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Passionate scientists constantly have revolutionary ideas, but when they seem too good to be true, they usually are. Here are 5 instances where the scientist whiffed it.

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[♪ INTRO ].

The scientific method — it’s what makes the world go round. Not literally.

But it’s how we understand the universe. Scientists are constantly developing and testing hypotheses, which means a lot of ideas...especially seemingly revolutionary ones…get debunked and go nowhere. But scientists are human, too.

So every once in a while, some cling to early observations that they can do over and over and over, but can’t be replicated by most of the scientific community. So what gives? It’s called pathological science.

It’s when researchers find patterns in experimental data where none actually exist, or focus only on positive results. They might be convinced that other scientists must be doing something wrong. And even though the science is wrong, it’s not the same as fraud.

These researchers aren’t trying to deceive people, they’re just looking through a lens that keeps them from drawing objective conclusions. So here are 5 ideas that scientists tried really hard to prove true... that just did not pan out. [1. Martian Canals].

Sketches of the Martian surface started happening basically as soon as telescopes were invented. But for the first couple of centuries, our tech was not good enough to see more than dark smudges, or the white patches of the polar ice caps. In 1877, astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed and recorded long, thin lines on.

Mars that he dubbed “canali”, which is Italian for channels. Unfortunately, this term was mistranslated into English as “canals” — like the famous Suez Canal that was completed in 1869. Because Schiaparelli was a super distinguished astronomer, his work got a lot of attention.

And all this snowballed until the public and astronomers alike believed that these canali were evidence of an intelligent Martian civilization. The biggest proponent of this hypothesis was fellow astronomer — and Planet X hunter — Percival Lowell. He even built an entire observatory in the Arizona desert to better observe Mars.

As he told it, the Martian landscape had become inhospitable, and the Martians had built the canals to bring water from the ice caps down to the equator. He published 3 books in 3 decades on the subject, and mapped almost two hundred canals — attributing his higher number to better viewing conditions. Meanwhile, the media ran with all of this as fact.

One New York Times article from 1911 was titled, “Martians Build Two Immense Canals in Two. Years” because Lowell had found new lines! And Lowell wasn’t the only astronomer on this bandwagon.

One paper even proposed the canals were also for power storage on the windy surface of the planet. There were plenty of dissenting voices too, though. Some researchers suggested that they were actually meteorite tracks, or giant fissures.

Others proposed the lines were entirely fake — just optical illusions. And, yeah, they were right. More experiments showed that, when looking at dark, dot-like smudges, the human brain tends to connect them with straight lines.

Our brains just really want to see patterns! Not to mention, there was probably a lot of unconscious bias in believing Schiaparelli's initial observations — that the canali did exist even if they weren’t made by aliens. The 1960s brought the final nail in the coffin.

The Mariner mission gave us close-up photographs of our next-door neighbor, and there wasn’t a canal in sight. But Mars turned out that have a lot of other super cool features, so I’m alright with that. [2. N-rays].

Optical illusions actually are also responsible for our next scientific flub. In 1903, physicist René Blondlot announced the discovery of a new type of radiation while experimenting with X-rays. During his tests, he shot X-rays through a quartz prism, which was known to not deflect.

X-rays. But out of the corner of his eye, Blondlot saw an electric arc flash as if some radiation had been bent. So he concluded a new type of radiation must be responsible for what he saw.

Following the nomenclature of X-rays, which had been discovered less than 10 years earlier,. Blondlot called his discovery N-rays. The “N” was in honor of his home university in Nancy, France.

Future experiments detecting these rays involved a phosphorescent screen, which would emit light when struck by photons from things like X-rays… or I guess N-rays. And Blondlot took pictures that seemed to show N-rays actually making spots brighter. Blondlot’s advice to other researchers attempting to replicate his work was to shut themselves in a dark room for a half hour before the data collection, and watch the screen out of the corner of their eye — not straight-on.

