7 Incredible Scientific Innovations Held Back by Petty Feuds
Unless you're Isaac Newton, scientific advances are usually the product of many minds working together in mutual, friendly collaboration. Unfortunately, even geniuses can get bogged down in petty arguments, and we would probably all be flying to work on rocket motorcycles by now if history's greatest geniuses hadn't spent their entire careers arguing over who had the biggest Bunsen burner.
The Fight Over Who Discovered HIV
What Their Feud Cost Us:
Years of AIDS research.
AIDS was first discovered in 1981, prompting a race to find the virus that caused it. We'd like to be able to say that the appeal was in saving a lot of lives, but it probably also had a lot to do with the fact that whoever found it stood to become as famous and wealthy as a scientist can get, all walking around the lab in a pimp hat and fat gold chains.
Working around the clock, a French research team identified the HIV virus in 1983, but they weren't absolutely certain about their discovery, so they decided to send their samples to an American team for a second opinion. The Americans didn't return the phone call for a full year, after which point they declared that they had mysteriously discovered HIV.
America: Stealing Europe's diseases since 1776.
What followed were years of debates and arguments between the two research teams that continued until 1987, when Ronald Reagan and Jacques Chirac finally decided to step in and force the teams to share the credit for the discovery so that we could go on and actually start doing something about, you know, curing AIDS.
It would probably have been to our benefit to have been able to start treating HIV before it spread around the globe and became one of the worst pandemics ever known to mankind.
"What's that now?"
Besides slowing down work on a viable blood test and seriously slowing down research on a potential vaccine, the debate over who discovered HIV also resulted in confusion among the general population.
Not knowing who to believe, the public put the whole AIDS issue in the collective "too hard to understand" basket and went right on engaging in outrageous, risky sex with strangers until somebody definitively told them to stop. The issue was such a scientific clusterfuck that even today there are confused researchers out there still trying to find out what really causes AIDS, because the research surrounding HIV is all laced with subtle anti-French insults.
"This can't be a French sample. It's not surrendering enough."
Edison Versus Tesla: War of the Currents
What Their Feud Cost Us:
Decades of progress in energy infrastructure.
In addition to his Hugh Jackman teleportation device, Nikola Tesla's most famous invention was alternating current (AC), which is the kind of electricity we all use now because of its high voltage and ability to be transported long distances.
Afterwards, he read a book by the glow of his motherfucking lightning machine.
Tesla's discoveries annoyed the other mad scientist of the time, Thomas Edison, because he'd already invested millions of dollars in designing and promoting a direct current (DC) system. DC is comparatively shitty because it's not only weaker, but also it can only be transported for short distances. Basically, DC can only give you enough power for a handful of street lamps, and even then you have to build another power plant on every single block.
Instead of congratulating Tesla for his discoveries or actually trying to improve his product, Edison did what any reasonable businessman would: He invested thousands of dollars in a widespread slander campaign against Tesla and alternating current.
"Anyone who uses AC loves old balls." - Thomas Edison
The basis of Edison's smear campaign was to convince the public that AC was simply going to kill everybody, because it was too powerful to ever be safely harnessed by mortal man. He then proved this by publicly electrocuting the shit out of every life form he could run faster than, including a goddamn elephant.
It took until around 1960 for the last of the DC networks to be replaced. Thomas Edison had a habit of getting his way about absolutely every issue he set his mind to, and if this meant that parts of the world had to suffer from a crappy power infrastructure for more than half a century, then so be it.
The more we think about it, Thomas Edison was a lot like Mr. Burns.
To add insult to injury, even though Tesla consistently proved himself better than Edison in almost every way imaginable, his rivalry against the man who also didn't really invent the light bulb ended up ruining him. After the "war of the currents," Tesla couldn't find someone to support his experiments fulltime and had a hard time funding his inventions.
Not even his band could raise the money.
Also it's commonly believed that Tesla would have received a Nobel Prize for his contributions to physics had Edison not sabotaged him at every turn.
The Controversial Practice of Hand Washing
What Their Feud Cost Us:
20-plus years of germ research and thousands of deaths.
In 19th century Vienna, it was probably safer to give birth in the street than in a hospital. Almost one in five births assisted by a male doctor ended with the mother, the child or both dying for mysterious reasons. The best explanation anyone had was that babies are naturally shy and will spontaneously die when seeing a male doctor.
Pictured: Safer than a hospital.
Ignaz Semmelweis didn't buy that load of crap, and instead embarked upon a large scale study, discovering that doctors often went to assist births immediately after doing autopsies. Apparently the least stupid scientist in all of Vienna, he concluded that the problem probably had something to do with the practice of handling a rotting corpse and a freshly born baby one after the other.
