It's easy to think of human history as a war, with enlightened scientists beating back the forces of ignorance and superstition. The truth is a lot messier, and often more hilarious.
The reality is that some of the most important innovators in history were just as interested in voodoo as they were in science, and often stumbled across their greatest works by accident. So here's to the combination of genius and crazy that gave us our civilization.
While people have used natural remedies for as long as people have existed, the idea of popping a synthetically produced pill is a fairly new one. It's one thing to chew on some coca leaves because you think they have the magical ability to cure your menstrual cramps; it's another to separate and mix chemicals explicitly created to fix your problem. For that giant leap in medical thought, we can thank a 16th century Swiss doctor named Paracelsus. Also, he claimed to have created a tiny person from old sperm and horse shit.
Like ya do.
The Crazy Behind the Science
Paracelsus' revolutionary idea was the concept that sickness came from outside agents, and that those agents could be fixed with the right medication. These two huge innovations paved the way for everything from modern day antibiotics to shady diet pills. Paracelsus also believed that the human body was a perfect little microcosm of the entire universe -- not just that we were made of the elements that made up the rest of what's out there, but that the seven known planets and seven known metals of the time were represented by the seven major organs of the body. And good news! If the poisons from space were the things causing sickness inside the body, the elements from space could also cure the disease. Well ... that's sort of right, we suppose.
It's pretty damn close for a guy who spent his entire life pooping in buckets.
But he didn't stop there by a long haul. Going on the strength of his belief that the human body was made of the same stuff as the rest of the universe, he thought that he could build his own human with the right materials. And that's what he did: He cooked some sperm in a test tube, buried it in horse dung for 40 weeks, and claimed to have produced a real talking little person by the end of the experiment.
And thus did Karl Rove come into the world.
In another incident, Paracelsus called a meeting of the leading academics of his town with the announcement that he had the most important secret of all time. Then he presented them with a bowl of steaming human shit. When they turned tail and ran away, Paracelsus yelled, "If you will not hear the mysteries of putrefactive fermentation, you are unworthy of the name of physicians!" Good ol' Paracelsus. Someday, we hope you remember that the guy who essentially invented all modern medication pooped in a bowl and called it science.
Every middle schooler's favorite planet Uranus was discovered by musician William Herschel in 1781. What made the discovery possible was a 7-foot telescope of Herschel's own design, built with the help of his sister Caroline in their backyard. Herschel modeled his unique telescope on Isaac Newton's original idea, where the telescope uses mirrors to magnify the image in a super-efficient way. Herschel's version later became the standard model for nearly all modern telescopes.
Wait a tick ... did anyone ever see Herschel and Thomas Jefferson in the same room at the same time?
So a German composer and his singer sister designed, cast, and built the mother of all space telescopes with their bare hands, in their free time, basically because they just wanted one. Remember that later when you end up falling asleep with the TV on because you were too lazy to get up and look for the remote.
The Crazy Behind the Science
Herschel wasn't driven to create amazing telescopes out of pure scholarly interest in the stars. What really spurred him on was the absolute certainty that the moon was full of moon men. Five years before Herschel found Uranus, he became convinced he saw forests on the moon. Two years later, he started looking for moon towns. You know those round spots on the surface of the moon? Yeah, according to Herschel, they were cities. He thought he could see them with his telescope. Between their cool round towns, the "Lunarians" also had highways, canals, and even pastures where their silvery moon-cows presumably grazed space grass. The longer Herschel looked at the moon, the more the moon started to look like Earth.
"Are they ... are they flipping me off?"
Eventually, Herschel concluded that all the planets hosted life. Mars had mountains and seasons and oceans, just like us, and each star that we see probably hosted tons of earthish planets with tons of people. Speaking of stars, Herschel couldn't see why we shouldn't believe there were beings living on the sun itself. In his mind, the sun wasn't a gas ball at all, it was a solid globe cool enough to support life. What we think is the sun was actually just the solid orange clouds that surround a perfectly habitable orb. Dark sun spots are just the holes in the clouds, giving us a little peek into the actual home of Solarians. Oh, and he called the sun people Solarians.
"Everything burns all the time, but at least no one will notice I have chlamydia."
So you can see why Herschel kept most of his thoughts on the down-low and concentrated on recording the existence of new planets and stuff.
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Love it or hate it, we can thank the Chinese for giving us gunpowder, the original inspiration for all of today's explosions, fireworks, and inflammatory NRA bumper stickers. While it's true that China invented what would become a major source of destruction, they weren't necessarily looking for a way to blow their enemies to bits at the time. In fact, Chinese scientists had something else in mind when they came up with the recipe.
"Seriously, guys, this is the worst meatloaf ever."
The Crazy Behind the Science
Like most people, Chinese royalty had one humble goal: to live forever. And gunpowder, or fire medicine, started out as a formula to make that happen. For hundreds of years, Chinese alchemists were tasked with the job of figuring out how to make a medicine that gave eternal life. So, like all good alchemists, they started with basic metals. But these guys were particularly interested in metals that had paradoxical properties. Gold, for example, never tarnished, so eating it probably meant your insides stayed shiny forever. Mercury was both a liquid and a metal, so maybe ingesting mercury meant you could get shot with projectiles and instantly heal like the T-1000.
Things really got interesting when the alchemists studied sulfur ("It's a rock that burns -- imagine what that shit will do to you!"), particularly when they mixed sulfur with saltpeter and dried honey. In A.D. 850, one list of elixirs warned:
"Some have heated together sulfur, realgar, and saltpeter with honey; smoke and flames result, so that their hands and faces have been burnt, and even the whole house where they were working burned down."
"I told you the recipe needed more cumin."
If you've ever been to a magic show or an arson party, you know that a little bit of smoke can be pretty dramatic, so it wasn't long before showy wizards were using the sulfur/saltpeter combo to produce the very first special effects for dazzled onlookers. Sure, it didn't grant eternal life, but it did something far more important: It made alchemists look awesome.
From there it didn't take long for a clever alchemist to enclose, seal, and ignite the powder for a kickass fireworks display, or much longer for another clever military guy to get a huge light bulb over his head and start using gunpowder for murdering enemies.
"Explosions are the new stab wounds!"