound should be delayed by distance)
  • Mind-body connection (psychoneuroimmunology, doctors ridiculed any emotional basis for disease)
  • Perceptrons (later vindicated as Neural Networks)
  • Permanent magnet levitation ("Levitron" shouldn't have worked)
  • Thoughts and emotions do exist (rejected as contrary to stimulus-response of 1950s Behaviorist theory.)

"The mind likes a strange idea as little as the body likes a strange protein and resists it with similar energy. It would not perhaps be too fanciful to say that a new idea is the most quickly acting antigen known to science. If we watch ourselves honestly we shall often find that we have begun to argue against a new idea even before it has been completely stated." - Wilfred Trotter, 1941

"The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false." -Paul Johnson




Notes: I constantly hear the above problem being dismissed; that the number of breakthroughs from crackpots is relatively tiny, or that "vindicated mavericks" are rare and exceptional. But we need to be careful with this. After all, the number of uneducated crazy people is enormous, but this has little impact on number of new ideas in professional science. It's not honest to simply ask how many crazy ideas are actually crazy. Instead ask how many crazy funding proposals from successful scientists have turned out to be genuinely worthless. I'm guessing that the number is quite low. Perhaps the number of crazy-yet-vindicated research projects is large enough that it's much higher than the number of genuinely stupid research projects. (In that case, we should be preferentially funding a proposal because it looks crazy.)

So, if you're going to dismiss or scoff at some crazy idea without bothering to first give it a chance and taking an unbiased look least make sure the idea is coming from a common crackpot. Few of those are worth much. Make damn certain that "teh crazy" ISN'T coming from a professional scientist who is trying to fund a research project to give that weird-yet-untested idea a serious go.

Arrhenius (ion chemistry)
His idea that electrolytes are full of charged atoms was considered crazy. The atomic theory was new at the time, and everyone "knew" that atoms were non idivisible (and hence they could not lose or gain any electric charge.) Because of his heretical idea, he only received his university degree by a very narrow margin.
Another article, and More.

Hans Alfven (galaxy-scale plasma dynamics)
Astronomers thought that gravity alone is important in solar systems, in galaxies, etc. Alfven's idea that plasma physics is of equal or greater importance to gravity was derided for decades.

John L. Baird (television camera)
When the first television system was demonstrated to the Royal Society (British scientists,) they scoffed and ridiculed, calling Baird a swindler.

Robert Bakker (fast, warm-blooded dinosaurs)
Everyone knows that dinosaurs are like Gila monsters or big tortoises: large, slow, and intolerant of the cold. And they're all colored olive drab too! :)

Bardeen & Brattain (transistor)
Not ridiculed, but their boss W. Shockley nixed their idea for a non-FET "crystal triode" device. When they started investigating it, he made them stop. They were supposed to be working on FETs instead.
ARG, I GOT THIS PART BELOW WRONG, BELOW IS A BELL-LABS STORY REGARDING ZONE-REFINING OF SILICON, NOT THE BJT TRANSISTOR PROJECT: "So, they assembled their ZONE REFINING experiment on a wheeled cart and continued. Whenever the boss was scheduled to check up on them, they could shove it into an adjacent unused lab."

J Harlen Bretz
Endured decades of scorn as the laughingstock of the geology world. His crime was to insist that enormous amounts of evidence showed that, in Eastern Washington state, the "scabland" desert landscape had endured an ancient catastrophy: a flood of staggering proportions. This was outright heresy, since the geology community of the time had dogmatic belief in a "uniformitarian" position, where all changes must take place slowly and incrementally over vast time scales. Bretz' ideas were entirely vindicated by the 1950s. Quote: "All my enemies are dead, so I have no one to gloat over."
Another article

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (black holes in 1930, squashed by Eddington)
Chandra originated Black Hole theory and published several papers. He was attacked viciously by his close colleague Sir Arthur Eddington, and his theory was discredited in the eyes of the research community. They were wrong, and Eddington apparently took such strong action based on an incorrect pet theory of his own. In the end Chandra could not even pursue a career in England, and he moved his research to the U. of Chicago in 1937, laboring in relative obscurity for decades. Others rediscovered Black Hole theory thirty years later. He won the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics, major recognition only fifty years. Never underestimate the authority-following tendency of the physics community, or the power of ridicule when used by people of stature such as Eddington.

