New science scares us. Whenever something comes along, there'll be a few fearmongers who say this new discovery will be the death of us all. Really, the only time such people don't panic is when scientists tell them to panic, and sometimes, they'll panic then anyway. But we sure needn't have in the following cases ...
A popular sci-fi theory says that if we get around to perfecting nanomachines, they'll quickly consume everything else to make more nanomachines, turning all we love into endless gray goo. The Kurt Vonnegut book Cat's Cradle offered a similar scenario that was both completely ridiculous and yet somehow more plausible: What if some substance converted water to more of itself? It would proliferate till the planet is a wasteland. Well, not long after that book came out, we thought we'd found such a substance. Scientists, governments, the media -- everyone feared we were screwed.
The substance was dubbed "polywater." Though a lot like water, it didn't boil or freeze as easily. It was thicker. And when it touched water, it made more polywater. What would happen once this stuff got loose in the wild and started tainting every bit of water out there? It would kill every single human, warned scientists, and would indeed wipe out all life on Earth. The blue planet would become something closer to Venus. In fact, maybe Venus was originally much like Earth, but polywater changed it to what it is today.
The Cold War was bubbling at this time, so people were primed for paranoia of all kinds. And even if polywater wasn't going to doom us all, it was still surely a miracle substance and needed to be exploited. Maybe we could use it to convert seawater to fresh water, said some companies -- which must have come across, to people who feared chain reactions, as not the most responsible thing to try. The American and Soviet governments sought more investigations into polywater, whatever it was, each dreading that they were falling behind the other across a military research "polywater gap."
Then one day, a scientist happened to sweat into a test tube filled with water. The resulting solution acted much like polywater. Because it was polywater. Polywater was just water with sweat dissolved in it, or with other miscellaneous organic compounds. It didn't polymerize like people feared, and it only converted other water to polywater in that when you add impurities to something, it becomes a little impure too. The panic had been for nothing. Maybe the scientists would have recognized sweat more easily if they'd spent more of their lives playing sports instead of staring at books, the fucking nerds.
People have been moving horizontally at various speeds for thousands of years. But as for moving vertically, well, that's a different matter altogether, and eons of evolution offered us no preparation at all. So when elevators really became common in high-rises in the 20th century, people severely mistrusted this movement that was perpendicular to all that was natural. Occupants reported dizziness and nausea, and rather than dismiss these as psychological symptoms from doing something unfamiliar, scientists diagnosed them with what they called "elevator sickness."
via Wiki Commons
The problem, reasoned scientists, was that when the elevator stopped, your internal organs went on moving. So, when an ascending elevator reached its destination, your feet would stop instantly, but your heart and stomach would continue to rise and try to go up your throat. The best possible remedy for this, they advised, was to try to get all your organs to stop simultaneously. You should press against the elevator car's wall with your back, and if possible press your head against the ceiling.
The fleeing organ hypothesis wasn't at all valid -- your internal bits are packed in pretty tight and don't slosh around helplessly -- as people should have realized thanks to having had years of comfortably lying down on trains. But that wasn't the only fear our ancestors had about elevators. There was also this new syndrome called "claustrophobia," and if you got into an elevator with people, you could catch claustrophobia from them! In reality, yes, elevators are uncomfortable sports for claustrophobic people, but no, the disease is not contagious.
But other diseases are contagious, which led to the other fear: Packing people in such close quarters would be disastrous for hygiene and would lead to every kind of germ leaping from person to person. We eventually learned more about germ transmission and found that, outside of the occasional once-in-a-century pandemic, it's not actually that common for illnesses to leap right from one person's mouth and into another. Much more often, you'll pick up germs by touching something and then touching your face, which is why elevator button bacteria counts are a bigger deal than huddling close to strangers. And today, the biggest hygiene concern in elevators is the sheer volume of semen from all the anonymous sex there.
In the really old days, people looked up at comets and thought they were signs from the gods, and honestly, we don't blame them. Comets look weird, and if you don't have info on what they are, you still figure they have to be something. We have records of ancient Chinese astronomers sighting comets and making conclusions about whether heaven and Earth are in harmony, or of the Greeks and Romans thinking comets foretold war or death.
