Disturbing Scientific Discoveries
Science can be glorious; it can bring clarity to a chaotic world. But big scientific discoveries are by nature counterintuitive and sometimes shocking. Here are ten of the biggest threats to our peace of mind.
1. The Earth is not the center of the universe.
We’ve had more than 400 years to get used to the idea, but it’s still a little unsettling. Anyone can plainly see that the Sun and stars rise in the east, sweep across the sky and set in the west; the Earth feels stable and stationary. When Copernicus proposed that the Earth and other planets instead orbit the Sun…
… his contemporaries found his massive logical leap “patently absurd,” says Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It would take several generations to sink in. Very few scholars saw it as a real description of the universe.”
Galileo got more grief for the idea than Copernicus did. He used a telescope to provide evidence for the heliocentric theory, and some of his contemporaries were so disturbed by what the new invention revealed—craters on a supposedly perfectly spherical moon, other moons circling Jupiter—that they refused to look through the device. More dangerous than defying common sense, though, was Galileo’s defiance of the Catholic Church. Scripture said that the Sun revolved around the Earth, and the Holy Office of the Inquisition found Galileo guilty of heresy for saying otherwise.
2. The microbes are gaining on us.
Antibiotics and vaccines have saved millions of lives; without these wonders of modern medicine, many of us would have died in childhood of polio, mumps or smallpox. But some microbes are evolving faster than we can find ways to fight them.
The influenza virus mutates so quickly that last year’s vaccination is usually ineffective against this year’s bug. Hospitals are infested with antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus bacteria that can turn a small cut into a limb- or life-threatening infection. And new diseases keep jumping from animals to humans—ebola from apes, SARS from masked palm civets, hantavirus from rodents, bird flu from birds, swine flu from swine. Even tuberculosis, the disease that killed Frederic Chopin and Henry David Thoreau, is making a comeback, in part because some strains of the bacterium have developed multi-drug resistance. Even in the 21st century, it’s quite possible to die of consumption.
3. There have been mass extinctions in the past, and we’re probably in one now.
Paleontologists have identified five points in Earth’s history when, for whatever reason (asteroid impact, volcanic eruptions and atmospheric changes are the main suspects), mass extinctions eliminated many or most species.
The concept of extinction took a while to sink in. Thomas Jefferson saw mastodon bones from Kentucky, for example, and concluded that the giant animals must still be living somewhere in the interior of the continent. He asked Lewis and Clark to keep an eye out for them.
Today, according to many biologists, we’re in the midst of a sixth great extinction. Mastodons may have been some of the earliest victims. As humans moved from continent to continent, large animals that had thrived for millions of years began to disappear—mastodons in North America, giant kangaroos in Australia, dwarf elephants in Europe. Whatever the cause of this early wave of extinctions, humans are driving modern extinctions by hunting, destroying habitat, introducing invasive species and inadvertently spreading diseases.
4. Things that taste good are bad for you.
In 1948, the Framingham Heart Study enrolled more than 5,000 residents of Framingham, Massachusetts, to participate in a long-term study of risk factors for heart disease. (Very long term—the study is now enrolling the grandchildren of the original volunteers.) It and subsequent ambitious and painstaking epidemiological studies have shown that one’s risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain kinds of cancer and other health problems increases in a dose-dependent manner upon exposure to delicious food. Steak, salty French fries, eggs Benedict, triple-fudge brownies with whipped cream—turns out they’re killers. Sure, some tasty things are healthy—blueberries, snow peas, nuts and maybe even (oh, please) red wine. But on balance, human taste preferences evolved during times of scarcity, when it made sense for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to gorge on as much salt and fat and sugar as possible. In the age of Hostess pies and sedentary lifestyles, those cravings aren’t so adaptive.
Einstein’s famous equation is certainly one of the most brilliant and beautiful scientific discoveries—but it’s also one of the most disturbing. The power explained by the equation really rests in the c², or the speed of light (186,282 miles per second) times itself, which equals 34,700,983,524. When that’s your multiplier, you don’t need much mass—a smidgen of plutonium is plenty—to create enough energy to destroy a city.
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