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The Biggest Feuds in the History of Science

Updated June 14, 2019 27.6k views15 items
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Debate and disagreement have a hallowed place in the halls of scientific discovery - that's because they fuel it. However, they also have the tendency to create scientists who hate each other. Whether it stems from working too closely on the same project, having competing theories about a particular phenomenon, or just generally not liking each other as people, there's rich history of down, dirty, and dastardly feuds in the scientific community. From Galileo's battle with the Catholic Church to the race to sequence the human genome, innovation comes with its fair share of hiccups and bloodshed, like, for example, when competing paleontologists destroy significant dig sites just to sabotage one another. In short: plenty of scientists hated each other through history. 

This list documents some of the fiercest (and funniest) feuds in the history of science. Some of the scientists listed here literally couldn't be in the same room as each other, and fought bitterly until their deaths. Others found reconciliation and sometimes even (forced) peace. Read on to find out more about the hallowed history of hostility surrounding some of our most loved theories.

  • Alfred Wegener vs. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists

    The theory of plate tectonics, that the continents are positioned on large-scale plates that move around, makes sense for a lot of reasons. It helps explain things like the existence of mountains, the causes of earthquakes, and why the continents look like a big jigsaw puzzle. In 1912, a German scientist named Alfred Wegener put forth the theory of plate tectonics after traveling the globe (including spending time in the North Pole) and theorizing about the many climactic and environmental phenomena he observed along the way.

    Geologists around the globe were pretty skeptical of Wegener’s idea since it didn’t jive with much of the current thinking of the day (geologists study rocks and were apparently pretty resistant to change). However, Wegener’s theory really raised the ire of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists who organized an entire symposium specifically in opposition to him. At the symposium, geologists spent most of their time attacking Wegener personally since, you know, so much evidence actually supported his model. Unfortunately, Wegener never had the chance to respond to his naysayers - he died on an expedition in Greenland in 1930.

  • Craig Venter vs. Francis Collins: The Race to Sequence the Human Genome

    In 1998, roguish scientist Craig Venter founded the Institute for Genomic Research (later called Celera Genomics). Why was Craig Venter a rogue? Because he founded the Institute after publicly impugning the government-funded Human Genome Project, which he thought was taking too long to get the job done. This sparked a feud-ish race between Venter and Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project. Among a number of “differences of opinion” between the warring genome camps was the premise that all mapped information should be free and available to the public.

    Venter’s private Institute opposed this key tenet of Collins’s Project. The two groups feverishly mapped for a couple of years, but, eventually, the race to sequence the genome ended amicably enough - both sides announced completed working drafts of the genome on June 26, 2000. Afterwards, then President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair declared the race to be over and “both sides had won.”

  • Charles Darwin vs. Richard Owen: The Theory of Evolution

    Nowadays, we think of Charles Darwin as the Father (capital "F") of the theory of evolution. In reality, though, he was probably more of a co-parent of the idea. At the same time Darwin was figuring out the origin of the species, a scientist named Richard Owen was drawing similar conclusions (some even credit Owen with coming to the theory first). However, Darwin published the theory before Owen, and he did so without crediting Owen’s contributions to the idea.

    This made Owen furious, and what followed was basically a weekly back-and-forth slander campaign between the two scientists, which included writing columns degrading each other in newspapers, and drawing absurd cartoons. However, Owen didn’t just slander Darwin. Part of his revenge also involved discrediting the theory of evolution - a theory he contributed to the creation of. As a result of all of his mud slinging, Owen ruined his own reputation and gave anti-evolutionists a leg to stand on. His rebuttals to Darwin still serve as some of the backbone of anti-evolutionary thinking.

  • John Harrison vs. The British Empire: Charting the Seas

    Ever heard of the marine chronometer? It’s an extremely weather-resistant timepiece that sailors use to navigate on the open sea, and it was invented in the early 18th century by a man named John Harrison. Because reliable navigation on the ocean was such a problem at the time, the British Empire offered a massive cash prize to anyone who could create a device to solve the conundrum. John Harrison, smart fellow that he was, invented a sort of nautical clock that could also determine latitude: the marine chronometer.

    However, the judges of the contest (who were mostly astronomers) doubted Harrison’s invention because they thought the contest winner would build something a little bit more exciting than a fancy clock. They demanded Harrison come up with a better model, which he dedicated the next 30 years of his life to creating. Eventually, the prize committee gave in and sort of awarded Harrison the prize. Officially, they declared that no one had won and gave him less than half of the promised money. Considering that knowing how to use a marine chronometer is still a requirement for certain international mariner certifications, we should all just go ahead and declare him the winner.