Science is a slow, methodical process of testing hypotheses and forming conclusions, but every once in a while, a mind comes along that leapfrogs the entire scientific community. And even though they are right, it might take years, decades, even centuries for their ideas to be accepted. Here’s 10 examples of scientists the world just wasn’t ready for.
This guy figured out the sun was the center of the solar system more than 1000 years before Copernicus.
This guy predicted germ theory before they knew germs were a thing.
This guy invented the automobile… In 1769?
Is that right?
Science is slow and methodical but throughout history there have been visionaries that were ahead of the curve. Too far ahead actually. Nobody took them seriously.
It’s like there are real-life time travelers or something.
Imagine what the world would be like if we’d listed to these people.
Well they may have been ignored in their own day but today they’re going to get their due because we’re going to talk about 10 scientists who were too far ahead of their time.
Last year, the Nobel Prize in Physics went to three different physicists for their work on the Bell Inequality theorem. I made a whole video about it, you can go check it out…
But that Nobel Prize was a long time coming, the experiment that John Clauser won the prize for was first conducted in 1972. It took exactly 50 years for that work to be recognized. By the Nobel Prize committee anyway.
And that’s not unusual, in fact there’s a name for it, it’s called the Nobel Prize lag. Basically, it’s where scientists win the prize years, sometimes decades, after their discoveries.
One study found that the average time between publishing work and receiving a Nobel prize for it has almost doubled over the last 60 years.
Chemistry has the longest lag at an average of 30 years over the past decade. Physiology or medicine has the shortest lag at 26 years.
And it’s getting longer. For the science prizes anyway. For example, after 1985, 15 percent of physics prizes were awarded within 10 years of their discoveries.
Before 1940, that rate was 61 percent.
There are several possible reasons for this lag. One of those is the sheer number of breakthroughs is increasing every year.
Awards just can’t keep pace with everyone who deserves recognition. Sounds like a good problem to have.
There’s also the notion that some works aren’t truly appreciated during their time, that it takes another discovery or a mindset change for them to come into their own.
That’s the case with the scientists we’re looking at in this episode.
One quick thing before I get into the list – there is a potential interpretation of this video that I don’t want people to come away with. And that’s that the point of this video is, “hey look at all the times science got it wrong.”
There’s this kind of mindset that you see a lot online and it’s a dangerous one in my opinion, which says that science is only moved forward by maverick free-thinkers who push back against the establishment.
Ergo, if 99 scientists say something is true and one scientist says the opposite, then that’s the guy you want to listen to.
No, that’s not how this works. that’s not how any of this works.
Scientists are human. Humans have blindspots, and incentives, and some are just bad scientists.
And in some of the cases in this video, they just kinda accidentally landed on the right answer. There might have been hundreds of people working on that problem at the time, coming up with hundreds of different answers. One of them just happened to be right.
I get why the “lone genius” stories are compelling, and honestly I used to be big into that kind of thinking. It feels empowering, it’s got John Wayne swagger. The genius with the world-changing idea being suppressed by the establishment, man…
Also, convincing people that you’re a genius with a world-changing idea being suppressed by the establishment is… a lucrative grift.
Science is a slow, methodical march of experimenting, publishing, peer review, acceptance, and then expanding on that and starting the process all over again. It is with very few exceptions some mad genius.
But that slow, boring process is what we have to thank for pretty much every aspect of our way of life today. It works.
So maybe instead of chiding the scientific establishment for not getting it as early as these examples, we should cheer the fact that they have been able to catch up. And, vindicate these guys.
Guys like Ignaz Semmelweis.
Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician working in Austria when he noticed one hospital had a high death rate.
So, he proposed that maybe it could be lowered by having the surgeons wash their hands between working on patients.
Turns out, he was correct. But other physicians disregarded his findings. They felt like he was calling them dirty.
He kept trying for years to convince them but got nowhere, mainly because he couldn’t prove why clean hands reduced death rates in hospitals.
He ended up dying in an insane asylum.
Years later, his theory was finally accepted after Louis Pasteur confirmed the germ theory of disease.
Now I could end his story there. But there are some other things that add some nuance to his story. Like the fact that he was apparently kind-of an asshole.
Yeah evidently one of the reasons his ideas didn’t make greater headway is because he refused to perform experiments to prove his ideas – he was so convinced he was right that he took issue with people asking him to prove it.
And that’s probably because he didn’t really know why the whole clean hands thing worked, so the specifics of his theories kinda sounded like he was throwing spaghetti against a wall. Like one of his explanations involved “ichorous exhalations.” Whatever that is.