He noted that it required “a certain amount of practice” to detect N-ray flashes, because they were super faint. And other scientists totally backed him up. In the next three years, over a hundred mostly French scientists published 300 articles about.

N-rays. They made claims about what kinds of objects emitted them and their properties. Like, they could be stored in rock salt, or refracted into a spectrum of different wavelengths by aluminum prisms.

Belief in N rays wasn’t outlandish, since a lot of other types of radiation and particles were being found too. And Blondlot had used visual observation in other reputable research on the properties of X-rays and radio waves, so his technique didn’t seem too sketchy. But plenty of scientists couldn’t replicate Blondlot’s N-ray experiments.

And they criticized his photographic ‘evidence.’ They suggested that it was actually caused by non-uniform photo development practices, or poorly controlled exposure times. The beginning of the end of N-rays was in 1904, when American physicist Robert Wood visited Blondlot’s lab to observe some experiments — and secretly conduct some of his own. For instance, when the room was dark, he removed an aluminum prism that was supposed to be refracting the N-rays.

And what do you know, Blondlot’s measurements of the N-rays were unchanged. So the spots of light were just being imagined by some overworked and biased brains. And Wood’s report of these failed demonstrations was published in the journal Nature that same year, sealing their fate.

That seems kind of a mean thing to do. But it’s science, he had to do the experiment. [3. Polywater].

Scientists have discovered a lot of weird forms of water ice that exist at extreme temperatures and pressures. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that there was a purported discovery of a weird form of liquid water in the 1960s — called polywater, short for polymerized water. It was denser and more viscous than regular water.

It didn’t freeze at 0 degrees Celsius, or boil at 100. Plus, it would turn into a glass-like substance at about -34. Polywater first appeared when Soviet scientists were experimenting with condensing water vapor inside super thin quartz tubes.

Like, less than a millimeter in diameter on the inside. Supposedly, the tubes were clean and the water vapor didn't have any contaminants. So the researchers concluded that, under these conditions, the molecules formed a brand new structure.

Once their discovery hit international circles in 1966, scientists rushed to make up for lost research time. And because it was just ‘water’ — not some fancy-schmancy chemical — it entered the public consciousness, too. There were fears that it could escape labs, get into natural water systems, and turn the whole world's water supplies into polywater.

In just a couple years, both the US and UK had scientists successfully replicating the. Soviet experiments and making this mysterious substance. One scientist even managed to extract a whole gram of polywater!

Yeah, a gram. That was considered a lot. And the papers kept coming, with nearly 100 in 1970 alone.

One paper studied polywater using spectroscopy — the different light wavelengths it reflected or absorbed, and how much it absorbed them. Polywater’s infrared absorption spectrum didn't match any of the nearly 100,000 substances in the researchers’ database. So they jumped to the conclusion that it had to be a brand new thing.

They even used their data to predict the structure of polywater: a honeycomb. And they suggested that the quartz somehow catalyzed a reaction so the water molecules were locked in place by stronger chemical bonds than what normally holds liquid water together. Their experiment data, by the way, was accurate.

It really didn't match anything in their database. But a more skeptical scientific approach would have considered other possibilities. Now, there were plenty of scientists arguing that this was all caused by impurities in the water that researchers weren't catching.

In fact, the original 1962 paper — written in Russian — mentioned a possible sodium contamination. And upon further spectroscopy tests, polywater was shown to have sodium, calcium, potassium, and chlorine. And you know what else has that combination of elements?

Human sweat. It turned out that polywater’s absorption spectrum was virtually identical to that of sweat. So that’s what was causing these weird properties.

Tiny amounts of perspiration must have gotten into the test chambers in all these experiments. These findings were published in 1971, and arguments for polywater died not long after. But pathological science wasn’t done with water... [4.

Water Memory]. In 1988, the journal Nature published a paper claiming that an incredibly diluted solution retained a “memory” of what was originally dissolved in it. The French immunologist Jacques Benveniste had adapted a test that was normally used to determine if people were allergic to certain things.

