|2002 William Beaty
THE LIST: scroll down
THE LIST: scroll down
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 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 the entire scientific community is misguided and incompetent.
Sometimes only the lone voice of the maverick scientist is telling the
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
were directed at the following researchers by their colleagues. And...
after wide reading, I've never encountered any similar list. 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
To add: B Belousov, Carl Woese, Gilbert Ling, John C. Lilly
- Arrhenius (ion chemistry)
- Alfven, Hans (galaxy-scale plasma dynamics)
- Baird, John L. (television
- Bakker, Robert (fast,
- Bardeen & Brattain (transistor)
- Bretz J Harlen (ice age geology)
- Chandrasekhar, Subrahmanyan
(black holes in 1930)
- Chladni, Ernst (meteorites in
- Crick & Watson (DNA)
- Doppler (optical Doppler effect)
- Folk, Robert L. (existence and
importance of nanobacteria)
- Galvani (bioelectricity)
- Harvey, William (circulation of
- Krebs (ATP energy, Krebs cycle)
- Galileo (supported the Copernican
- Gauss, Karl F. (nonEuclidean
- Goddard, Robert (rocket-powered
- Goethe (Land color theory)
- Gold, Thomas (deep
non-biological petroleum deposits)
- Gold, Thomas (deep mine
- Lister, J (sterilizing)
- Lovelock, James (Gaia theory)
- Maiman, T (Laser)
"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."
- Margulis, Lynn (endosymbiotic
- Mayer, Julius R. (The Law of
Conservation of Energy)
- Marshall, B (ulcers caused by
bacteria, helicobacter pylori)
- McClintlock, Barbara (mobile
genetic elements, "jumping genes", transposons)
- Newlands, J. (pre-Mendeleev
- Nott, J. C. (mosquitos xmit
- Nottebohm, F. (neurogenesis:
brains can grow neurons)
- Ohm, George S. (Ohm's Law)
- Ovshinsky, Stanford R.
(amorphous semiconductor devices)
- Parker, Eugene (existence of a
- Pasteur, Louis (germ theory of disease)
- Prusiner, Stanley (existence of prions, 1982)
- Rous, Peyton (viruses cause
- Semmelweis, I. (surgeons wash
hands, puerperal fever )
- Shechtman, Dan (quasicrystals)
- Steen-McIntyre, Virginia
(southwest US indians villiage , 300,000BC)
- Tesla, Nikola (Earth electrical
resonance, "Schumann" resonance)
- Tesla, Nikola (brushless AC
- J H van't Hoff (molecules are 3D)
- Warren, Warren S (flaw in MRI
- Wegener, Alfred (continental
- Wright, Wilbur & Orville (flying
- Zwicky, Fritz (existence of dark
- Zweig, George (quark theory)
"Men show their character in nothing more clearly than by what they
-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 1950, doctors were mystified by "spontaneous" childhood bruising)
- 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)
"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
BREAKTHROUGHS DURING DREAMS
- Crick, Structure of DNA
- Friedrich Kekule, Carbon chains & Benzene Ring sipping brandy, half asleep
- S. Ramanujan, multiple proofs detailed daydreams
- Otto Loewi, Acetylcholine woke up, wrote it down
- Einstein, Special Relativity fever dream while ill
- L. Agazzi saw living versions of fossil animals
- Mendeleev, periodic table dream of music/chemistry
- H. Poincare, general solution woke up, wrote it down
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
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 ...at
least make sure the idea is coming from a common crackpot. Make damn
certain that "teh crazy" isn't coming from a professional scientist who is
trying to fund a research project to give that 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.
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
importance to gravity was derided for decades.
John L. Baird (television camera)
When the first television system was demonstrated to the Royal Society
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)
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 WRONG, THIS PART 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."
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
Discovered bacteria with diameters far below
200nM widely present in mineral samples, able to both metabolize metals
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.
"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
"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
-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.
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 beliefs.
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
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
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: http://www.skeptic.com/eskeptic/11-01-26/#feature
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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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 here career, since the dates acceptable to the
archeologist community are more like 50,000BC.
N. Tesla (Earth electrical resonance, now called "Schumann" resonance)
N. Tesla (brushless AC motor)
An AC motor which lacks brushes was thought by physicists to be
impossible: an instance of a Perpetual Motion Machine.
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
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.
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,
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.
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