Chladni (meteorites in 1800)
The scientific community regarded Meteorites in the same way that modern scientists regard UFO abductions and psychic phenomenon: quaint superstitions only believed by peasant folk. All the eyewitness reports were disbelieved. At one point the ridicule became so intense that many museums with meteorites in their geology collections decided to trash those valuable samples. (Sometimes hostile skepticism controls reality, and the strongest evidence is edited to conform to concensus disbeliefs.) Finally in the early 1800's Ernst Chladni actually sat down and inspected the evidence professionally, and found that claimed meteorites were entirely unlike known earth rocks. His study changed some minds. At the same time some large meteor falls were witnessed by scientists, and the majority who insisted that only ignorant peasants ever saw such things were shamed into silence. The tide of disbelief shifted... yet this important event is not taught to science students, and those ignorant of such history repeat such failures over and over, as with the hostile disbelief regarding Ball Lightning.

Crick and Watson (DNA)
Not ridiculed. But they were instructed to drop their research. They continued it as "bootleg" research.

C.J. Doppler (Doppler effect)
Proposed a theory of the optical Doppler Effect in 1842, but was bitterly opposed for two decades because it did not fit with the accepted physics of the time (it contradicted the Luminiferous Aether theory.) Doppler was finally proven right in 1868 when W. Huggins observed red shifts and blue shifts in stellar spectra. Unfortunately this was fifteen years after Doppler had died.

Robert L. Folk (existence and importance of nanobacteria)
Discovered bacteria with diameters far below 200nM widely present in mineral samples, able to both metabolize metals and to create calcium encrustations. Proposed their large role in creation of "metamorphic" rock and everyday metal corrosion. These ideas were rejected with hostility because the bacterial diameter is too small to include enough genetic material or ribosomes, and they seem immune to common sterilization techniques.

Galvani (bioelectricity)
"They call me the frogs' dance instructor."

William Harvey (circulation of blood)
His discovery of blood circulation caused the scientific community of the time to ostracize him.

Krebs (ATP energy, Krebs cycle)

Galileo (supported the Copernican viewpoint)
It was not the church authorities who refused to look through his telescope. It was his fellow scientists! They thought that using a telescope was a waste of time, since even if they did see evidence for Galileo's claims, it could only be because Galileo had bewitched them.

Karl F. Gauss (nonEuclidean geometery)
Kept secret his discovery of non-Euclidean geometry for thirty years because of fear of ridicule. Lobachevsky later published similar work and WAS ridiculed. After Gauss' death his work was finally published, but even then it took decades for Noneuclidean Geometery to overturn the Greek mathematically "pure" view of geometery, and to win acceptance among the professionals.

Binning/Roher/Gimzewski (scanning-tunneling microscope)
Invented in 1982, other surface scientists refused to believe that atom-scale resolution was possible, and demonstrations of the STM in 1985 were still met by hostility, shouts, and laughter from the specialists in the microscopy field. Its discoverers won the Nobel prize in 1986, which went far in forcing an unusually rapid change in the attitude of colleagues.

R. Goddard (rocket-powered space ships)
Everyone knows that rocket-powered spacecraft are ridiculous and embarrassing "Flash Gordon" ideas. Goddard was publicly ridiculed by the NY Times, and then remained relatively obscure until late 1944, when those silly Jules-Verne fantasies started raining down on London during WWII. (By analogy, imagine the consternation of the scientific community if Iraq responded to Desert Storm with fleets of flying saucers w/deathrays!)

"The whole procedure [of shooting rockets into space]...presents difficulties of so fundamental a nature, that we are forced to dismiss the notion as essentially impracticable, in spite of the author's insistent appeal to put aside prejudice and to recollect the supposed impossibility of heavier-than-air flight before it was actually accomplished."
-Sir Richard van der Riet Wooley, British astronomer, reviewing P.E. Cleator's "Rockets in Space", NATURE, March 14, 1936

"This foolish idea of shooting at the moon is an example of the absurd lengths to which vicious specialisation will carry scientists." -A.W. Bickerton, physicist, NZ, 1926

The other rocket experts, von Karman's group at Caltech, avoided ridicule by judicious use of lying: they called their devices "jets." Hence, their successful product "Jet-assisted Takeoff," i.e. strapping solid-fuel rockets to military aircraft (not jets.) And hence the name "JPL Jet Propulsion Laboratory" which was founded to research *rocket* propulsion and weaponry, no jets involved.
Another article

