New ideas can be scary — and that includes new scientific and technological discoveries. When inventors create a brand new device, the futureshock can drive people insane with fear. Over the years, people have been sure that everything from Halley's Comet to cellphones would bring the world to an end.
Take a look at the top 10 scares that science has caused.
10. Cars and Trains
"Rail travel at high speed is not possible because passengers, unable to breathe, would die of asphyxia." This is the kind of thing that doctors, like Dr Dionysys Larder at University College London, believed in the early 1800s. There were all kinds of objections to rail travel, including those of Martin Van Buren. He believed that 'the Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed,' referring to the current limit of fifteen miles per hour. As time went on, people continued to believe that travel at upwards of fifteen miles, thirty-five miles, and fifty miles would snatch the breath out of passenger's lungs and peel off their faces.
It's alive! It's alive! This wasn't so much a big scare as a slow burn. As soon as it was shown that a little electricity could make a frog's leg jump, people began talking about its miraculous re-animating properties, and that myth has never entirely gone away. We no longer think you can shock a corpse made of many component parts sewn together to life, but we still think, assisted ably by television, that a stopped heart can be shocked back to life with a defibrillator even though it won't do one bit of good. Electricity's capacity for dealing out death was also of concern to people. President Benjamin Harrison had staff members turn lights on and off, because he was frightened of doing it himself. And the general public resisted electric doorbells for years because of the same fears.
Oh, Dolly. What brief havok you unleashed. The cloned sheep was hailed as the beginning of a new era in the world, in a version of a person could live forever, cloned from its host. Armies of clones could be raised. People could clone themselves and then edit their genes, giving rise to armies of subservients and supermen. Except Dolly herself didn't turn out as that great a sheep. Although she bred and gave birth to several lambs, she lived about half as long as other sheep, and had severe arthritis and lung infections. An extinct Ibex, brought back from a tissue sample as a clone, lived only seven minutes, and was also stricken with lung problems. The fact is, whatever scientists want, be it a human or a sheep, can be made most easily by getting two existing animals together. And the kinks in the cloning technique haven't been worked out enough to warrant bringing back other animals.
7. Halley's Comet
No, no one thought Halley's Comet would actually hit the Earth and kill everyone. (Or actually, some people probably thought that, but that wasn't the main story.) Instead of buying telescopes to observe the comet streak across the sky, in 1910, people bought gas masks. They were sure that the comet would start a chemical shift in the atmosphere and turn the whole atmosphere on Earth to nitrous oxide. Yes, laughing gas. They were sure that the entire world would die laughing. Other people just thought the 'cometary gases' would mix with the atmosphere and poison everyone. The fact that it had come around regularly didn't stop them from talking, proving that at least some people will freak out over anything.
6. Radioactive Elements
Radioactivity caused both a panic and a gold rush. Scientists worried early on about radioactivity, and of course movies came out which indicated that the radioactivity would turn animals giant or tiny or super smart. During World War II, after bombing raids, scientists would discreetly go out and check for radioactive elements in the area, seeing if the other side was using 'dirty bombs.' Meanwhile, the public was fascinated with the strange 'energy' that came out of these exotic elements. Surely energy would be good for anyone, and so it was put in cocktails, toothpaste, face cream, bread, and anything else they could think of. Towards the end of World War II, as the Allies were rolling into Germany, they sent people out to ascertain the progress of the German nuclear program. They were alarmed when they learned that a German company had made moves to acquire large amounts of various radioactive materials . . . until they learned that the company was trying to build up a supply to sell as tonics after the war. Radioactivity was both a terror and a panacea.
5. The First Nuclear Bomb
This was a small scare, but an intense one, as it caused one Manhattan Project scientist, Arthur Compton, to write, "Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind!" What kicked it off? Another Manhattan scientist, Edward Teller did a quick calculation which indicated that nuclear fission, on the scale of a fission bomb, could ignite the hydrogen in Earth's atmosphere and make the world into a fireball. This caused some concern, to the tune of every scientist available being pulled from their work and ordered to work out whether the bomb would work as predicted or whether the President would have just enough time to say 'oops,' as the advancing wall of flame hit Washington DC. Unanimously, the scientists came back with figures which indicated that the world was not going to end with one nuclear bomb. Which is, of course, why it was necessary to come up with enough nuclear bombs to cause the end of the world.
4. The Large Hadron Collider
This science scare proves that it's not that we don't learn, it's just that sometimes we know it's more fun to choose not to. People speculated about everything from the LHC creating a giant black hole that would suck everything around it in to a 'runaway fusion reaction' in nitrogen tanks that the LHC didn't actually have. And it was fun. Some scares are like seasoning. They add some bite to science. Although the LHC did put up an entire page allaying public concern, but they didn't really.
3. Cell Culture
The ability to keep cells alive in lab dishes was tirelessly sought after in the early part of the twentieth century, but when it looked like it was possible, many people were worried about the consequences. The whole scare started when a scientist (probably falsely) claimed that he was keeping chicken heart cells alive in a lab. People wrote stories about the cells staying alive and multiplying like the blob or cells infecting everyone and getting into everything. But when the fearmongers really started stretching their legs, things got impressive. Living cells could be made into anything, they said, spouting futures in which the world was full of two-headed toads (no sure why that's threatening to anyone except the toads) or animals with human minds. One expert wrote a book about how cell cultures would cause the world to be populated with 'giant negroes.' I say if time travel is ever invented, we need to find that author, and a volunteer group of professional basketball players needs to go back in time and scare the hell out of him.
This is a good one to fear, I think. And it was one that no one feared for centuries. Although many collectors unearthed strange, huge fossils from animals that weren't seen in the area any more, it was assumed they were somewhere else. After all, the massive tusked animals whose skulls had been excavated all over the world had contemporaries in Africa and India. Whatever else was dug up out of the ground had to be lurking somewhere. Some thought that God would not let his creations go extinct. Others thought that animals didn't die out, they simply changed. George Cuvier, a gifted paleontologist who his contemporaries said 'could reconstruct a skeleton from a single bone,' gathered evidence, both biological and geographic, that some species didn't blend with others or shrink down or get bigger. They were killed. He proved, to almost anyone who would look, that extinction was real, and that it often had to do with massive geological or environmental events. He steered the scientific community towards both extinction and catastrophism, and so is partially responsible for every item on this list.
No less a source than Socrates was worried about this new-fangled thing called writing that he'd heard about. He warned people that, "create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories." It was isolating as well. More importantly, he worried about all those children learning to read whatever writing they got their hands on. If they did, they could independently read horrible, immoral, or overly-fanciful tales that would warp their minds. If this is sounding awfully familiar to you, it's because it sounds familiar to everyone. The same was said about the printing press, the radio, the television, and the movies. Of course it's also been said about the internet. A recent study that warned that the internet, easy access to all kinds of written material, will take out our memory. This historical scare can give consolation to both sides. Those who feel it's overblown can point out that the more things change the more they stay the same. Those who want us to heed the warning can mention that they are on the side of Socrates.
Top Image: Shutterstock.com.
Train image: Herbert Ortner
1910 Halley's Comet: Wiki Commons
Large Hadron Collider Image: Julian Herzog
Pen and Ink Image: Pablo Perez
Via The Sarasota Herald, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Slate, CERN, NitCentral, Science Musings, listverse, Macleans, Ecolocalizer, Victorian Web.