Before Sally Ride spent a week aboard the Challenger shuttle in 1983 and became the first American woman in space, NASA engineers asked her if she wanted a hundred tampons in her flight kit. “No,” she later recalled responding, “that would not be the right number.” They said they wanted to be safe. “Well,” she assured them, “you can cut that in half with no problem at all.”
“A peaceable person,” wrote Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado in The Discovery of America by the Turks, intended for publication in 1992 for the five-hundredth anniversary of 1492, “can’t take the smallest step or blow the slightest fart without the fifth centenary landing on his head.”
Statistician Stephen Stigler wrote in 1980, “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.” He identified this as a basic law of eponymy, admitted he was an “outsider to the sociology of science” acting in “flagrant violation of the institutional norms of humility,” and named the law after himself.
The earliest reliable account of human flight concerns a Benedictine monk named Eilmer, who in 1066 fastened wings to his hands and feet, jumped from a tower, and glided more than six hundred feet before falling from the sky and breaking both his legs. He blamed the failure on not having fitted himself with a tail.
In the 1860s editor William Bullock invented a printing press that used continuous-roll paper; it made double-sided copies in mass quantities and transformed publishing. Two years later Bullock got his leg stuck in the press’ belt mechanism while installing one at a Philadelphia newspaper, developed gangrene, underwent an amputation, and died during the operation.
Archaeologists in France discovered in 1865 a Stone Age human skull with a hole sawed in it. They believed it had served as a drinking vessel; one wrote the hole was “expressly made for the application of the lips.” But later study by an anatomist proved this to be incorrect: the skull was actually evidence of ancient brain surgery.
A 52-million-year-old fossilized tomatillo found in January 2017 revealed the fruit to be five times older than scientists had previously thought. “The initial discovery was a very big OMG moment,” said paleobotanist Peter Wilf. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Could it be? Could it be? Could it be? Really? Really? Really?’ Then I just went nuts.”
A scholar in Peking contracted malaria in 1899 and was given medication with an ingredient labeled “dragon bones.” The bone chips, he found, were inscribed with writing dating back to China’s second dynasty. Thousands more were uncovered in the decades following; many of these “oracle bones” had inscriptions recording celestial events, which scientists have since used to calculate changes in the length of an earth day and in the rate of the earth’s rotation.
Hero of Alexandria invented the aeolipile, a primitive steam engine, in the first century. A hollow sphere with elbow-shaped tubes mounted on an axle and suspended over a cauldron of boiling water, the engine likely could not have powered anything. “It should probably be remembered,” wrote historian William Rosen, “as the first in a line of engineering dead ends.”
In 1965 Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke discussed a film project, then called Journey Beyond the Stars. “Science-fiction films have always meant monsters or sex, so we have tried to find another term,” said Clarke. “The best we’ve been able to come up with is a space odyssey,” added Kubrick. “The far-flung islands Homer’s wonderful characters visited were no less remote to them than the planets our spacemen will soon be landing on are to us.”
In the 1860s, toward the end of his life, “father of computing” Charles Babbage “never abstained from the publication of his sentiments when he thought that his silence might imply his approbation,” wrote his friend Harry Buxton, “nor did he ever take refuge in silence when he believed it might be interpreted as cowardice.”
In 1986 a Greek professor encountered a previously unknown word while deciphering a fifth-century lexicon: olisbokollix, meaning “loaf-of-bread dildo.” Later discovery of vase paintings showing women carrying baskets of phallus-shaped loaves confirmed the word had been understood correctly.
Students at the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich wrote to Carl Jung in 1949 to ask what effect he thought technology had on the human psyche. “The danger lies not in technology,” Jung responded, “but in the possibilities awaiting discovery.” The question regarding new discoveries was “whether man is sufficiently equipped with reason to be able to resist the temptation to use them for destructive purposes.” This, Jung concluded, “experience alone can answer.”
Members inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010 included Yvonne Brill, whose electrothermal hydrazine thruster keeps satellites in space orbit, as well as Arthur Fry and Steven Silver, who created sticky notes (Fry, the concept; Silver, the glue). “Note: It took one woman to invent a rocket thruster,” wrote a Washington Post reporter about the induction ceremony, “and two men to invent Post-its.”
In his autobiographical novel Boyhood, Leo Tolstoy describes his youthful joy in philosophical abstraction: “I frequently imagined myself a great man, who was discovering new truths for the good of mankind, and I looked on all other mortals with a proud consciousness of my dignity.” His euphoria didn’t last. “Strange to say,” he wrote, “whenever I came in contact with these mortals, I grew timid.” Soon he was “ashamed of every simplest word and motion.”