His recommendation was simply that doctors should take 30 seconds to wash their hands somewhere between the morgue and the maternity ward, a habit which was shown to cut mortality down to a comparatively astonishing one percent.
Unfortunately, the scientific community violently rejected the idea of hand washing, because it offended their status as gentlemen. One fellow by the name of Charles Meigs went as far as declaring that doctors should never have to wash their hands because doctors are gentlemen and "gentlemen's hands are always clean."
Likewise, a gentleman's hat is always "top."
Charles was joined in his attack by Johann Klein, the head of the Vienna maternity hospital, and together they managed to get Semmelweis kicked out of his position and assured he would never work in this town again.
The backlash against this not-exactly-radical healthcare reform was so severe that doctors who had already practiced some form of personal hygiene stopped doing so, and went on compensating for their threatened manhood with ever longer probes. Over the next three years, childbirth mortalities almost tripled.
It's like they weren't even trying to stay alive.
In the meantime, Semmelweis continued to attempt to spread the word about his findings, but without the support of the Vienna medical community no one really considered him a serious researcher. It wasn't for another 21 years, when Pasteur proved the existence of germs, that doctors finally took the blow to their masculinity and started washing their hands. In that time, around 14,518 mothers and children died in Vienna hospitals because of puerperal fever, a disease easily avoidable if doctors had used regular old soap and water.
The Nautical Navigation Pissing Match
What Their Feud Cost Us:
Countless advances in navigation.
John Harrison was the kind of man that would put Leonardo Da Vinci to shame. By the age of 20, he was making incredibly precise wooden clocks which are still functioning today, almost 300 years later. However, his greatest invention was the marine chronometer, a device that actually let a boat figure out where the hell they were in the ocean.
"Yep, we're in the ocean."
Back in the 1700s, this was a huge problem. They had ways to calculate the latitude, i.e. how far north or south they were, but had no idea how to calculate the longitude, i.e. how far across the ocean they were. They presumably just sailed until they ran into land and said, "We're here!"
Which explains why anyone would live on Australia.
The British Empire decided to offer the equivalent of about five million dollars in today's currency to anyone who could figure out a way to fix this. John Harrison, surely imagining the team of solid-gold pantaloons he could buy with that kind of cash, spent three years creating a clock that could do the job. He figured that since you're sailing across what are now time zones, all you'd have to do is compare the position of the sun where you were with the time on your clock, and you know how far around the globe you had traveled.
Unfortunately, the board in charge of awarding the five million dollar prize was formed almost entirely of astronomers who considered clock-making to be the profession of assholes. Therefore, instead of declaring Harrison a genius and awarding him the prize, they demanded a better model of the clock.
Yeah, it's nice. But can it be a little... clocky-er?
Harrison built two more models, dedicating almost 30 years to improving the machines. However, when the board tested the clocks and found them almost flawless, they concluded that no machine could be so precise and that Harrison must have cheated using, presumably, voodoo. They then went ahead and hid the clock so that nobody could test it and prove them wrong.
Because you can't keep a good prodigy down, Harrison, who by now had spent about 60 years on this project, built another clock which was even more obscenely accurate than the others. When the board ignored him, Harrison complained to the fucking King of England who had to personally step in and tell the board to stop being a bunch of shits.
You'd listen to him, too.
Even still, scrambling desperately to save face, they gave Harrison less than half of the promised amount and declared that no one won.
The marine chronometer turned out to be the absolute best way of measuring longitude, but the adoption of the technology was slowed down by 60 freaking years because a bunch of astronomers couldn't believe a clock could be so accurate.
Thanks a lot, you dicks.
More depressing, though, is that John Harrison was one of history's most promising supergeniuses, and might have outshone everybody else on this list in terms of his total output of incredible discoveries, if not for the fact that the British government forced him to spend his entire life rebuilding the same clock over and over again.
The Darwin Versus Owen Flame War
What Their Feud Cost Us:
Public acceptance of the Theory of Evolution.
Charles Darwin may have been one of the most influential scientists in all of history, but the Theory of Evolution might have never existed in its current form without the contributions of Richard Owen. Some historians believe Owen actually beat Darwin to the theory, but he was too scared of religious persecution to publish it. He'd be kicking himself now if he wasn't so dead.
Though it appears he was always a zombie.
Owen was royally pissed when Darwin published the idea without crediting him--so pissed, that he put on a wig and fake moustache and started slandering Darwin to anyone who would listen. Under a false name, Owen wrote malicious reviews praising himself and calling Darwin a smelly monkey. Darwin retorted by calling Owens unscrupulous and narrow-minded, and every Sunday the newspapers would publish an insulting letter from one side to the other. Offensive cartoons were involved.
One of Owen's many contributions.
