5 of history's strangest scientific theories
Rest assured: Kooky ideas like the Earth being flat or vaccines causing autism are nothing new. Humanity has had worse ideas before.
- The line between science and strongly held belief was not always so clear-cut as it is today.
- In the past, many quacks, charlatans, or well-intentioned philosophers have developed theories that strike us as obviously untrue today.
- But hindsight is 20/20: People really had no idea how the world actually worked in the past.
For most of us, it's easy to distinguish between real science and pseudoscience. Real science requires testing hypotheses, a rigorous analysis of the results, and peer review, after which the findings are either debunked, tweaked, or accepted as fact. Pseudoscience dresses itself up in the clothes of science but doesn't play by the same rules, particularly when it comes to abandoning ideas that fail to pass peer review.
But the difference between strongly held belief and scientific fact were not always so clear cut as they are today. The line between the two was blurry; if a belief had just enough of the trappings of evidence-based analysis, it could gain some traction. Over the course of history, some truly bizarre scientific theories have been put forward — here's five of the strangest.
1. World Ice Doctrine
In 1894, Austrian engineer Hanns Hörbiger observed that the moon was shiny and rough, much like ice. Then, he had a dream of himself floating in space, observing a swinging pendulum whose tether eventually broke. These two events were enough for him to develop his Welteislehre, or World Ice Doctrine.
The doctrine argued that ice is the fundamental building block of the universe, with icy celestial bodies and an icy ether that permeates the universe. This bizarre cosmological model wouldn't have gained any traction whatsoever were it not for two developments. First, after being completely dismissed by the scientific community, Hörbiger marketed his theories directly to the people, a tactic that has led to the unnatural long life of many pseudoscientific theories. Second, the Nazis came to power.
The Nazis had expelled many scientists from Germany, particularly Jewish ones. Among these was Albert Einstein, whose theory of relativity was not well-regarded amongst the Nazi community. World Ice Doctrine served as an alternative cosmological model. Both Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler, one of the more occult-leaning Nazis, were notable proponents of the theory.
2. Milk transfusions
Before blood types were discovered in 1901, many physicians believed that it would be far more useful to direct their energies toward finding a blood substitute rather than to try the risky procedure of transfusing human blood to patients. So, in 1854, Toronto Drs. James Bovell and Edwin Hodder injected a 40-year-old man with 12 ounces of cow's milk.
The belief was that the fatty particles in milk would become "white corpuscles," which we refer to today as white blood cells. This was not the case. Despite this, milk transfusions remained a relatively popular area of research and experimentation until about 1884. There were some successes at least in the sense that the patient did not die, but these were likely due to the small quantities of milk used in the procedure.
3. Dr. Henry Cotton's... unique approach to mental illness
An illustration from Henry Cotton's "The Defective Delinquent and Insane" depicted a mentally ill individual's mouth with teeth removed.
Without a doubt the inventor of one of the strangest and most macabre ideas on this list, Dr. Henry Cotton had developed a radical theory of insanity that he used to "treat" patients between 1907 and 1930 as the medical director of the New Jersey State Hospital at Trenton. His theory was that mental illness came about due to physical infections, particularly in the teeth. The solution? Pull them out! Under Cotton's direction, 11,000 teeth were extracted from mentally ill patients.
When patients failed to improve after this, Cotton theorized that the infection must have spread to other organs. The natural conclusion was to remove these as well, which he did on 645 separate occasions. Though Cotton claimed an 80 percent success rate at treating mental illness — and actually became quite popular due to this fabricated figure — his mortality rate was astronomical, and patients (unsurprisingly) actually did better when they were not treated by Cotton.
At the very least, Cotton was a true believer in his theory. He removed several of his own teeth, and those of his wife and children. He also found dentists to be extremely peculiar since they focused on fixing teeth rather than pulling them out.
4. The spontaneous generation of life
Originally developed by Aristotle, the theory of spontaneous generation persisted only until Louis Pasteur disproved it in the mid-19th century. In essence, it declared that life could and regularly did form from non-living matter spontaneously. Aristotle, for instance, claimed that scallops were generated from sand. Others made the observation that maggots grew in dead flesh — nobody ever saw maggots travel to dead flesh, and it took a surprisingly long time for people to understand that maggots were laid there by other flies.
To us today, the theory sounds obviously preposterous, but this just highlights how little ancient people really knew about the world until the scientific method became the norm. An idea that lasts for over 2,000 years must have some staying power. And if all you have is observation, it's not too crazy — life, after all, springs from apparently inert things like seeds all the time.
5. Samuel Cartwright's racial psychology
Samuel Cartwright was a physician practicing in the American South, who, in 1851, delivered a report to the Medical Association of Louisiana titled "Report on the Diseases and Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race." Unsurprisingly, there was wild speculation contained within the report, notably his "discovery" of two conditions: drapetomania and dysaesthesia aethiopica.
