Science & Technology

Here Lie 9 Dumb Things We Used to Believe

"We spend a great deal of time studying history," Stephen Hawking said in a 2016 lecture, "which, let's face it, is mostly the history of stupidity." Smart man, that Hawking. It may seem cynical to take this approach, but you'll find after scanning the beliefs of the past that it's a pretty spot-on assessment.

Let us now take a moment to mourn nine debunked and disproven theories of the past. Hope you're ready for a spook because nothing is scarier than scientific inaccuracies! Rest in peace, dumb beliefs about the world; no longer shall you live in the collective consciousness of society.

1. Earth is at the center of the universe.

Died 1543

Ancient minds sure thought highly of the Earth. In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus set everyone straight by asserting that everything in the universe doesn't revolve around our home planet. His book "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Bodies)" laid out a heliocentric model of the universe that is similar to what we believe today.

To be fair, Aristarchus of Samos was the first known person to say that the sun was in the center of the universe, according to NASA. He proposed this in the third century BCE, but this belief laid dormant until Copernicus put some more thought behind it.

2. Washing your hands won't prevent disease.

Died 1850

In 1850, obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis pioneered the idea that washing your hands between working with cadavers and delivering babies would reduce the number of new mothers dying. You'll never believe it — once Semmelweis instructed his medical staff to clean instruments and hands with a chlorine solution after corpse-handling, the rate of childbed fever fell dramatically.

Unfortunately and shockingly, not everyone was thrilled with Semmelweis' discovery, and it took a while for the hand-washing thing to really catch on. Luckily today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent these infections.

3. Different parts of your tongue pick up different tastes.

Died 1974

Maybe this is one you learned in school, and maybe even still believe. Sorry, the idea that the tip of your tongue picks up sour tastes, or the middle of your tongue processes sweetness, or whatever, is a myth. Your entire tongue can sense sweet, sour, salty, and bitter more or less equally.

Virginia Collings, a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, offered evidence that debunked the well-known tongue taste map in 1974. She found that even though there was a slight difference in concentrations of certain taste receptors in certain areas of the tongue, the overall effect this had on taste was negligible, Yale Scientific reports.

4. Bad smells can make you sick.

Died 1854

According to the once-popular miasma theory, diseases were caused by "bad air." Miasma is the name for this foul-smelling, poisonous vapor that carried particles of decaying matter. In 1854, epidemiologists traced a deadly outbreak of cholera to water contamination. Discovering no organic matter in the water that was undoubtedly causing all the cholera, John Snow debunked miasma theory by proving that cholera is a waterborne disease. Soon, germ theory caught on and miasma flew out the window.

5. Continents are unmovable.

Died 1912

In 1912, a German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener proposed continental drift theory. His idea held that the continents were once all together in a single supercontinent, then gradually drifted apart. Of course, as with any forward-thinker, Wegener had his haters. Rollin T. Chamberlin, a University of Chicago geologist, said that Wegener's work "takes considerable liberties with our globe," it ignores "awkward, ugly facts," and "plays a game in which there are few restrictive rules." Change is hard.

6. Babies don't feel pain.

Died 1987

Yes, you read that correctly. It was commonly believed until the 1980s that baby brains weren't developed enough to process pain. Thus, most medical procedures performed on babies until that time were — gulp — done completely anesthetic-free. In 1987, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that it was no longer ethical to perform surgery on preterm babies without anesthetics. Somehow, even today, not everyone is convinced.

7. The universe is static.

Died 1927

Albert Einstein was right about a lot of things (gravitational waves, anyone?), but not everything. Until 1931, he thought that the universe was finite, static in time, and possessed of a uniform distribution of matter. In 1927, Georges Lemaître, a Belgian astrophysicist and priest, concluded that the universe was expanding by combining general relativity with astronomical observations. It took a few years for Einstein to come around to this idea.

8. The size and shape of your head determines your behavior.

Died 1840s

In the 18th century, physician Franz Joseph Gall developed his theory linking anatomy to brain function. He concocted phrenology, the idea that different parts of your brain governed particular functions, moods, and behaviors. With this theory, Gall believed that studying the bumps and lumps of the skull could reveal the character of the brain beneath. What does the shape of your head say about your mind? Phrenology was mostly discredited by the 1840s and has since been considered pseudoscience.

9. The ether is a mysterious substance through which light travels in space.

Died 1905

An easy way to explain the mysteriously weird fabric of the universe is to just paint it all as the ether. This hypothetical stuff is said to be the necessary medium that Earth, other planets, and light travels through in space. The one and only Albert Einstein shot this idea down when he published his Theory of Special Relativity in 1905. We now know that no transmission medium is required for light, as light in space moves in a vacuum.

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If you'd like to learn more about Einstein's theory, check out "Relativity: The Special and the General Theory" by Albert Einstein. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto October 16, 2017

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