What did we learn from their mistakes?
Throughout history, every generation has looked to science for the understanding of the world around them and solutions to problems. Some of these scientific contributions have been significant enough to affect the entire future of humankind.
Amid our admiration, there is one thing that we don’t hear about very often from the field of science. And that is their failures.
When you think about it, scientific failures happen far more than discoveries. The irony of this is that there must be lots of failures before uncovering the ultimate answer. They must first learn what doesn’t work to refine their discovery process.
And then there are times, when their theories and answers come with great promise — only to fall way short of expectations. Sometimes they are a flawed part of the discovery process, and sometimes they are pure deception.
With that said, here are the five (5) greatest blunders in the history of science.
N-Rays by René Blondlot
In 1903, a French physicist named René Blondlot claimed to have discovered a new form of radiation which he referred to as N-rays. This claim was made shortly after X-rays were discovered by Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. Blondlot believed that N-rays were present in most materials.
These new N-rays were invisible. They had to be observed by first refracting them through a prism that was coated by aluminum and then by observing a glow on a thread coated that was cover with calcium sulfide. This experiment was supposedly replicated by 30 different research teams, involving over 100 researchers, who wrote some 300 papers about their N-rays findings.
Yet several prominent labs could not replicate these results. Additionally, N-rays seemed to have impossible characteristics. A lack of ability to observe N-rays was often blamed on the poor vision of scientists conducting the experiments. And photographic evidence was impossible because of too many variable errors like fluctuations of lighting and exposure time.
Finally, a Johns Hopkins physician named Robert W. Wood was sent to Blondlot’s lab to conduct a first-hand investigation. Wood was quite experienced in both science and skepticism. He observed several lab experiments but was unable to see any evidence of N-rays.
In retrospect, we know now that there is no such thing as N-rays and that these researchers were deeply engaged in self-deception. They put too much stock on reported outcomes from the far edge of human detection. And they used methods and equipment that were highly error-prone to establish a brand new phenomenon.
The Age of the Earth by Lord Kelvin
William Thomson, who later became Lord Kelvin (after which the Kelvin temperature scale was named), was perhaps the most famous physicist from his era. His work was mostly focused on thermodynamics, which is the study of heat.
The Darwinists of his time opined about an Earth that was very ancient. It was well known that Lord Kelvin wasn’t ever impressed by “soft sciences” like geology and biology. Because of this, he began calculating Earth’s age by using the principles of physics. He surmised that since that the Earth was cooling, it must have begun in a molten state. Therefore, using thermodynamic principles, he could determine how long the cooling process took.
In 1862, he calculated that the age of Earth couldn’t be more than 100 million years within a range of 20–400 million years, based on measurement accuracy at that time. Later, he refined his calculations and reduced his original estimate to around 20–40 million years. The only problem is this estimate did not allow ample time for the geological processes required to create the Earth we have today.
Even though Lord Kelvin was deservedly respected, he used his public influence to arrogantly promote his calculations pertaining to the age of Earth. He criticized geologists and the entire field of geology because they were incompatible with his calculations.
The official death of Lord Kelvin’s calculations occurred when radioactivity was discovered. This was because radiometric dating provided a very accurate method of dating the Earth. And we now know that Earth is around 4.5 billion years old.
The story of Lord Kelvin and the age of the Earth provides several lessons. The first lesson is that scientific authority should never rest on one person — regardless of their status and standing.
Secondly, there will be times when different scientific disciplines have different findings of the same phenomena. Rather than assuming one of them is flawed, why not assume that a puzzle piece is missing?
The Cosmological Constant by Albert Einstein
Even Albert Einstein became a victim of scientific blunders. He later called his cosmological constant as the biggest blunder of his entire career.
In 1916, Einstein published his famous general theory of relativity that dealt with the effects of gravity and mass. His other famous creation, the special theory of relativity, addressed the speed of light.
Einstein had always believed that our universe was static, as did lots of scientists at that time. However, predictions from his general relativity theory concluded that the universe had to be either collapsing or expanding.
Einstein was unable to accept this conclusion, so he proposed a fudge factor that was called the cosmological constant. This constant was the repulsive force in our universe that balanced the effects of gravity and made the universe static.
Unfortunately in 1929, when Edwin Hubble observed the redshift of galaxies, it was apparent that they were moving away from us. This concluded that the universe is expanding, which disproved Einstein’s cosmological constant.
Einstein’s blunder came from introducing unknown variables into an unexpected observation rather than accepting the outcome. To his credit, Einstein took responsibility for his error.
Cold Fusion by Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann
A press conference was called in 1989 when Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann claimed that they had experimentally created cold fusion. If such an announcement were true, it would surely earn a Nobel Prize for the two researchers. More importantly, it meant that energy production would be revolutionized. It could signal the end of fossil fuel dependence and provide an endless supply of clean energy.
Nuclear power plants use traditional nuclear fusion to produce heat that turns its turbines and generates electricity. Fission is the process that splits up heavy radioactive elements like uranium. Fusion is where light elements are combined into slightly heavier elements, like the fusing of hydrogen into helium.
These processes require massive pressures and temperatures to fuse atoms together. While hydrogen bombs are made with nuclear fusion, this is no technology that can control fusion enough to produce energy.
Cold fusion, as the name suggests, is the combining of these lighter elements into heavier elements at low temperatures. Such a thing would be ideal for the production of energy, but no one knows how to accomplish this feat. Countless researchers have attempted to create a cold fusion process in their labs, but none of their experimental designs have been reproducible at large scales. Many times, experimental setups in labs do not account for every issue associated with scale-ups.
Many scientists suggested that Pons and Fleischmann’s setup, which used electrolysis to induce cold fusion in heavy water, had been contaminated with tritium. And it was this contamination that caused the observed energy spikes rather than cold fusion.
This alleged discovery was later referred to as the “fusion confusion”. After all the excitement that was generated in the cold fusion press conference of March 1989, it had all died away by the end of April of 1989.
Pons and Fleischmann’s failed experiments suggest that it’s much better to subject findings to peer review before they become a total embarrassment.
Alien Abductions by John Edward Mack
During the early 1990s, a Harvard psychiatrist named John Edward Mack began to study patients who claimed to be have been abducted by aliens. Initially, Mack suspected that they might be victims of mental illnesses, but the majority of these patients didn’t have the signs of any mental illness.
After that, he began taking their claims much more seriously.
Many believed that Mack fell victim to his patients’ delusions and beliefs. Since he could not confirm that his patients were mentally ill, then their claims must, therefore, be credible. He dismissed any notion that a perfectly healthy person is capable of creating false beliefs through flawed thinking as well as other factors.
In addition to that, he completely ignored the fact that no corroborating evidence for these outrageous claims existed.