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7 Times Scientists Threw Shade On Now Widely Accepted Ideas

Relativity? "Nothing more than an accumulation of artificial formulas based on arbitrary definitions."

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1. Thomas Jefferson was not down with Antoine Lavoisier's totally valid idea of how chemicals should be named.

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Antoine Lavoisier is considered to be the father of modern chemistry — most famous, perhaps, for his role in naming and describing oxygen and his related theories about combustion. These advances led him to propose a new chemical naming system.

His new system was based on 55 substances he categorized as elements because he believed they could not be broken down into simpler substances. It forms the basis for how we name chemicals today. Thomas Jefferson, a noted scientist as well as a statesman, objected to the system, declaring it premature. His objection was that organizing a system based on Lavoisier's elements (such as oxygen) would be a waste of time should his work end up being debunked.

So far, oxygen still seems to be a thing.

Source: Letter to Rev. James Madison (Paris, 1788).

2. Richard Owen, a natural historian who was well-known during his time, thought Darwin's evolution was bunk.

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Richard Owen was well-known as both a natural historian and a difficult person to work with. He made notable advances in the field of taxonomy and anatomy (even working with specimens Darwin brought back from his expedition on The Beagle). In addition, he was a science adviser to the British Government and taught natural history to Queen Victoria’s children.

Known to be a jealous and vindictive individual, he despised Darwin and, in general, opposed his theory of evolution by natural selection. According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology, “[Owen's] pronouncements on the subject of evolution were puzzling and contradictory; in later years he alternately denied its validity, professed ignorance on the matter, and claimed to have come up with the idea himself almost ten years before Darwin.”

With respect to Owen, Darwin himself said: “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred and contempt to the last days of my life.”

Source: Quote reprinted in Popular Science, December 1901.


3. R. T. Chamberlain, an editor of the Journal of Geology, was totally wrong about the idea that would eventually become plate tectonics.

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In 1912, Alfred Wegener proposed an idea that became the starting point for the modern theory of plate tectonics. Wegener’s idea, dubbed “continental drift,” attempted to explain why so many of the continents seemed to fit together like puzzle pieces and why fossils of identical plants and animals could be found on opposite sides of the Atlantic. His conclusion was that the continents are not fixed, and must drift over time.

But the idea failed to gain acceptance in his lifetime. It flew in the face of prevailing geologic wisdom, and he didn’t have a mechanism to explain how it happened. It wasn’t until J. Tuzzo Wilson published a landmark paper laying out evidence that seafloor spreading has pushed apart continental landmasses that the idea took hold. This concept is now known as plate tectonics.

Rollin Chamberlain was a noted geologist of his time. He was a professor of geology at the University of Chicago and served as editor of the Journal of Geology. He died in 1948, 18 years before Wilson’s paper was published and the field of geology was changed forever.

Source: Some of the objections to Wegener's theory. In Theory of Continental

Drift: A Symposium, pp. 83-87. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

4. James Hutton was a great geologist, but the dude didn't think that species ever went extinct.

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Hutton was no lightweight. He is considered by many to be the father of modern geology. He originated the theory of uniformitarianism, a central concept to the discipline. Uniformitarianism is, broadly speaking, the idea that processes in effect today have always been in effect, sometimes stated as "the present is the key to the past."

But he also thought that species of all times are alive now and always have and will be around in the future. That might have been because in his time the notion of extinction fell under a group of theories called "catastrophism," which uniformitarianism was in direct opposition to. Catastrophism speculated that Earth’s history has been punctuated with catastrophic events powered by processes not in effect today. While the general idea of catastrophism is no longer accepted, the idea of catastrophic events (mass extinctions, impact events, etc.) is now consistent with modern uniformitarianism.

Source: “Theory of the Earth, Volume 1." 1795.

5. Jean André de Luc, a well-respected geologist and meteorologist, thought Earth was real young. Spoiler: Earth is real old.

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Jean André de Luc was a well-respected geologist and meteorologist as well as an important figure in the development of many measuring instruments.

Later in his career, he became deeply involved in reconciling theology and natural history. He was adamant that there were only two periods of Earth history: the "creation" period and the current period. According to him, the change between those two periods happened recently enough that its memory is "still ... preserved among men." He pretty much argued that the people who remembered the Earth's creation hadn't actually died that long ago.

Source: Jean André de Luc, 1809. An Elementary Treatise on Geology.

6. Nobel Laureate Johannes Stark thought Einstein's relativity was a pretty weak theory.

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Sure, Johannes Stark was a Nobel laureate. He got the award in 1919 for “his discovery of the Doppler effect in canal rays and the splitting of spectral lines in electric fields” after all. But he was also a hardcore Nazi. While his criticism of Einstein’s relativity was veiled in scientific language, in reality it was fueled by profound anti-Semitism.

He joined the Nazi party and, along with fellow Nobel laureate Philipp Lenard, was a proponent of "Deutsche Physik" (German Physics), a movement that accused the English of stealing German ideas, rejected “Jewish physics,” and referred to Einstein’s relativity as “the Jewish fraud.”

Source: Phillip Lenard: An Aryan Scientist. Speech at the inauguration of the Philipp Lenard Institute in Heidelberg, Dec. 13, 1935. From Physics and National Socialism: An Anthology of Primary Sources.

7. Almost every biologist in the 1970s thought Lynn Margulis' idea about how cells evolved was crazy.

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Lynn Margulis was the first scientist to make an evidence-based argument for endosymbiosis. Endosymbiosis is the idea that a variety of organelles in eukaryotic cells actually came from once independent prokaryotic organisms.

The idea was ridiculed at first. Her paper “On the Origin of Mitosing Cells," one of the most significant in the history of science, was rejected by at least 15 publications before finally being published.

The theory is now widely accepted. (Margulis was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Clinton.) The tipping point was found in evidence demonstrating that some organelles (mitochondria and chloroplasts) were distinct genetically from the other parts of a cell. That paper came out in 1978, six years after the Raff and Mahler paper quoted above.

Source: Science, Vol 177, 1972.

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