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.
In 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.
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 make gemmules telling our offspring to be better scientists – it’s just plain wrong. Sorry Charles!
Although, of course… this recent work, 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.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 there was no nuclear fusion. No evidence for cold nuclear – 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?
5. The Number of the
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:
137, 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?
Arthur Shattuck O'Keefe says
Speaking of Edison’s rumored spirit phone, I’ve written a novel based on it, titled (of course) The Spirit Phone (BHC Press, 2022). It’s set in an alternate version of 1899 in which the spirit phone is marketed as a consumer item, with disastrous results. The main characters are Nikola Tesla and Aleister Crowley, who combine their talents in technology and magic to investigate the spirit phone’s actual origin and ultimate purpose. (Edison is included as a key supporting character.)
Mad Pig says
It’s a relief to know that people like these could get things so wrong.
1 and 2 and 4 definitely wrong imho.
3 and 5 might be something in them?