10 of Science’s Best BAD ideas – Part 2

You wanted more bad ideas, but they have to be good bad ideas? Well, here they are.

1. Thomas Edison’s Spirit Phone and Theory of the Brain

When he took a break from inventing light bulbs, movies, and phonographs, Thomas Edison thought a lot about how the natural world worked.

Spirit PhonesIn 1920, he confided to a journalist from American Magazine that he had a “spirit phone” in the works. The phone would allow people to talk to the dead. Years later he said it had all been a joke.

Was it a really joke?

Or was it an act of self-promotion? He certainly had a talent for this.

Or did he really think his spirit phone was possible?

Well, maybe we can learn more by considering Edison’s ideas about the human brain.

In Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison, he outlined his idea that within our brains were millions of tiny creatures he described as ‘little peoples.’ These creatures, he believed, carried out all of the brain’s work.

The ‘little peoples’ were controlled by ‘master entities’ living in the frontal lobe of the brain, in Broca’s area.

Edison also believed that when someone dies, their ‘little people’ move and take up residence in someone else’s brain. Perhaps they could then could arrange to phone home on the Edison Spirit Phone?

2. Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection Pangenesis

Nine years after his 1859 scientific blockbuster On the Origin of Species, Darwin published The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.

He felt he needed to explain the mechanism of heredity. The fact that this had already been done perfectly well by Gregor Mendel two years earlier had escaped him. In fairness to Darwin, Mendel’s work had escaped almost everyone until Carl Correns, Hugo de Vries, and Erich von Tschermak independently rediscovered it in about 1900.

So, what did Darwin actually propose? Unfortunately, rather than base his theory on years of spadework like Mendel had done, Darwin rather let his imagination run away with him.

girl books

Great Grandma could read one science book a day, Grandma could read two, Mom could read four, and I can read eight science books a day – thanks to Darwin’s gemmules.

First of all, he seemed to accept Lamarckism – that parents can pass acquired characteristics on to their offspring.

If Lamarckism were true, weightlifting parents would have unusually muscular offspring, while successive generations of giraffes would grow longer necks, because the parents’ necks would have been stretched during their lifetimes as they reached up for leaves. In practice, these phenomena are not observed.

Darwin proposed that cells in living creatures, under the influence of weightlifting or stretching or some other influence, would send messages to the reproductive organs, saying something like: “Hey, Dad’s been pushing weights, best make sure baby’s a muscular brute too.”

Darwin proposed these messages would be carried using particles he called gemmules.

Although it’s an attractive idea in some ways – the more we think about science, say, the more our brains would busily make gemmules telling our offspring to be better scientists – it’s just plain wrong. Sorry Charles!

Although, of course… this recent research, means we may still have more research to do.

3. Cold Fusion

In 1989, Professors Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of the University of Utah carried out a famous experiment.

Fleischmann and Pons were respected scientists. Fleischmann had previously written many highly influential papers in the field of electrochemistry – the study of the interface between electrodes and ionic materials.

The two scientists had been working with electrodes made from the metallic element palladium, which has an incredible ability to absorb hydrogen.

A one liter cube of palladium can absorb 900 liters of hydrogen gas. When it does this, you can actually see the metal expanding slightly.

In their experiment with a palladium elecrode, Fleischmann and Pons claimed to have transformed hydrogen into helium plus LOTS of energy.


Fleischmann and Pons dreamed of capturing the power of the sun in a test-tube. Cold fusion is the ultimate clean, green power source.

This was a room temperature version of the way our sun and other stars release energy.

Palladium’s role was to compress the hydrogen and catalyze the fusion reaction.

Although other scientists were able, sometimes, to repeat the experiment so that excess heat was generated, others could not.

Whether excess heat was ever truly generated is not absolutely certain.

What is certain though is the absence of nuclear fusion. No evidence for nuclear fusion in these palladium/hydrogen electrodes – such as the production of neutrons – has ever been found.

Fleischmann and Pons never retracted their cold-fusion claims, but most scientists don’t believe them.

4. The Sun is Inhabited

Okay, it’s a crazy idea, yet one of the greatest astronomers in history actually came to believe that the sun is the home of civilized beings – and he was not alone.

