Crazy scientists

It is a given than artists and other “creative” types are quirky. They get a lot of leeway because everyone expects them to be slightly odd. But I am discovering that scientists can be equally odd.

I am reading Bill Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything. It is a great book and I am fascinated by some of the more personal information he shares about the men who’ve changed our world.

Newton was a decided odd figure – brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head), and capable of the most riveting strangeness. He built his own laboratory, the first at Cambridge, but then engaged in the most bizarre experiments. Once he inserted a bodkin – a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather – into his eye socked and rubbed it around “betwixt my eye and the bone as hear to [the] backside of my as I could” just to see what would happen. What happened, miraculously, was nothing – at least nothing lasting. On another occasion, he stared at the Sun for as long as he could bear, to determine what effect it would have upon his vision. Again he escaped lasting damage, though he had to sped some days in a darkened room before his eyes forgave him.

Amazing, huh? A supreme genius who did such crazy things. Apparently Newton also spent about half his life on alchemy and very odd religious pursuits.

In 1936, the economist John Maynard Keynes bought a trunk of Newton’s papers at auction and discovered with astonishment that they were overwhelmingly preoccupied not with optics or planetary motions, but with the single-minded quest to turn base metals into precious ones. An analysis of a strand of Newton’s hair in the 1970s found it contained mercury – an element of interest to alchemists, hatters, and thermometer-makers but almost no one else – at a concentration some forty times the natural level. It is perhaps little wonder that he had trouble remembering to rise in the morning.

Fascinating stuff. Thankfully, between all this, Newton found the few years to write down his work in the world changing paper, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy.

And that’s just Newton. Bill Bryson makes science fascinating by also telling us about he people behind the discoveries we take for granted today.

He shares the most delightful tales about exasperating efforts – like the one where scientists from all parts of the world wanted to track the passage of Venus across the face of the Sun.

The tireless Edmond Halley had suggested years before that if you measured one of these passages from selected points on the Earth, you could use the principles of triangulation to work out the distance to the Sun, and from that calibrate the distances to all the other bodies in the solar system.

He goes on to give us the sad plight of the scientists who set out years in advance of 1761 to position themselves to track this event. Oh, the event happens in pairs of eights or eight years apart and then doesn’t happen again for more than a century. So… important to catch it

Many observers were waylaid by war, sickness, or shipwreck. Others made their destinations but opened their crates to find equipment broken or warped by tropical heat. Once again the French seemed fated to provide the most memorably unlucky participants. Jean Chappe spent months traveling to Siberia by coach, boat, and sleigh, nursing his delicate instruments over every perilous bump, only to find the last vital stretch blocked by swollen rivers, the result of unusually heavy spring rains, which the locals were swift to blame on him after they saw him pointing strange instruments at the sky. Chappe managed to escape with his life, but no useful measurements.

Unluckier still was Guillaume Le Gentil, whose experiences are wonderfully summarized by Timothy Ferris in Coming of Age in the Milky Way. Le Gentil set of from France a year ahead of time to observe the transit from India, but various setbacks left him still at sea on a day of the transit – just about the worst place to be since steady measurements were impossible on a pitching ship.

Undaunted, Le Gentil continued on to India to await the next transit in 1769. With eight years to prepare, he erected a first-rate viewing station, tested and retested his equipments, and had everything in a state of perfect readiness. On the morning of the second transit, June 4, 1769, he awoke to a fine day, but, just as Venus began its pass, a cloud slid in front of the Sun and remained there for almost exactly the duration of the transit: three hours, fourteen minutes, and seven seconds.

Unbelievable. It brings home how much pain and sacrifice these men of science made for the greater good. It makes them much more human and it makes me really want to keep reading more.

If you haven’t read this book, get it now. It is fabulous – so educational and also entertaining at the same time.

Note: I typed the passages out from the book. The publisher and author retain all copyright.

  • “A Short History Of Nearly Everything” has been lying unread on one of my bookshelves for a while now. Maybe, I should pick it up now. 🙂

  • Hi, Shripriya!

    I have had “A Short History of Nearly Everything” sitting on my bookshelf for a quite a while now and just haven’t been motivated to take it down and read it until now!

    I love the story of Issac Newton, he was quite a quirky character…you should try to read his biography by James GLick (it’s a tiny little book but packs a punch). They are now saying that the reason he was this way was because he suffered from bipolar disorder which as you know confers great energy and orginality of thought…Abe Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Beethoven, Tolstoy, Dickens and many others are also supposed to have suffered with it. Darn, don’t you hate being normal? 🙂

  • Shripriya

    @ Gaurav – definitely! I rarely read science books but this one is different. It falls into the category of “If I had read this as a kid instead of the boring textbooks I had, I might have gone in this direction…”

    @ Lotus – Wow, I didn’t know he was bipolar. Certainly explains things – yes, a lot brilliant folks who were/are afflicted. Oh, and thanks for the recommendation on the biography. Will add it to my list.

  • Prithvi

    In Matt Ridley’s book “Nature via nurture there is a quote germane to your post –

    “It is perhaps no accident that many great scientists, leaders, and religious prophets seem to walk the crater rim of the volcano of psychosis, and to have relatives with schizophrenia. James Joyce, Albert Einstein, Carl Gustav Jung, and Bertrand Russell all had close relatives with schizophrenia. Isaac Newton and Immanual Kant might both be described as ‘schizotypal.’ One absurdly precise study estimates that 28% prominent scientists, 60% composers, 73% painters, 77% novelists, and an astonishing 87% poets have shown some degree of mental disturbance.”

    What I liked best about Ridley’s discussion is the focus on the positive – he describes schizotypal people as brilliant, self-assured and focussed. See these people are not just scientists but paradigm makers and breakers and that is no light burden. Look at this Omnibrain post – http://scienceblogs.com/omnibrain/2007/04/the_difference_between_scienti.php

    I find well adjusted scientists and contributors to be even more fascinating – Richard Feynman and Benjamin Franklin spring to mind – they were dilletantes (when this was an honorific term) and engaged with people while transforming their worlds. Feynman’s letters and Franklin’s Autobiography are both riveting books. They are very silent about the very real challenges they experienced and I think Einstein another shockingly balanced was very right when he said –

    If A is success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.

  • I’m a big fan of Bryson and love his travel stories. This is one I’ve been meaning to read for a while now. Thanks for the excerpts, will pick it up pronto! 🙂

  • Shripriya

    @ Prithvi – Wow, those are astounding numbers. Thanks for sharing. And the cartoon captures the idea so succinctly! 🙂

    @ Shub – excellent. Tell me how you like it.

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  • nekram

    “A Short History Of Nearly Everything” has been lying unread on one of my bookshelves for a while now. Maybe, I should pick it up now. :-):)