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The Best 10 Controversial Moments in Science

You never know what you'll find when you delve into science.

You never know what you'll find when you delve into science.

10. First Mars Settlers Could Be An Infection

In 2019, a professor from Nova Southeastern University argued that microbes should be the first colonists on Mars. This goes against NASA's strict rules about sterilizing everything that goes into space. Shedding germs could corrupt a planet's environment and hamper our understanding of that world.

But the Red Planet is not just another world. It could become humanity's second home. For this reason, the University said that Mars should be infected with viruses, bacteria, and fungi since the first life on Earth was microbes. Repeating those conditions on Mars could lay the foundations necessary to support life.

Despite the logic, things are not that simple. Even if NASA releases its death grip on the “no contaminants” rule, then there remains the problem of Martian biology. The planet's radiation and environment could trigger unexpected mutations or the microbes' death. Before Mars can see its first virus, there has to be a lot more research and policy reviews.

9. The Moon's Two Fertile Eras

A crowd of astronauts never found life on the Moon. But in 2018, a controversial paper claimed that the Moon once had the right climate to support life. Not once, but twice.

Life as we know it needs certain things to thrive. An atmosphere, water, a magnetic field to block space radiation and finally, organic elements to form organisms.

According to the paper, some of the conditions arose together on the Moon billions of years ago. Both times, intense volcanic activity triggered an atmosphere. Unrelated studies also support the idea that ice exists at the Moon's poles and that water pockets are trapped inside the world. The 2018 study also saw liquid water in the Moon's past. Had the atmosphere been solid enough, it could have kept large dams stable enough to support microbes.

The second period happened 3.5 billion years ago, 500 million years after the first. The researchers calculated that the Moon had liquid water for as long as 70 million years during this time. That is plenty of time for microorganisms to evolve.

The paper is controversial because there is no physical evidence despite the sound data. Worse, all traces of the Moon's habitable phases would have been destroyed by billions of years of meteorite strikes, solar winds and radiation.

8. The Notorious Sci-Hub

Sci-Hub is an online site that hosts high-quality scientific articles. If you cannot find a specific paper, 99 percent of the time, Sci-Hub will find the piece and make it available. The site is free and open to everyone. This sounds wonderful but Sci-Hub is the world's busiest research paper pirate.

None of the articles has the author's permission to be on the site. Nearly all the research is stolen from paid and traditionally published journals, sometimes as much as 100 percent of their content. A U.S. court even declared the site illegal, but any action taken against the platform turns into free advertising and increased traffic for Sci-Hub.

Nobody can find Sci-Hub's servers so it continues to strip paid journals at a terrifying rate. In 2017, a biodata scientist and his colleagues analyzed the situation and discovered that the site held an estimated 81.6 million articles. Considering that this represents over two-thirds of all scholarly articles, instantly available and free, the research team concluded that Sci-Hub and future sites like it marked the end for subscription journals.

7. The Fans Of Martian Mushrooms

Mars has a strange following. There are people who search for strange things in Martian photos and then put their own spin on it. Odd rocks turn into faces, animals, and aliens that “prove” there is life on Mars.

Then there are the mushroom fans. In 2016, a livid astrobiologist – without a degree and self-proclaimed – sued NASA for not investigating a bunch of rocks he was convinced were mushrooms.

A few years later, in 2019, professionals joined the click. Several international researchers, one of them a fungus expert, saw to their delight a cluster of mushrooms in a Martian photo. They compiled a paper and submitted it to a scientific journal. It did not help their case that the journal was dodgy. Additionally, when six scientists and eight senior editors were asked to peer-review the paper, three rejected it outright. One of the editors fought against the majority's approval and insisted that the publication be stopped. However, the paper was released and the tabloids had a field day with the authors' belief that mushrooms exist on Mars.

NASA saw no mystery. In fact, they recognized the structures as “blueberries.” There are millions of these hematite rocks on the Red Planet. The paper authors even highjacked this fact. They claimed that hematite needs biological activity to form and that fungi or bacteria were responsible for the rocky spheres.

6. Young Blood For Older Adults

Nobody likes to grow old. Unsurprisingly, the anti-ageing market is huge. Desperation sells. In 2017, a Stanford graduate called Jesse Karmazin joined the scene. He founded a company called Ambrosia Medical which takes blood from young donors to sell to older clients.

After working with blood transfusions at Stanford, Karmazin was convinced that young-to-old transfusions rejuvenated the organs and fought ageing. There was no shortage when he asked for volunteers for the first clinical trial – even when each participant had to shell out $8,000 to get the blood. Around 81 people, aged between 35 and 92, received plasma from donors aged 16 to 25. Afterwards, many reported better sleep, improved memory and focus.

Blood transfusions are FDA-approved, so Karmazin's business is technically operating within the law. However, his critics feel that the company is selling false hope. Young blood has never been linked to any health benefits, let alone something as biologically complex as ageing.

But what about the patients who reported feeling better? There could be a sad explanation for this. They might have convinced themselves that the therapy worked – as opposed to admitting that $8,000 that just went down the swindle drain.

Cosmetic companies offering a better deal to blood donors could lower the amount of blood people give to save lives.

Cosmetic companies offering a better deal to blood donors could lower the amount of blood people give to save lives.

5. Untested Therapy Saved A Girl's Life

Jo Carnell-Holdaway was desperate. Her daughter, Isabelle, was dying. Born with cystic fibrosis, Isabelle's lungs produced a sticky mucus that invited deadly infections including Mycobacterium abscessus. The bacteria belong to the tuberculosis family and required strong antibiotics to keep them under control.

