7 Scientists whose ideas were rejected during their lifetimes

We’ve all had ideas – some good, some not so good.

I can’t begin to imagine how hair-pullingly frustrating it might be to hatch a brilliant new idea, believe passionately that it’s right, then find everyone else ignoring you, or telling you that you’re wrong, or even mocking you.

Worse still, imagine reaching the end of your life and finding your brilliant idea is at best gathering dust, or at worst generating hostility.

Here are seven scientists whose ideas became widely accepted only after they were dead.

The Ideas Rejected

Alfred Wegener

Continental Drift

alfred wegener

Lived 1880 to 1930

Alfred Wegener proposed that Earth’s continents move very slowly. Over millions of years they can move a long way. Between 1912 and 1929 he published a stream of fossil and rock evidence to support his theory. He died on an expedition to Greenland in 1930.

Wegener’s theory of continental drift was rejected by most other scientists during his lifetime. It was only in the 1960s that continental drift finally became part of mainstream science.

Ignaz Semmelweis

Hand Washing Saves Lives

ignaz semmelweis

Lived 1818 to 1865

The story of Ignaz Semmelweis is tragic on a number of levels.

Firstly, there’s the women who died who shouldn’t have.

In 1847 Semmelweis, who was an obstetrician, (a doctor specializing in childbirth) published evidence that when doctors washed their hands before examining or treating patients, the mortality rate for women in his birthing ward in Vienna, Austria, was greatly reduced.

In his hospital doctors were routinely examining diseased corpses in the mortuary, then attending women in childbirth without first washing their hands. In some months, as many as a third of the women in the birthing part of the hospital were dying!

Semmelweis could not explain why hand-washing was effective – he didn’t know about germs – he just saw that it worked and that patients no longer caught fevers and other diseases.

The second tragedy is that although Semmelweis cut death rates in his own hospital, his attempts to spread the word failed. Many people died because hand-washing was not made a routine part of hospital practice.

The third tragic part of the story took place in 1865. Semmelweis had become clinically depressed when his work was rejected and he had started behaving oddly. He was lured by another doctor into an insane asylum in Vienna. Realizing it was a trap, Semmelweis tried to get out, but was held and badly beaten by guards and placed in a straightjacket. He died two weeks later, most likely from injuries he suffered during the beating.

With Semmelweis gone, the fourth tragedy is that his hospital got back to running ‘properly’ again, discarding his ‘crazy’ ideas. Mortality rates increased by a factor of six, but nobody cared.

Aristarchus

Heliocentric Solar System

Aristarchus

Lived c. 310 BC to c. 230 BC

Aristarchus was born in about 310 BC in Ancient Greece. He was the first person to propose that the earth and the other planets orbit the sun. He also said that the stars are much farther away than the planets.

Aristarchus lived at the same time as Archimedes. We do not know if Archimedes agreed with Aristarchus’s heliocentric idea, but we know about Aristarchus’s ideas because Archimedes mentions them in one of his own works.

Most people ignored Aristarchus’s ideas and continued to believe that the earth lies the center of the universe and that everything else in the heavens orbits our planet.

Some people demanded that Aristarchus be put on trial for daring to say Earth is not at the center of the universe.

Soon Aristarchus’s work was forgotten. It would stay forgotten for almost two millennia.

Gregor Mendel

Genetic Inheritance

Gregor Mendel

Lived 1822 to 1884

Gregor Mendel was a monk who founded the science of genetics. He was the first person to correctly identify the rules of heredity which determine how traits are passed through generations of living things.

The importance of Mendel’s work was only properly appreciated in 1900, 16 years after his death, and 34 years after he first published it.

A year after he published his work, Mendel became Abbot of his monastery and spent his remaining years managing the monastery and its monks.

Nicholas Copernicus

Heliocentric Solar System

Nicolaus Copernicus

Lived 1473 to 1543

1800 years after the time of Aristarchus, Nicholas Copernicus began the scientific revolution when he resurrected the idea that the earth and other planets orbit the sun. He published his work shortly before he died.

Most astronomers who read Copernicus’s book thought it was excellent work, but they did not change their way of thinking – mostly they still believed that everything in the universe orbits the earth.

