New inventions and discoveries are often accompanied by confusion, which gives rise to various controversies. We explore the disputes surrounding some well-known inventions and discoveries.
Innovators are inevitably controversial.
― Eva Le Gallienne
A controversy is a state of prolonged dispute/debate between two or more conflicting viewpoints, in the form of opinions or experimental evidence. Although different concepts apply to different subjects depending on the culture or region, the concept of controversy has the same set of subjects across cultures. These subjects include topics related to politics, religion, science, sex, etc. These subjects can often cause the debate to become heated, and more so if it concerns the relation of science and religion.
Extremist religious fanatics claim that science corrupts faith, whereas devout atheistic scientists believe that religion is just a tale tailor-made to the fancy of humans. However, both these groups are at fault for adopting the wrong and extremist view of matters. It is this conflict that gives rise to a number of controversies with regards to any new invention or discovery. While it is true that some scientific discoveries or inventions do not follow religious tenets, the same can be applied vice versa. In effect, instead of creating a controversy, the society must examine what the discovery offers, and if it can be applied for the betterment of humanity.
Controversial Inventions and Discoveries
In the late 1600s, two mathematicians independently developed a new branch of mathematics, which is known today as calculus. These developers were Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz. While it is common knowledge now that Isaac Newton discovered calculus, this very fact was a highly contested and controversial fact back in the 1600s. This controversy arose since Leibniz was the first to actually publish a scientific paper (1684) outlining the aspects of this mathematical branch; whereas Newton published a paper in 1693. However, close associates of Newton argued that Newton’s notes referenced calculus as early as 1666, and also that Leibniz had knowledge of Newton’s work, and hence, committed plagiarism. To clarify this, a review by the Royal Society in 1713 investigated each individual’s claims, and concluded that, while Newton had in fact invented calculus, both men had contributed to the overall concept. Hence, Newton is called the founder of infinitesimal calculus, and Leibniz is credited as being the father of integral and differential calculus.
The emission of greenhouse gases due to human activities has considerably increased with the growth industrial technologies. This, coupled with the marked changes in the weather patterns across the globe, points to the possibility of the occurrence of the greenhouse effect on a global scale, resulting in global warming. It refers to the observable increase of surface temperatures globally over the course of time. Considerable scientific data and evidence has been obtained to be able to prove the occurrence of global warming. However, it has not been readily accepted by various government organizations on account of political implications. Only if it is accepted, will it be possible to take any preventive or corrective measures. However, despite increasing evidence, global warming is rejected mainly due to the pressure exerted by the oil industry, since any preventive measures would directly affect the revenue earned by this industrial sector. Also, since this sector provides the maximum funding for various government and public organizations, as well as for political campaigns of politicians, it is able to exert considerable pressure in political matters.
The credit of inventing the radio was the subject of dispute for a considerable number of years. The candidates for inventing it were famed Serbian-Croatian inventor Nikola Tesla and Italian Guglielmo Marconi. Tesla was known to give public speeches on the uses of radio communication as early as 1891, and had even managed to produce a prototype for the same by 1893. However owing to his poor judgment and low business acumen, he failed to capitalize on his invention. On the other hand, Marconi applied for a patent for the technology as soon as he developed it in 1896. He even formed his own wireless company, and commercialized the radio. However, his designs for the radio were similar to those produced by Tesla. This dispute was later cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted the patent to Tesla, but maintained that while the contributions of Tesla were vital to the development of this technology, sole credit could not be given to any one of the two men, since Marconi’s business savvy was what commercialized and popularized the invention.
It refers to the preservation of humans at extremely low temperatures, with the view of resuscitating and reanimating them in the future. This is a viable option for people suffering from medical conditions that do not yet have a known cure, and also for those who merely want to live to see the wonders that the future will bring. The concept maintains that, despite the suspension of life, which is referred to as legal or medical death, future technologies would be advanced enough to extract information from the neural networks of the preserved individual, and used to either reanimate the individual or to recreate the person’s consciousness by uploading into a mechanical entity (like a robot). At present, this procedure is allowed only in case of individuals who are declared to be legally dead. Otherwise it may be considered as assisted suicide. The futuristic scope of this technology leaves quite a few skeptics in its wake. Since the technology of reanimation has not yet been developed, much less perfected, it begs the question of whether the preservation is successful or not, i.e., if one cannot test the preservation technique by reanimation, then how can one be sure that the preservation is successful. Another query that scientists raise is that, when, in the future, one does manage to reanimate a frozen human, how much of the resuscitated human will resemble itself prior to preservation. While some people are happy to utilize this technology despite the various loopholes, many more criticize it for interfering and disrupting the natural order concerning the lifespan of an individual.
