What is the greatest mistake in science

History of Science: Fruitful Errors

Scientists attach great importance to their statements being correct. Of course, they still make countless mistakes, because to err is human. But not all errors are to be assessed negatively. Historians have unearthed several examples where a wrong idea turned out to be unexpectedly momentous. Such a productive mistake affects fundamental properties of the world around us and stimulates further research that leads to real breakthroughs. Without these errors, science would be much poorer.

For example, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962) created a model of the atom that was wrong in almost every way and yet sparked the quantum mechanical revolution. Or: Against an army of skeptics, the German geologist Alfred Wegener (1880 - 1930) claimed that the continents were drifting apart under the influence of centrifugal forces; in doing so, he recognized the correct phenomenon, but gave a wrong explanation. And the Italian nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) believed he had created artificial transuranic elements - elements with an atomic mass greater than uranium - when in truth he had encountered nuclear fission.

This article is featured in Spectrum of Science January 2013

Two particularly drastic examples come from physics in the 1970s and biology in the 1940s. In either case, the authors weren't just botchers who just happened to be lucky. Rather, they persistently asked questions that few of their colleagues raised, and combined ideas that hardly anyone considered at the time. In doing so, they performed important preparatory work for the ultra-modern research areas of biotechnology and quantum informatics. They were wrong, but the world should be grateful to them ...