Scientific theories that turned out to be wrong
Science is all about trial and error. When one theory, once thought to be fact, is proven wrong by a second, the latter replaces the former as the new fact. Each time, scientists gain a greater understanding of the subject. But even the greatest scientists are wrong sometimes. This article looks at some scientific theories that turned out to be incorrect, who came up with them and who disproved them.
This is not the fictional planet Star Trek character Spock hailed from but a mysterious body that was observed to orbit the sun between Mercury and Venus. The planet was first hypothesized by French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier when explaining Mercury’s unusual orbit. Le Verrier had recently discovered Neptune and as a result, his theory held some weight in astronomy. For the remainder of his life, other scientists would claim to have observed the planet. It was only after his death, when Einstein’s theory of relativity superseded his theory of Mercury’s strange orbit, that Le Verrier’s Vulcan was disregarded by the scientists.
Incorrect scientific theories are often formed from a mixture of understanding and misunderstanding. The expanding Earth theory is a perfect example of this. Charles Darwin was the first to think that the Earth might have been growing in size. This theory was to explain the shifting continents and formations of mountains. It made sense in theory and even Nikola Tesla bought the idea. Here, we can see two revered historical minds who had missed the mark. Not that this would deter either of them. Failure, to paraphrase Elon Musk, is a result of innovation. The theory would be later scrapped when tectonic movement theory was conceived and proved.
In the early 19th century, it was widely accepted that there were ‘canals’ or waterways on Mars. They were first observed and documented by Italian astronomer, Giovanni Schiaparelli, who had some interesting theories as to their creation. After publishing a diagram of his findings, Schiaparelli concluded that these canals were a large and complex irrigation system built by some intelligent, alien life. In the early 20th century, better telescopes and imaging revealed that the canals Schiaparelli observed were an optical illusion. Strong winds were sweeping dust across the planet’s surface, creating the illusion of moving water.
The advantage of science over belief is that theories can be revised. Ricky Gervais, a famous atheist, comedian, and television writer argued this point on an American talk show with a religious host. He concluded that if you were to destroy every copy of the bible or other religious text, it would never be written the same way again. However, if you were to destroy every scientific fact they would all eventually return because the same teste would provide the same results. This means that as science progresses, more and more theories will be disproven and replaced, as they have in the past.