Sometimes, the ways science goes wrong are as interesting as the ways it goes right. Nowadays, it seems uncommon for major discoveries which have been accepted by the scientific establishment for centuries to be proven completely wrong; they are more likely to be incrementally improved upon. Newtonian physics wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t as right as Einstein’s relativity (which is to say, in most everyday situations, the two are indistinguishable, but Newton goes wrong in border cases he had no way to test, or even conceive of). But in the early days of modern science, some theories were put forth and widely accepted which turned out to be not only less than complete, but spectacularly wrong. One of my favorites is the phlogiston theory of combustion, which turned out to be the exact opposite of correct.
Another is the theory of preformationism. It holds that living beings are not assembled from parts, but that their form has actually existed since creation. Human beings come from homunculi, from the Latin for “little man”: in other words, humans grow from tiny versions of themselves which are identical in form to an adult. Even after Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, pioneer in microscopy, in 1677 discovered sperm cells, some scientists continued to hold that there must be tiny humans inside each cell (illustrated above). There was even scientific debate about whether the homunculi resided inside the ovum or the sperm cell. Today, this sounds like a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” type of question.
Of course, one consequence of such a theory would be that humanity has a predetermined lifespan. After all, if humans nest inside each other like Russian dolls, at some point, the chain must end. A single sperm cell cannot contain an infinite amount of tinier humans with even tinier sperm cells with tinier humans.
I’m going to do something I don’t usually do on this blog and recommend some science-minded fiction. Notice that I don’t say “science fiction”. A lot of sci-fi is indistinguishable from fantasy, introducing impossible premises and then ignoring them when convenient, applying them when the plot requires. Science-minded fiction, on the other hand, would be fiction that takes false or impossible premises and then works out, in logical fashion, what the consequences would be.
One of my favorite authors of such fiction is Ted Chiang. He is not a very prolific author, but almost everything he publishes is gold. Every year he publishes a story, he earns at least a nomination for a Hugo or Nebula award. You should check out his collection of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others. In that book, there is a story called Seventy-Two Letters, which imagines a world where Jewish mysticism and the preformation theory are true. Division by Zero is a story about a mathematician who discovers that mathematics is inconsistent. The title story is perhaps the best one in the collection, dealing with the now discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and some other stuff I’m not going to spoil. If this sort of thing interests you, do check it out. Most of the stories in the collection have been available online at one time or another, so you might be able to find them if you’re cheap or impatient.