Scientific progress may seem like a straight line of amassing knowledge and calmly correcting mistaken impressions to get to the truth, but the actual process is much more chaotic than that. Theories that we take for granted today were often met with confusion and hostility when they were introduced, and the people who introduced them called mad men, idiots, and worse. Today, we’ll take a look at the top four scientific theories that seemed crazy when they were introduced, but that time (and further scientific observation) proved to be correct.
In 1910, German meteorologist Alfred Wegener noticed something funny. When examined closely, it appeared that the coastlines of Africa and South America were shaped as though they had once been connected. While he wasn’t the first person to make the observation, the idea that the two continents may have once been one continent stuck in Wegener’s mind, eventually leading to him delivering a lecture on “continental displacement” in 1912. According to his theory (which is now called “continental drift”), the Earth’s continents were once a single supercontinent that Wegener called “Pangea,” and had drifted apart with time.
Most of the scientific community dismissed Wegener’s theory, which he continued to try to prove for the rest of his life. In 1962, Harry Hess completed Wegener’s theory by discovering the force that caused the continents to shift. Today, Pangea and continental drift are widely accepted by the scientific community.
The Heliocentric Solar System
The idea of a heliocentric solar system – where the planets revolve around the sun – can largely be credited to two scientists: Copernicus and Galileo. Copernicus published a theory of planetary motion in 1543 that directly contradicted the accepted notion that the Earth was the center of the universe, and was widely derided at the time. In the early 17th century, Galileo used a telescope to observe the movement of celestial bodies, which both confirmed Copernicus’ suspicion that the Earth orbited the sun, and raised the ire of the Catholic Church and the Inquisition, which led to Galileo being placed under house arrest for the rest of his life, and his book being banned. As further scientific research was conducted, Galileo’s beliefs were vindicated, and his theories of heliocentrism served as an important base for modern astrophysics.
Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance
Gregor Mendel probably never imagined that his experiments in a vegetable garden would change science forever. Living in a Austrian monastery as a monk, Mendel noticed that when he controlled the pollination of the pea plants, the resulting peas would often have the same characteristics as the plants they were derived from. When combined his observations with the fact that children often had the same characteristics as their parents, Mendel’s vegetable experiments led him to develop the basic theory on which genetics would be based: Mendel’s Laws of Inheritance. Unfortunately for Mendel, the theory that would revolutionize our understanding of how life develops was ignored by his contemporary scientists almost entirely, despite Mendel attempting to contact and convince many of the luminaries of his day. It would take several decades for Mendel’s theories to be taken seriously.
Fritz Zwicky was a Swiss astronomer who would make many important discoveries in his field, most of which were ignored for decades. Zwicky was also what could charitably be called a “difficult person,” one who had no problem venting his contempt for other researchers and the scientific establishment. Zwicky’s eccentric nature and hostile personality made it easy for his contemporaries to dismiss him as a crank, which resulted in much of his work being ignored and dismissed. It took 40 years for his most important discovery, dark matter, to be “rediscovered,” at which point the scientific community realized his idea explained much about the behavior of the universe that had been unable to be accounted for without Zwicky’s theories.
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