Johannes Kepler

Heliocentric Solar System – Elliptical Orbits

Johannes Kepler

Lived 1571 to 1630

Johannes Kepler is the third scientist on this page who believed that the solar system is heliocentric, but who could not convince many other people that he was right. The idea of a sun-centered solar system met with a lot of resistance – based partly on religious beliefs – and based partly on common sense – everyone can see that the sun goes around the earth, rising in the east and setting in the west.

Kepler was one of the few people – Galileo Galilei was another – who wholeheartedly backed Copernicus’s theory.

Kepler went further than Copernicus, who thought planets traveled in circular paths around the sun. Kepler discovered that the planets’ paths are ‘squashed’ circles – ellipses.

Despite the brilliance of Kepler’s work, it was largely ignored in his lifetime. Decades later, Kepler’s work was the platform from which Isaac Newton discovered his law of universal gravitation.

Amedeo Avogadro

Avogadro’s Law

Amedeo Avogadro

Lived 1776 – 1856

Amedeo Avogadro was a nobleman who became a lawyer, then became a school teacher, and then became a university professor.

He proposed that equal volumes of different gases contain an equal number of molecules, provided they are at the same temperature and pressure.

Although his hypothesis was rejected by other scientists during his lifetime, by 1870 it was generally recognized to be correct. Avogadro’s hypothesis in now known as Avogadro’s law.

Rejection with Reason

Of course, the majority of big new scientific ideas are rejected – and rightly so, because most are flawed. Otherwise, today we might accept ideas such as the existence of: Planet Vulcan, N-Rays, Caloric, Pangenesis, an inhabited Sun, and the number of the universe.

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Author of this page: The Doc
Images of scientists digitally enhanced and colorized by this website.
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Magnificent Mathematics Quotes

Magnificent mathematicians talk mathematics and, for the sake of balance, a few non-mathematicians’ thoughts too!

“The uniform character of mathematics is the essence of science, for mathematics is the foundation of all exact scientific knowledge.”

David Hilbert, 1862 – 1943
Mathematician
“Geometry is one and eternal shining in the mind of God. That men share in it is among the reasons that Man is the image of God.”

Johannes Kepler, 1571 – 1630
Mathematician and Astronomer
Plato“Mathematics is the language in which the gods speak to people.”

Plato, c. 427 BC – c. 347 BC
Mathematician and Philosopher
“In my experience most mathematicians are intellectually lazy and especially dislike reading experimental papers.”

Francis Crick, 1916 – 2004
Molecular Biologist
littlewood"“The legend that every cipher is breakable is of course absurd, though still widespread among people who should know better.”

J.E. Littlewood, 1885 – 1977
Mathematician
Carl Friedrich Gauss“Surely it is not knowledge, but learning; not owning but earning; not being there, but getting there; that gives us the greatest pleasure.”

Carl Friedrich Gauss, 1777 – 1855
Mathematician and Physicist
Philolaus“Actually, everything that can be known has a number; for it is impossible to grasp anything with the mind or to recognize it without this.”

Philolaus, c. 470 – c. 385 BC
Scientist and Philosopher
“Euclid’s work ought to have been any educationist’s nightmare… it never offers any “motivations,” it has no illuminating “asides,” it does not attempt to make anything “intuitive,” and it avoids “applications” to a fault. It is so “humorless” in its mathematical purism that… …it should have been spurned by students and “progressive” teachers in every generation. But it nevertheless survived intact all the turmoils, ravages, and illiteracies of the dissolving Roman Empire, of the early Dark Ages, of the Crusades, and of the plagues and famines of the later Middle Ages.”

Salomon Bochner, 1899 – 1982
Mathematician
Nicolaus Copernicus“There may be babblers, wholly ignorant of mathematics, who dare to condemn my hypothesis, upon the authority of some part of the Bible twisted to suit their purpose. I value them not, and scorn their unfounded judgment.”

Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473 – 1543
Mathematician and Astronomer
Bertrand Russell“Before the Copernican revolution, it was natural to suppose that God’s purposes were specifically concerned with the earth, but now this has become an unplausible hypothesis. If it is the purpose of the Cosmos to evolve mind, we must regard it as rather incompetent in having produced so little in such a long time.”

