Myths within science

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Mythology of science is just like any other myth, folktale, or urban legend, but it's usually about scientific discoveries or inventions, or famous scientists. Some have a limited basis in fact, some are "lies to children", and some are pure invention or legend. Mostly, they can be entertaining or useful in helping science become memorable, but this doesn't make such stories true.

Well known myths[edit]

Several apocryphal examples are presented below:

  • Isaac Newton was sitting under a tree when an apple fell on his head. The action of the apple prompted him to suddenly devise his theories on gravity! While it was highly unlikely that a quick knock to the head immediately inserted classical mechanics into Newton's head, it's likely that he did observe many objects falling and this would have led him and others to ponder the nature of gravity. Newton himself only said that "the notion of gravity was occasioned by the fall of an apple" — although he only started telling this story in later life, and his development of gravitational theory started after discussions with Edmond Halley, almost 20 years after he describes the apple trees of his family home.[1] The original account that led to the "apple on the head" story is William Stukeley's 1752 biography of Newton.[2] It is worth noting that scientists, artists, authors, etc., often describe a moment of awareness (i.e., the eureka moment) after long periods of passive contemplation, working on other projects, or even daydreaming about something totally unrelated.[3] Scholars studying creativity say it is an instant when existing pathways make a sudden new connection between two previously unrelated instances, ideas, or memories. Hence the commonality of the "eureka" stories.
Galileo! Galileo! Galileo figaro, magnific-o-o-o-o…
  • A similar story states that Galileo climbed the Leaning Tower of Pisa to drop objects. Noting that they hit the ground at the same time regardless of their mass (an experiment famously repeated on the Moon with a feather and a hammer) was one of the most important observations of gravity in action. The location of the experiment is likely to be wrong, added to only give it some extra drama and prominence. The experiment that best demonstrates this effect of gravity is done, not with falling objects, but with objects rolled down an incline. New evidence seems to open the possibility that this experiment was a thought experiment and not an empirical one.[4]
  • Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic to prove that the Earth was round, not flat. The story is often embellished further; that it was a bet with the Queen of Spain or that his crew was mutinous, being convinced they were going to fall off the edge of the Earth. This is almost completely fabricated; the idea that prior to Columbus everyone thought the Earth was flat has no basis in reality. Columbus, like all educated Europeans throughout the Middle Ages, knew that the world was spherical. His journey was to find a sea trade route to Asia, as the land route from East Asia to Europe — which supplied Europe with extremely valuable silk, spices, and other luxury goods — had been cut during the breakup of the Mongol Khanate and the Muslim capture of Constantinople. Columbus did face objections, but they were based on the distance he would have to sail to reach East Asia, and the fear that his crew would run out of food before they reached Japan or China. Not the fear of falling off the edge of the world. The myth of the "Flat Earth" is a 19th-century construct, largely derived from Washington Irving's pseudohistory, and exacerbated in the late 1800s in an effort to argue that the Catholic Church was wrong to refute evolution, as the Church had (so the story claims) been wrong in previous teaching. As the tale goes, the Church had taught that the world was flat, then science proved them wrong — hence the Church teaching that evolution is wrong, is doomed to failure. A nice tale, but a complete fabrication. By Columbus' time, even the Church accepted the idea of a spherical Earth. Curiously, while the secular and religious elite of the Middle Ages knew the Earth to be spherical, the Bible does imply (1 Samuel 2:8, Matthew 4:8) that the world is flat. An even more confused idea is that Columbus succeeded in proving the world to be round.[5]
  • Erwin Schrödinger derived his famous equation that underpins quantum mechanics while on a Christmas break with his mistress. While it's not known if this is entirely true (or if he succeeded in keeping her happy while working on the math), having two women in his life did apparently play havoc with his academic positions, including one at Oxford.
  • Benjamin Franklin discovered the nature of lightning by flying a kite in a thunderstorm. Back in Franklin's day, it wasn't entirely known what lightning was, and such an experiment would have concluded the electrical nature of lightning. It is unlikely that he flew the kite as popularly described as such an act would be incredibly dangerous and Franklin was aware of this. Instead, the kite was likely to have been flown before the storm was in full swing, so that he could detect the electrical charges before they reached the dangerous levels required for a lightning bolt to strike.
  • During the development of quantum mechanics, an apparently heated debate on the subject — or possibly one of the first lectures proposing it, possibly by Schrödinger — caused Albert Einstein to declare that "God does not play dice!" — and for Niels Bohr to respond "Don't you tell God what to do!". Although it's probably true that all these people were in a room together at some point (indeed, here they are, and Bohr and Einstein certainly debated frequently and publicly[6]) the famous quote "God does not play dice", is a paraphrase of one of Einstein's letters to Max Born, "Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the 'old one'. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice."[7]
  • Alan Turing, one of the contenders for the title "Father of the Computer" committed suicide by taking a bite out of an apple laced with cyanide — this image of the apple is supposedly the inspiration behind the logo of Apple Inc. It's not known for certain that it was the apple which contained the cyanide (it was never tested for the substance) but the famous logo lighting up thousands of MacBooks around the world is most likely an homage to Newton, given that the original Apple logo was a drawing of Newton sitting under a tree, and given that Apple's very first embedded architecture (prior to the iPod-Phone-Pad) was codenamed "Newton". Although strictly this is not a story of scientific discovery, Turing's work and life was one of the most important in modern science and technology and Turing's suicide was one of the tragic results of 1950s attitudes towards his homosexuality. (Ironically all apples contain amygdalin, which metabolises in the body to form hydrogen cyanide — though you'd need to be a dedicated apple-seed-eater to come to any harm.[8])

