5 Historical Myths About Real Scientific Discoveries

Scientific discovery may require reason, rationality, and a firm handle on the facts, but science history has its share of myths, urban legends, and tall tales. Thought experiments are misinterpreted as real experiments; the scientist with the most interesting story gets the credit for a discovery; misunderstandings are repeated from science teacher to science student. Although these tales of heroic (and fantastically lucky) scientists may be exaggerated, however, the scientific discoveries and theories involved are all very real.

Ben Franklin fighting Zeus by Jason Heuser. Prints available on Etsy.

Ben Franklin flies a kite. Let's kick this off with one scientific story that has proven difficult to verify or refute: Benjamin Franklin's historic kite flight. According to the story, in 1752, Franklin went out into a thunderstorm with a kite attached to a key, which was in turn attached to a Leyden jar. When the key was struck by lightning, the electricity traveled into the jar, thus proving that lightning is made up of electricity. It's a great moment in the history of swashbuckling science.

And there's a good chance it never happened.

As Alberto A. Martinez notes in his book Science Secrets: The Truth about Darwin's Finches, Einstein's Wife, and Other Myths, one of the red flags for Franklin's famous experiment is his lack of detail. In fact, when Franklin wrote in the Pennsylvania Gazette in August 1752, he didn't provide a first-hand account of the experiment, and instead gave only a basic outline of thunderstorm kite flying, describing it as something anyone could do. By contrast, when French scientist Jacques de Romas performed a similar experiment in 1753, he provided numerous details about the experiment: the time of day, the length of string and wire used, and the sensation of touching the string as the thunderstorm neared. (Especially telling is that De Romas explains what happens when you touch the kite string; while Franklin's article suggests one might safely step out into a thunderstorm flying a kite by hand, De Romas touched his string only briefly with his knuckles. The painful sensation convinced him not to repeat the experience bare handed.) When De Romas asked the Paris Academy of Sciences to acknowledge that he had been the first to successfully complete the experiment, the committee agreed, provided Franklin didn't provide details demonstrating that he had priority. Franklin was uncharacteristically mum on the subject.

5 Historical Myths About Real Scientific Discoveries

Since then, various researchers have attempted to prove the likelihood that Franklin ever flew that kite in 1752, including the Mythbusters, whose ruling came down as "Busted." Science writer Tom Tucker spent an entire book debunking the kite story. Still, the tale does have its proponents. Even Martinez isn't entirely certain the story isn't true.

How did the story come about? Assuming it's false, Franklin made it up himself. In a recent interview with This American Life, Jack Hitt, author of the book Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, suggests that Franklin created the kite myth precisely because it was such a great story and it would ensure that people would remember his contributions to electrical research. Because apparently being a Founding Father of the American experiment and a highly talented and prolific polymath wasn't enough.

Galileo dropped objects off the Tower of Pisa. When he wasn't pissing off the pope or co-opting the invention of the telescope, legend has it that Galileo Galilei climbed up the Leaning Tower of Pisa in 1589 and dropped two objects with different masses off the top. Thus did Galileo disprove Aristotle's assertion that the rate at which objects fall is dependent on their mass. There are a couple of pretty simple problems with this story, the first being that Galileo never claimed he performed such an experiment. While Galileo's treatise On Motion includes a thought experiment about dropping two objects off a tower, Galileo provides no account of having done so himself.

Even if Galileo had performed the experiment outside his own brain, he hardly would have been the first. The historian Benedetto Varchi mentions similar tests as early as 1544, and in 1576, Giuseppe Moletti, who preceded Galileo as mathematics chair at the University of Padua, reported that objects made of the same material with different masses would hit the Earth at the same time if dropped at the same time.

How did the story come about? This one's pretty easy to trace. Galileo's biographer and pupil, Vincenzo Viviani, mentions the experiment in his account of the scientist's life. This particular story has been almost universally discredited by historians, but that hasn't prevented it from being repeated in physics classes ad nauseam.

