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Burden of Proof: Spurned Scientists Vindicated

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Old 01-23-2009
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Burden of Proof: Spurned Scientists Vindicated
: No one doubted Marie Curie's scientific chops. It was just her bad luck to be a woman, and a forceful one, at a time when science was a decidedly male fraternity. National chauvinism certainly played a role in her being turned down for a seat with the French Academy of Sciences (Curie was Polish by birth), but sexism was the real culprit in this sorry affair.
But male scientists have suffered through the ages, too, usually from neglect or by a trashing of their theories from colleagues, theories that were later vindicated and accepted as true. Here is a rogues' gallery (not to say a gallery of rogues) of scientists forced to endure the slings and arrows of their fellows before the light of truth shone clearly.
: No scientist has been kicked around for his theorizing quite like Albert Einstein. Of course, taking on something like redefining the basis for physics is bound to ruffle a few feathers. And that's exactly what Einstein did, with the publication of his Annus Mirabilis papers in 1905.
: Svante Arrhenius, the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish chemist and physicist, ran afoul of his colleagues by advancing the theory that electrolytes dissolved in water split off into opposing positive and negative ions. The irony here (aside from the fact that he was correct) is that the theory was not new but had been discarded and so long out of circulation that Arrhenius' contemporaries thought he was nuts. It almost cost him his dissertation, but vindication came less than 20 years later with the awarding of the 1903 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
: Hans Alfven, another misunderstood Swede, took heat for advancing his theory of galaxy-scale plasma dynamics, which posited the existence of parallel electric fields as a force alongside gravity in space. It wasn't until his theory could be confirmed by satellite research that it was found to be true.
: If there is an actual inventor of what became television, we'll never know. The TV is credited to any number of people, one of them being Scotsman John Baird. We'll throw him a bone here, because he took nothing but grief for the contraption he called the "televisor" when he demonstrated it to a bunch of skeptics at the Royal Society.
: Black holes in space? Heh heh. That's a good one, Chandra. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar advanced this crackpot theory in 1930, and his colleague, Sir Arthur Eddington, stomped all over it. Never underestimate the influence of a guy with a knighthood. Chandrasekhar's many subsequent lifetime achievements more than vindicated this early dismissal, including being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1983. At left, Chandrasekhar receives the National Medal of Science from President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.
: Christian Andreas Doppler had his share of travails but one of his biggest disappointments had to be watching his theory on the effects of velocity resoundingly shot down. Science finally accepted the Doppler Effect in 1868, but poor Doppler had already been dead for 15 years.
: When Robert L. Folk announced he had discovered the existence of nanobacteria — bacteria with diameters less than 200 nanometers — he was ridiculed for the claim. Rejection was based on the best science available, which argued that something that small couldn't actually be alive.
The controversy whether these systems constitute life still continues today, and only time will tell if Folk is a visionary or misguided. At left are the nanobacteria thought to contribute to human cataracts.
: William Harvey was the first western scientist to describe the circulatory system with the heart as its central pump. Unfortunately, he described it in the early 17th century and was nearly drummed out of the scientific community for doing so. Still, he fared better than Servetus, who described the pulmonary circulatory system in the 1500s. The church burned him at the stake as a heretic.
: Another scientist who ran afoul of the church and was forced to endure the ridicule of many of his colleagues was dear old Galileo, who had the audacity (and make no mistake: it was audacity in those days) to embrace Copernicus' heliocentric view of the solar system.
: Robert Goddard launched the world's first liquid-fuel rocket but was laughed off when he suggested its potential as a weapon of war. Scientists in Germany weren't laughing, however, and during World War II their V-2 rockets were used to attack England.
: It wasn't exactly "Ohmmm, baby" when Georg Ohm published his analysis of electrical current, which lays out the basis for a flowing current we know as Ohm's law. Not only was his theory rejected as "a tissue of naked fantasy," but he was forced to resign his job as a high school teacher. After 10 years of resistance, the pack finally figured out that Ohm's law was correct.

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