5 Great Scientists Who Believed Wildly Unscientific Things
If you've been reading Cracked for a while, you probably already know that some scientists had pretty unorthodox methods of experimentation, and that some others were thought of as idiots in their time. But those are all just cases of misunderstood genius -- brilliant people doing crazy things in the service of the scientific method. What's harder to figure out are the famously brilliant scientists who went above and beyond to proudly wave two middle fingers in the face of reason.
Everyone knows that Sir Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists to ever live. He discovered the laws of gravitation, invented calculus and generally made enlightenment more popular than stupidity and madness, which had been topping the charts for most of human history. Even more impressive: He accomplished all of this in his spare time, figuring out gravity, calculus and optics during a single break from university. Newton's main area of interest, and the academic pursuit to which he dedicated the most time, was pants-soiling insanity.
"It's not science if you're covering your junk."
It's estimated that Newton devoted more time to the study of scripture than to science, and he was generally considered a religious nut at a time when everyone took their religion pretty seriously. Newton treated the Bible like Russell Crowe treated newspaper clippings in A Beautiful Mind, poring over it for hours, looking for hidden codes. Newton also spent quite a bit of his time trying to figure out the exact measurements of the Temple of Solomon, which he modestly claimed would allow him to predict the exact date of the apocalypse.
Because all numbers add up to a wolf eating the sun.
Not all of Newton's scientific beliefs have stood the test of time quite as well as gravity. For instance, he also poured hours and hours of his time into alchemy. In fact, he was so interested in alchemy that it is now believed that alchemy was his main focus, and real science was more of a pastime for him. Unlike mathematics and the laws of physics, Newton wasn't even trying to take alchemy in new and interesting directions, opting instead to pursue theories that had long since been disregarded by people who still believed alchemy was possible. His time as an alchemist was mainly devoted to creating the philosopher's stone, which he believed could transmute other metals into gold and grant human beings immortality.
Apple-induced head injuries are kind of a double-edged sword for scientists.
This might sound familiar if you read the first Harry Potter book, where Harry pursues the same stone as Newton. Of course, in the book, Harry has to find the stone to keep the evil noseless warlock who lives on the back of his teacher's head from gaining too much power. Thanks to the alchemical experiments he performed on himself, Newton had so much lead and mercury in his system at the time of his death that he might have been pursuing the stone for the same reason as Harry.
"Behold, I control the RAINBOW. I am your God now, leprechauns!"
Alfred Russel Wallace
If you're only familiar with one biologist, it's Charles Darwin, inventor of the theory of evolution, and mascot for ill-advised religious debates ever since. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the most accomplished biologists who ever lived, also came up with the theory of evolution, but he's mostly remembered as a lesson in why you shouldn't send a copy of your career-making theory to a competing biologist.
Wallace sent Darwin a copy of his theory of natural selection in 1858, before Darwin had published a word of his own theory (having been too busy eating every creature he came across). Letters and notes from the time seem to indicate that Darwin was already kicking around a theory of natural selection, but also that he didn't understand key concepts like divergent evolution until Wallace explained them to him.
We're not sure we understand it now either.
Even worse, the field aside from biology in which Wallace was most influential is also dominated by other, much more famous experts, like Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost and Egon from Ghostbusters.
The guy who probably beat Darwin to the theory of evolution was also hugely interested in practicing spiritualist seances. In fact, he believed seances allowed him to communicate with ghosts on the other side of the divide. Most of his paranormal experiments involved staring at ectoplasm. Not the kind that is part of a cell membrane, which would be understandable for a biologist -- Wallace was interested in the type of ectoplasm that characters in Skyrim and Ghostbusters know as matter that bridges the physical and spirit realms, and that everyone else knows isn't real.
Or is actually what ghosts create when they vomit.
A small hindrance like reality, however, wasn't going to stop Wallace, one of the greatest minds in the history of biology, from claiming that communications with the spirit realm inspired a large portion of his work. The scientific method was also important, but Wallace rarely talked about it, presumably because it sucked at making tables levitate.
Understandably, his friends and colleagues, like Thomas Huxley, weren't on board with his beliefs, and Darwin openly wondered if Wallace's magical belief system was hurting the credibility of the theory he stole from him. Actually, if Darwin hadn't cockblocked Wallace's claim to history, we might associate evolution with the crazy guy who thought he could talk to ghosts.
And then the atheists wouldn't be able to use that argument at all.
Joseph Priestley was a British chemist who was responsible for inventing the process for carbonation and the production of laughing gas, and therefore is indirectly responsible for "David After Dentist" and every soda you've ever enjoyed. Oh, he also discovered oxygen in 1774, which we guess is kind of useful, if you're one of those people who's into breathing.
"This 'oxygen' doesn't get me high at all. Back to the laughing gas!"
When Priestley discovered oxygen, he didn't actually call it oxygen; he called it "dephlogisticated air," but that's probably pretty common. You don't let the doctor who delivers your baby name it just because he's the first person to discover it. Priestly probably had a simple but perfectly scientific reason for naming oxygen something so profoundly stupid.
Actually, he only went out of his way to discover oxygen in the first place to prop up his belief in the phlogiston theory, which is based on the assumption that there are four elements: water, earth, fire and air. While it was once the most popular explanation for the natural universe, the phlogiston theory has since gained attention for being the most swiftly and utterly disproved theory ever taken seriously by people over the age of 5.
Responsible for more cries of "Remember that? What were we thinking?" than parachute pants.
