Science doesn’t stand still, and, in fact, its usefulness as a driver of knowledge is rooted in this fact. Unfortunately, when a theory is disproven in the scientific field it doesn’t necessarily disappear from the mind of the average person. Most of these myths were disproven centuries or decades ago, but how many of them did you still think were valid?
1. The box in the heavens
The “box” in which the world around us can be found is historically called the “firmament.” The basic idea of the firmament came from writers such as St. Augustine, who interpreted the Biblical description of the creation of the Earth quite literally. According to Genesis 1:7, “And God made a firmament and divided the waters that were under the firmament from those that were above the firmament, and it was so.” Genesis 1:8 states, “And God called the firmament heaven.”
This theory held for a very long time, with Copernicus even discussing the position of Earth to the sun relative to their position in the “firmament.” The first man to really suggest that there wasn’t a giant box or sphere around the planet was the 15th-century German scholar Nicolaus of Cusa, who suggested that there was an infinite universe, strangely not because of any scientific rationale but because of a religious one. God was all-powerful, after all, and why would He not create a universe that was infinite?
The argument for an infinite universe got more steam when Giordano Bruno defended the belief that there was no such thing as a firmament. He started writing about his theories on an infinite universe, in which we are not alone. Even though there was nothing heretical about declaring God to be even more powerful than just a firmament, Giordano predictably drew attention from the wrong people. His arguments were in vain, and in 1592, his patron reported him to the Inquisition for blasphemy. After seven years in prison and a trial, he was ultimately found guilty and burned at the stake on February 8, 1600.
Now, 400 years later, we have evidence that the universe is expanding, which puts the belief in a firmament cleanly to rest.
2. Continental drift
Alfred Wegener was the first to propose continental drift and the movement of the world’s landmasses. After studying the plants and animals that lived along the coastlines, comparing fossils and rocks, and coming across evidence like the mesosaurs, a freshwater reptile that has been found in both South America and southern Africa, he concluded that everything was once one giant landmass. The familiar name is Pangaea, but Wegener originally called it “Urkontinent” (meaning “original continent” in German).
The theory of continental drift as it was long understood is obsolete by today’s standards, and the term is now used to describe only a small part of plate tectonics. This newer theory describes how the continents are constantly moving slabs of rock that interact with each other.
Also largely obsolete is the idea of the single major landmass of Pangaea. Today, scientists cite not only the existence of Pangaea, but another supercontinent formed 600 million years ago, called Pannotia, and one that was around more than a billion years ago, called Rodinia.
3. Evolution only lets the “best” survive
Social Darwinists, in particular, have argued that evolution provides for the survival of the “best” and “most adapted,” and that other “weaker” individuals fall away over time. This falsely implies a kind of universal measure for what is adapted, and that evolution and selection always follow ration and fair criteria.
Today’s evolutionary theory is much more complex than Darwin’s theory for selection and “survival of the fittest.” We now know about the important role of chance and context in deciding the survival of individuals, or even species, and understand that it is not the “best” who survive, but simply those who are not “bad” enough in their position to die off. Selection can weed out individuals based on a certain trait or groups of traits, but these traits do not necessarily lend an advantage in every situation.
4. Le Sage’s version of gravity
Georges-Louis Le Sage didn’t agree with the existing theory of gravity. Although gravity was understood to apply to the entire universe, Le Sage didn’t see how Newton’s widely accepted theory could account for the force of attraction between two masses separated by large distances in space. He developed his own theory, and although it’s been largely debunked, there are still some who hold onto the idea today.
Le Sage’s theory states that the force of attraction isn’t due to a direct interaction between two bodies, but instead, it’s caused by what happens to the invisible particles that fill the space between the two bodies. That intervening space is filled with particles that move about freely until two bodies cast a shadow onto each other. That shadow would lessen the amount of particles moving between the two bodies, which would then be moved closer to each other—gravity.