By the 16th century, though, we'd figured out roughly what comets were -- we were able to calculate their orbits and distance from Earth and knew they were a totally natural phenomenon. And so their association with calamities and magic ... absolutely continued, because humans are a superstitious bunch. Move forward even further into the future to the 20th century, and when we were due for another arrival of Halley's Comet, which people had been observing for millennia, scientists were even able to determine what the freakish thing was made of. So, did this knowledge put an end to comet panic once and for all?
Hell no. Because scientists were announcing that the comet contained cyanogen, a compound formed from cyanide. The comet was a flaming ball of poison! And it was coming right for us! The NY Times interviewed one astronomer who said the comet could end all life on Earth. Most people didn't go that far with their fear, but cities still told residents to stay inside and close their windows until the danger had passed.
We're not even getting into the people who again saw the comet as a religions portent, though those people totally existed. Even the ones who realized it was a natural event feared doom. People donned gas masks and swallowed anti-comet pills to protect themselves from the poison. Hucksters sold anti-comet protective umbrellas. People kept their children home from school, and they dismantled lightning rods, fearing the comet may strike those first. Then when the comet passed without hurting anyone, there was much rejoicing. It was because the clouds had blocked its effects, announced the city of Atlanta. Or maybe it was because there was never any chance of danger, who's to say?
When a baby dies in its crib, doctors often list the cause of death as SIDS. But despite being an authoritative-looking acronym, SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) isn't actually an explanation, just a formal declaration that in this case, we do not have an official explanation of any kind. Even in articles mocking the ignorance of the past, we have to admit there's a whole lot in science that we have yet to figure out.
But people need explanations, and when a baby died unexpectedly, blame used to fall on the most evil member of the household. So, if you happened to employ a cook previously convicted of murdering seven different babies, they may have been be responsible, but barring that, suspicion inevitably fell on the cat. The cat might have suffocated the baby when we weren't looking, people reasoned. This also explained why, post-death, cats always look so self-satisfied.
As proof, people pointed to how they sometimes saw cats lying on children's chests, while they never saw dogs doing the same thing. The cat's motive in all this, besides general service to the Dark One, was simple: cats like milk. And the breath of a baby smells like milk because that's all they eat. A cat, people thought, would be attracted to the scent and would attempt to "steal the baby's breath." Doctors occasionally listed cats as the cause of death for babies, and they advised parents to keep cats out of nurseries.
Some people also seriously theorized that cats really were killing babies deliberately, jealous of the attention they got. And even today, you get the occasional expert warning that cats are deadly, but that's only a concern in incredibly specific cases. Yeah, it's theoretically possible that a cat will sit on your baby's face, smothering it, but we haven't had a documented case of that since we stopped burning witches. Also, cats probably don't find your baby's milk spit that irresistible. Cats are lactose intolerant.
So far, all the fears we've looked at today have been widespread beliefs that took in vast numbers of people. We can't say the same for this next example, which could just be the ramblings of a single 19th-century kook. But you know what else they used to say was just the ramblings of a single 19th-century kook? The Gettysburg Address. Also, the barrier to entry for getting your views published and then reported upon worldwide was slightly higher back then, we're told.
By the 1880s, we had a system of telegraph cables spanning the world. This was a ludicrously impressive feat of engineering -- even today, the mind boggles at the thought of a single wire spanning the entire Atlantic Ocean -- and it also led to the somewhat reasonable assumption that all this tinkering with the nature of the Earth had to be having some kind of consequences even beyond what we were seeing. And so we got the following news article, written in Britain and reprinted in places like Australia, daring to ask what a continuous electric current along the entire globe could mean for planetary stability.
The Earth has poles, which are electrical in nature. An artificial global current, reasoned the article, could counter the Earth's natural one, causing the planet to switch to a new axis, one perpendicular to the existing one. Two new poles would form, and the areas formerly known as the north and south poles would become equatorial. The ice caps would melt, raising global sea levels. We would have to shift our centers of population, and that's if the human race even survives all the inevitable humungous earthquakes.
For evidence, well, the theory didn't have much, but the article did offer this super hard-to-argue-against conclusion: "Whether this theory prove correct or not, there cannot be a doubt that something has of late gone wrong with the atmospheric arrangements, and perhaps the telegraph wires are not wholly blameless in this matter." (And if you're snickering at the apocalyptic conclusions, well, that's exactly how climate change deniers feel.)