Unbelievably true[edit]

LSD — its effects were discovered by accident and the man responsible seemed to spend the rest of his life pretty damn high.

There are a few stories that are, incredibly, true. These are almost invariably from more modern times where recording is slightly more reliable. Whether these will descend into the realm of myth in the coming centuries, however, is an open question.

  • The original diagnosis for a gastric ulcer was stress. Robin Warren and Barry Marshall, two doctors from Australia (which probably explains everything), had a different hypothesis, that the main cause was bacterial infection. Having isolated the species responsible (Helicobacter pylori), they decided to test their hypothesis in the only ethical — and legal — manner. Marshall took a dose himself and developed the symptoms of a gastric ulcer. Their case suitably proven, the presenters at the conference where they planned to present their findings wouldn't allow them to deliver it; they actually had to come up with a fake submission and then revert to their original presentation during the conference itself to get it out to the public. For this, the two were awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2005. There is one minor myth circulating about this story although it's not officially recorded: that the antibiotic administered didn't initially work as the bacteria bury themselves into the stomach wall and Dr. Marshall had to endure the symptoms for far longer than he predicted.
  • Albert Hofmann is well known as the first person who made LSD. And it is indeed true that he first experienced the effects of it accidentally — absorbing some through his fingertips. He then decided to repeat the experiment with what was later discovered to be >10 times higher (250 µg) than the threshold dose (20 µg) — he had initially believed that a psychoactive dose could not possibly be much lower than 250 µg. Hoffman spent most of his career following this campaigning to get LSD legalised and accepted throughout the world.[9]
  • Roy Plunkett discovered Teflon accidentally when trying to synthesize a new refrigerant from perfluoroethylene, a gas. He and his co-worker thought they had a defective tank when no gas came out of the cylinder, when in fact it contained a white powdery solid coating its interior (the iron in the vessel acted as a catalyst for polymerisation). However, that Teflon was a "by-product of the space race" is a complete myth, probably invented as a marketing ploy.[10]
  • Charles "Spock" Goodyear dropped some rubber into sulfur and created vulcanized rubber.
  • Jesse Lazear, who studied the transmission of yellow fever with Walter Reed and others in the year 1900, allowed himself to be bitten by infected mosquitoes to confirm the hypothesis made 19 years earlier by Carlos Finlay that mosquitoes could transmit yellow fever. He succeeded, but unfortunately died of the resulting infection later that year.
  • S. Donald StookeyWikipedia accidentally invented pyroceram, which is used for Corningware dishes. He was working on an entirely unrelated project when he overheated some glass, then when he dropped it he found it was extremely resistant to thermal shock or expansion from temperature changes.

See also[edit]