The great scientists of history are some of the smartest and wisest people who ever lived. These individuals are sometimes singlehandedly responsible for bringing massive progress to the human race. But being a superb scientific mind doesn’t always endow you with a lot of common sense. These four renowned scientists made some really costly, and sometimes deadly, blunders.
Isaac Newton is a veritable saint in physics, known for formulating the three laws of motion that every schoolchild knows by heart, discovering gravity as we know it, and developing calculus at around the same time as his rival, the great German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz. But all of these were secondary concerns to he of the impressive wig – turns out Newton fancied himself less of a scientist and more of a wizard. Along with biblical interpretation (including a guess that the Apocalypse of Revelation would happen no earlier than 2060) and some dubious chronology of historical and mythical events, Newton worked on finding the legendary Philosopher’s Stone, a substance that could transmute matter, in the latter half of his life (unsuccessfully, of course). He’s known to have suffered a nervous breakdown during his alchemical work, probably due to all of the lead and mercury he was handling wreaking havoc on his brain – and who knows what discoveries in legitimate science he might have made had he not sunk so much time into alchemy?
Much of what we know about radiation and nuclear physics today comes from the work that Marie and Pierre Curie did at the beginning of the last century. The French couple were scientific as well as marital partners, and Marie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win twice, and the only person to win twice in multiple sciences. In other words, she was brilliant. She coined the term “radioactivity” and discovered polonium and radium, and she was the first person to recognize the use of radioactive materials in medical treatment. So it was ironic that disease brought on by radiation was to bring on her demise. As the preeminent nuclear physicist in the world, Curie should have recognized the dangers of highly radioactive materials before anyone else, but she handled samples of radium very casually, including bringing test tubes full of the stuff in her pockets to the front during the First World War and keeping it in her drawers for use as a novelty desk lamp. Of course, it was to be years until the health effects of radiation would be fully understood, and this was an era in which radium was used to make wristwatch faces glow in the dark and put in toothpaste as a “dental tonic.”
Though many of the good Austrian doctor’s theories have now been superseded by more modern approaches, Sigmund Freud still laid the groundwork for modern psychology. There’s a good reason the stereotypical pop-culture shrink has a goatee and a Teutonic accent. But Freud’s most crackpot ideas should have been laughed off the moment he came up with them. First, he thought, based on flimsy conjecture, that “William Shakespeare” was just a pseudonym for Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere, who concocted an elaborate Stratford-upon-Avon-based playwriting alibi for some reason. (He is, however, in good company there, as Mark Twain, Orson Welles, and Charlie Chaplin all believed the same.) More dangerously, he believed the newly-developed stimulant cocaine, isolated from a South American leaf, to be a miracle drug with no ill effects, and not only prescribed it but enthusiastically used it himself.
Gaius Plinius Secundus, Pliny the Elder to us, wouldn’t have called himself a “scientist,” but “natural philosophers” in the ancient world were more or less the same thing. His book Natural History is one of the longest surviving Roman documents, and the most in-depth work by any Roman scientific writer. Pliny, a longtime government official, was also a wealthy dilettante who worked on such diverse subjects as history, biology, and applied hydrology, having studied techniques using flowing water for mining and irrigation. And, like many wealthy Romans, he visited Pompeii… and had the misfortune of doing so when Vesuvius erupted, killing the inhabitants but preserving the city. Pliny was far off enough that he was safe, but chose to sail across the Bay of Naples towards the eruption in the interest of finding out more about it. As a man in his late fifties with asthma and a generally weak constitution, the air did him no good, and though the rest of the people on the ship escaped with their lives, Pliny perished. Nevertheless, he’s immortalized in modern volcanology with the term “Plinian eruption,” referring to a particularly violent volcanic explosion with gases and dust columns reaching the stratosphere.