4 Scientists Who Only Added More Mystery to the World
There’s a bit of an erroneous belief that in order to become a famous scientist, you have to solve problems. Sure, it definitely helps. However, there’s another, arguably vastly more annoying way to get your name on an enduring thought. That’s to come up with a brand new intellectual mess for all the other scientists to have to try to figure out. Basically, if you don’t want to be known for solving something, come up with something so fucked up no one can solve it, and that can become your legacy.
Here are four scientists who only made things more confusing…
In 1801, Thomas Young disagreed with the popular belief that light was made up of particles. He believed that light was, in fact, a wave, and so he cooked up an experiment to prove it. He cut two slits in a sheet of metal and shone light through them. If light was a particle, two slits of light would show up on the other side. If it was instead a wave, the two beams would interfere with each other, and produce a sort of perforated looking single line. When Young got the second result, his theory was confirmed, light is a wave, signed, sealed and delivered, right?
Not quite. The experiment that Young performed is known as the double-slit experiment, and it turned out that as time went on, the results made less and less sense. Young set out to perform a simple experiment with light, and ended up creating what would be called “the central mystery of quantum mechanics.” Long after Young was dead and buried, scientists would discover that the actual answer to “is light a wave or a particle” turned out to be a fucking nightmare.
The real “what the hell” moment came when scientists became able to shoot individual photons, the smallest possible particle that makes up light, through Young’s good ol’ slits. When they fired them through, though, they still formed the interference pattern, so they were behaving like waves. Kinda weird. Well, you can’t form an interference pattern without interference, right? So they carefully fired single photons with enough time in between to eliminate them affecting each other. They, however, still got an interference pattern, which would suggest that each photon somehow knew that there were two slits, and went where it would go if all the photons had gone through at the same time. Very weird.
One theory they came up with to explain this is that the particles were actually passing through both slits simultaneously; so they set up a detector to show which slit each particle went through, it worked, they knew which door each subatomic lil’ fella picked, easy peasy lemon squeezy. Until they looked at the results of the sensor and saw two stripes and no interference pattern. Meaning the particles had started behaving like particles all of a sudden — as soon as they were being watched. Meaning the singular quality of being observed changed how they behaved. If you’re a combination of confused and slightly freaked out right now, well: welcome to quantum physics.
You might not know the delightfully named Fritz Zwicky, but you have heard the two words he coined in combination: dark matter. A two-word phrase that’s an absolute wolf in sheep’s clothing as far as being a real motherfucker of a proposition tucked into a seemingly straightforward two-word name. It’s also something that, even if the actual meaning behind it isn’t always front and center, is name-dropped pretty frequently even in mainstream fiction, due to it sounding metal as hell.
Dark matter, which is — keep in mind that as an art major, I am fighting for my life here — matter that contains mass but emits no light and therefore cannot be observed, was his best, confident attempt at making some very nonsensical measurements make sense. Zwicky first coined the term dunkle materie, or dark matter, to try to explain why some galaxy clusters he was observing were able to remain together and stable, instead of the galaxies involved firing off into the depths of the universe like sprays from a cosmic sprinkler. In order for them to stay together, there would need to be an incredible amount of mass involved, but he didn’t see any. So, he hypothesized, there must be a bunch of mass he couldn’t see. Pretty straightforward logical leap there, but it would end up kicking off decades of controversy and argument.
Nobody was arguing that the question “does extraterrestrial life exist” was too easy to answer. Yet, a man named Enrico Fermi decided to add another layer of unsettling confusion to that little gray layer cake, just in case anyone was feeling they had a good handle on it. Even worse, he reportedly rattled off his new addition casually at lunch, and every scientist since has been dealing with his bullshit. Bullshit that’s most commonly referred to as the “Fermi Paradox.”
It consists of a simple question with absolutely infuriating ramifications that fits neatly onto the end of general extraterrestrial curiosity. A popular argument especially at casual levels for the existence of aliens is that, given that vastness of the universe, there must be other intelligent life, possibly plenty of it. To which Fermi responds, “Well, why haven’t we heard from any of them?” If there was some sort of hyper intelligent, space-hopping alien species like the ones that show up in movies, they would have shown up by now.
Like any truly annoying question, it has multiple answers, none of which can be definitely declared correct. There could be other intelligent life, but incredibly, insurmountably far away. They could have visited us in the past and left no trace. Or, you know, they could just have decided that us wet little monkeys aren’t worth the trouble.
The Guy Who Invented Mystery Flavor Airheads
A bite of the delicious unknown! Diving into the world of the uncertain, mouth-first! We owe them a Nobel.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.