Goethe (Land color theory)

T. Gold (deep non-biological petroleum deposits)

T. Gold (deep mine microbes)

J. Lister (sterilizing)

James Lovelock (Gaia theory)
Discovered that Earth's biosphere is analogous to a living organism with homeostasis: multiple feedback paths maintaining the average temperature and gas mixture of Earth's atmosphere. (Main one: ocean algae control the average temperature by sequestering CO2 and emitting DMS which becomes cloud-seeding sulfate aerosol.) This was dismissed and Lovelock attacked mostly on the grounds that evolution forbids such planetary organisms ...and that a living Earth is disgusting New-agey aborigial belief.
Another article

T. Maiman (Laser)
Not ridiculed, but his boss said no to his 'optical maser' idea. Maiman received funding only after threatening to quit and pursue the laser in his garage. Even so, ongoing research was a battle, and his funding was pulled twice.

Lynn Margulis (endosymbiotic organelles)
In 1970 Margulis was not only denied funding but also subjected to intense scorn by reviewers at the NSF. "I was flatly turned down," Margulis said, and the grants officers added "that I should never apply again." Textbooks today quote her discovery as fact; that plant and animal cells are really communities of cooperating bacteria. But they make no mention of the barriers erected by the biological community against these new ideas. Even today Margulis' ideas about cooperation in Evolution are not widely accepted, and are only making slow headway against the assumption that Evolution exclusively involves absolute selfishness and pure competition.

Julius R. Mayer (The Law of Conservation of Energy)
Mayer's original paper was contemptuously rejected by the leading physics journals of the time.

B. Marshall (ulcers caused by bacteria, helicobacter pylori)
Stomach ulcers are caused by acid. All physicians knew this. Marshall needed about 10 years to convince the medical establishment to change their beliefs and accept that their confident knowledge was wrong; was nothing but a widespread belief, and that ulcers are actually a bacterial disease. Toward the end he gave up and produced ulcers on demand by dosing himself with H. Pylori. This seems to have broken the irrational logjam. See

B. McClintock (mobile genetic elements, "jumping genes", transposons)
Won the Nobel in 1984 after enduring 32 years being ridiculed and ignored
Another article

J. Newlands (pre-Mendeleev periodic table)

Josiah C. Nott (Mosquito transmission of Yellow Fever, Malaria)
Fought an uphill battle against the "toxic gases from swamps" theory of Malaria, etc. His theory was ignored for three decades, then championed by C. Finlay and others, who were ignored an additional two decades (ridiculed as "mosquito men" self-deluded crackpots,) finally Walter Reed penetrated the disbelief ca. 1900, yet still years later the same scoffing halted the eradication of mosquitos during construction of the Panama Canal. See:

Fernando Nottebohm
Mammal brains never grow new neurons after birth? We're given a set number of brain cells, and we can only kill them but not make new ones? After twenty years as a ridiculed minority, Nottebohm's work with songbird brains was finally taken seriously, and the biologists of today now recognize that the age-old dogma was wrong: brains DO regenerate neurons after all. As of the late 1990s the information has not yet reached most of the biological community, nor the general public.

George S. Ohm (Ohm's Law)
Ohm's initial publication was met with ridicule and dismissal; called "a tissue of naked fantasy." Approx. twenty years passed before scientists began to recognize its great importance. See M. Schagrin, "Resistance to Ohm's Law," American Journal of Physics, #31 pp536-547 1963.
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L. Pasteur (germ theory of disease)

Eugene Parker (existence of a 'soler wind')
Opposition to his 'solar wind' hypothesis was strong. Strangely enough, he was rescued by S. Chandra, who decades earlier was victim of a similar situation with a theory of black holes.

Prusiner, Stanley (existence of prions, 1982)
Prusiner endured derision from colleagues for his prion theory explaining Mad Cow Disease, but was vidicated by winning the Nobel.
Another article

Stanford R. Ovshinsky (amorphous semiconductor devices)
Physicists "knew" that chips and transistors could only be made from expensive slices of ultra-pure single-crystal semiconductor. Ovshinsky's breakthrough invention of glasslike semiconductors was attacked by physicists and then ignored for more than a decade. (When evidence contradicts consensus belief, inspecting that evidence somehow becomes a waste of time.) Ovshinsky was bankrupt and near destitute when finally the Japanese took interest and funded his work. The result: the new science of amorphous semiconductor physics, as well as inexpensive thin-film semiconductor technology (in particular the amorphous solar cell, photocopier components, and writeable CDROMS sold by Sharp Inc.) made millions for Japan rather than for the US.

