How a Very Wrong Answer Changed the World

How a Very Wrong Answer Changed the World
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On a summer day in 1741, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a wealthy French naturalist, mathematician, and cosmologist, strode into the foundry on his expansive country estate with a task in mind. Lugging two dozen solid iron balls of various sizes, he plopped them in the forge and heated them all to red-hot. Then, one by one, he pulled them out and observed how long it took each to cool. He repeated the procedure many times to obtain accurate cooling times for each size ball. Next, with data in hand, he extracted an equation for the relationship between cooling time and volume, and used it to calculate the age of the Earth.

You might be wondering how such a simple experiment could possibly be used to tackle such an immense topic, but Buffon's reasoning was actually fairly sensible. As the formidable thinker Sir Isaac Newton suggested at the time, the Earth may have started out as a red-hot piece of iron, perhaps a remnant of a cometary collision with the Sun flung out into space. So if you could calculate how long the proto-Earth took to cool, you'd arrive at a fairly accurate estimate of the age of the planet. By plugging the volume of the Earth into his equation for cooling time, Buffon attempted to do just that.

Unfortunately, the answer Buffon got was wrong, very wrong, many orders of magnitude wrong: 74,832 years old. Today, we know the age of the Earth to be roughly 4.54 billion years. But, as science journalist Michael Mosley presented in the BBC documentary The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion, Buffon's answer wasn't consequential. What was consequential was the fact that he questioned conventional wisdom.

"The important point is that by doing the experiments and by publishing the results, Buffon sparked a debate, not just about how old the Earth actually is, but how and why every creature on Earth came into being."

In 1778, when Buffon published the results of his experiment, the Biblical age of the Earth -- roughly 6,000 years -- still held sway amongst the general public, though many were beginning to question it. Suddenly, Buffon's calculation erupted onto the scene, increasing the age of the planet twelve times over!

As we've witnessed time and time and again throughout history, the world is changed by challenging that which we "know" to be true and trying something new. Such efforts usually begin with simple questions: "How does _____ work?" "What is out there?" "Why are things the way they are?"

Wrong answers often litter the path to resolving difficult queries, but at the same time, such errors serve as stepping-stones to ultimately finding the right answer! Second century physician Galen of Pergamon's work was riddled with errors and scientific accuracies, but by demonstrating that the answers to how the body works lies inside the body, itself, he advanced our understanding of medicine and biology. Dmitri Mendeleev's original periodic table of the elements was correct in many ways, and flawed in just as many others, but it laid groundwork for chemistry that would guide decades of discovery. Isaac Newton's law of universal gravitation eventually proved to be incomplete, but it led to Einstein's theory of general relativity.

What question today will change the world as we know it? What wrong answer will eventually inspire the right one?

(Image: Shutterstock)

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