Top 10 Scientific Gaffes by Famous Scientists

We expect scientists to know about science because that’s what they are paid to do. But don’t let the lab coats fool you; not only do scientists fall asleep on the job, but after all the nuclear wedgies in high school, they have even more motivation to relax. Sometimes they just make mistakes because they are human.

It’s perfectly understandable that scientists won’t know about discoveries made after they were dead -for example, Leonardo da Vinci, despite sketching a helicopter, didn’t know about gravity. However, some of the biggest names in science made serious scientific gaffes despite it being their job to know better.

So next time you make a fool of yourself at work, just remember you are in the same company as…

10. Aristotle

One of the oldest and most controversial theories in psychology is the blank slate theory, which states that people are born with no built-in personality traits or proclivities. The most popular proponents of this theory were Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke. For them, nothing was instinct or a result of nature. The idea found its most famous expression in psychology in the works of Sigmund Freud, whose theories of the unconscious stressed that the elemental aspects of an individual’s personality were constructed by their previous experiences.

While there’s little doubt that a person’s experiences and learned behaviors have a huge impact on their disposition, it is also now widely accepted that genes and other genetic (i.e. family) traits inherited from birth, along with certain innate instincts, are important players in a human being’s developmental process. This was only proven after years of research that covered the ways in which similar gestures like smiling and certain features of language could be found throughout the world in radically different cultures. Meanwhile, studies of adopted children and twins raised in separate home have come to the conclusion about the ways some innate characteristics are inherited from birth.

9. Jean Joseph Le Verrier

Vulcan was a mystery planet that many astronomers, including Jean Joseph Le Verrier, believed to exist between Mercury and the Sun. Le Verrier first proposed its existence after he was unable to explain the peculiarities surrounding Mercury’s orbit. He argued that this had to be caused by some object (i.e. planet or moon) acting as a gravitational force. La Verrier called this supposed planet Vulcan, after the Roman god of fire. Without La Verrier acting as a cheerleader for Vulcan’s existence, astronomers started doubting the validity of this theory. The search was effectively abandoned in 1915, when Einstein’s theory of general relativity helped explain once why Mercury orbited the Sun in such a strange fashion.

8. Pre-19th Century Physicians

Laugh it out, but up until the late 19th century, doctors didn’t think they needed to wash their hands before prepping for surgery.

The result? Infection. Most early-19th century doctors tended to attribute contagion to “bad air” and blamed disease on imbalances of the “four humors” (that’s blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile).

“Germ theory” (the revolutionary idea that germs cause disease) had been around for a while, but it wasn’t until Louis Pasteur started re-theorizing it that people started listening. It took a while, but many doctors, such as Joseph Lister, were able to connect the dots and realize that hospitals and doctors were able to pass on life-threatening germs to patients.

Lister went on to pioneer the idea of actually cleaning wounds and using disinfectant. He and Pasteur are considered the fathers of sanitizer. So next time you buy a Purell bottle, thank Lister and Pasteur for inventing it.

7. Ptolemy

Ptolemy was an ancient astronomer whose geocentric theory became the dominant view of the universe, until Copernicus. Ptolemy’s writings were quite influential in early astronomy, and he was revered throughout the Middle Ages by Europeans and Arabs alike. He also provided the most authoritative compilation of constellations in antiquity. Although he helped to discredit Aristarchos’ heliocentric universe, and ensured the geocentric model would be the theory that would be accepted for the next 1,000 years, Ptolemy did much to raise the standard of astronomy. As we all know, Ptolemy was wrong and the world does not revolve around the earth. Galileo Galelei would continue advocating for Copernicus’ theory, before he was placed under house arrest for heresy by the Roman Catholic church.

6. Claudius Galen of Pergamon

We don’t expect ancient physicians to have a comprehensive knowledge of medicine, but it would be reasonable to expect them to be able to identify basic body parts. You know, in order for them to attach the leaches. So we aren’t setting a really high bar for Galen of Pergamon, who is widely considered to be the best surgeon of his time.

Galen was a Greek-born physician who practiced in Rome during the second century. He was so good at cutting people up and putting them back together in the right order that he became the personal physician of several emperors. He’s known for pioneering many medical practices and -mind you, this is before proper anesthetic was developed- performed brain and eye surgery. The latter two are even more impressive when you consider that…

In 160 AD, Galen moved to Rome to work. With the exception of a brief return to Pergamum, he spent his golden years in the Roman capital. He became physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius and would later serve Aurelius’s successors, Commodus and Septimius Severus in the same capacity.

…Galen thought the liver pumped blood, which you might have noticed is something only the heart does (organ union rules). To his credit, he was the first to distinguish between arteries and veins, and laid the foundation for continuing study in the circulatory system. However, therein lay the problem: he didn’t realize that the circulatory system is, uhm, circulatory. According to his theory, blood was produced in the liver and then transported through the body to be “consumed”. He neglected to explain how the liver was able to pump blood without any moving parts.

