Are great scientists always heretics?

Skull and science books Often scientists through the ages have found that changing paradigms can be hard work

Related Stories

Great scientists change the way we view the world.

Doing that usually means smashing an old, entrenched idea - often making enemies in the process.

Before being proven and accepted, a great theory can be subjected to harsh criticism and its proposer can be mocked, rejected, even vilified.

Sometimes a religious authority is on the attack, other times it's the scientist's colleagues - either way it takes special determination to stick to an idea others believe is clearly wrong.

The genius of the lucky ones is recognised in their lifetime but some are venerated only posthumously.

Here are five of my greatest scientific heretics. I find their courage inspiring. Some have become household names, while others still remain in relative obscurity.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Find out more

Isaac Newton played by Jonathan Hyde

Isaac Newton changed everything with his theory of gravity and his laws of motion. He showed how nature could be measured and understood. His public heresy was to describe the universe as 'the Sensorium of God', which suggested God was actually space and time itself.

German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz considered investigating God scientifically was abominable. He wrote immediately to the Hanoverian Royal Family in England accusing Newton of contributing to the decline of 'natural religion'.

Forced to defend himself through the philosopher Samuel Clarke, Newton perhaps feared an investigation would uncover his secret; much greater heresy.

Although profoundly religious, he rejected the divinity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Trinity. Newton had good reason to be afraid; anti-Trinitarianism was explicitly criminalised in the 1689 Act of Toleration.

Newton also believed that the inspiration for his theory of gravity came directly from God, making him a modern prophet.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)

Galileo Galilei Receiving John Milton Galileo was forced to publicly withdraw his support for Copernican theory

We remember Galileo Galilei as the classic scientific heretic due to his 1633 trial by the Roman Catholic Inquisition.

He was convicted of being 'vehemently suspected of heresy' because he promoted the belief that the Earth moved through the heavens.

At the time, it was accepted that Earth was stationary and the Sun moved through the sky.

Galileo compounded his crime by insisting a moving Earth did not conflict with scripture. This was forbidden.

Only Vatican theologians were empowered to interpret the Bible.

His downfall has become a standard point of reference for discussing science versus authority.

Ignaz Semmelweis (1818-1865)

Louis Pasteur is remembered as the man who proved germs carry diseases but he was preceded by the largely forgotten Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis.

Semmelweis worked in two maternity clinics, noticing that in one more mothers succumbed to deadly fevers shortly after giving birth than in the other.

Ignaz Semmelweis Ignaz Semmelweis was left frustrated by the lack of support his idea initially had

Investigating, he realised the death rate was higher in the clinic where post-mortems were being performed.

This made him suspect that something was being carried on the hands of the doctors from the cadavers to the mothers.

He instituted a hand-washing regime and cut mortality rates by 90%. The medical establishment were slow to acknowledge his result, however, and he became increasingly frustrated.

By 1861 he was suffering from nervous conditions. He obsessively promoted his lifesaving ideas, becoming hostile and antisocial towards the medical establishment. The more aggressive he became, the easier it was for him to be ignored.

Eventually, in 1865, colleagues lured him to a mental institute and straitjacketed him. He died a fortnight later from gangrene.

Ironically, that same year British surgeon Joseph Lister was beginning to use carbolic acid sprays as antiseptics.

He had taken his inspiration from Pasteur's germ experiments and two years later, wrote of his success in The Lancet.

By the end of the decade, most surgeons were convinced of the need for cleanliness.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

After Galileo, the scientist who comes to mind over a clash with the Church is Charles Darwin.

He presented the theory that species evolve gradually with time, adapting to their environment.

Charles Darwin statue

Some in the Church of England considered evolution heretical as it implied Earth had not been created perfectly. Others thought life's ability to adapt was God's design all along.

Darwin published the idea in 1859, in The Origin of Species, using evidence collected during a voyage on HMS Beagle.

Despite the religious opposition, it was adopted relatively quickly by the scientific establishment. It entered popular culture when cartoonists portrayed Darwin as an ape.

Darwin himself rose above most of the controversy but HMS Beagle's captain, Robert Fitzroy, found it more troubling.

At an Oxford debate in 1860, he said the theory caused him the 'acutest pain'. Holding aloft a Bible he implored the audience to believe God rather than man but the largely scientific crowd shouted him down.

Alfred Wegener (1880-1930)

Meteorologist Alfred Wegener committed his heresy in 1912.

Alfred Wegener with a fur cap. Alfred Wegener proposed the theory of continental drift

Noticing that South America could fit into Africa like a jigsaw puzzle, he suggested that all continents had once been joined together. Geological forces had split them apart and they then drifted into their modern positions.

This was completely against the geological establishment, who believe that Earth's landmasses were fixed in position.

They rallied against Wegener, ridiculing his idea that continents 'ploughed' through the Earth's crust like a ship through pack ice.

Isolated, Wegener battled on. He amassed new evidence and continually published updates on his idea.

Eventually, his ideas were accepted in the 1960s, when the weight of evidence proved impossible to ignore.

But it was too late - Wegener had died on a polar expedition back in 1930, aged 50.

He braved the arctic winter to take emergency supplies to a meteorological station in the centre of Greenland.

Returning by dogsled from his successful mission, Wegener was overwhelmed by temperatures of -60┬░C.

More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


BBC iPlayer

Get Inspired


Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.