It’s an exciting time to be alive, as the march of human progress is moving at seemingly impossible speeds. We’re curing diseases, connecting minds and reshaping the world we live in, and seemingly every day we hear about a new breakthrough that promises to change everything all over again.
The thing is, though, not all of those breakthroughs are actually… well, real. For a number of reasons, scientists often over-promise and underdeliver and at the end of the day these massive discoveries turn out to be hoaxes or worse. Come with us on a journey into scientific iniquity as we spotlight ten bogus breakthroughs.
The Tasaday Tribe
The discovery of primitive civilizations who have kept their ways isolated from the modern world can be incredibly valuable for scientists learning about human development. So when Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos announced to the world that his island nation boasted a tribe called the Tasaday who lived as if it were the Stone Age, the world’s scientific establishment flocked to study them.
The Tasaday made the cover of National Geographic in 1971 and had a whole book published about them. A few years later, politician Manuel Elizalde built a wall around their territory to “protect them from further exploitation.”
In 1986, after Marcos was removed from power, the world discovered that behind the wall the Tasaday were actually living just like other Filipinos, and the whole village had been a massive hoax. History Channel referred to it as "the biggest government sponsored hoax of the 20th century."
The quest for “smaller” is a major motivator in science, and Moore’s Law – which states that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubles every year – is living proof. But in 2001, German physicist Jan Hendrik Schön made a breakthrough that looked to completely upend Moore.
Using organic dye molecules, he had created the smallest transistor ever, at just a single molecule. He raked in the funding and awards for his work, and at his peak was publishing a paper every eight days.
Unfortunately, the underlying research behind Schön’s achievements was falsified, and when his superiors at Bell Labs investigated and found he’d destroyed all of his experimental data he was laughed out of a job.
Everything the USSR's Lysenko ever did or claimed
Trofím Denísovich Lysénko was so prolific in his hoaxing, and given so much credibility by the Soviet Union – the regime would even go so far as gulaging and murdering people who refused to believe Lysenko's wacky "communist science" ideas – that his name ended up a noun for false scientific dogma.
For quite a while, the gap between birds and dinosaurs was one that scientists weren’t quite sure how to bridge. Sure, they’re closely related, but giant lizards and beaked feather-covered birds are different in a lot of ways that count.
In 1999, no less than the minds at the National Geographic Society announced that they’d found the missing link, the complete skeletal fossil of a flying reptile that they named Archaeoraptor. Unfortunately, like many such breakthroughs, the piece was a forgery composed of bits and pieces of other fossils found by Chinese diggers in Xiasanjiazi.
It’s the stuff of science fiction – the ability to grow an exact duplicate of yourself from your genetic material. And big advances have certainly been made in cloning lesser animals, like Dolly the sheep.
But then Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk announced that his lab had produced the world’s first cloned human in 2005. Hwang actually claimed that he’d created cloned embryos to serve as incubators for custom stem cells that could be used for disease treatment, pushing South Korea to the forefront of that emerging bioindustry.
Unfortunately, he’d fabricated his results and pressured female lab assistants to donate eggs. He claimed that junior researchers were responsible for the fraud but the court disagreed and gave him a two year suspended sentence.
Charting the development of humanity from our primate ancestors has proven to be a tricky journey for paleontologists, as they pick through the fossil record to assemble a picture of the transitional stages. Some we know quite well, but it’s a fertile field for scammers to try and fill the gaps.
Case in point: Piltdown Man, discovered in 1912 by amateur bone-hunter Charles Dawson in some gravel beds. The fragments of a skull were re-assembled and hailed as the remnants of an ancestor from 500,000 years in the past, and then put on prize display at the British Museum.
It took nearly half a century for the fraud to be revealed, as Piltdown Man’s noggin bone was actually a composite of a human skull, the lower jaw of an orangutan and chimpanzee fossil teeth.
It’s pretty much a given that stem cells are one of the most promising tools in bioscience. Those adaptable little buggers can be grown and shaped to help out with numerous illnesses.
The only problem is growing or making them is difficult and time-consuming. So when Japanese scientist Haruko Obokata announced that she’d developed a procedure called “stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency” that could convert normal cells to stem cells, the world was excited. Obokata’s method involved using an acidic medium to traumatize existing cells into a more malleable state.
When her efforts were announced to the world, they quickly collapsed under scrutiny and it was discovered she’d made alterations to her data. She was fired and her mentor and co-author Yoshiki Sasai committed suicide.
The quest for free energy has been a popular pursuit for many scientists, but a “perpetual motion machine” – something that generates more energy out than is put in, forever – is an impossibility of physics.
That didn’t stop Charles Redheffer, who set up shop in a house in Philadelphia in 1812 advertising his wondrous machine that ran eternally. Charging people at the door to see it seemed like a frivolous use of his scientific achievement, so you can probably guess that Redheffer’s device was a scam, although a well-constructed one.
He tried the scam again in New York, where a skeptical engineer exposed him by pulling away some wallboards to reveal the whole thing was being run by an old man turning a crank over and over.
The HIV vaccine
Most of these scientific frauds don’t really hurt anybody – sure, they suck up some funding and attention that could go to more worthy causes, but that’s about it. Chinese scientist Dong-Pyou Han, though, should feel really bad about his purported breakthrough because it promised to rid the world of one of its most feared diseases.
While working at Case Western Reserve University, Han reported that an experimental treatment was causing HIV antibodies to develop in rabbits. Unfortunately, this wasn’t true – he was surreptitiously mixing human blood in with the rabbit blood to fake the antibody count. As the scientific community got excited about the breakthrough, Han had to continue falsifying results and eventually he was caught and sentenced to 57 months in prison.
The Thermotron (the Huemul Project)
Another intense energy fraud, the Thermotron was advertised to solve the global energy crisis by creating packages of power that could fuel your whole house in the size of a milk bottle.
In 1948, Austrian scientist Ronald Richter pitched Juan Perón, the president of Argentina, on the “Huemul Project,” the creation of a reactor called the Thermotron that would use nuclear fusion to make the country an atomic powerhouse. Richter built a massive concrete bunker and started performing experiments, and in 1951 claimed to have performed the first-ever controlled nuclear reaction.
When a technician questioned the results, Richter refused to repeat the test and instead ordered a new reactor be built, this time underground. The next year, the military occupied the Thermotron facility and found Richter had left the country and much of his equipment had never even been plugged in.