On Tuesday, March 31, 1781 William Herschel saw a disk in the sky between Gemini and the horns of Taurus. He checked his star charts and found there should be nothing there. It was a discovery! But what had he discovered?

At first Herschel thought it must be a comet – an unusual comet, though, because it didn’t seem to have a tail. However, as time passed, and he plotted the trajectory of the ‘comet’ across the heavens, it didn’t follow a parabolic shaped path – the path that all comets take.

Herschel made his data public, and mathematicians such as Pierre Simon de Laplace calculated the orbit and declared it was almost circular. Comets didn’t have near-circular orbits. That shape was reserved for other heavenly bodies – planets, for example!

And indeed, the disk was a planet. William Herschel, a self-taught telescope maker and astronomer had discovered a new planet – Uranus. The first planet discovered in recorded history.

Did Herschel let it rest there? No, of course he didn’t. Fourteen years after his momentous discovery, he felt the need to let people know the truth about the sun.

He revealed that sunspots allow us to look through the sun’s shining, luminous atmosphere, to see the sun’s solid land below. The sun was, in fact, a large planet – the solar system’s main planet. It was probably inhabited, like the other planets and the moon, by creatures adapted to its specific conditions. He argued that since our sun is a star, other stars must also be large, inhabited planets.

It’s amazing how far a little logical thinking can take you, isn’t it?


Herschel’s 12 meter (40 feet) telescope. Herschel made the best telescopes the world had seen. He discovered Uranus, moons of Uranus, moons of Saturn, and thousands of stars and nebulae – which were later shown to be galaxies. He also discovered infrared radiation.

5. The Number of the Beast Universe

I’m slightly cautious about calling this one a bad idea, because the passage of time might yet prove me wrong.

Arthur Eddington was an astrophysicist of the first rank. The Eddington Limit of stars’ luminosity is named in his honor, and in 1919 he confirmed experimentally Einstein’s theory that space is curved by gravity.

Eddington believed that the secrets of the universe could be revealed by dimensionless numbers.

Take the width of your hand, for example – say 10 cm. Its dimensions are centimeters. The width of your thumb – say 2 cm – also has dimensions of centimeters. If you divide the width of your hand by the width of your thumb, you get a result of 5. This number has no dimensions, because centimeters divided by centimeters cancels to 1. You now have the dimensionless number 5.

It doesn’t seem likely that this dimensionless number could help explain the universe, but Arthur Eddington believed that some of them did!

The numbers he focused on were all approximate and were:

owl-numbers137, 1840, and 1039

He got 137 by multiplying the reduced Planck constant by the speed of light, then dividing by the square of the electron charge.

1840 comes from dividing a proton’s mass by an electron’s mass.

1039 comes from dividing the square of the electron charge by the gravitational constant times the proton mass times the electron mass.

Eddington eventually decided that the fundamental dimensionless numbers of the universe clustered within a few orders of magnitude of 1, 1040 and 1080.

Some of his fellow scientists mocked Eddington’s approach, while some played around with his numbers to see if some new insight could come from them.

As yet, nothing serious has been reported, but in the fullness of time, who knows? Maybe you can find something?


Click here for Part 1 of 10 of Science’s Best BAD ideas.

Fantastic Physics Quotes

Fantastically quotable scientists on physics:

Wolfgang PauliPhysics is very muddled again at the moment; it is much too hard for me anyway, and I wish I were a movie comedian or something like that and had never heard anything about physics!

Wolfgang Pauli, 1900 – 1958
Freeman DysonPhysics is littered with the corpses of dead unified field theories.

Freeman Dyson, b. 1923
ernest rutherfordAll of physics is either impossible or trivial. It is impossible until you understand it, and then it becomes trivial.

Ernest Rutherford, 1871 to 1937
Paul EhrenfestNo two electrons in the same state? That is why atoms are so unnecessarily big, and why metal and stone are so bulky. (Explaining that atoms are as large as they are because of Wolfgang Pauli’s Principle.)

Paul Ehrenfest, 1880 – 1933
Michael FaradayThe condition of matter I have dignified by the term Electronic, THE ELECTRONIC STATE. What do you think of that? Am I not a bold man, ignorant as I am, to coin words?

Michael Faraday, 1791 – 1867
Richard FeynmanWe cannot define anything precisely! If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers, who sit opposite each other, one saying to the other, ‘You don’t know what you are talking about!’ The second one says ‘What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?’, and so on.