In the early ’80s, investigation into the cause of AIDS was vital, since it was causing grave epidemics in global populations. Of the many research teams investigating AIDS, two teams―cone led by French scientist Luc Montagnier and the other by American Robert Gall―were able to identify the HIV viral particle, and published their findings at the same time (1983 – 84). Like any major scientific discovery, the group that publishes its findings first is often credited. However, in this case, due to the close proximity of publication timelines, a controversy erupted over who deserved the credit. Although Montagnier had published first, Gallo’s description of the virus and its link to AIDS was more comprehensive and detailed. Since both scientists were from different nations, the one who claimed the credit would be able to secure its patent for its country. This caused the French and American governments to get involved in a previously purely scientific dispute. In the end, it was accepted that both teams contributed greatly to the discovery. Montagnier’s group was credited with being the first group to isolate the virus; whereas Gallo’s team was credited with developing a link between HIV and AIDS, and its related technology.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)
GMOs refer to plants and microorganisms that have been genetically modified in order to be beneficial for human purposes. Several microorganisms have been genetically modified till date, to include genes that code for various biological molecules like antibiotics, amino acids, etc. The insertion of the gene is done in such a way that the organism produces and processes the gene-product naturally, and in great abundance, thereby greatly streamlining the manufacturing process of that biological molecule. In case of plants, genes are incorporated that result in better shelf life of the plant products, and also to confer the plant with pest-resistance and increased yield. Despite these enhancements, the consumption and sale of the products of this technology is highly controversial, as many people oppose the use of this technology. It is viewed as an act of interference with nature, that may produce debilitating effects on consumption. Some even believe that the consumption of these products would cause the person to develop random mutations or health disorders. While these claims lack any scientific evidence, people still insist on avoiding these products, despite them being declared safe for consumption by various scientific and governmental authorities.
In the 1960s, Russian scientist Nikolai Fedyakin performed experiments that involved repeatedly forcing water through narrow quartz capillary tubes, in order to produce a new type of water (polywater) with physical properties different from that of regular water. This process was streamlined by Boris Derjaguin in Moscow. He was able to produce this type of water in a shorter amount of time. He noted that the new water exhibited a freezing point of −40°C, boiling point of 150°C, density of approx. 1.1 to 1.2 g/cm3, and increased expansion with increasing temperatures. The findings were published in reputed scientific journals, and were also presented at symposiums. This caused the American scientists to attempt to reproduce polywater. However, not all were successful in doing so. Later, a scientist, Denis Rousseau, examined polywater samples and found it to contain mostly sodium and chlorine. This caused him to compare the sample with a sample of his own sweat. The analysis revealed that, both samples had identical properties, revealing that polywater was in fact nothing but plain water containing small amounts of biological impurities.
Shroud of Turin
This is a linen covering that bears the full-body image of a man, with marks consistent with the act of crucifixion. It is believed to be the cloth used to cover Jesus’ body before his burial. Hence, it is wrapped in silk and kept in a silver chest in the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Turin, Italy. Carbon dating of the material suggests that the cloth was woven around 1260 – 1390 AD, which is much later than the time of Jesus’ death. In addition, when the shroud was photographed, the negatives of the picture looked like the positive image, implying that the image on the shroud is a negative image. This shroud is the most mysterious and controversial of all archeological discoveries, as it neither confirms nor refutes the existence of Jesus.
Another controversial archeological find with ties to Jesus’ existence was the discovery of the Talpiot Tomb in East Jerusalem. The tomb was found accidentally when workers were carrying out construction work for an apartment building. Examination of the tomb revealed the presence of a limestone burial box (ossuary) containing human bones, which had the inscription ‘Yeshua bar Yehosef’ (‘Jesus, son of Joseph’). In addition, six more ossuaries were found, including one marked ‘Mariamne’ or ‘Mary’. Analysis of the bones and mitochondrial DNA of the remains showed no mitochondrial link between the remains of Jesus and those of Mary, implying that the two sets of remains are not biologically related, and hence, do not belong to Jesus and his mother. This, and other forensic analysis of the tomb site and ossuaries reveals endless possibilities for the identity of the remains, and offers no proof of whether it is actually the burial site of Jesus.
Along the China-Tibet border, a series of caves were discovered in 1938, which possessed a large collection of graves. The walls of these caves were decorated with peculiar images of the sun, moon, stars, and people with elongated skulls. These caves also contained a collection of stone disks which had a spiral groove pattern on them. Close examination revealed that the grooves were actually a sort of language. Professor Tsum Um Nui of the Beijing Academy for Ancient Studies also examined these grooves on the stone disks (Dropa stones), and came to the conclusion that, approximately 12,000 years ago, an alien spacecraft crashed in that region, and hence, a few aliens were deserted there. These aliens tried to adapt to life on Earth, but were hunted and eliminated by the local humans inhabiting that area. Professor Tsum Um Nui was later discredited and fired due to these claims. These stones, however, have been disappearing from their stored places across the globe, and are also not available at any museum. But proof of their existence exists in the photographs that the explorers took while exploring the cave.
Archeological finds of extinct animals, specially frozen ones, have provided scientists with enough viable genetic material to be able to recreate the entire genome of the organism. This has opened up the possibility of de-extinction. It refers to the process of reviving or cloning a member of an extinct species to bring it back into existence. While this is an alluring endeavor, it raises several concerns. While the organism may be genetically similar to the extinct species, its behavior will be similar to that of the species that raises it, instead of the pattern of its genetic parents. Also, the current environment may not provide a suitable niche for the animal’s survival, and even if the animal could survive and thrive, its genetic diversity would be so low that any drastic environmental change or a disease could easily lead to its second extinction. Hence, it is suggested that the development of these techniques be used with the purpose of conserving present biodiversity, rather than bringing back extinct species.
Other controversial discoveries include the development of genetic editing techniques, human stem cell research, and archeological sites that suggest the existence of aliens. While these discoveries appear to be puzzling at present, it may be possible to fully examine them and determine their true nature in the future when science is more advanced. Till such a time arrives, these discoveries will remain shrouded in controversy.