5 Shockingly Crazy Ideas Behind Huge Scientific Discoveries
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.
The Founder of Modern Medicine Was Batshit Insane
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.
Herschel Discovered Uranus While Searching for Moon Men
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.
China's Search for Immortality Gives Mankind Gunpowder
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!"
Feng Shui Gave Us Magnetic Compasses
Before we had cars and phones that tell us where to turn when we need to get somewhere, humanity was doomed to navigate with nothing more than maps and compasses. But don't underestimate what a massive invention compasses were -- it's a big goddamned improvement over, say, trying to navigate by the stars on a rainy night.
Google Maps: Beta.
So knowing how compasses work -- by tuning themselves to the Earth's magnetic poles -- it must have been some kind of navigational genius who invented the things, right?
The Crazy Behind the Science
The Chinese originally came up with their "south pointer" as a tool for arranging their homes with feng shui. You know the idea: arranging furniture so that good energies can flow freely through the home. Maybe your hippie aunt is a believer and keeps surreptitiously shifting your sofa away from the television and facing the dog's corner to better align the flow.
Maybe you're Donald Trump, and you practice feng shui so Chinese people will like you.
The point is, long before anyone was interested in exploring and conquering new lands, the Chinese were interested in living at peace with their environment, and to them, a peaceful coexistence with nature meant building homes with a regard to the north-south axis, something current builders are pretty interested in as well. Only the Chinese used a spoon on a plate to get the job done.
It was the first multitool, capable of pointing north, feeding you soup, or cooking your heroin.
The spoon was made of lodestone and represented the Big Dipper, the bronze plate represented the Earth, and the circle on the plate was the heavens. So the spoon would spin around on the plate, its handle always pointed south, and the soup bowl always to the north (they also had a version of it with a little wooden fish that would float in a bowl of water, a metal needle inside the fish making it point north at all times).
It was only after this that explorers and sailors thought, "Damn, that would be as useful as hell in terms of not getting lost and starving to death during expeditions!" and with that, the world was changed forever.
"Now that we aren't dying, does anyone else want to try that whole 'sodomy' thing we keep hearing about?"
Newton Conjured Gravity Out of Magic
You don't need us to spell out the historical importance of Isaac Newton. From his brain we got 300 years of guidance on how the universe works, specifically how gravity keeps us on the ground and keeps the planets in orbit. Without Newton we wouldn't have Einstein, space exploration, calculus, or insanely metal hair.
The Crazy Behind the Science
As we have previously mentioned, intellectual giant Isaac Newton was an occasional full-blown lunatic and a would-be wizard. He didn't just dabble with a bit of the black arts -- he wrote more about occult secrets during his life than he ever did on physics, and was thoroughly obsessed with finding the Philosopher's Stone.
Newton, seen here sciencing.
But it was actually Newton's willingness to embrace the spiritual and the occult that primed his mind for coming up with the law of universal gravitation. Newton was born in 1642, and by the time he was an adult, every major scientist of the day was trying to distance himself from the superstitious nonsense of the Middle Ages. The ages of alchemy and astrology were over, and every illness, fart, and Jesus-shaped birthmark could be explained rationally, even if the actual science wasn't known yet. So when it came to explaining the motions of the planets, there had to be a physical explanation that you could measure or see or taste.
So, in the same way that the stars couldn't shape the personal lives of humans on Earth, the rational minds said that the sun couldn't magically influence the planets a kabillion miles away. No more invisible magic, damn it! So tons of theories from respected scientists were put forward: Maybe the universe was filled with tiny particles moving the planets around, or maybe each planet was emitting waves, or space was actually filled with water and the planets were just bobbing around.
We've always been big proponents of the "drunken juggling giant" theory.
Newton wasn't bound by such notions. For him, the idea of an "invisible force" pushing the planets around was as natural as using the Bible to figure out when the world would end or learning how to change lead into gold. So when he tested all the other theories of how the planets moved and nothing checked out, Newton decided to strike out on his own with a new idea. Maybe a non-physical spirit was doing all the work. Here's what he came up with:
Only instead of calling what we'd eventually know as gravity a "spirit," he switched to "force" and gave gravity a name derived from the Latin word for weight. But he never could explain what it was that made gravity work. This made some contemporary scientists attack his theory with a vengeance, because to them it just seemed like magic.
But it wasn't magic, it was the work of somebody who was, once again, just crazy enough to stumble across the mind-blowing truth.
Related Reading: To keep your science and crazy mixed together, check out this article. You'll learn about mad science's earnest attempts to discover how sex affects the weather. Follow up with some exploding lakes and nuclear tanks, because nothing says "crazy" like a weapon of mass destruction. End your tour of technological madness by reading about the scientific experiments that just might end the human race.