eberhard_zangger's picture
Managing director of science communications
Zangger's Law

Zangger's First Law

Most scientific breakthroughs are nothing else than the discovery of the obvious.

Zangger's Second Law

Truly great science is always ahead of its time.

Although there seems to be a slight contradiction in my laws, historical evidence proves them right:

• The Hungarian surgeon Ignaz Semmelweiss in 1847 reduced the death rate in his hospital from twelve to two percent, simply by washing hands between operations -- a concept that today would be advocated by a four year old child. When Semmelweiss urged his colleagues to introduce hygiene to the operating rooms, they had him committed to a mental hospital where he eventually died.

• The German meteorologist Alfred Wegener discovered in 1913 what every ten year old looking at a globe will notice immediately: That the Atlantic coasts of the African and South American continents have matching contours and thus may have been locked together some time ago. The experts needed sixty more years to comprehend the concept.

• When Louis Pasteur stated that bacteria could cause disease, colleagues treated the idea as "an absurd fantasy'!

• The theories of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud were called "a case for the police" during a neurologists’ congress in Hamburg in 1910.

• Lord Kelvin, President of the Royal Society, only eight years before Orville and Wilbur Wright left the ground in an aeroplane, remarked: "Machines that are heavier than air will never be able to fly!"

• German physicists Erwin Schrödinger's PhD thesis, in which he first introduced his famous equation, was initially rejected.

• When the Spanish nobleman de Satuola discovered the Late Ice Age painted cave at Altamira, established scholars described him as a forger and a cheat.

• The decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphs by Jean Francois Champollion in 1822 was still rejected by scholar twenty years after his death.

• And when Johann Karl Fuhlrott discovered the bones of a Neanderthal in a cave near Duesseldorf in 1856, the president of the German Society of Anthropology considered it a bow-legged, Mongolian Cossack with rickets, who had been lucky enough to survive multiple head injuries, but who, during a campaign by Russian forces against France in 1814, had been wounded, and (stark naked) had crawled into a cave, where he died.

• Heinrich Schliemann’s excavation of Bronze Age Mycenae and Tiryns in Greece was considered by English archaeologists inThe Times’ as the remains of some obscure barbarian tribe’ from the Byzantine period. In particular, the so-called prehistoric palace in Tiryns was labelled "the most remarkable hallucination of an unscientific enthusiast that has ever appeared in literature."

Scientific breakthroughs will always be held hostage to the lag needed to overcome existing beliefs. Lucius Annaeus Seneca realized this already two thousand years ago, when he said: "The time will come, when our successors will be surprised that we did not know such obvious things."