5 World-Renowned Experts Who Were Just Straight-Up Crackpots
Selling snake oil is hard work these days. It's no longer viable to just haul your wagon from town to town, staying ahead of your bad reputation long enough to bamboozle the yokels into buying turpentine-and-cocaine cocktails. Now there are journalists and politicians and internet detectives who can easily track your every move and expose every shady thing you've ever done, said, or tweeted. But every once in a while, some charming nutjob still manages to spin it all to their favor, recruiting millions to their side in the war on common sense. For example ...
Harry Matthews Tried To Sell A Fake Death Ray To The British Army
The term "mad scientist" gets thrown around a lot these days, but there's no better way to describe Harry Grindell Matthews. Matthews wore an eye patch and a long black coat, and lived in an isolated compound in the Welsh hills, guarded by electric fences and barbed wire. What was he doing up there? What else would a mad scientist do up there? He was building a death ray.
Spoiler alert: Death rays weren't invented in the 1920s. We know this because we're not currently working in the laser-mines of Immortal Emperor Matthews. But people were quick to trust ol' One-Eye McDeathray, mostly because he'd built an impressive crazy genius resume. He had invented a radio-controlled boat, a way to detect underwater submarines, and the "aerophone" -- an honest-to-god cellphone in 1909! He had also been the first man in the UK to transmit his voice via radio wave. So when Matthews claimed he had invented a powerful, invisible ray weapon in 1924 -- so powerful that its activation put his assistant into a coma for 24 hours -- people figured that it, much like Matthews himself, was just crazy enough to work.
Matthews had a well-honed demonstration too, including bits where he stopped a motorcycle engine and even killed a mouse at short range with his ray. With the right funding, the scientist claimed, he could make his death ray powerful enough to destroy airplane engines mid-flight, or even "annihilate" entire armies and cities. And because headlines with the words "death ray" in them sell about a bajillion copies, publications like The New York Times, Time, Le Matin, Popular Mechanics, and Popular Science Monthly all heralded the loony Englishman as the greatest genius to have ever lived. This, in turn, drew the attention of the British military, including Sir Winston Churchill himself, who wanted to see what this war-winning weapon could do.
At this point, the death ray blew up in Matthew's face. Figuratively speaking, of course, because the laser was too weak to cause any real damage. When the army asked for a demonstration, three of its scientists were so unimpressed that they stepped in front of the beam to show how pointless it was. Furious, Matthews left England and announced his intent to sell his death ray to a foreign -- maybe even enemy -- country. But no one wanted a laser that was barely powerful enough to scan a barcode.
A Surgeon Claims He Can Transplant Entire Human Heads
The world's first face transplant was a miracle of modern medicine. But that was all the way back in 2005. What's the hot new thing? Why, transplanting entire heads!
(Warning: If pictures of animals with the wrong amounts of heads will ruin your lunch, you might want to skip this one.)
Dr. Sergio Canavero is a graduate of Italy's University of Turin, where he presumably got his degree in Practical Frankensteining. A successful neurosurgeon, Dr. Canavero had worked in a hospital in Turin, but left due to creative differences like "He won't shut the hell up about chopping people's heads off." That's because Dr. Canavero had decided that he would become the first man to ever successfully transplant a human head onto a different body. How well is that going? Well, let's ask his patients:
After publishing dozens of research papers, Canavero and his decapitation-happy team started the HEAVEN ("head anastomosis venture") project by slappin' two heads on one mouse, as well as swapping a monkey head without reattaching the spinal cord. Then, in 2017 he finally announced they had successfully transplanted a head between two human ... cadavers. Surely a feat any of us could achieve with access to a morgue, a bone saw, and a strong stomach.
Despite none of his findings being properly vetted or replicated, and being called an "immoral shyster" with "no proven science to back up his hype" who deserves only "contempt and condemnation," the PR-savvy Canavero managed to draw a lot of media interest, especially after he obtained a willing, living human volunteer to get the HEAVEN treatment (one way or the other). But that unfortunate soul will have to wait while the good doctor is pleading with Mark Zuckerberg and anyone else high on cash and low on empathy to fund this mostly well-meaning murder.
Andrea Rossi Claims To Have Invented Impossible Green Energy -- Twice
Garret Morgan invented both the traffic light and the gas mask. Tesla invented both alternating current and the induction motor. Leonardo da Vinci invented both the helicopter and the perfect five-alarm chili recipe. Great inventors have at least two marvels under their belt. To that list you can now add Andrea Rossi, but only if you don't mind that none of his world-changing inventions actually work.