Ovshinsky's strange devices, Semiconductors made from glass Pop. Science 4/1978

Ignaz Semmelweis (surgeons wash hands, puerperal fever )
Semmelweis brought the medical community the idea that they were killing large numbers of new mothers by working with festering wounds in surgery, then immediately assisting with births without even washing hands. Such a truth was far too shameful for a community of experts to accept, so he was ignored. Semmelweis finally ended up in a mental hospital, and his ideas caught fire after he had died.
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Dan Shechtman (quasicrystals)
Discovered "impossible" pentagonal crystals in 1982 and ejected from his lab group for it. Rapid replication, but then (shades of Eddignton vs. Chandra!) reversal because of ongoing ridicule by Linus Pauling. Vindication: 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. (Note: Pauling never reversed his disbelief. Note well this.)
The Guardian: 'Linus Pauling said I was talking nonsense'

Virginia Steen-McIntyre (found that ancient indian villiages date to 300,000BC)
Steen-McIntyre innocently stumbled into heresy when she found wide-ranging evidence that native settlements in the USA southwest were 300,000 years old. This damaged her career, since the dates acceptable to the archeologist community are roughly 50,000BC at the earliest.

N. Tesla (Earth electrical resonance, now called "Schumann" resonance)

N. Tesla (brushless AC motor)
The idea of an AC motor which lacks brushes was ridiculed by Tesla's instructor as impossible: an instance of a Perpetual Motion Machine. Tesla responded to the hour of classroom ridicule by dedicating his life to somehow creating such a physically impossible motor.

Jacobus Henricus van't Hoff (theory of 3D molecules)
As a relative newcomer and unknown, he was attacked and ridiculed for proposing that a 3D tetrahedral structure would explain many problems in chemistry. His foes rapidly went silent, and finally his ridiculous cardboard models won the first nobel prize in chemistry (1901.)

Alfred Wegener (continental drift)
Wegener, an astronomer and explorer, attracted vitriolic attacks and namecalling from the geologist expert community for finding much solid evidence that the edges of Americas and Africa were once joined. He died decades before discovery of the magnetic zones parallel to mid-ocean spreading centers finally swayed opinion in his favor.
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Peyton Rous (viruses cause cancer)

Warren S. Warren (flaws in MRI theory)
Warren and his team at Princeton tracked down a Magnetic Resonance anomaly and found a new facet to MRI theory: spin interactions between distant molecules, including deterministic Chaos effects. Colleagues knew he was wrong, and warned him that his crazy results were endangering his career. Princeton held a "roast", a mean-spirited bogus presentation mocking his work. Warren then began encountering funding cancellations. After approx. seven years, the tide of ridicule turned and Warren was vindicated. His discoveries are even leading to new MRI techniques. See: SCIENCE NEWS, Jan 20 2001, V159 N3, "spin Control" (cover story)

Wright bros (flying machines)
After their Kitty Hawk success, The Wrights flew their machine in open fields next to a busy rail line in Dayton Ohio for almost an entire year. American authorities refused to come to the demos, and Scientific American Magazine published stories about "The Lying Brothers." Even the local Dayton newspapers never sent a reporter (but they did complain about all the letters they were receiving from local "crazies" who reported the many flights.) Finally the Wrights packed up and moved to Europe, where they caused an overnight sensation and sold aircraft contracts to France, Germany, Britain, etc.

George Zweig (quark theory)
Zweig published quark theory at CERN in 1964 (calling them 'aces'), but everyone knows that no particle can have 1/3 electric charge. Rather than receiving recognition, he encountered stiff barriers and was accused of being a charlatan.

Fritz Zwicky (Dark Matter)
Known in the astro research community as "Crazy Fritz," Zwicky investigated orbit statistics of galactic clusters in 1933 and concluded that the majority of mass had an invisible unknown source. He was ignored, dismissed as an eccentric.
Another article
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