5 Defunct Theories of Science that are Totally Awesome

1. Vulcan

The planet Vulcan has a history that’s even older than Star Trek. And almost as entertaining. In the 1840’s, astronomers were puzzled by perturbations in Mercury’s orbit. The planet’s perihelion (the point in its orbit that’s closest to the Sun) seemed to advance around the Sun each orbit. Newton’s laws didn’t cover this sort of thing. So astronomer Urbain Le Verrier came up with his own explanation: there was another planet between Mercury and the Sun. Le Verrier was pretty famous at the time, having predicted the exact location of the planet Neptune, so people listened to him. He hypothesised that an unknown planet–which he dubbed Vulcan–orbited the Sun at a distance of 30 million kilometres, completing its orbit every 34 days. Sweet.

It wasn’t too long before the sightings started coming in. The most famous of these was by Edmond Modeste Lescarbault in 1859. But there was never any definitive proof of Vulcan’s existence and when Le Verrier died in 1877, his theory largely died with him. Except for crazy cultists and ufologists.  Because apparently UFOs are from Vulcan.

And what about the perturbations in Mercury’s orbit? This problem was solved, like everything else in physics, by Albert Einstein. His 1915 theory of relativity explained the precession of of its perihelion and finally disproved the existence of Vulcan. Until Gene Roddenberry resurrected the name for some obscure 1960’s tv show…

2. Nemesis

This theory is hands-down the awesomest thing I’ve heard for a long time. And–even more awesomely–it still might be true. The theory hasn’t been disproven. (So, technically speaking, it’s not a “defunct theory of science”, but the evidence is really weighted against it.)

Some palaeontologists back in the 1980’s claimed to have identified patterns in the fossil record that pointed to mass extinctions happening periodically every 26 million years. Bummer! So, from this information, they made the logical conclusion: an undiscovered red dwarf companion star to our Sun was swinging past our Solar System every 26 million years and sending objects from the Oort Cloud crashing into Earth. Yep, completely logical. Amazingly, this hypothesis was taken seriously. It was published in Nature. And some astronomers still believe it. The star was fittingly named Nemesis, or the Death Star. Sweet shit. Every time this hypothetical star passes close to the Oort Cloud, it apparently perturbs the orbit of comets, sending them rushing in towards the Sun. Where they collide with Earth. And do fun things like kill dinosaurs, or any of the other major mass extinctions throughout history.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the idea of a Death Star periodically reaping destruction on the Solar System is pretty much the coolest thing ever. Isaac Asimov must’ve thought so too, because he wrote a novel about it, fittingly titled Nemesis (1989). I haven’t read it yet, but it’s sitting on my bookshelf, tempting me.

3. Re-animating corpses with Galvanism

We move now from astronomy to biology. And to the theory that inspired Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818). Mary wrote, in the 1831 introduction to her famous text, “Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.” Good old Mary. Such an imagination. I assume it was a relief to her husband and friends that she merely decided to write about such things, rather than start digging for bodies herself.

In the late eighteenth century, electricity was the new kid on the block. Everyone wanted a piece of it. The Romantic scientists claimed that electricity was a life-giving fluid that was part of man’s spirit, a mystical force. The materialist scientists believed it was just another natural phenomenon. Both camps were keen to be proven correct, especially the materialists, who wanted the occultist science of the Romantics to be a thing of the past. Enter physicist Luigi Galvani. In 1791, apparently on a whim, he decided to put some electricity through a dead frog. Wonderful. Surprised–and overjoyed–to see its leg twitch, he postulated that muscular animation in all animals was the result of electrical charge. His theory was known as animal electricity. It was an apparent victory for the Romantic scientists. And it led the way for the public to speculate–Mary Shelley among them–that applying an electrical charge to a corpse would bring it back to life. With armies of Frankenstein’s monsters at their disposal, surely the Romantics could kick the materialists’ arse?

