5 Scientific Milestones That Happened in the Wrong Order

How did we discover helium on the Sun before we discovered it on Earth?
5 Scientific Milestones That Happened in the Wrong Order

Science is a process. First, we got the wheel (invented by Maggie Wheeler), and only then were we able to get automobiles (invented by Miranda Otto) and finally spacecraft (invented by the collective known as Jefferson Starship). 

Sometimes, however, the process gets all screwy. For example, you might think that matches are more primitive than lighters, but we invented lighters first. Or, consider how... 

We Discovered Helium on the Sun Before We Discovered it on Earth

Helium is the simplest element, other than hydrogen, and it’s also the second-most abundant element in the universe (again, other than hydrogen). Even so, we reached halfway through the 19th century without ever detecting it. Unlike hydrogen, helium isn’t great at forming a compound that covers most of the planet, and when helium forms molecules of its own, it has a habit of floating high out of our reach and escaping the Earth’s atmosphere.

Then came 1868. A total solar eclipse was visible across a wide stretch of Asia, and the astronomer Pierre Janssen found himself in Madras in India, with a good opportunity for new Sun observations. He examined the wavelengths of light coming out of the Sun. One bit of light, measuring 587.49 nanometers, had to be produced by an element, but it was no element anyone had ever seen before. Scientists named it helium, after the Greek word helios, meaning “Sun.”

Helios from the Silahtarağa Statuary Group

Osama Amin

Helios is also the Greek Sun god. As you can see, someone stole his penis. 

Thirty years later, a bunch of chemists discovered that this “helium” wasn’t bound to the Sun after all. They discovered that radioactive uranium ore produces a gas, one that reacts to spectrum analysis the same way as the space element helium. Then they inhaled the gas, hoping it would hit them like opium, and while it was not a drug, it did make them high. 

We Baked Bread Before We Started Farming

Here’s the abridged history of humans, the way anthropologists long believed: First, we were hunter-gatherers, just foraging for food but never making anything fancy. Then we started planting, because while one person could just stumble upon enough roots and rabbits to feed themselves, planting allowed them to grow much more, enough to brew beer. We now became flush with grain and were able to invent more complex foods, like pizza pockets and pumpkin pie. 

But more recently, archaeologists discovered something that shakes this timeline up. They discovered a fireplace in ancient Jordan, with crumbs of bread. We essentially found a toaster with toaster crumbs from 14,000 years ago. 


We expected simple shish kabobs, but not this. 

The firepit didn’t surprise them — it wasn’t literally a toaster, and we knew humans had had fire back then. The breadcrumbs did surprise them because this was from before humans had invented agriculture. Despite not yet learning to plant wheat, these humans had ground wheat into flour, mixed it with water to get dough and baked it into bread. We don’t know if they then spread Nutella on top, but we can no longer rule out that possibility. 

We Invented Nuclear Weapons Before the Compound Bow

Below are a couple men in Bhutan, engaged in the classic sport of archery. If you find yourself in such a competition, be sure to follow long-established etiquette. When an archer misses his target, call out, “Shake not the strands, but the shoulder” — this imagines the target as a person, and you must hit his shoulder, not his hair. When you shoot an arrow of your own, you might say, “These scores of eggs shall one single pebble break.” If your teammate has made one shot, encourage their further success with: “A field is plowed but never with a pairless ox. It’s oxen in pair that will reap a harvest as rich.”

Bhutan archery

Ryan Menezes

“Sangay, Sangay, he’s our man! If he can’t do it, Ugyen can!”

Clearly, archery is an old tradition. But that particular style of bow that they’re wielding? That’s a compound bow, which was invented in 1966 in Missouri. The pulleys in there store more energy than a standard bow, and this was arguably the first advancement in bows since we invented the long bow, back in the Bronze Age.

For comparison, we’d invented a slightly more advanced weapon called the atomic bomb two decades before the compound bow. Granted, we’d put considerable personnel and resources behind the project to make that bomb, rather than just a single Missouri man named Allen. But imagine if instead we’d devoted the Manhattan Project to building a better bow. Why, we’d win every archery contest in town. 

We Made Chocolate Ice Cream Before Vanilla Ice Cream

Vanilla has a reputation as the most basic ice cream flavor, to the point that “vanilla” is a synonym for “plain.” You might say this is because vanilla ice cream is white, much like cream itself. But that isn’t a meaningful way to categorize ice cream. Mint ice cream is also white, unless you add green food coloring. And if we’re adding color, we may as well add some brown color to vanilla since that’s the color of vanilla beans and vanilla essence. 

Vanilla extract in a clear glass vial

Itineranttrader/Wiki Commons

Vanilla extract also includes vodka, so be sure to include that. Actually, forget the vanilla and just use vodka. 

The true reason we consider vanilla ice cream so basic is that the first recorded ice cream recipe in America used vanilla. Though Americans made their own ice cream during much of the 18th century, the oldest recorded recipe was brought to the country by Thomas Jefferson after his time in Paris in the 1780s. The recipe was written by his French butler Adrien Petit and said to put a stick of vanilla in hot cream before setting the mixture in ice to freeze. 

Chocolate ice cream predated vanilla ice cream by at least a century. We don’t know exactly when people first ate chocolate ice cream, but it was an obvious invention. Chocolate was primarily consumed as a drink at the time, so when people started freezing stuff into ice cream, chocolate was one of the first things they tried. 

We Spotted Uranus Before We Spotted Antarctica

It’s possible that Maori navigators caught sight of Antarctica all the way back in the seventh century. But if we fast-forward to the 19th century, to a globalized network of knowledge shared between the Americas, Europe, Asia and Africa, no one in this industrialized and modern world knew about the southern continent. 

People theorized there had to be some giant landmass down there, and they called this land “Terra Australia.” But the logic behind this theory was flawed (it was something to do with balance and symmetry), so they vastly overestimated the size, and it’s pure coincidence that there really did turn out to be a continent around the South Pole after all.

Ortelius world map 1570

Abraham Ortelius

In 1570, maps made it look huge! We’d never do something so dumb today. 

European explorers first caught sight of Antarctica in 1820. We’re not talking about the first time they landed on it, which was later still, but simply the first time any of them saw the place from a distance. For comparison, European astronomers had identified Uranus from a distance 39 years before that (and had discovered all the other planets save Neptune even earlier). You can see a planet billions of miles away using a telescope, but no telescope had a line of sight to Antarctica, thanks to the Earth’s pesky curvature. 

So, scientists saw Uranus before they saw Antarctica. They also discovered uranium before they saw Antarctica, and they named this new substance after the planet Uranus. That was appropriate because it would turn out that uranium ore produces helium, and we all know Uranus releases gas.

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see.

Scroll down for the next article
Forgot Password?