Unfortunately, the theory's plummet from grace occurred right smack in the middle of Priestley's promising, and then increasingly hilarious, scientific career. While Priestley used his discovery of oxygen to declare "Phlogiston for life, bitches!" the rest of science was using it to demonstrate the exact degree to which his pet theory was full of shit, which turned out to be substantial. It was as if he'd discovered stem cell research, and then used it to support his belief that male babies are more likely to be delivered by a gray stork.
"Look! All this phlogiston is setting fire to my research! Wheeee!"
Seeing their opportunity to rub Priestley's face in his own bullshit theory, science proved that matter combines with oxygen through a process called oxidation and reduction, which in turn unlocked the building blocks of the natural universe. Despite his peers repeatedly pointing out how completely crazy it made him look, Priestley stuck to his guns. As the rest of science raced forward to where we are today, Priestley told them, "You guys go ahead without me, I'm going to hang back. I've got a good feeling about this theory that seems more appropriate for World of Warcraft." (Not an exact quote.)
And then he was butt-forked by Satan and aged in an oak cask. Just like Einstein.
Dr. Francis Crick and his colleague James Watson were responsible for discovering the DNA molecule in 1953, which, among other things, allowed The Jerry Springer Show to become much more entertaining. It also proved Darwin's theory of evolution and scored them a Nobel Prize. It was a pretty big deal. How Francis Crick believed that DNA got to Earth was also a pretty big deal, mostly because it was completely insane.
Smoldering eyes and pure sexual magnetism. And we're only half joking.
Crick believed in a theory called "panspermia." Now, you giggle because the name of the theory contains the word "sperm," but here's the thing -- "panspermia" means exactly what it sounds like. Crick believed that life was seeded on Earth by intergalactic "sperm" on the tail of some comet or meteor. While his theory is not quite as scientifically respected as his double-helix model of DNA, most scientists agree it is likely the closest we'll ever come to a scientific equivalent of the Lil Wayne song "Fuck the World."
Look, we're biodiverse, and in this universe, man, amino acids.
There have been a number of criticisms of panspermia since Crick proposed it, the strongest being that the whole thing isn't even goddamned possible. This is because the DNA molecule (which, if you'll recall, Crick himself discovered) basically decays too quickly for it to have enough time to travel from one star system to another. Also, there's the fact that other planets in our solar system are devoid of life, which there's no explanation for, unless Earth acts as some sort of interplanetary sperm magnet. No evidence of this yet.
If your sperm are this luminescent, please seek immediate medical help.
Like a hack Hollywood screenwriter, Crick decided that there was no problem that couldn't be solved by typing "Turns out it was ALIENS!" Crick countered critics of normal panspermia by changing it to "directed panspermia," which says almost the same thing, except that instead of comets flying around aimlessly, you have aliens seeding life on Earth on purpose. The problem with this is that there's no scientific evidence whatsoever that aliens even exist, much less that we're the result of their intergalactic money shots all over Mother Earth's face.
Just to give you an idea of how completely strange this theory is, the only worldview that seems to coincide with it is Scientology.
Wait a minute -- the name James Watson sounds familiar! Well, it should; he's Francis Crick's partner, and he also makes the list, which brings us to our next question: What the fuck, geneticists? We here at Cracked believe that the next Nobel Prize in physiology should be awarded to the person who discovers the gene that allows geneticists to believe absolutely crazy shit. To be fair to Watson, he didn't believe that life was brought to Earth by aliens or anything like that. The only thing that he's guilty of is pseudoscientific racism at a level that would embarrass the most ambitious KKK Grand Dragon.
In an interview with The Sunday Times, Watson, who had shown no outward signs of being a complete lunatic up to that point, explained that everyone would be a lot better off if we just admitted that Africans aren't as smart as whites. After making sure that he wasn't secretly in a competition to come up with the least scientific thing you could say in the fewest words, The Sunday Times reprinted Watson's statement, and a shitstorm was born.
He was later found to have the genetic markers for dickishness and holding stock in Sunday newspapers.
There are a number of reasons that Watson's theory is a load of garbage, and Watson should have known all of them. As the guy who discovered the double-helix model of DNA, you'd think that Watson would have been paying attention to the Human Genome Project, which had already been unable to find a correlation between race and intelligence. Being both a Harvard professor and the head of one of the top genetics research facilities in the U.S., you might even say that Watson was paid to know such things.
What new discovery had Watson made that would undo years of science that suggested different "races" were all identical on the inside? In the interview, Watson said there was a natural desire that all human beings should be equal, but "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true."
"I have no idea why my grandchildren never visit."
Yes, Watson's theory was based on his experience with black employees. Presumably he'd never entertained the possibility that these less intelligent black employees might have been responding negatively to the fact that they were working for a racist who communicated to them with slow motion hand gestures and dog training techniques.
"Oh, you're white, too! We must be the same person!"
And it turns out that these sorts of beliefs weren't altogether uncharacteristic of Watson. Since winning his Nobel Prize in molecular biology, he'd been using it as a license to shoot off his mouth on scientific areas with which he had absolutely no experience. In addition to thinking that his impressions of black employees meant they were genetically less intelligent, he believed that women scientists were more "difficult" than men, that people with low intelligence should have their genes altered and that mothers should be able to abort babies with imperfect genes (saying "most mothers wouldn't want to have dwarfs"). So basically he was a racist dick who, by the way, stole his biggest discovery from a woman.
For more ill-advised attempts to make a point, check out 6 People Who Died In Order To Prove A (Stupid) Point. Or discover 9 Inventions that Prove Leonardo da Vinci Was a Supervillain.