In the 1980s, Rossi gained fame in Italy for a groundbreaking invention: a machine able to process garbage and industrial waste, then turn it into oil. In reality, the only oil he was selling was of the snake variety. Instead of healing the world, Rossi had been hiding all the toxic waste in leaky storage tanks, and when officials finally found him out, it cost the Italian government about $50 million to clean up 77,000 tons of toxic mess. But despite being under investigation for environmental crimes, Rossi didn't do any time for it, mostly because he was already in jail on unrelated gold-smuggling charges.
You'd think that being exposed as a waste-dumping gold smuggler would put a dent in your credibility as a scientist, but no! After lying low (being jailed) for a while, and then getting a shiny new engineering degree (from an American diploma mill), Rossi burst back on the scene in 2011, claiming he had cracked the Philosopher's Stone of modern science: cold fusion. He unveiled his energy catalyzer, or E-Cat, which appeared to generate power from thin air.
How does it work? Nobody knows! Like a shitty Vegas magician, Rossi has adamantly refused to let anyone see the internal workings of his invention, and only allows for demonstrations in carefully controlled environments. The fact that one Australian engineer has stated that the excess power his machines appear to create could easily be faked with some creative wiring is probably a coincidence.
Rossi claimed that by 2013, he'd produce millions of E-Cats, which would each power an entire household while only being about the size of a MacBook. We guess ours got lost in the mail. This totally unproven tech has gotten a lot of attention from heavy-hitters such as Phys.org, Forbes, Scientific American, and, disappointingly, NASA.
Rossi even managed to close a deal with the newly formed Industrial Heat LLC (definitely not a shell corporation), to perform a conclusive third-party test to confirm his genius. And all he asked for the privilege was $100 million. He managed to cash in $11.5 million up front, but Industrial Heat refused to pay him the rest after realizing they had "worked for over three years to substantiate the results claimed by Mr. Rossi from the E-Cat technology -- all without success." Without success? It sure seemed that Rossi achieved exactly what he set out to do: become rich by generating energy (that is, buzz) out of thin air.
Congress Nearly Fell For A Fake Perpetual Motion Machine
In the early 1980s, some goofball named Joseph Newman claimed to have invented a machine that could produce infinite, clean, free energy. In his kitchen. His application for a patent was quickly rejected, but what Newman lacked in scientific credentials, he made up for with pizzazz. After a few publicity blitzes, his nonsense had become so widely accepted that the U.S. government decided they wanted in on the action after all.
Republican senators Thad Cochran and Trent Lott drafted bills to force the Patent Office to issue a "pioneering patent" for the "unlimited source of energy." Newman would have been set for life if it hadn't been for one other pesky senator: former astronaut and engineer John Glenn. Glenn easily demolished Newman's claims, leaving him "speechless," and the inventor slunk back into obscurity.
A Famous Archaeologist Fooled Japan With Made-Up Discoveries For Decades
Shinichi Fujimura was a self-taught archaeologist who made some groundbreaking discoveries (technically all archaeological discoveries are groundbreaking, but you get the idea). He captivated the Japanese public, who gave him the nickname "The Hands of God" for his amazing -- some would say wildly implausible -- gift for unearthing miraculous finds on every single dig he went to.
But as unqualified as Fujimura was, and as unbelievable his finds were, Japan's overly polite scientific community wasn't able to properly fight back. A big part of that was that Fujimura's discoveries were crazy popular with the masses, and it's not hard to see why. He claimed that he had found man-made stone artifacts dating back 700,000 years, meaning the Japanese had entered the Stone Age roughly half a million years before the rest of the world. That's a pretty amazing head start, and a damning case that The Flintstones was blatantly whitewashing Asian prehistory.
Also not helping was the fact that Japan's scientific circles were about as hot on public criticism as they were on peer review -- that is to say, not at all. So although many actual experts personally believed Fujimura was a bag of hot air held together by a thin veneer of bullshit, few were willing to challenge him on record. But you know who has no problems making sweeping judgments of careful and nuanced scientific findings? Why, the media of course!
All along, journalists were watching the celebrity archaeologist like a hawk. And in 2000, they were finally able to catch old "God's Hands" burying fake artifacts for his team to find later. Because of his celebrity status, he had been present in some capacity at around 180 digs over the years, and everything found on any of those sites was now called into question. It set back an entire country's archaeology studies for decades. Oh hey, we've just discovered something interesting ourselves: Shinichi Fujimura sounds like kind of an asshole.
Taylor Daine is an Indianapolis-based writer and comedian who makes bad tweets at @turtledovejones.
E. Reid Ross has a couple books, Nature is the Worst: 500 reasons you'll never want to go outside again and Canadabis: The Canadian Weed Reader, both available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
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