Today we all learn about Gregor Mendel in biology class as basically the father of modern genetics, but most scientists didn’t understand Mendel’s theories when he was alive.
It’s not like he didn’t try to help them understand. It’s just that replicating his experiments was hard.
Sure, experiments on pea plants were easy, but reproducing them on complex plants didn’t yield the same results.
But almost two decades after Mendel died, his work was rediscovered and finally reproduced. And understood.
Ludwig Boltzmann is famous today as the guy who came up with the Botzmann brain thought experiment and has the Bolstzmann constant named after him, but in his own day, he wasn’t very popular or appreciated at all in the scientific community.
Ludwig was a genius who was developing formulas and equations that explained the properties of atoms and how they affect the physical nature of matter. The problem is, many scientists didn’t believe in atomic theory at the time. This was before that whole thing was accepted.
So he was trying to prove it right with the math, and he was successful at that. But maybe for many of the scientists of the day, this was like putting the cart before the horse.
It probably didn’t help that he was severely bipolar, which may have limited him socially. Regardless, He kept fighting for it to be accepted but, sadly eventually committed suicide.
Just a few years later, his theory was accepted, thanks to people like Albert Einstein and Max Planck.
Ada Lovelace was born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815. Her father was the famous poet Lord Byron, who literally 6 months after Ada’s birth held a gathering in Geneva with Percy and Mary Shelly. Where, famously the Frankenstein story was born.
Weren’t expecting a Frankenstein connection in here did you?
So Ada obviously grew up wealthy and was seen to by the finest tutors, her thirst for knowledge was relentless.
This interest in science and her family connections led her to commiserate with intellectual heavyweights of the time like Michael Farraday and eventually the inventor Charles Babbage in 1833.
He showed her some of his work, and she took particular interest in a thing called The Difference Engine.
It was an early analog calculator, capable of automatically calculating large numbers. Lovelace was very interested in it, and the two began corresponding with each other.
So when Babbage later started working on a machine called The Analytical Engine, he asked Lovelace to translate a paper written about it.
She did. And while she was doing so, she added some notes to it – some thoughts of her own if you will.
These thoughts are sometimes called the Seven Notes, which explained how a computer could work, even writing out programs.
It’s said that she was the first person to truly understand what a computer could be and how they could be useful for things far beyond just crunching numbers.
But she was a woman, so her work mostly just got her a pat on the head and nobody really took her ideas seriously. It wasn’t until the 20th century that her contributions to Babbage’s work, and the literature she left behind, finally got its due.
By the way little side note, her name was technically never Ada Lovelace, she eventually married a guy named William King, whose position was the first Earl of Lovelace. So she became known as Ada Loveless – for English reasons.
Also she died at only 36 from cervical cancer, which kinda sucks, who knows what else she could have figured out.
William Harvey was a 50-year-old physician for several English monarchs during turn of the 17th century. Needless to say he was pretty well off.
But then in 1628, he challenged the medical community and its belief about blood circulation.
Harvey was the first doctor to observe the working hearts of living animals, which gave him an idea of how the blood was pushed from the ventricals to the atria and whatnot. He published these findings in a book titled An Anatomical Study of the Motion of the Heart and of the Blood in Animals in Germany.
But it took two decades for it to be translated into English. And, oh boy, it didn’t go over well.
At the time, the leading theory around blood circulation was from Galen, a Greek physician from the year 200 AD. So these ideas had been around for like 1400 years.
Not to mention most doctors at the time operated on the belief in the four humors, and practiced bloodletting as a way to bring the humors into balance. So, his ideas not only went against a millennia and a half of belief but made other doctors’ jobs harder.
Physicians berated him and his ideas and his career suffered. After spending a decade as the go-to doctor for kings and nobility, he eventually died a hermit. It would be hundreds of years before his views were recognized.
I think we all know about Pangaea, yeah? The most recent supercontinent from millions of years ago.
Well the reason you know that is because of Alfred Wegener.
In 1910, he noticed that the coastlines of Africa and South America looked like they could fit together.
He wasn’t the first to notice this, but prior theories suggested that Pangaea’s landmass had sunk and filled in with water, leaving behind the seven continents we know today.
But Wegener was the first to suggest they had actually drifted apart on tectonic plates that slide around the world.
You can guess how well that went over. Other scientists called his theories “delirious ravings” and “pseudo-science.”
It didn’t seem to bother Wegener, who worked on refining his theory until his death in 1930.
Still, it took three decades before the scientific community accepted plate tectonics.
Aristarchus of Samos
Aristarchus of Samos lived in Greece in the 4th century BCE. During this time, people believed that the Earth was the center of the universe.
