Who are some lesser known scientists who failed heroically?
March 9, 2023 7:02 PM   Subscribe

I recently came across the story of Guillaume Le Gentil who was part of the global effort in the 1700s to measure the distance from the earth to the sun. The way to do that was to take astronomical observations of the transit of Venus. Despite his passionate dedication, he failed. But his failure was epic, uber-Murphy's law stuff What other scientists/inventors have had colossal heroic failures?
posted by storybored to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Joseph Weber, who announced he had detected gravity waves in 1969. His findings were discredited in the 1970s. Gravity waves were finally detected by LIGO in 2015.
posted by JonJacky at 8:20 PM on March 9, 2023 [3 favorites]

Tesla's Wardenclyffe Tower and Fleischmann and Pons's cold fusion fiasco are two high-profile fails.
posted by credulous at 8:48 PM on March 9, 2023 [1 favorite]

One example from Wikipedia's self-experimentation in medicine page: William Stark, an 18th-century physician and medical pioneer. He died while extreme dieting, researching the causes of scurvy.
posted by Rash at 9:31 PM on March 9, 2023

Mathematician Gottlob Frege published volume 1 of his attempt to "derive, by use of his symbolism, all of the laws of arithmetic from axioms he asserted as logical," in 1893.
In 1903, just as Volume 2 was about to go to press, he got a letter from Bertrand Russell which demolished the theoretical framework he was using.
He added an appendix to the book which starts, "Hardly anything more unfortunate can befall a scientific writer than to have one of the foundations of his edifice shaken after the work is finished. This was the position I was placed in by a letter of Mr. Bertrand Russell, just when the printing of this volume was nearing its completion."
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:12 PM on March 9, 2023 [7 favorites]

Probably the most famous failed experiment is Michelson–Morley.
posted by kickingtheground at 10:29 PM on March 9, 2023 [3 favorites]

Edward Garvey's unheeded warning to the world of man-made climate change is probably the most heroic and tragic failure.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 12:04 AM on March 10, 2023

If you're not yet familiar with it, you might want to check out the The Constant podcast. Scientific accidents, mistakes and bad ideas figure largely in it.
posted by rjs at 3:50 AM on March 10, 2023 [3 favorites]

Ignaz Semmelweis is a pretty tragic figure (maybe not lesser-known enough?). He mostly figured out antiseptic technique before germ theory, and came up with a method that dropped deaths from childbed fever (which were probably mostly hospital-acquired staph infections) by 90% in the hospitals where he worked. His method was the genuinely revolutionary "washing your hands in between patients and especially in between autopsies and treating live patients."

His experiments were actually a great success but his ideas were rejected (for a lot of reasons) and he died after being involuntarily confined to an asylum. Antiseptic technique would start to catch on shortly after his death.

(And I would argue that a null result, e.g. Michelson–Morley, is hardly a failure! That's just science, and the Michelson-Morley result taught people a lot!)
posted by mskyle at 4:20 AM on March 10, 2023 [10 favorites]

Throughout the '50s and '60s, Peter van de Kamp claimed to have observed small "wobbles" in the motions of nearby stars, most notably Barnard's Star. He interpreted this as observational evidence of planets orbiting these stars. The broader community eventually rejected these claims but van de Kamp remained convinced that he was right until his death.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:49 AM on March 10, 2023

Philo Farnsworth dedicated the latter half of his life to producing limitless energy from nuclear fusion. He came pretty close, but couldn't quite figure out how to make it practical.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:12 AM on March 10, 2023 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure about 'heroic', but how about this: Prosper-René Blondlot, having made the first measurement of the speed of radio waves in 1891 (thereby giving crucial support to Maxwell's theories about light waves), went on to announce in 1903 that he had discovered N-rays, a new form of radiation. (The N is for Nancy). It made quite a stir, hundreds of papers were written about N-rays. But it was also quickly debunked, and by 1905 no-one claimed to believe in them, although Blondblot seems to have hung on to his commitment to them for quite some time after that. Here's a neat article rich with extra details in Scientific American (J-stor, paywall, but sci-hub helps with that).
posted by Joeruckus at 5:29 AM on March 10, 2023 [2 favorites]

This may not be quite what you are looking for, but two physicists (Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin) both died from radiation poisoning when they were working with a plutonium core. In both cases, the scientists were engaged in risky behaviors and should have known better.
posted by alex1965 at 6:39 AM on March 10, 2023 [1 favorite]

American astronomer Percival Lowell thought that he saw canals on Mars. He popularized this theory and published three books about it. There were no such canals.
posted by alex1965 at 6:47 AM on March 10, 2023

Charles Babbage's designs for the first computers went unfinished due to technological limitations and other practical problems.
posted by MetaFilter World Peace at 7:17 AM on March 10, 2023

Ludwig Boltzmann is responsible for the field of statistical mechanics and helped define entropy, among the foundations of modern physics. His ideas were controversial during his life, and he spent much of his life energy in arguments with other physicists about them. He succumbed to suicide at age 62. Some years after his death, Max Planck named the Boltzmann Constant in recognition of his work. [Edit update: I apologize for responding with this tragic story in response to a request for failures. Boltzmann was by no means a failure.]
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:25 AM on March 10, 2023 [2 favorites]

Though I'd suggest that the aforementioned cold fusion and polywater were more examples of pathological science than anything remotely heroic, especially since the researchers seemed to spend far more energy attacking their critics than trying to reproduce results that were simply too good to be true. (I was in grad school in chemistry when the whole cold fusion circus started, we always joked that going into a comprehensive oral exam or thesis defence and answering our examining committee like Pons and Fleischmann would be a great way to get thrown out of the program in no time flat.)

Maybe a different kind of heroism was Vladimir Komarov's fatal Soyuz 1 flight. Komarov had been involved in testing the new craft and pointed out numerous serious deficiencies in its design and performance. Taking no warning from the Apollo 1 tragedy only 3 months before, Soviet leadership insisted on pressing ahead to gain an advantage in the space race. Komarov could have refused to fly but knew that the doomed assignment would then be given to another cosmonaut, so went through with the mission rather than let anyone else suffer his ultimately tragic fate. Like the Apollo program, crewed Soyuz flights were also delayed for a year and a half while the spacecraft was redesigned for improved performance and cosmonaut safety (although this did not prevent the later loss of the Soyuz 11 crew).
posted by hangashore at 7:41 AM on March 10, 2023 [3 favorites]

Newton — though hardly a failure in any of the fields we know him for now (physics, mathematics) — failed utterly in his lifelong alchemical experiment to turn his body into pure gold by keeping a heated open container of mercury by his bedside. This experiment did succeed in making his house and papers a biohazard, however.

(It also possibly contributed to his later irascibility in his legendary disagreements with Hooke, Leibniz and others.)
posted by scruss at 9:21 AM on March 10, 2023 [10 favorites]

Probably the most famous failed experiment is Michelson–Morley.
posted by kickingtheground

Definitely not a failure. An experiment fails when it does not deliver a clear answer. The answer itself does not matter, only that it is correct.
posted by Pouteria at 6:33 PM on March 12, 2023 [4 favorites]

Since Michelson-Morley's experiment has been invoked a few times in here, here's a link to a Wikipedia article about it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:36 AM on March 14, 2023 [1 favorite]

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