Galen studied the anatomy of the respiratory system, and of the heart, arteries, and veins. But he did not discover the circulation of the blood in the human body, and he believed that blood passed from one side of the heart to the other through something he referred to as the “invisible pores” in the dividing wall. Galen was confident that the venous and arterial systems were each sealed and separate from one other. William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, wondered how Galen, having gotten so close to the answer, did not himself arrive at the same conclusion.

This very wrong idea stuck around for quite a long time. Well, if you consider 1,400 years a long time. Galen was so influential that no one got around to questioning his theories until 1628 when English physician William Harvey proved that, yep, the circulatory system is in fact circulatory. Of course this didn’t discourage Harvey from continuing the practice of blood-letting to cure the flu -another idea advocated by Galen.

Why he should have known better…

Our writers are not licensed physicians -though you might want to see one if you are taking medical advice from a comedy website- but we do know some Egyptians who disputed Galen’s claims a full 1,700 years before he made them. Egyptian physicians recognized the importance of the heart in the circulatory system, and Galen, who spent several years studying in Alexandria, would have known that if he listened carefully. He just didn’t like knowing it, so he came up with a theory partially based on some invisible pores in the heart. For the next fourteen centuries the medical community was so happy to unscientifically accept this theory as fact that any rival theories were quietly forgotten.

5. Sir Fred Hoyle

Hoyle was a twentieth century physicist who coined the term “the Big Bang”. Too bad he didn’t actually believe in what he wrote about, and continued the denial up until his death in 2001. He subscribed to the idea of a steady state universe and described the Big Bang as “irrational”. British cosmologist Fred Hoyle has thrown down the gauntlet with regards to where and when all the Universe’s elements were created. In one of his radio broadcast he criticized a competing theory, presented by Ukrainian-born American physicist George Gamow. He labeled Gamow’s theory as a ridiculous and nonsense.

4. Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling was such a prodigious chemist that he won the Nobel Prize twice. Therefore it’s not surprising he was so confident about his discovery of DNA’s structure that he rushed to publish it before double-checking his calculations … which showed DNA to have a triple helix structure.
Pauling … still lacked critical data – he had no decent x-ray images, for instance, and no firm structural data on the precise sizes and bonding angles of the base-sugar-phosphate building blocks of DNA – but he went with what he had. It was a mistake. After a few pages of theorizing, using sketchy and sometimes incorrect data, Pauling became convinced … that DNA was a three-stranded structure.

3. Lord Kelvin

…or as he’s known to friends, William Thomson, set about in the 19th century to scientifically calculate the age of the earth. Until then, the accepted age among geologists was just under 6,000 years -as verifiable in the Bible. Kelvin wanted to calculate how old our planet is by estimating the time it would take a mass the size of the Earth to cool down in the vacuum of space.

Sounds pretty straight-forward, right? Well, he didn’t take into account the possibility of unknown structures in the Earth that would transmit heat differently. Even when this was pointed out to him, he figured he was too good of a scientist to make a mistake. So, he was off by about… 50,000%

Primarily basing his estimates on heat transfer within the earth itself and from the sun to the earth, Kelvin believed that the earth was between 20 and 100 million years old.

In fact, Kelvin’s error, as his one-time assistant John Perry pointed out in 1895, was to regard the rocky mantle of the Earth as being rigid, whereas geologists now know that it is a viscous fluid that transfers heat by convection.

2. Charles Darwin

Darwin is most noted for discovering Galapagos Turtles, and to a lesser extent, the Theory of Evolution. Interestingly, however, he believed in a notion of inheritance that contradicted his most famous theory.
You see, at the time it was commonly accepted that offspring would have a mix of traits from their parents. For example, a white sheep and a black sheep would have grey offspring. The inherent problem of this theory is that eventually all black sheep and white sheep would mix and there’d only be gray sheep -and the abundance of white and black sheep (coupled with a conspicuous absence of gray sheep) jars with this theory. This is especially problematic with the theory of evolution, because if a new mutation occurs, according to this theory it would quickly “dilute” in the broader population and disappear.

It wasn’t until the turn of the century (and after Darwin’s death) that this problem was resolved when Mandelian inheritance became widely accepted.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection lacked an adequate account of inheritance, making it logically incomplete. We review the interaction between evolution and genetics, showing how, unlike Mendel, Darwin’s lack of a model of the mechanism of inheritance left him unable to interpret his own data.

1. Albert Einstein

Yes, Einstein made a boo boo in physics, but it’s not what you think. After publishing his General Theory of Relativity in 1916, he noticed a tiny mistake in one of his equations and removed it from subsequent editions. Initially he’d based his theory on the notion that the Universe was static, and in order to account for that in his theories, he created what he called the “cosmological constant”. The trouble is that observations made at the time showed that the universe was expanding, and the cosmological constant didn’t fit with an expanding universe.