18 Scientists and Inventors That Almost Got It Right
The stories of the brains who just couldn't quite make it.
Even the most brilliant scientists and thinkers — Einstein, Pauling, and Copernicus — get shit wrong. Asking far-out questions and not getting answers are a fundamental part of progress, a better understanding of the world, and ultimately, the right answer, or as Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote, “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.” At Inverse, we value asking questions, even if the answer, invention, or theory is as wrong as can be. Here’s a list of scientists and inventors that were almost right. These speed bumps — in some cases, flat-out failures — are in no particular order.
18. Robert Metcalfe
Engineer and venture capitalist Robert Metcalfe is most famously known for being the inventor of Ethernet. You might think of the Ethernet as that backup thing you use when your wi-fi fails you, but in 1973 it was a revolutionary way to allow several computing devices to communicate with other people using radio-like signals using an antenna cable. Ethernet is still one of the most popular ways to set up a local area network (LAN) by facilitating the data transfer between computers. Metcalfe later set up 3Com in 1979 and proceeded to make billions of dollar.
But he got one big thing wrong. In 1995 Metcalfe predicted that the next year — 1996 — would spell virtual doomsday, predicting the “Internet will go spectacularly supernova” and “catastrophically collapse.” He was a good sport about being wrong, however: In 1998, when it was obvious that his prediction didn’t come true, he threw the column with his original statement into a blender before proceeding to literally eat his words. Metcalfe now apparently raises rare pigs with his wife.
17. Albert Einstein
Even the world’s most legendary physicist didn’t get everything right. Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity suggested that the universe had a fixed size — hence, the term “static universe” — but for this to make sense, he had to introduce a variable known as the cosmological constant to his equations to balance out the effects of gravity. Left unchecked, the force of gravity on ordinary matter would have caused the universe to collapse in on itself. Even as his contemporaries began to accept that the universe was constantly expanding, Einstein fought for his theory. It wasn’t until 1931, when he teamed up with the Dutch theoretical physicist Willem de Sitter, that he finally ditched his idea — his “biggest blunder” in favor of a new, ever-expanding cosmological model.
16. Robert Heuter and the Mote Marine Research Facility
We live in an era when there are no more white spaces on the map, no place left we can’t locate. So it makes sense that one of the most intriguing and puzzling mysteries for marine biologists was that no one had ever been able to figure out where whale sharks disappeared to give birth. Every attempt to observe or follow the mating or pupping of the whale shark results in the largest known fish falling off the map. A nine-year study by Robert Hueter and the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory invested tremendous resources in the effort. They eventually succeeded in tagging and tracking a pregnant female on her way to give birth all around the equator — that is until the tag fell off. And to this day, we have no idea where she went.
15. Foster-Milburn Company
In the 1940s, the Foster-Milburn Company marketed lithium salt as a healthy, low-sodium alternative to table salt for people with congestive heart failure. Turns out consuming lithium in high quantities isn’t the best idea; this preceded lithium’s use in psychiatry for treating bipolar disorder, which at the time had no known treatment. Several people died, and the result was a PR nightmare. The sale of lithium was banned in the United States in 1949. Shortly after, however, researchers in Australia and Denmark began to explore the substance’s implications for psychiatry. It became the most well-known and widely used drug in its field for decades after and remains dominant today.
14. Gunpei Yokoi and Nintendo
Nintendo was ahead of the VR curve in 1995 when the company released Virtual Boy, a console that is a cross between an Oculus Rift and an old school View Master. It was the pet project of Gunpei Yokoi, an executive at the company who delayed retirement to pursue the idea after teaming up with American entrepreneurs who had developed a new VR screen. The release was heralded as a spectacular commercial failure, and the device was discontinued less than a year after its release. The available games offered a very simple, monochrome 3D experience, and apparently it wasn’t enough to convince mainstream consumers to shell out the $179. Nintendo is understandably shy to try virtual reality again; the company will release another product when it has something accessible to the masses both in terms of experience and price, it says.
13. Claus Scholz
Austrian inventor Claus Scholz envisioned a world in which robots would take over mundane household tasks. His actual designs, however, fell a little short of the mark. Between the late 1950s and early 1970s, he built a series of creepy AF humanoid bots that could pour tea, sweep the floor, and answer the telephone. Well, that last one was a little tricky — while the bot could lift the receiver and record the speaker’s voice, it couldn’t speak itself, like a 100-pound answering machine without the instructions to leave a message after the beep. While Scholz was prescient in his visions for the future, he failed to recognize that just because a robot fills the role of a servant doesn’t mean it has to take the form of one.
