The Most Embarrassing Moments in the History of Science

By: Staff

4 Min Quiz

Image: refer to hsw

About This Quiz

What? Scientists get things wrong? We know. It’s shocking to hear, but science isn’t always an exact science. Mistakes do happen -- and they often lead to great scientific discoveries. So, grab your safety glasses and see if you can identify the most embarrassing scientific moments ever.

What is the name of the protoscience where philosophy, science, occultism and theology come together to turn lead into gold?

The Merriam-Webster definition of alchemy is “a medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” Though many experts don’t consider alchemy to be an actual science, it is often referred to as a protoscience that inspired modern day chemistry.


According to Johann Joachim Becher, phlogiston is an essential element for what chemical reaction?

Those Renaissance men sure were interesting, but they were still rookies at understanding science. In 1667, Johann Joachim Becher developed a theory that all combustible objects contained the element phlogiston and required it to burn. Once we discovered that it was oxygen that fire needed in order to burn, Johann’s theory about phlogiston went up in smoke.


Roughly how old is the planet Earth?

We’re lucky we keep getting smarter as time wears on, because our understanding of time is definitely getting better. Back in biblical times, people weren’t so sure about how long the world had been around. In the 17th century, scholars mapped out the timeline in the Bible and guessed that the Earth was created around 4000 B.C. In the 18th century, geologists concluded that with shifting plates and such, it was more like 6,000 years old. Thankfully, we discovered radioactive dating in the early 20th century, and figured out that this giant rock we’re living on is way older than we thought -- more than 4 BILLION years old! It took a while to get there, but we did.


What is the smallest particle of matter?

Here’s another example of science mistakes paving the way for bigger discoveries. Around the 5th century B.C., the Greek philosopher Democritus proposed that matter was made up of atoms, which he touted as the smallest particles. But it took until the early 20th century for physicists to discover that atoms were made up of even smaller particles called neutrons, protons and electrons. Physicists continue to whittle down the theories about matter, and now the quark is thought to be one of the smallest particles. But wait a few minutes and a new one might be discovered.


Before 1953, what did scientists think was the key to heredity?

Until the middle of the 20th century, scientists did believe that DNA was genetic material, but they thought that proteins were the link that passed along hereditary traits (because DNA was too simple.) In 1953, Watson and Crick published their findings that showed the new double-helix model for DNA. This convinced fellow scientists that this simple molecule could actually handle code for hereditary traits.


Until the late 19th century, doctors thought infection was caused by this.

Back then, doctors were pretty new at this whole surgery thing, and not very knowledgeable about how disease is spread. It wasn’t until science greats like Louis Pasteur and Joseph Lister arrived that the docs realized that unclean hands and surgical instruments could cause infections. They thought nebulous concepts like “bad air” were the culprits.


What celestial body lies at the center of our solar system?

Hopefully the word “solar” in solar system tipped you off. Or your 1st grade science knowledge. You probably remember learning about the solar system as a little kid and made a model of the planets revolving around the sun. Surprisingly, one of man’s biggest science mistakes was believing that the Earth was the center of the Universe. Until Copernicus persuaded everyone to let go of their egos and look at reality. Sorry, Ptolemy, it’s not all about you.


What product, now recognized as dangerous, was advertised as healthful in medical journals of the 1930s and 1940s?

It took a long time for science to convince doctors that cigarettes were linked to lung disease. It wasn’t until the 1950s that scientific studies started to sink in. Before then, doctors thought health issues connected to cigarette smoking were a minimal problem that only affected certain unfortunate folks. So, tobacco companies took this opportunity to sell "healthier" cigarettes and advertise in medical journals. That must be why you see doctors smoking in old movies.


What is the main cause of ulcers?

For years, doctors wrote off ulcers as the result of stress, though many researchers claimed otherwise. In 2005, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren won a Nobel Prize for debunking this mistaken idea and proving that the bacterium <i>H</i><i>elicobacter pylori </i>was the culprit. Tummies all over the world are thanking them.


Which science mistake is the drug company Pfizer credited with making?

Though both of these products were happy accidents, Pfizer gets credit for creating Viagra. It appears that unusual side effects popped up while they were testing a drug meant for heart conditions.


Which of these science mishaps caused the space shuttle Challenger to explode?

The Challenger accident was one of the most upsetting science mistakes in history, both because of the loss of lives and because so many people witnessed it happening. A failed O-ring seal caused the explosion. This particular O-ring had been known to fail in cold temperatures, but the launch had been delayed five times, so they went ahead with it.


In the 1960s, geneticists crossed honeybees from which two continents to accidentally create a deadly new species?

Two Brazilian geneticists crossbred mild-tempered European honeybees with aggressive African honeybees in hopes of creating a new bee that would fare better in the warm South American climate. Instead, they developed a dangerous Africanized honeybee that escaped to Texas and still troubles the Southwestern U.S.


Which doctor was cleaning up his lab when he discovered penicillin?

Fleming was having no luck finding a “wonder drug” to cure disease. That is, until he noticed that a contaminated petri dish he’d thrown away was growing a mold that was dissolving the bacteria around it. Ta da! He had discovered penicillin.


Naval engineer Richard James discovered which novelty item?

Richard James gets credit for the Slinky, which was more of a discovery than an invention. He was trying to create a meter to monitor power on battleships. One of the tension springs he was working with fell on the ground and kept bouncing. That’s almost cooler than discovering penicillin.


Which animal was at the center of a fraudulent discovery that was displayed at the National Geographic Society?

In 1999, a fossil smuggled out of China was supposedly evidence that birds evolved from dinosaurs. The fossil was proudly displayed at the National Geographic Society, but it turned out to be a hoax. Just some animal parts and pieces glued together. It was called the Piltdown chicken because it was reminiscent of an earlier hoax in the Piltdown quarries of England.


Which famous science theory was introduced 1989?

Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons claimed in 1989 that they could solve the world’s energy problems with cold fusion. Which basically meant harnessing power as great as the sun in a test tube. Rad! Unfortunately, no other scientists have been able to recreate the process and make it work. Now we’re left with No Fusion.


The Chernobyl Disaster released how much more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs combined?

The massive science mistake made by nuclear engineers on April 26, 1986 released 100 times more radiation than both bombs, killing 4,300 people and disabling 70,000.


What smelly substance was thought to cure baldness in 17th century England?

Back in the day, scientists loved to use dung to cure everything. Chicken dung was a popular remedy for baldness in England. Cow dung was used in India to cure cancer. And crocodile dung was popular in ancient Egypt as a contraceptive. But in general, using dung for any kind of cure simply stinks.


Which animal has been believed to suck the sick right out of you?

Remember those crazy guys who didn’t understand gangrene? Well, they are also credited for leeching -- the practice of sticking blood-sucking leeches on your body to remove imbalances. More often than not, it just left a person feeling weaker than when they came into the barber shop in the first place. Yes, they did this in the barber shop. Even more crazy.


Now for some extra credit fun. Name the science mistake that occurred in the movie “Mary Poppins.”

The robin that lands on Mary's finger in the "Spoonful of Sugar" scene is actually an American robin. Not a British one, like you would expect to see in London. While umbrellas are not valid modes of transportation, most people wouldn't actually confuse Mary's magic with botched science facts. The penguins are also out of place geographically, but we'll chalk that up to magic, too.


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