For the general public, seeing a couple of scientists engaging in a weepy schoolyard tiff over a public forum made an absolute farce out of a theory that was already very difficult for them to accept. The genius of Darwin and Owen was overshadowed by the fact that John Q. Layman saw these two grumpy old men bitching at each other and concluded that neither knew what the hell they were talking about.
An idea that would reappear in network sitcoms later.
The damage lasted for decades, and even now the strongest opposition to evolution is based on Owen's work.
Even more tragic was that Darwin's ongoing flame war distracted him so much that he never got around to completing what is known as his "Big Book." That's right, On The Origin of Species was only ever meant as a basic outline for an even more ambitious textbook that would have made Origin look like a crayon coloring book in comparison.
We colored it anyway.
Richard Owen, also an impressive guy who did a lot for the field of paleontology including personally coining the word "dinosaur," was ruined for his childish behavior and never did anything else significant except get himself kicked out of every major scientific community and become hated by evolutionists everywhere.
The Bone Wars
What Their Feud Cost Us:
Years of progress in paleontology, countless fossils.
Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh started out as friends who shared an unhealthy fascination with dinosaur bones. However, like any good story about feuds, the two soon became bitter enemies who stopped at nothing to sabotage the other.
Since they were both digging in the same places, their teams were often stepping on each other's toes and there are at least two recorded occasions when violent fights broke out. Although we'd like to think that the two teams used dinosaur bones to club each other, in reality they just used rocks and dynamite. Quite often, dig sites were blown up or buried so that the other amateur paleontologist wouldn't steal some fossils.
"Eureka! Quick! Bury it."
However, their recklessness in the field was nothing compared to the poor work they did labeling the fossils once they brought them back. Between the two of them, they managed to "discover" the same fossil of Uintatherium about 20 times, naming it something different each time.
Very often they would put different skulls on the same skeletons and declare a new find, all in order to have a higher score than their competition.
Like good enemies, Cole and Marsh didn't limit their competition to dinosaur bones; they wrote countless articles trying to insult the other, often without any care about proper research. Several of these articles reached the general press, and paleontologists all over the world lowered their head in shame as the general public laughed at the ridiculous feud.
The greatest contributions that Cope and Marsh made to paleontology were ironically from the boxes of fossils that they simply didn't get around to sabotaging yet.
"Alright! My box of miscellaneous, unlabeled animal remains!"
In the meantime, the confusion caused by their Spy vs. Spy-like antics lasted for generations and even caused some paleontologists to quit in disgust. The entire field of study wound up with a bad reputation for comical Rocky and Bullwinkle behavior. It took decades to revise all their discoveries and put all the skeletons back together the way they were actually dug up. And there's no telling how many valuable fossils were destroyed by these guys launching bombs at each other from rival digs.
Plate Tectonics? Heresy!
What The Feud Cost Us:
The ability to predict earthquakes.
Alfred Wegener was probably the most badass meteorologist in all of history. He flew in hot air balloons in order to study the climate, and was the first person to spend a winter on the North Pole icecap, where he narrowly avoided death several times.
It took a lot more balls to be a meteorologist back in those days.
While he wasn't climbing glaciers, Wegener was the guy who discovered the then-revolutionary idea of continental drift and plate tectonics, an astounding theory that in one fell swoop explained the existence of mountains, earthquakes and volcanoes in a way that didn't rely upon the wrath of Zeus.
Zeus was not pleased.
One researcher commented, "If we are to believe [this] hypothesis, we must forget everything we have learned in the last 70 years and start all over again."
Presumably because they didn't want to start all over again, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists organized a whole symposium for the sole purpose of discrediting Wegener's ideas. Their attacks were fierce and basically consisted of calling him a bunch of names, instead of confronting his theory. Since most independent research supported Wegener's ideas, the association also published a series of papers aimed solely at attacking the continental drift theory and anyone who supported it. We wouldn't be surprised if Wegener woke up one morning with a horse's head on his pillow.
Geologists don't fuck around.
Unfortunately, Wegener never had the chance to respond to these papers because he died doing something badass. The official version of the story is that he froze during an expedition to the North Pole, but we prefer to believe he rode into the sunset on the back of a polar bear.
Wegener was last seen handing out gifts to those he judges as good.
Wegener's research is like the Rosetta Stone for earthquake prediction, and as a result we can now tell with 90 percent accuracy where earthquakes will occur (though we can't yet figure out when they will occur, obviously).
This wasn't much help during the 36 years it took for the scientific community to admit their mistake, and it took the invention of radio magnetism to make continental drift so obvious that they couldn't ignore it anymore.
Facts can be used to prove anything that's even remotely true.
That's 36 more years that we might have had to better prepare for 2012, people.
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