They didn’t think it was flat – just that everything circled around us.
Not ol’ Aristarchus. He believed the Earth went around the Sun. He also said the stars we see at night are really far away from us.
Unlike some other scientists, he wasn’t harassed by his peers or put in jail or anything. It was much worse: He was ignored.
People just wanted to believe in the Earth-centered theory because it better aligned with their observation of the world.
It only took more than 1,000 years before people started to come around to his theory.
Amedeo Avogadro was an Italian lawyer who dabbled in science as a hobby. In 1811, he proposed a hypothesis others during that time ignored.
His hypothesis was that equal volumes of gases at the same temperature and pressure contain equal numbers of molecules.
Avogadro also argued that solitary atoms didn’t form simple gases. Instead, they were compound molecules of two or more atoms.
Of course, other scientists resisted his theory for several reasons, one of which was that he was an outsider to the scientific community. He also lived too far away from research centers where he could make his case.
His theory was eventually proven correct, and today it’s a fundamental law of gases known as Avogadro’s law.
William B. Coley
William B. Coley was a 29-year-old doctor working at New York Memorial Hospital in 1891 when he noticed something unusual.
Cancer patients’ disease would vanish after they contracted a specific and deadly Streptococcus bacterial infection.
Coley did some research and found 47 recorded cases. He decided to conduct some human experiments.
He found someone who had a terminal, inoperable tumor and injected him with bacteria. The patient got very ill after five treatments, but his tumor started to shrink.
The tumor was gone two weeks later, and the patient lived eight more years cancer-free.
So, basically, he discovered immunotherapy, which the medical community mostly dismissed during his life.
But its resurgence in fighting cancer has helped restore Coley’s reputation.
Long before Karl Benz built the first true modern automobile in 1886, there was Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot.
He was a French Army officer and engineer who was asked to develop a steam-powered vehicle that could haul a cannon.
He got a working model completed in 1769. The next year, he unveiled a full-size version of the vehicle, calling it a fardier à vapeur.
Cugnot modeled his vehicle on an army horse-cart, but there was a third wheel instead of a horse at the front. This third wheel supported a copper boiler and a link to drive the wheel.
So it was a wood-fueld, steam-powered car. in 1769. That’s insane.
Now, before you go off and sell your Subaru, you should know, it could only move about two miles per hour, and it needed to be refueled with wood every 15 minutes. Reports are that it was difficult to maneuver. Ya think?
The French Army abandoned the vehicle after a few years, but Cugnot received a huge pension from King Louis XV for his invention.
Zhang Heng is another inventor ahead of his time. You see, he built an effective earthquake detector in 132 AD.
Known as the Leonardo da Vinci of China, Zhang was an artist, astronomer, engineer, inventor, scholar, and scientist.
His seismoscope invention could identify seismic activity hundreds of kilometers away, determining exactly where an earthquake came from.
To figure out the direction of an earthquake, the device dropped a bronze ball from one of eight tube projections that were shaped like dragon heads.
The ball would fall into the mouth of a corresponding metal object shaped like a toad, each representing the direction the seismic wave was traveling. You know, the ol’ ball in the toad mouth trick.
There are no historical documents or physical remains of Zhang’s device. But it’s believed that its design is based on the principle of inertia.
John Yudkin was a respected nutritionist and physiologist who showed a link between sugar consumption and things like diabetes, heart attacks, and cavities.
But like many on this list, he was ignored, because he wasn’t able to incorporate possible confounding factors in his studies.
He published his book, Pure, White, and Deadly, in 1972. In it, he wrote:
“If only a small fraction of what we know about the effects of sugar were to be revealed in relation to any other material used as a food additive, that material would promptly be banned.”
The book sold well, but prominent nutritionists worked with the food industry to destroy his reputation.
His career was ruined, and he died in 1995 as a largely forgotten man.
While truth has become more democratized through science, we can still be victims of cognitive bias.
In an interview with physicist and author Safi Bahcall, he said,
“It’s often the most important ideas that are dismissed and ridiculed—not for a week, or a month, or a year, but for many years or decades.”
And why is that?
Well, a study from 2017 identified some of the factors that may cause people to reject science. It’s nothing to do with how smart they are.
The issue is that when it comes to facts, we think more like lawyers than scientists. We selectively pick the facts that back up what we already believe to be true.
We’re just really a social species. We’re only willing to buy into an idea if others accept it first.
Maybe that’s what’s great about science. It’s an organized process to collect ideas and get to a consensus faster.
But we also have to be willing to admit when we’re wrong about something and recognize that science builds upon science.