Article by Alex Martin. Edited by Zara Barua. Additional Research by Lisa Wall.
‘Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine,’ contested British astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington. What we don’t know is far more interesting than what we do know. And whilst the form of science is a rigorous search for the undeniable truth, the content shifts. For example, Newtonian physics maintains that gravity is constant but Einstienian physics proves otherwise. Throughout history these shifts have been dramatic, contentious and humorous. What follows is a list of beliefs that haven’t survived human beings’ quest to understand the world we live in, along with an ‘unbelievability’ rating out of 5.
Phrenology is the belief that characteristics can be determined through careful examination of the shape and size of the cranium; a purely materialist view of psychology that assigned characteristics such as bravery and poetical talent to specific areas of the brain. A large lump here or a flatter plain there could explain or confirm anybody’s personality. Whilst some at the time described the practice as ‘the pseudo-science of the present day,’ phrenology enjoyed favour in the general public’s imagination as well as in the scientific world, with societies in Edinburgh and New York as well as journals such as the American Phrenological Journal. Now known to have little scientific use, and be a practice with racist and sexist connotations, more scientific credit ought to go to critics of the practice such as François Magendie.
Unbelievability rating: 2/5 – Phrenology was a theory that got some things right: all mental faculties do occur in the brain, certain functions reside in one area of the brain etc. However, the majority of its tenets are pure fiction.
Monsters of the Deep
Crackens, Seas Serpents, the Loch Ness Monster etc have all enjoyed varying degrees of belief. In general, however, most sightings can be debunked by deep sea gigantism, an evolutionary phenomenon that sees larger creatures succeed in the depths of the oceans. When the giant squid, blue whale or the oarfish surface they are mistaken for sights of magical and sometimes malicious monsters. In 1860, it was believed that a sea serpent had been washed ashore on the beaches of Bermuda; samples were taken, sketches were made, and the world of zoology was thought to have been inverted. However, a comparison of the sketch with the giant oarfish appears to have explained the event.
Unbelievability rating: 3/5 – Whilst many of these so called monsters are exaggerations of real animals, there is no Loch Ness Monster and those who cash in on this lie or any others, such as the Turkish Lake Van Monster, should be ashamed and labelled as the hucksters they are.
Disbelief in Ball lightning
Throughout history there have been sparse accounts of a spherical lightning striking people and buildings leaving damage, burns and corpses in its wake. Originally this was thought to be the exaggeration of drunks, attention seekers and fraudsters. However, consistencies in the reports such as the sickly smell of sulphur that was left in its wake as well as a photo of the proposed event lead some scientists to theorize possible ways where this might actually be the case; explanations such as black hole interference through time and sub atomic ‘nanobatteries’ have been proposed as the cause. Vaporized silicon experiments conducted on laboratories have synthesised small glowing balls that give off a sulphuric smell, but do not last as long as the ones allegedly witnessed.
Unbelievability rating: N/A – As we do not know whether Ball lightning is or isn’t real it would be impossible to judge how ridiculous the belief is.
Moloch (which in ancient Semitic means King) is the name of an archaic Semitic god, praised and worship predominantly by the Phoenician people. Moloch was historically associated with, the Hebrew, Ammonite, Phoenician Canaanite, and related cultures in North Africa throughout the first century. However, he appears in other cultures as a mythical demon. Fierce, cruel and demanding Moloch required frequent and bloody child sacrifices to appease him. Often depicted as a giant dark Minotaur beast, he is thought to have inspired medieval and early modern images of the devil.
Unbelievability rating: 5/5 – I simply won’t be bogged down in moral or historical relativism here, child murder is wrong. No society, culture or individual ought to believe such evil.
Venus is closer to Earth in its size, orbit, and mass. It is the closest planet to Earth and the most visible planet in the night sky. Its green appearance gives aliens their skin colour in modern day sci-fi story telling. In 1962 NASA’s second attempted and first successful probe landed on Venus confirming that it is 800 degrees Fahrenheit and has an atmosphere consisting mainly of poison. It has recently been discovered, however, that Mars not only can harbour life, in the form of bacteria, but that in all likelihood that it does.
Unbelievability rating: 1/5 – With the billions of planets and stars, alien life of some kind is almost a statistical certainty plus with the information available Venusians were almost a logical conclusion.
Alchemy is an ancient pseudo-scientific belief that base metals can be turned into gold, which seems to have sprung up throughout three civilizations independently in ancient Rome, ancient Islam and medieval Europe.
Unbelievability rating: 4/5 not only does the chemistry not work but the economics doesn’t either. If lead could be turned into gold the supply of gold would increase eventually lowering the price, however may be beneficial if you were a lead merchant.
Vegetable lamb of Tartary
The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary was believed by the people of medieval Europe to be a plant of central Asia, which could grow sheep. The sheep were connected to the plant by an umbilical cord and grazed the land around the plant. The notion gained validity as an explanation for the existence of cotton in medieval circles. Although there is an explanation rooted in the translation of the real plant Cibotium barometz known under an assortment of other names including the Scythian Lamb. However, the myth of a meat bearing plant is traceable as far back as 436 AD as a Jewish Myth.
Unbelievability rating: 4/5 – It was asserted that there was a tree that could sprout a lamb with no proof, evidence or likelihood, only an oddball explanation for cotton. In fact, this is something so bizarre and unbelievable that Diderot parodied such a view in his first encyclopaedia.
Whilst some of these beliefs are harmless (Venusians, Vegetable lambs) others are not – which leads us to conclude that the fraction that we do know about the universe must always be questioned, probed and subjected to retesting. This is a process made even more difficult for the historian as the opportunity to re-test under the same conditions is impossible to achieve.