When she was 16, Isabelle needed a double lung transplant. The antibiotics never killed the bacteria and as soon as the teenager used immunosuppressant drugs to prevent her new lungs from being rejected, M. abscessus came back with a vengeance.

The prognosis was bad. Nobody had ever survived the bacteria's return after a transplant. Isabelle soon developed open sores and black lesions on her body. Her weight dropped until she resembled a skeleton. Eventually, organ failure loomed and her survival rate became one percent.

Her family took her home to die but her mother scoured the Internet for an alternative treatment. She stumbled upon phage therapy. Phages are viruses that were the next big thing to fight infections with. Then antibiotics arrived and the more difficult phage therapy was abandoned.

It took months to find the three species that might destroy Isabelle's infection. The untested cocktail was injected twice a day and the results were mindblowing. Isabelle's wounds closed and in 2019, now aged 17, she looks normal, does well at school and is learning to drive. The deadly bacteria are under control but a fourth phage could soon be added to the mix to eliminate it completely.

Phages attaching themselves to a bacterial wall

Phages attaching themselves to a bacterial wall

4. The Three-Parent Technique

A Jordanian couple struggled for over 10 years to have children. When they were finally blessed with a daughter, she had Leigh syndrome. This fatal disorder explained why the couple had fertility problems; the mother was a carrier of the disease. Unfortunately, the girl died at the age of six.

When their second infant died of the same condition at the age of eight months, the couple visited John Zhang. The doctor worked at the New Hope Fertility Center in New York. The mother carried the disease in her mitochondrial DNA, something children inherit from only their mothers. Zhang's expertise included stopping mitochondrial disorders with the controversial three-parent technique. Since the procedure is illegal in the U.S., Zhang and the hopeful parents went to Mexico.

Once there, he scooped the nucleus from the mother's egg and placed it inside a donor egg that no longer had its own nucleus. This egg, which had the mother's nuclear DNA but the donor's mitochondrial DNA, was fertilized with the husband's sperm.

A boy was born in 2016 and became the world's first baby created with the genetic material of three people. He was normal and healthy.

3. Reactivating Dead Brains

In 2019, Yale University did something weird with a pig. The animal had been dead for four hours when they pumped an experimental solution through its brain. Simulating blood flow, the fluid brought the nutrients and oxygen that was required for normal neural activities.

The experiment returned circulation and cellular functions, which was a breakthrough. Despite this echo of life, the team clarified that consciousness was not revived. The Yale study was designed to help stroke patients and treat brain disorders, not to reawaken the dead. The latter could provoke an ethical storm.

Somebody who ignored ethical weather was Bioquark. In 2016, the medical tech company said it would reverse death. They planned on using brain-dead patients and injecting stem cells into their spinal cords. The person would also receive injections of protein blends, electrical nerve stimulation, and “laser therapies” targeting their brains.

Nobody volunteered their afflicted family members for the trials and regulators eventually shut the project down. While Bioquark became the quack of the medical world, it paled against the start-up Humai. The latter promised to reactivate the brains of dead clients inside artificial bodies in the next 30 years.

2. The EM Drive Could Actually Work

Courtesy of NASA, there is the mystery of the EM Drive. The device is a propulsion system but one that defies Newton's third law – which is no small thing. The law states that everything must have an equal and opposite reaction. For propulsion systems used in space, that law usually involves fuel. The EM Drive requires no fuel. Instead, it creates an epic thrust by bouncing microwave photons inside a metal cone.

When the news broke in 2016 about the existence of the new system, the most exciting claim was its ability to shuttle humans to Mars in 70 days. However, NASA was tight-lipped about confirming whether the device actually worked. Then, later that same year, a leaked paper showing the EM Drive was the real deal. It described tests performed by NASA's Eagleworks Laboratory in 2015. Not only did the physics-defying system work but the thrust strength finally had some numbers. At 1.2 millinewtons per kilowatt, it did not beat the super-powerful Hall thruster's 60 millinewtons but the EM Drive still requires no fuel, which is a priceless perk.

The laboratory could not find anomalies that might explain the mystery. There is always the possibility that the EM Drive failed and that the paper was a hoax. On the other hand, NASA is still working on the system and if the paper is real, space travel just got a whole lot easier.

1. Human Head Transplants

The day has arrived. There are scientists and patients taking the whole transplant-my-head thing seriously. Alright, maybe just one surgeon and one desperately ill man. But the story is still disturbing. In 2015, an Italian doctor named Sergio Canavero wanted to keep his patients as heads but give them donor bodies.

The scientific community was already uncomfortable with the idea, but when he found a volunteer, discomfort turned to horror.

The man, Valery Spiridonov, suffered from Werdnig-Hoffman disease and his health was failing fast. One could not blame Spiridonov for grasping at straws, but the 30-year-old Russian's fate worried journalists and the medical world alike. They correctly pointed out that should he survive the operation, he might experience the terrifying consequences of his head being rejected by the body.

This is also virgin ground for psychology. Nobody knows what a head transplant would do to somebody's mind. But one specialist said it “could result in a hitherto never experienced level and quality of insanity.”

The last news regarding this case was in 2017 when Canavero claimed he had successfully transplanted a head on a cadaver and that it brought him closer to applying the technique to living people.


© 2019 Jana Louise Smit