The finches of the Galapagos inspired Charles Darwin to develop his evolutionary theory. Naturalist Charles Darwin, as the story goes, boarded the HMS Beagle and toured the remarkable flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands. While there, he took particular interest in the various species of finches, which were especially well suited to their environments. His drive to figure out why these closely related finches were each such a perfect tool set him on the road to developing the theories outlined in The Origin of Species.

Martinez notes that this has all of the makings of an elegant classical myth. A young man leaves his home and travels to a foreign land, and what he finds there reveals heretofore untold secrets about the nature of the world. And all those lovely illustrations of finch beaks go a long way toward interesting young people in evolution.

5 Historical Myths About Real Scientific Discoveries

There's no question, however, that finches played little to no role in Darwin's dawning understanding of macroevolution. Yes, he documented finches and their varied beaks, but there is no mention of finches in On the Origin of the Species. The finches and their beaks do get a significant, albeit brief mention in Voyage of the Beagle:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends... Unfortunately most of the specimens of the finch tribe were mingled together; but I have strong reasons to suspect that some of the species of the sub-group Geospiza are confined to separate islands. If the different islands have their representatives of Geospiza, it may help to explain the singularly large number of the species of this sub-group in this one small archipelago, and as a probable consequence of their numbers, the perfectly graduated series in the size of their beaks.

But the finches were not the key inspiration for Darwin's work on natural selection and evolution. Darwin's time aboard the Beagle was formative, as he tried to reconcile what he saw in the Galapagos with various theories of creation. In fact, the highly specialized finches would have fit in well with certain natural law theologies that proposed that God had specially designed each animal to fit its environment. Far more relevant to Darwin's theories were the cases where that notion didn't seem to fit, where animals did not seem particularly well suited to a particular environment but had still managed to survive or animals that were extremely well suited to an environment didn't exist. Finches may have been excellent examples of microevolution, but the presence of these finches was less influential than was the absence of, for example, frogs and native small mammals from the Galapagos.

How did the story come about? Science historians attribute this one to evolutionary biologist David Lack, who actually did study the Galapagos finches and the link between their physiology and natural selection. His 1947 book was titled Darwin's Finches and although he wasn't the first to coin the term, his book did go a long way toward connecting Darwin's name to those specially beaked birds. Because the variety in beak shape and size proved such an excellent examples of natural selection and gradual change and because Darwin did indeed study finches, many misinterpreted the role of finches in Darwin's studies, and somewhere along the way, this misinterpretation became the dominant narrative.

Alexander Fleming realized the incredible medical of potential of penicillin when a stray mold spore landed on an exposed bacterial culture. Like so many great myths, this one has more than a grain (or mold spore) or truth to it. Scottish pharmacologist Sir Alexander Fleming did keep a notoriously messy lab, leaving bacterial cultures to pile up in a basin when he was finished with them. Mold could and did find its way into these abandoned cultures, including those of the Penicillium genus, which was being grown for other research purposes in another part of the building. Fleming did notice and identify the bacteria killing mold naming the substance it released "penicillin," which would go on to become one of medical science's great weapons. He was hardly the first to recognize its antibiotic properties, however. Penicillium was a known quantity, and many other researchers, including folks like Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur, had noted its ability to kill bacteria. In 1929, though, Fleming published a paper in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology on the effects of penicillin on various bacteriological agents, noting that it could kill the bacteria without destroying living human tissue.

However, your grade school biology class might have treated this as a lightbulb moment, with Fleming immediately recognizing the potential of penicillin and whipping it into medical-grade shape. The truth was that Fleming didn't see penicillin as a particularly viable medicine. Douglas Allchin notes in his article "Scientific Myth-Conceptions," which appeared in the May 2003 issue of Science Education that Fleming was frustrated by penicillin's limitations. When taken orally, penicillin wasn't absorbed by the human body, and it was excreted quickly after being injected. Rather than investigate the therapeutic potential of penicillin, Fleming tended to goof around with penicillin, drawing pictures on culture plates using penicillin and bacteria, and eventually he abandoned his work on the mold. It was a different researcher, Oxford's Howard Florey, who would lead the charge to make penicillin into a viable method of treating human infection. Even as Florey and his associate, Sir Ernst Boris Chain, began reporting great results with penicillin as a potential therapeutic agent, Fleming did not turn his attention toward similar research. (In fact, when Fleming telephoned Florey to arrange a visit to their lab, Chain responded that he'd thought Fleming was dead.) Florey and Chain did share the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine with Fleming, but it was Fleming who was named one of Time's 100 Persons of the Century. Florey and Chain have certainly been recognized as two of the great heroes of medical science, but they may never achieve the global fame Fleming earned for stumbling across penicillin in a dirty sink.

