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'Crazy' Scientists We Didn't Believe (who were um, right)

Updated on March 3, 2012
Many people believe science is organised by an army of post electric-shocked, unhinged old nutters.
Many people believe science is organised by an army of post electric-shocked, unhinged old nutters. | Source

"What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right." – Albert Einstein

Beneath the Bunsen burners and test tubes lies a curious truth to the scientific world that reveals itself through the pages of history: science depends on more than the facts in order to advance - scientific progress requires belief.

Many of the greatest minds in science were laughed all the way from the lab (and sometimes to the grave), because not a soul could comprehend their ideas which would later be proven true. The mainstream psyche is a peculiar beast - majority opinion may be spectacularly flawed but it will rule nonetheless.

Before taking a look at just four of the many scientists whose revolutionary predictions became the objects of public satire, the question to ask is - why are people often quick to reject new scientific theories and falsely accuse scientists of 'crackpottery'? Why is belief so elusive in relation to scientific endeavours?

There are two possible explanations for this. When scientists pitch novel ideas, these often threaten to contradict our pre-conceived notions of the world. When our ‘sense of the real’ is challenged, the knee-jerk reaction to this in most cases, is dismissal. Our desire to protect the ways in which we identify ourselves with the world can often cause us to resist the undeniable - sometimes our irrational beliefs can dramatically distort our judgement.

Do you see what I see?
Do you see what I see? | Source

But scientific theories are not always rejected on an emotional basis. Sometimes scientists simply get it wrong - science is a human and thus imperfect enterprise. And although it is a discipline legitimated through its experimental methods, the interpretive ability we possess as human beings means not only the public, but scientists themselves, do not always agree on the meaning and causes behind scientific findings. You probably wouldn't be the brightest crayon in the box if you blindly accepted every scientific theory that was ever announced.

The current global controversy regarding climate change is a telling example of the role that these personal systems of belief play in the digestion and perception of scientific theories.

Where then does one sit on the scale between gullible fool and stubborn cynic?

Perhaps we should take the advice of both Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan,

“By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.”

You get the point.
You get the point.

Galileo and the Copernican System

Just prior to his death in 1543, Nicolas Copernicus published a theory on planetary motion that directly contradicted the widely accepted ‘geocentric’ model of the universe, which stated that the Sun, moon, stars and planets all rotated around a central, motionless Earth.

The Copernican theory however was built on a ‘heliocentric’ model which alternatively placed the Sun at the centre, perpetually orbited by all of the planetary bodies, including Earth.

Galileo's brazen support of Copernican theory led to his own demise, but opened the door to revolution.
Galileo's brazen support of Copernican theory led to his own demise, but opened the door to revolution.

The heliocentric theory devised by Copernicus was initially ridiculed by the vast majority of the public due to the consequences it posed for the Catholic ego; it flagrantly undermined several biblical passages that point to Earth’s central location in the universe as proof that man is God’s most important creation. Despite the red flag it waved in the face of Catholic teachings, Copernican theory was not taken seriously and the church remained silent on the issue for some time.

It was not until the early 17th century that the church went public with their vehement disapproval of Copernican theory, as the heliocentric model finally gained credibility due to further investigations by astronomers Galileo and Johannes Kepler. Galileo’s telescope had revealed strong evidence of a Sun-centred planetary system, and although he was aware of the hostile religious climate, he nevertheless published his book, ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’, in 1630.

Galileo also made matters worse for himself by famously stating in a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina that the Bible “teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go”. This led to the controversial astronomer being accused of heresy, and he was ordered to face Pope Paul V and the Inquisition who forced him into house arrest for the rest of his life. His book was also placed on the church’s Index of Forbidden Books to prevent Galileo’s naughty ideas from converting the masses.

Gregor Mendel – Pioneer of Genetics

Gregor Mendel is the man behind ‘Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance’, the theory that pioneered the field of genetics by explaining hereditary and how traits are passed down from parents to their children.

Mendel’s background was unusual to say the least; his theory was developed in the garden of an Austrian monastery where he lived as a humble monk and spent seven years of his life breeding and cross-breeding peas.

Mendel chose to experiment on the dull garden vegetable most of us try to banish from our dinner plates via telekinesis as peas reproduce quickly and are easy to control. As all complex life forms exhibit the same essential mechanisms of hereditary, Mendel was therefore able to apply his findings to human beings.

The results of these experiments became the basis of ‘Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance’, which he published in 1866.

