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.