How did the story come about? Well, the half of this story that interests people most—that penicillin simply appeared one day on a bacterial culture—is true. But even Fleming himself termed his importance in the development of therapeutic penicillin the "Fleming Myth," and preferred to stress the importance of Florey and Chain's research. That myth, unsurprisingly, was started by the press. When Florey and Chain published their findings on the therapeutic uses of penicillin, they credited Fleming's article as their inspiration. Reporters loved the idea of this unknown, unsung Scottish researcher "discovering" penicillin by accident, and soon Fleming's name became synonymous with the life-saving drug.

Einstein's wife helped him develop his Theory of Relativity. This is a much more recent introduction to scientific mythology, one that has enjoyed popularity thanks in large part to the 2003 PBS documentary Einstein's Wife. The tale is a tantalizing one: Albert Einstein, while developing his grand theory, had input from his brilliant but modest first wife, Mileva Marić. Marić was herself, after all, a student at Zurich Polytechnic at the same time Einstein was studying there, enrolled in a diploma program to teach physics and mathematics. After a troubled academic career, she finally abandoned her PhD program after becoming pregnant by Einstein, and he developed many of his key theories while the two of them were involved. Add to that the fact that Einstein was a notoriously terrible husband (one who famously placed a rather dickish list of conditions on their proposed reconciliation), and it's tempting to think that this woman's contributions to physics were suppressed by a chauvinistic view of science history.

5 Historical Myths About Real Scientific Discoveries

While we can't overestimate the importance of a sympathetic and hardworking spouse in any scientific or creative endeavor, Marić's particular contributions to Einstein's work were probably not scientific in nature. Marić and Einstein did develop research topics together at Zurich Polytechnic, but there is no evidence that they collaborated on research after they left school. PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler lists an excellent catalog of the errors specific to the film Einstein's Wife, and Martinez notes that the most significant evidence against Marić's involvement in Einstein's research is that she herself never mentions participating in his work, even in personal letters to close friends. Colleagues of Einstein's specifically mention Marić's silent observation in their Olympia Academy discussion group, a group that Einstein's Wife erroneously claims Marić occasionally participated in. But just because Marić didn't contribute directly to Einstein's research, that doesn't mean that Marić is an unimportant figure in the history of science. Martinez cites the historian Gerald Holton, who believes that these claims that Marić was Einstein's silent collaborator risk overwhelming her genuine contributions: that she was an early pioneer of women in science and that she provided Einstein with a stable home life and valuable companionship during a key time in his academic development.

How did the story come about? In 1987, many of Einstein's personal notes and documents started to come out, offering greater insight into Einstein's life and his relationship with Marić. This led a handful of folks to speculate that Marić might have had some involvement in Einstein's research, but the general consensus among historians is that she did not. Einstein's Wife brought many of these theories to public attention, though PBS has since criticized the film as historically inaccurate.

What is the role of myth in science history? I'd like to throw this question out to you all. Is there a place for mythical stories and tall tales in the history of science? Allchin worries that mythological stories give young people an improper sense of how scientific discovery really happens, and in some cases overemphasizes the role of genius and luck and diminishes the role of hard work in scientific advancement. Martinez notes, however, that these myths can also be inspirational. He credits Franklin's story about the kite experiment, for example, as a sort of genius all of its own, one that has captured the imagination of generations as they learned about electricity and that era of scientific discovery.