12. Henry Smolinski
Every kid dreams of owning a flying car. But in the early 1970s, Henry Smolinski actually built one. The aviator and inventor was content with welding the back end and wings of a Cessna onto a Ford Pinto. He called it the AVE Mizar. Unfortunately, the result was a contraption with no more functionality than a small airplane without the ability to drive down a highway (wingspan). It also turned out to be a deathtrap. On a test flight in 1973, the support under the right wing fell apart and the whole thing came down in a fiery crash. Smolinski, who was at the controls, and his vice president and co-pilot, Harold Blake, died. The investigation found that the flying machine was not powerful enough to support its considerable weight and was poorly welded together.
11. J.J. Thomson
The father of the electron wasn’t exactly sure what to do with it. British physicist J.J. Thomson, who discovered the negatively charged subatomic particle (history’s first) in 1897 tried to fit it into his theory of atomic structure, which was — and still is — famously known as the “plum pudding” model of the atom. Old J.J. knew that while electrons are negative, the overall charge of an atom is neutral, so he concluded that there was a positive charge canceling out all of the subatomic minuses. His final model, which involved electrons randomly studded into a positively charged sphere, like plums into a Christmas pudding, was disproven once Ernest Rutherford located the nucleus, but that discovery would never have happened without Thomson’s early guess.
10. Urbain Jean Joseph le Verrier
Ninety years before Star Trek, there was Vulcan. In 1855, renowned astronomer Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier started studying the motion of the planets and discovered a discrepancy in the orbit of Mercury around the Sun. Mercury traveled around the Sun in an ellipse that shifted slightly over time. He eventually decided that the only explanation for this was a small planet between Mercury and the Sun. He named the planet Vulcan and spent years looking for it during eclipses. After his death, Einstein’s general theory of relativity explained the discrepancy in Mercury’s orbit. Despite being wrong about Mercury, Le Verrier successfully predicted the existence of Neptune based on irregularities in the orbit of Uranus.
9. Paul R. Ehrlich
In 1968 Stanford biologist — and current president of the university’s Center for Conservation — Paul Ehrlich sold millions of books and freaked everyone out when he declared that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death in the 1970s. Ehrlich’s frightening predictions were that 65 million Americans would starve, India was pretty much screwed, and English would not exist by the year 2000. He figured that there was little to no chance the world would have the carrying capacity for a rapidly expanding population. We know now that Ehrlich was almost correct in prediction that the world’s population would be 7 billion by 2011 (he was six years off), but thanks to advancements in agricultural technology, we certainly (and thankfully) haven’t experienced the sort of toll he imagined. Ehrlich isn’t trying to distance himself from his missed prediction today, though: In 2015 he told the New York Times that his goal was to raise awareness of a menace and he did just that.
8. Franz Joseph Gall
Before it was the album that introduced The Roots to the mainstream, Phrenology was a precursor to modern neuroscience — specifically studying how the shape and topography of a person’s skull could provide a window into personality and mental capacity. Franz Joseph Gall, an 18th century neuroanatomist is credited with founding this pseudo-science. He called it cranioscopy, and surmised through observations and the dissection of over 100 brains during his career that the brain is organized into 27 sections, or “faculties”: love for poetry, mechanical abilities, and even predilection towards murder could be observed in a person’s skull shape. Obviously, Gall was way off the mark, and he struggled to gain acceptance in his own time too, both among the faithful and his peers. He had a fan following of sorts too, with his theories gaining acceptance in 19th century England and America, used as evidence to justify racial oppression.
7. Girolamo Fracastoro
It’s not known whether his “spores” were chemically based or living entities themselves, but Girolamo Fracastoro is credited with being the first person to postulate that disease is caused by tiny, unseen particles. In the 1500s, the dominant hypothesis of disease, the miasmatic theory was that illness was caused by “bad air.” Fracastoro’s work De Contagione et Contagiosis Morbis recognized that inanimate objects could be vectors for infection without being the cause and that the “spores,” carried on things like clothes or linens, were the real culprit for illness. It would be another 300 years before the work of Louis Pasteur found Fracastoro’s “spores” under a microscope and gave rise to germ theory. Fun fact: The most famous portrait of the Italian scholar is believed to be a work by Titian and it’s thought to have been commissioned in exchange for Fracastoro’s treatment of the famous painter’s syphilis.
6. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
In 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss psychologist, wrote On Death and Dying based on observations she made while working at the University of Chicago Medical School hospice. She wrote the book to bring legitimacy to a field that had been greatly ignored by her profession: death and how people cope with it. The observations she recorded in her book attempted to describe what people facing their own death went through. The Five Stages — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — were so well liked by Kübler-Ross’s colleagues and struck such a chord that her model was quickly adapted for the terminally ill and grief-stricken. The model became so popular that in spite of not being Kübler-Ross’s original intent (and largely disproven by researchers in the field since), it’s still used and taught as a therapy for those who’ve experienced loss.
Before Copernicus, most people believed the Earth was the center of everything. Copernicus tried to fix this view but instead made another error by placing the sun at the “center of the universe.” Obviously, this was also not correct, as there is no discernable “center’ of the universe, but if we’re thinking of Copernicus’s universe as our “Solar System,” in a way, he almost got everything right.
4. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck
A century before Charles Darwin published his game-changing On the Origin of Species, the French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck became the first scientist to propose a complete evolutionary theory. He was, in retrospect, wrong. But he deserves points for trying. In Lamarckian evolution — occasionally referred to as the theory of transformation — individuals change in response to their environment and pass on those traits to their offspring. Giraffes, for example, might have started off horse-like, stretching their necks out over the course of evolutionary history to reach leaves on tall trees. Though Darwin later showed that genetics, not physical adaptations, were passed on from parents to kids, Lamarck deserves credit for defying the long-held belief that life was fixed since creation.
3. Lew Allen/NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope has been one of the most important space exploration instruments. At a hefty initial cost of $1.5 billion to build and launch, you would think NASA’s engineers would have quintuple checked everything to make sure the telescope wasn’t going to have any problems peering off into the vastness of space. But alas, you’d be wrong. After launching Hubble in April of 1990, NASA noticed a big problem almost immediately when it tried to start using the telescope to make observations. After some analysis, it was clear Hubble’s main mirror was malfunctioning due to a flaw just 1/50th the thickness of a piece of paper. A repair mission didn’t occur for another three years. A commission later determined that the mirrors manufacturer, Perkin-Elmer, didn’t review the construction of the mirror as it should have. NASA itself was also scrutinized for basically putting all their Hubble eggs into the basket of a single mirror’s performance.
####2. Lord Kelvin
William Thompson, better known as Lord Kelvin, is kind of a big deal. His contributions to the field of of thermodynamics were critical to pretty much all facets of science. I mean, the kelvin is named after him! But Kelvin wasn’t infallible. He dabbled in geology, but it turns out he sucked at it, especially when it came to estimating the age of the Earth. See, as opposed to many other geologists of the 19th century, Kelvin believed Earth hadn’t been around since the dawn of time. He thought the planet had a specific age to it. So far, so good. Unfortunately, Kelvin wrongly assumed he could estimate this age using previous calculations of heat transfer from within the Earth’s core and between the sun and the earth. His modeling — lacking numbers derived from plate tectonics, nuclear fusion related to heat from the sun, and other factors — yielded an Earthly age of 20 to 100 million years. The real age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years, so to his credit, he was about 0.44 to 2.22 percent right.
1. Linus Pauling
Pauling will go down as one of the most important biochemists of the 20th century — having the distinction of being the only person to be awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes (for chemistry in 1954, and the Peace Prize in 1962). But he wasn’t without his share of dubious ideas, such as his strange obsession with promoting vitamin C as a life-changing supplement. Pauling’s moment came when he tried to determine the structural model of DNA. As opposed to the double-helix structure that James Watson and Francis Crick correctly deduced, Pauling predicted a three-strand monstrosity that just didn’t follow some of the most fundamental principles of chemistry. He lacked the data Watson and Crick had access to even though he had ample time and resources to take a look at those same images. His achievements are far too great and numerous to sully his legacy, but Pauling remains a cautionary tale about what happens when you don’t cover all your bases.