Did you ever sit in high school science class thinking, “If I have to listen to my teacher drone on ONE MORE MINUTE about how sedimentary rocks are composed of angular fragments of older rocks, pebbles, sand, broken shells, rounded mineral grains, and alteration minerals, I’m going to fall into a deep stupor and my head will hit my desk with a loud THUD.”
Yes, science could be a real drag sometimes. But it didn’t have to be! So listen up high school science teachers everywhere!
Science is full of very interesting characters who discovered very interesting things using very interesting methods. How interesting? Well, someone once said that there’s a fine line between genius and madness. Many of these scientists we learn about were geniuses and many were mad (so to speak). So let’s start hearing about the “mad” part of science and let’s see if we can decrease the number of high school students whose heads hit their desks with a thud.
I recently finished reading the book, “A Short History of Almost Everything” by Bill Bryson. An absolutely excellent book that absolutely brings science alive.
Two insights I got from the book are:
1. The importance of pure genius in the advancement of science.
2. The quirkiness of genius. Many geniuses are eccentric, bizarre, odd, strange, weird, and yes, a little mad.
So you want to hear about some quirky geniuses in Bryson’s book?
1. Isaac Newton, Mathematician and Physicist (1642-1727)
Genius: Discovered the three laws of motion; invented calculus; laid the foundation for the science of spectroscopy.
Quirky: Sometimes he would wake up and then sit on his bed for hours, immobilized by the rush of thoughts to his head.
Once he stuck a long needle into his eye socket and rubbed it around to see what would happen (miraculously, nothing did).
He told no one about calculus for 27 years, and didn’t share his results on optics with anyone for 30 years.
He was interested in alchemy and worked on turning base metals into precious metals (i.e., how can I turn this piece of lead into gold?).
2. Karl Scheele, Swedish Chemist (1742-1786)
Genius: Scheele discovered eight elements including nitrogen and oxygen.
Quirky: Scheele insisted on tasting everything he worked with, including mercury, prussic acid, and hydrocyanic acid. Bryson writes, “Scheele’s rashness eventually caught up with him. In 1786, aged just forty-three, he was found dead at this workbench surrounded by an array of toxic chemicals, any one of which could have accounted for the stunned and terminal look on his face.”
3. Clair Patterson, American geochemist (1922-1995)
Genius: Determined the age of the earth (4,550 million years); created the world’s first sterile laboratory.
Quirky: Patterson worked for seven years to determine the age of the earth. Bryson writes: “When at last he had his results [while working in Illinois], Patterson was so excited that he drove straight to his boyhood home in Iowa and had his mother check him into a hospital because he thought he was having a heart attack.”
4. J.B.S. Haldane, Cambridge biologist (1892-1964)
Genius: Played a central role in synthesizing the Darwinian principles of evolution to the genetic work of Gregor Mendel; was a popularizer of science and wrote 23 very readable and instructive books; studied how submariners and divers could avoid unpleasant affects of rapid changes of pressurization.
Quirky: Haldane acquired a decompression chamber that he called the pressure pot – a metal cylinder in which three people could be sealed and subjected to painful and dangerous tests. Haldane repeatedly subjected himself to these risky experiments.
In one experiment, Haldane simulated a very hasty and dangerous ascent to see what would happen – all the dental fillings in his teeth exploded.
In another experiment on oxygen deprivation, Haldane was left without feeling in his buttocks and lower spine for six years.
Another time, Haldane poisoned himself with elevated levels of oxygen which resulted in a fit so severe that he crushed several vertebrae.
5. Carolus Linnaeus, Swedish botanist (1707-1778)
Genius: Developed the Linnean system of taxonomy in which he named or recorded some 13,000 species of plant and animal.
Quirky: According to Bryson, “Rarely has a man been more comfortable with his own greatness. He spent much of his leisure time penning long and flattering portraits of himself, declaring that there had never been a greater botanist or zoologist and that his system of classification was the greatest achievement in the realm of science.”
His other quirky quality was an abiding and feverish occupation with sex. To the parts of one species of clam he gave the names vulva, labia, pubes, anus, and hymen. His descriptions of flowers and their behavior referred to “promiscuous intercourse,” “barren concubines,” and the “bridal bed.” (Hmm. . . the first writer of plant porn?)
Other names Linnaeus employed included maidenhair moss (and this maidenhair did not refer to the hair on the maiden’s head), mare’s fart, naked ladies, hound’s piss, and open arse. His names for plant genus included Clitoria, Fornicata, and Vulva. (Note: over the years many of the names that Linnaeus came up with were quietly dropped from the classification system.)
6. Albert Einstein, Sheer Genius (1879-1955)
Genius: Developed the Theory of Relativity, proved that atoms do exist (this was in dispute at the beginning of the 20th century), e=mc squared.
Quirky: He was a bright but not outstanding student and failed his college entrance exams on the first try. After writing three extremely seminal papers while working as a Swiss patent office clerk (several years later he’d win a Nobel Prize for one of them but at the time they didn’t get much notice because who would have thought a Swiss patent clerk knew anything about physics), he applied for a job as university lecturer and high school teacher but was rejected. So he continued at the patent office and would work on his physics when his boss wasn’t looking.
He wrote one of the most extraordinary scientific papers ever written “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” without any footnotes or citations and with almost no mathematics. Bryson writes: “It was, wrote C.P. Snow, as if Einstein ‘had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.’” In fact, when asked if he kept a notebook to record his ideas, Einstein answered in surprise, “Oh, that’s not necessary. It’s so seldom I have [a good idea].”
Another thing: Einstein needed 12 hours of sleep a night (not necessarily quirky, but in this hustle and bustle world where long work hours are believed necessary to be successful, I like this about him!)
One more quirky genius not in Bryson’s book:
7. Archimedes, Syracuse Mathematician (287 B.C. – 212 B.C.)
Genius: Discovered the natural law of buoyancy
Quirky: He discovered the fundamental natural law of buoyancy one day when stepping into the bath. Overjoyed by this insight, he leaped from the bath shouting, “Eureka! I’ve found it!” In his exuberance, he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse cheering, “Eureka!”
He would become so absorbed in thought that he sometimes forgot to eat and bathe. And when in the bath, he would ponder mathematical patterns by tracing them on his body with oil.
Archimedes died at the hands of a Roman soldier. He was drawing a geometrical diagram in the dirt of the marketplace, when he was confronted by a soldier. Instead of explaining who he was to the soldier, Archimedes said, “Disturb not my circle.” The soldier replied by brandishing his sword and stabbing him.
So let’s hear it for the quirky geniuses in the history of science! Let’s hear it for high school science teachers who talk about quirky geniuses and their quirky methods and their quirky behaviors. Let’s hear it for high school students whose head doesn’t hit their desk with a thud in science class!
“No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.”
“There is no great genius without some touch of madness.”
“But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
– Carl Sagan
“The distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.”
– James Bond: Tomorrow Never Dies
“Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”
– Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes)
Speaking of mediocrity, this post needs at least one song lyric that’s related (if only marginally) to genius, so here’s one by a genius song writer:
The good things take time.
The great need commitment,
right down the line.
– Bob Seger
Okay, here’s one more that actually contains the word genius:
Ain’t he a genius
The boy’s become a star
And he smiles upon the faces
Who wish they could go far
Not long ago they criticized
The genius only wrote
And now they listen spellbound
With lumps caught in their throats
– Jimmy Buffet