Basically, when allergens interact with special white blood cells, the cells release compounds like histamine that cause the itchy, sniffly symptoms of asthma and hay fever. And for this test, Benveniste used a solution full of antibodies that would trigger the same cellular response as allergens. But when he diluted the solution so much that there probably wasn’t a single antibody left, some of the white blood cells still appeared to react to it.

He concluded the water must have held the “memory” of the antibodies somehow. A lot of scientists — as well as Nature’s editor — were wary of publishing these results. But while Benveniste’s work defied everything we know about chemistry, it couldn’t be outright dismissed by peer reviewers.

There was even a possible explanation. Because the bonds between liquid water molecules form and break super quickly — like, within a trillionth of a second — maybe clusters could form with specific shapes or behaviors. But, because of our good friend the scientific method, others had to be able to replicate.

Benveniste’s work. The paper was published with an editorial caveat that a team would be sent to Benveniste’s lab for follow-up. And they did just that, supervising his team to make sure unconscious biases weren’t affecting the results of the new experiment.

They went through an almost ridiculously complicated series of steps to keep the study blind. Like, they used codes for the vials of pure water and very diluted water, wrapped them in foil so the scientists couldn’t see the labels, and hid the key for the codes in the ceiling. In the end, the vials that Beneveniste’s team decided had a “memory” of dissolved antibodies were... a random mix.

And of course, that wasn’t the only replication attempt. Some people still claim to observe effects of water memory, especially to support homeopathy. But there have always been far more studies that contradicting that than supporting it. [5.

Cold Fusion]. Finally, we come to what might be the best example of pathological science: cold fusion. Basically, it’s the idea of a sustained nuclear reaction that can happen near room temperature, as opposed to the 15 million degrees you find at the center of our Sun.

If scientists were able to prove cold fusion exists, it would basically be a revolution in energy and also everything else. So it kind of makes sense why people were so dedicated, even after the general scientific community concluded it was too good to be true. The first experiments were conducted in the late 1980s.

They involved placing two palladium metal electrodes in heavy water, which is when some of the molecules’ hydrogen atoms have an extra neutron. And then they ran an electric current from one electrode to the other. That caused the water molecules to break apart, and those special hydrogens — known as deuterium atoms — got absorbed into the palladium metal.

Theoretically, the metal acts as a catalyst and helps the deuterium atoms fuse together without blazing-hot temperatures. And supposedly, scientists could tell the deuterium fusion was happening in a couple ways. They could measure the heat produced from the nuclear reaction, or look for byproducts like helium or another version of hydrogen called tritium.

And yes, many a scientific paper reported observing one or more of these byproducts. But the amounts reported did not jive with our understanding of how fusion works. In the very first cold fusion experiment, the amount of heat measured meant that there should have been so much gamma radiation emitted that the researchers would have died… or at least turned into giant green rage monsters.

And just like all our other cases of pathological science, attempts to replicate these results failed. Experiments were only able to measure excess heat 70 percent of the time at best. Plus, it could take days to weeks before that heat appeared, and it was never the same amount of energy.

Many papers claiming to confirm the results ended up getting retracted. And those that didn’t were reporting measurements that could be explained by other chemical differences. For all practical purposes, the hubbub of cold fusion ended a mere five weeks after the first announcement was made.

Exciting year, 1989... But later there were a few other phenomena related to cold fusion that were previously thought to be impossible, but were shown to be real. So hope remained.

Even today, there are some researchers convinced that it’s a thing. They call it by other names though, like Low Energy Nuclear Reactions. But cold fusion is almost definitely not going to provide the Earth with a new, cheap, infinitely abundant energy source.

Sorry for the bad news… but maybe if we, like, just bombarded with N-rays? Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow. And a super special thanks to our President of Space, SR Foxley!

Thank you for helping us do what we do! If you want to see more episodes just like this, head on over to to subscribe. [♪ OUTRO ].