Most of us who were paying attention in science class would probably recognise this Punnett square based on terminology devised by Mendel. Capital letters represent dominant genetic traits, lower-case letters signify recessive traits
Most of us who were paying attention in science class would probably recognise this Punnett square based on terminology devised by Mendel. Capital letters represent dominant genetic traits, lower-case letters signify recessive traits

Although Mendel’s laws were destined to revolutionise science, his experiments were ignored by the scientific community for decades. His published work attracted minimal interest even when Mendel sent his findings to the most renowned scientists of the time.

Mendel’s theory was so advanced that no one else possessed the brainpower to visualise the dramatic picture his ideas were painting. Ultimately, he was a victim of his era. It was not until years after Mendel’s death in 1901, that his revolutionary work was re-discovered by three scientists and he was finally recognised as the founding father of genetics.

Zwicky and the 'Supernova'

Dark matter was just one of Zwicky's many brainchilds. Zwicky also coined the term 'Supernova', which explains the evolution and explosion of massive stars.

‘Crazy’ Fritz Zwicky – Dark Matter

Fritz Zwicky was a brilliant Swiss astronomer and scientific lone ranger. After all, finding a Scrabble partner is a challenging task when you label your colleagues ‘scatter-brains’ and ‘thieves’. However Zwicky’s inability to sugar-coat his repugnance of the scientific community was costly; many important scientific ideas he proposed during the 1930’s were met with scepticism. Zwicky's theorisation of dark matter was consequently ignored for over 40 years.

Subtleness was certainly not Zwicky's strongpoint. His colourful behaviour and language earned him the nick-name 'Crazy' Fritz
Subtleness was certainly not Zwicky's strongpoint. His colourful behaviour and language earned him the nick-name 'Crazy' Fritz

The dark matter Zwicky proposed seemed absurd at the time, but scientists now recognise its significance in relation to the behaviour of the universe. Zwicky investigated the motion and mass of a distant galaxy cluster known as the ‘Coma Cluster’, and realised that objects in deep space behave differently to matter located closer to Earth.

Our understanding of gravity is based on mass – an object’s mass determines its gravitational pull or weight. But Zwicky realised that way out in space things don’t act that way – extra gravitational forces and mass are required to account for the structure of galaxies.

But where does this extra mass come from? The only answer is that the universe must consist of more matter than scientists originally thought, only we can’t see it. Hence the coining of the term ‘dark’ matter – particles that exist which fail to emit light. Even though dark matter is by its nature unobservable, its existence can still be inferred by observing its gravitational effects on objects we can see.

Pandora's Cluster - the sections coloured here in blue represent the invisible dark matter that exists within this group of galaxies.
Pandora's Cluster - the sections coloured here in blue represent the invisible dark matter that exists within this group of galaxies. | Source

Zwicky’s character may have been off-the-mark but his science was not; astrophysicists currently estimate that as much as 90% of the total matter in the universe is dark.

George Zweig – Quark Theory

If complex science theory causes your brain to dive for the emergency ejection lever, the mention of a 'quark' may be causing your body to tense up and slowly curl itself into the foetal position. A ‘quark’ may sound strange and be tiny in size, but its existence is a really big deal in the science world - it can help scientists to understand everything about the origins of matter and the universe itself. Impressed?

In 1964, George Zweig, a young particle physicist, attempted to publish his theory which outlined the existence of what he dubbed ‘aces’; elementary particles with fractional electric charges that act as the building blocks of matter.

Zweig named the atomic elements ‘aces’ as he believed that, just like the playing cards, there were four fundamental types that could combine to form matter.
Zweig named the atomic elements ‘aces’ as he believed that, just like the playing cards, there were four fundamental types that could combine to form matter.

Unfortunately for Zweig however, his age and lack of experience made the fellows at CERN reluctant to publish his theory. Hard luck, but the nightmare was far from over; Murray Gell-mann was coming to join the party.

Gell-mann, an American physicist, announced his theory at the same time as Zweig but due to his higher reputation was able to get published through the same scientific establishment that rejected Zweig. Zweig’s ‘aces’ subsequently came to be known as Gell-mann's ‘quarks’.

What's with the name ‘quark’?

Gell-mann gained inspiration for the bizarre title from “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”, a line in the James Joyce novel, ‘Finnegan’s Wake’.

Although both Gell-mann and Zweig were widely ridiculed for the seemingly absurd idea that invisible and unobserved particles could help to explain the behaviour and structure of matter, improvements in technology and further research led to the eventual recognition of quark theory.

Yet while Gell-mann received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1969, Zweig was accused of being a ‘charlatan’ and fraudster. Zweig went on to work in the field of neuro-biology and never received his own Nobel Prize despite significantly contributing to one of the most important theories in modern physics.

The experiences of these scientists shows that although scientific theories may initially challenge our common-sense, it is wise to not judge too hastily - hindsight has the magical ability to turn us all into fools.

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