The big problem with that is, of course, that it would mean that size would have a greater influence on gravitational force than mass. The bigger the object, the bigger the shadow, and the greater the pull should be. Le Sage got around this by insisting that mass is mostly empty anyway, nothing more than relatively large areas of emptiness with only a scattering of clumps of actual matter. The bigger the object, the more “mass clumps” it would have, and since mass clumps are the only thing that cast a gravity shadow, it would make sense that bigger objects had a greater effect on gravity.
Although the theory fell out of favor after Einstein’s contributions to relativity, it has remained a weirdly popular idea, mostly in fringe theories. In 1954, experiments with the Foucault pendulum and the Allais effect have been cited by shadow gravity supporters as evidence that there’s something to the theory, but most remain doubtful.
5. The planet Vulcan
As a predecessor of the mythical planet “Nibiru,” the planet “Vulcan” was born of a more honest confusion. Before Einstein’s theory of relativity, scientists had great trouble predicting and understanding the orbit of the planet Mercury.
In 1846, one of the biggest names in astronomy at the time tried to figure out why Mercury behaved the way it did. Urbain Jean Joseph Le Verrier was already well-established in the field, enjoying fame after his calculations led to the observation of Neptune. Since Mercury seemed to be orbiting just a little bit faster than expected, Le Verrier proposed that there was another player in the game—a planet beyond Mercury. His declaration that there was something else out there was met with excitement; he had been right about Neptune, after all.
During an 1878 eclipse, astronomers across the US were ready and waiting for Vulcan to make an appearance. One man, James Craig “Tubby” Watson, reported that he had seen Vulcan, although others claimed that he was mistaken. Watson became obsessed with the idea, going so far as to dig a shaft into the ground to put his telescope in, believing that it would help him see bodies floating around the Sun in broad daylight. (This was an ancient idea that most astronomers already knew wouldn’t work.)
When Watson died before his plan for an underground observatory was complete, interest in Vulcan faltered. It wasn’t until 35 years later that all hopes of finding the mysterious planet would be squashed, though, when Albert Einstein explained Mercury’s motion through relativity.
6. The theory of “imponderable matter”
In order to explain what we would now call “supernatural occurrences,” Victorian England preferred the idea of “imponderable matter” to explain what goes on around the things we see. As energy was not yet seen as the universal unit [which came after Einstein’s Energy=(Mass)(Speed of light)^2 ], and thus unseen happenings were described as forms of matter, including “imponderable matter,” literally meaning “unconsiderable matter.”
Victorian physics even went as far as to try to explain the afterlife using imponderable matter. Balfour Stewart and P.G. Tait wrote that imponderable matter was proof that there was an unseen world existing alongside the one we can see. When objects or beings “move on” from this realm, it was argued that they joined the realm of “imponderable matter.”
These early types of imponderable matter were later reexamined with the idea that they were the same thing—luminiferous ether. Throughout the Victorian era, pretty much all sciences hinged on this theory of imponderable matter and its more concrete forms, dubbed “ponderable matter.” It was about more than just explaining science, though. The imponderable matter was extended into the world of economics, industry, and culture.
Imponderable matter spanned such a wide range of sciences that it’s next to impossible to say exactly when its fall came about. By the 1860s, though, physicists were redefining their idea of matter, and imponderable matter slowly became a thing of the past.
7. The unbreakable ecosystem
In the “age of plenty,” when human civilization had first overcome scarcity through technological prowess, it was almost unthinkable that an ecosystem could be permanently damaged, or “resiliently” remain in a suboptimal state. The long-standing theory that an ounce of poison would translate directly into “an ounce of damage” only saw its demise through the rise of systems biology and an understanding of the resilience of stable states.
The idea that an ecosystem could go from a visible “healthy” state into a “collapsed” state through the compounding of small but invisible steps has been repeatedly validated since Marten Scheffer published his groundbreaking “Catastrophic shift in ecosystem states” paper in 2001.
Understanding of this fact has been slow, and it remains one of the most common and dangerous ecological myths out there.