Bertrand Russell, 1872 – 1970
Mathematician and Philosopher
babylonian“I have eaten 2/3 of 1/3 of my food ration. 7 remains. How much food did I start with?”

Cuneiform
Babylonian mathematics exercise, 1900 – 1600 BC
Freeman Dyson“I see some parallels between the shifts of fashion in mathematics and in music. In music, the popular new styles of jazz and rock became fashionable a little earlier than the new mathematical styles of chaos and complexity theory. Jazz and rock were long despised by classical musicians, but have emerged as art-forms more accessible than classical music to a wide section of the public. Jazz and rock are no longer to be despised as passing fads. Neither are chaos and complexity theory. But still, classical music and classical mathematics are not dead. Mozart lives, and so does Euler. When the wheel of fashion turns once more, quantum mechanics and hard analysis will once again be in style.”

Freeman Dyson, b. 1923
Mathematician and Physicist
man“Simple laws can very well describe complex structures. The miracle is not the complexity of our world, but the simplicity of the equations describing that complexity.”

Sander Bais, b. 1945
Theoretical Physicist
Ronald Fisher“I am not insensible of the advantage which accrues to Applied Mathematics from the co-operation of the Pure Mathematician, and this co-operation is not infrequently called forth by the very imperfections of writers on Applied Mathematics.”

Ronald Fisher, 1890 – 1962
Mathematician, Statistician, Evolutionary Biologist
hardy"“In practical applications we are concerned only with comparatively small numbers; only stellar astronomy and atomic physics deal with ‘large’ numbers, and they have very little more practical importance, as yet, than the most abstract pure mathematics.”

G. H. Hardy, 1877 – 1947
Mathematician
Hermann Weyl“Geometry, inasmuch as it is concerned with real space, is no longer considered a part of pure mathematics; like mechanics and physics, it belongs among the applications of mathematics.”

Hermann Weyl, 1885 to 1955
Mathematician and Theoretical Physicist
littlewood"“The ultimate truths of mathematics, then, cannot be established by any experimental proof that the deductions from them are true; since the supposed experimental proof takes them for granted.”

Herbert Spencer, 1885 – 1977
Philospher
littlewood"“It is a platitude that pure mathematics can have unexpected consequences and affect even daily life.”

J.E. Littlewood, 1885 – 1977
Mathematician
littlewood"“Pure mathematics exist by themselves; no will produces them, no power can limit them. They are eternal laws that no man can infringe, and from which it is impossible to escape.”

S. Sandaram Iyer, 1883
Philosopher
Papyrus“Find the number such that if the whole of it is added to one-seventh of it, the result will be nineteen.”

The Ahmes Papyrus
Ancient Egyptian mathematics problem from c. 2200 BC
John Moulton“The invention of logarithms came to the world as a bolt from the blue. No previous work had led up to it… It stands isolated, breaking in upon human thought abruptly, without borrowing from the work of other intellects or following known lines of mathematical thought.”

John Moulton, 1844 – 1921
Mathematician
Man“Division is esteemed one of the busiest operations of Arithmetic, and such as requireth a mind not wandering, or settled upon other matters.”

Thomas Hylles, The arte of vulgar arithmeticke, 1600
Mathematician
littlewood"“The literary convention that numbers less than 10 should be given in words is often highly unsuitable in mathematics… The excessive use of the word forms is regrettably spreading at the present time.”

J.E. Littlewood, 1885 – 1977
Mathematician
chinese“Suppose we have an unknown number of objects. When counted in threes, 2 are left over, when counted in fives, 3 are left over, and when counted in sevens, 2 are left over. How many objects are there?”

Sunzi, The Mathematical Classic of Sunzi
Chinese mathematics problem from c. 450 AD
stan“What exactly is mathematics? Many have tried but nobody has really succeeded in defining mathematics; it is always something else. Roughly speaking, people know that it deals with numbers, figures, with relations, operations, and that its formal procedures involving axioms, proofs, lemmas, theorems have not changed since the time of Archimedes.”

Stan Ulam, 1909 – 1984
Mathematician
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© All rights reserved.