Drapetomania, Cartwright claimed, was a sort of madness that affected black slaves, causing them to flee. He attributed this to slave owners treating their slaves as equals or by being overly harsh:
If the white man attempts to oppose the Deity's will, by trying to make the negro anything else than "the submissive knee-bender" (which the Almighty declared he should be) … or if he abuses the power which God has given him over his fellow-man, by being cruel to him … the negro will run away.
Cartwright's cure was to treat slaves as though they were children — meaning as lesser-than and occasionally subject to corporal punishment. For truly unresolvable cases, Cartwright had a horrifyingly straightforward cure: Cut off their big toes.
Dysaesthesia aethiopica, according to Cartwright, was a mental illness that caused slaves to be lazy. Cartwright claimed this illness was somehow connected to the skin, believing that the lesions he saw on lazy slaves were a manifestation of the illness. The cure for this illness was whipping. But of course, if a slave was seen as being lazy, he'd be more likely to be whipped, and if he were whipped more often, he'd probably develop some lesions. For the slave owners who followed Cartwright's logic, this ensured a perverse cycle of whippings.
This list is by no means exhaustive; human beings crave explanations for things, but they haven't always had the tools to come up with accurate ones. Even today, we're dubious of the claims of the scientific community. But so long as there's honest-to-goodness science, there will be sketchily crafted theories like the flat Earth theory, that dinosaurs were put in the ground by God 5,000 years ago, that vaccines cause autism, and many others.
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Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.
- Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
- The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
- The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.
- Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
- These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
- The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
What are they?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDA0NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTM1ODc0Mn0.NH33LuauIo__sUBi4tvhwxDcsvhflDFD-Nhx9FjlSNk/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=148%2C0%2C149%2C0&height=700" id="cec96" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="acb78abe2ab46a17e419ad30906751d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Artist's impression of the Kordylewski cloud in the night sky (with its brightness greatly enhanced) at the time of the observations.
G. Horváth<p>The<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kordylewski_cloud" target="_blank"> Kordylewski clouds</a> are two dust clouds first observed by Polish astronomer Kazimierz Kordylewski in 1961. They are situated at two of the <a href="https://www.space.com/30302-lagrange-points.html" target="_blank">Lagrange points</a> in Earth's orbit. These points are locations where the gravity of two objects, such as the Earth and the Moon or a planet and the Sun, equals the centripetal required to orbit the objects while staying in the same relative position. There are five of these spots between the Earth and Moon. The clouds rest at what are called points four and five, forming a triangle with the clouds and the Earth at the three corners.</p><p>The clouds are enormous, taking up the same space in the night sky as twenty lunar discs; covering an area of 45,000 miles. They are roughly 250,000 miles away, about the same distance from us as the Moon. They are entirely comprised of specks of dust which reflect the light of the sun so faintly most astronomers that looked for them were unable to see them at all. </p><p>The clouds themselves are probably ancient, but the model that the scientists created to learn about them suggests that the individual dust particles that comprise them can be blown away by solar wind and replaced by the dust from other cosmic sources like comet tails. This means that the clouds hardly move but are <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/11/news-earth-moon-dust-clouds-satellites-planets-space/" target="_blank">eternally changing</a>. </p>
How did they discover this?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1Nzc4MjQ4MX0.7uU9OqmQcWw5Ll1UXAav0PCu4nTg-GdJdAWADHanC7c/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C180%2C0%2C181&height=700" id="952fb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a778280a20f1c54cd2c14c8313224be2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"In this picture the central region of the Kordylewski dust cloud is visible (bright red pixels). The straight tilted lines are traces of satellites."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>In their study published in the <a href="https://academic.oup.com/mnras" target="_blank">Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society</a>, Hungarian astronomers Judit Slíz-Balogh, András Barta, and Gábor Horváth described how they were able to find the dust clouds using polarized lenses.</p><p>Since the clouds were expected to polarize the light that bounces off of them, by configuring the telescopes to look for this kind of light the clouds were much easier to spot. What the scientists observed, polarized light in patterns that extended outside the view of the telescope lens, was in line with the predictions of their mathematical model and ruled out other possible sources. </p>
Why are we just learning this now?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xODgyMDAzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjUyNDMyMH0.Zl8GmQ_rJHiL4b7hN0r_YBmgb6_ZqIRvqOVuko2ubpw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C141%2C0%2C185&height=700" id="87afe" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd4c0b5088e601d7279cc5eb226f8b7b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
"Mosaic pattern of the angle of polarization around the L5 point (white dot) of the Earth-Moon system. The five rectangular windows correspond to the imaging telescope with which the patterns of the Kordylewski cloud were measured."