Richard Feynman, 1918 to 1988
100-fred-hoyleThere are many ways of knocking electrons out of atoms. The simplest is to rub two surfaces together.

Fred Hoyle, 1915 to 2001
noWe were a polite society and I expected to lead a quiet life teaching mechanics and listening to my senior colleagues gently but obliquely poking fun at one another. This dream of somnolent peace vanished very quickly when (Ernest) Rutherford came to Cambridge. Rutherford was the only person I have met who immediately impressed me as a great man. He was a big man and made a big noise and he seemed to enjoy every minute of his life. I remember that when transatlantic broadcasting first came in, Rutherford told us at a dinner in Hall how he had spoken into a microphone to America and had been heard all over the continent. One of the bolder of our Fellows said: “Surely you did not need to use apparatus for that.”

Geoffrey Fellows, 1871 to 1937
Rene DescartesI accept no principles of physics which are not also accepted in mathematics.

René Descartes, 1596 to 1650
marie curiePierre Curie voluntarily exposed his arm to the action of radium for several hours. This resulted in damage resembling a burn that developed progressively and required several months to heal. Henri Becquerel had by accident a similar burn as a result of carrying in his vest pocket a glass tube containing radium salt. He came to tell us of this evil effect of radium, exclaiming in a manner at once delighted and annoyed: “I love it, but I owe it a grudge.”

Marie Curie, 1867 to 1934
David GriffithsWhen you hear a physicist invoke the uncertainty principle, keep a hand on your wallet.

David Griffiths, b. 1942
Subrahmanyan ChandrasekharMacroscopic objects, as we see them all around us, are governed by a variety of forces, derived from a variety of approximations to a variety of physical theories. In contrast, the only elements in the construction of black holes are our basic concepts of space and time. They are, thus, almost by definition, the most perfect macroscopic objects there are in the universe.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, 1910 to 1995
david-hilbertPhysics is actually too hard for physicists.

David Hilbert, 1862 to 1943
noPhysicists, being in no way different from the rest of the population, have short memories for what is inconvenient.

Anthony Standen, 1907 – 1993
Richard FeynmanIn its efforts to learn as much as possible about nature, modern physics has found that certain things can never be “known” with certainty. Much of our knowledge must always remain uncertain. The most we can know is in terms of probabilities.

Richard Feynman, 1918 to 1988
James Clerk MaxwellThe chief philosophical value of physics is that it gives the mind something distinct to lay hold of, which, if you don’t, Nature at once tells you you are wrong.

James Clerk Maxwell, 1831 to 1879
Isaac NewtonA cylinder of air reaching to the top of the atmosphere is of equal weight with a cylinder of water about 33 feet high.

Isaac Newton, 1642 to 1727
Samuel C. C. TingIn reality, a theory in natural science cannot be without experimental foundations; physics, in particular, comes from experimental work.

Samuel C. C. Ting, b. 1936
Pierre-Gilles de GennesBenjamin Franklin performed a beautiful experiment using surfactants; on a pond at Clapham Common, he poured a small amount of oleic acid, a natural surfactant which tends to form a dense film at the water-air interface. He measured the volume required to cover all the pond. Knowing the area, he then knew the height of the film, something like three nanometers in our current units.

Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, 1932 to 2007
Isaac NewtonThis most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being. And if the fixed stars are the centres of other like systems, these, being formed by the like wise counsel, must be all subject to the dominion of One; especially since the light of the fixed stars is of the same nature with the light of the sun.

Isaac Newton, 1642 to 1727
James Clerk MaxwellBut though the professed aim of all scientific work is to unravel the secrets of nature, it has another effect, not less valuable, on the mind of the worker. It leaves him in possession of methods which nothing but scientific work could have led him to invent.

James Clerk Maxwell, 1831 to 1879
Murray Gell-MannIn our work, we are always between Scylla and Charybdis; we may fail to abstract enough, and miss important physics, or we may abstract too much and end up with fictitious objects in our models turning into real monsters that devour us.

Murray Gell-Mann, b. 1929
Michael FaradayI am busy just now again on electro-magnetism, and I think I may have got hold of a good thing.

Michael Faraday, 1791 – 1867

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