Alas, it wasn’t so. Galvani’s rival, Alessandro Volta, successfully demonstrated that muscular movement was a result of external physical stimuli, not a force inherent in the muscles. Thus it was a purely physical phenomenon. Thus the materialists had won. Animal electricity was defeated and no armies of corpses walked the Earth, except in the pages of Frankenstein. And even then, to add salt to the wound, the monster turned out to be a Romantic.

 

4. Hollow Earth

I’ll write this at the very beginning: the Earth is not hollow. Aliens do not live down there; there are no Nazi cities. Tarzan did not visit the Earth’s core. I have to start with this, because the Hollow Earthers are still an active community and I don’t have a desire to be associated with them.

Despite the fact that the Hollow Earth theory might sound like the most ridiculous of my “5 Defunct Theories of Science”, it’s had a surprisingly complex history and has been supported by some notable figures in science. We could trace the roots of the theory back to almost any number of ancient mythologies that depict a type of Hell being at the centre of the Earth, but I’m writing about theories of science today, so we’ll start with the first scientist who proposed that the Earth is hollow. In the late seventeenth century, Edmond Halley (yes, the comet guy) had spent several long years charting variations in the Earth’s magnetic field whilst sailing the seas south of the equator. There was no way to explain the apparent random magnetic variations, so Halley came up with his own theory: the Earth was hollow. There were three concentric spheres beneath the surface, each with its own magnetic field. And you know the northern lights–the aurora borealis? This was caused by gases escaping from the interior of the Earth through holes in the Arctic. Brilliant. He submitted his theory in the Transactions of the Royal Society in 1692, and published his work on the aurora borealis in 1716. He was completely wrong, of course. But kudos to him for one thing–the northern lights really are influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field, so at least he was on the right track.

The Hollow Earth theory has been expanded and distorted ever since, often to some subversive political motive. (Aliens from the Hollow Earth assassinated JFK, by the way.) My two personal favourites are both from the nineteenth century. Captain John Cleves Symmes, a retired soldier, began circulating pamphlets in 1818 that insisted the Earth was hollow, and began petitioning the US government to lead an expedition to the “Symmes’ Holes” that he expected to find at the north and south pole. He was sorely disappointed when they didn’t give him any money. But he did write a novel under the pseudonym of “Captain Adam Seaborn”–Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery (1820), which attempted to popularise the theory and glorify Symmes. (Somehow, incredibly, most people didn’t realise that this mysterious author who was heaping praise on Symmes was actually Symmes himself. Weird.) And the next one was Cyrus Teed (known to his followers as “Koresh”), who preached that we were already living on the inside surface of a hollow concave sphere. So when we look up at the stars, we’re actually looking at the inside of the sphere. Riiiight. His experiments to prove that the Earth’s surface was concave were less than successful.

Now the Hollow Earth theory has been adopted by conspiracy nuts and cultists. Edmond Halley would be devastated. For future reading, however, check out David Standish’s awesome book, Hollow Earth. Well worth a read.

5. Canals on Mars

The great Martian drought had lasted millennia, so ambitious Martian scientists built an enormous series of canals to bring water down from the frozen reservoirs at the poles. They brought water back to the desert. And it was good.

So goes the theory. It was the brain-child of Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, who observed linear lines on Mars in 1877. He called them “canali”, meaning “channels” in his native Italian. But, of course, the English-speaking world never bothered to double-check the translation. They looked at his word “canali”, took the i off the end, and proclaimed that canals had been found on Mars. The idea found a very vocal proponent in US astronomer Percival Lowell, who published extensively on the subject. It even helped to inspire H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds. Evidence of artificial canals on Mars surely indicated intelligent life. And whereas H.G. Wells capitalised on the public’s interest in Mars to generate a novel that cleverly criticised the British colonial mentality, the American author Garrett P. Serviss capitalised on the same public interest to write a novel about bombing the shit out of Martian civilisation. Enough said.

Alas, despite the awesomeness of Martian irrigation specialists–it’s like the novel Dune, don’t you think?–it turned out that the Martian canals were merely optical illusions. Oh well.

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2 comments

  1. Excellent read my good friend. You had me at Star Trek. Looking forward to future installments! Keep them coming!

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