J. Slíz-Balogh<p>The objects, being dust clouds, are very faint and hard to see. While Kordylewski observed them in 1961, other astronomers have looked there and given mixed reports over the following decades. This discouraged many astronomers from joining the search, as study co-author Judit Slíz-Balogh <a href="https://ras.ac.uk/news-and-press/research-highlights/earths-dust-cloud-satellites-confirmed" target="_blank">explained</a>, <em>"The Kordylewski clouds are two of the toughest objects to find, and though they are as close to Earth as the Moon are largely overlooked by researchers in astronomy. It is intriguing to confirm that our planet has dusty pseudo-satellites in orbit alongside our lunar neighbor."</em></p>
Will this have any impact on space travel?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c3d797fff5430c64afcb5a49bddc3616"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Ou8N3v9SFPE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Lagrange points have been put forward as excellent locations for a space station or satellites like the <a href="https://jwst.nasa.gov/about.html" target="_blank">James Webb Telescope</a> to be put into orbit, as they would require little fuel to stay in place. Knowing about a massive dust cloud that could damage sensitive equipment already being there could save money and lives in the future. While we only know about the clouds at Lagrange points four and five right now, the study's authors suggest there could be more at the other points.</p><p>While the discovery of a couple of dust clouds might not seem all that impressive, it is the result of a half-century of astronomical and mathematical work and reminds us that wonders are still hidden in our cosmic backyard. While you might never need to worry about these clouds again, there is nothing wrong with looking at the sky with wonder at the strange and fantastic things we can discover. </p>
Instead of looking forward, we should be consulting the past.
When will the pandemic end? All these months in, with over 37 million COVID-19 cases and more than 1 million deaths globally, you may be wondering, with increasing exasperation, how long this will continue.
New cancer-scanning technology reveals a previously unknown detail of human anatomy.
- Scientists using new scanning technology and hunting for prostate tumors get a surprise.
- Behind the nasopharynx is a set of salivary glands that no one knew about.
- Finding the glands may allow for more complication-free radiation therapies.
PSMA PET/CT technology<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="676e611b970c9b516cace0870447b325"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/RHAyoQF09X4?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>PSMA PET/CT is a new combination of <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/pet-scan/about/pac-20385078" target="_blank">PET scans</a> and <a href="https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/ct-scan/about/pac-20393675" target="_blank">CT scans</a> that is believed to offer a more reliable means of locating prostate cancer metastasis. A <a href="https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2020/prostate-cancer-psma-pet-ct-metastasis" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">study</a> published last spring suggests it may be the most accurate way to diagnose prostate cancer metastasis than any method previously available.</p><p>Prior to PSMA PET/CT, the primary way to look for metastatic prostate cancer was to image the body using x-ray-based CT scans and to perform bone scans, since bone is where prostate cancer often spreads. CT scans, however, often miss small tumors, and bone scans can generate false positives as a result of other damage or abnormalities that have nothing to do with prostate cancer.</p><p>PSMA PET/CT scans track the travels of an intravenously administered radioactive glucose tracer throughout the body. For hunting down prostate cancer, this tracer contains a molecule that binds to the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1472940/" target="_blank">PSMA</a> protein that's present in large amounts in prostate tumors. The molecule is linked to a radioisotope, <a href="https://netrf.org/2018/11/13/gallium-68-scan-for-neuroendocrine-tumors/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">gallium-68</a> (Ga-68).</p><p>In last spring's research, PSAM PET/CT was shown to be 27 percent more accurate than previous methods at finding metastases (92 percent accuracy as opposed to 65 percent). In addition, it was found to be much less likely to produce false positives, and it was particularly good at detecting tumors far removed from the prostate.</p>
A good kind of avoidance behavior<p>"Radiation therapy can damage the salivary glands," says Vogel, "which may lead to complications. Patients may have trouble eating, swallowing, or speaking, which can be a real burden."</p><p>The researchers looked back through the cases of 723 patients who had undergone radiation treatment, interested in seeing if inadvertent radiation of the tubarial glands was associated with the complications experienced by the patients. It turned out that this <em>was</em> the case: In cases where more radiation had been delivered to this area, patients did indeed report more in the way of complications of the type one would expect when salivary glands are radiated.</p><p>Now that we know the tubarial salivary glands exist, therapists can stay out of their way. Vogel says, "For most patients, it should technically be possible to avoid delivering radiation to this newly discovered location of the salivary gland system in the same way we try to spare known glands."</p><p>He's hopeful that that things may be about to get at least a bit better for cancer patients: "Our next step is to find out how we can best spare these new glands and in which patients. If we can do this, patients may experience less side effects which will benefit their overall quality of life after treatment."</p>
A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.