4 of History’s Strangest Scientists

Drunken elks, occult predictions, immortality and babies made from blood: the mythical side of science.

A Portrait of Isaac Newton Moonlighting as an Alchemist (Full credit to artist Barron Storey)

Of all the most culturally recognisable geniuses that have ever graced the earth, a disproportionate amount seem to be scientists. Whether it be through the iconic, frizzy haired and sober demeanour of Albert Einstein or the fittingly cyborg-esque appearance of the late Steven Hawking, it would appear that the scientific genius holds a particular visual and imaginary sway as a cultural icon. In spite of this, there are frequently more sides to the mind of a gifted scientist than the polished and clairvoyant appearance they often portray. The genius mind can also be deeply confused and frequently very strange.

(to make this piece easier to skim through, the odd bits have been emboldened)

Isaac Newton - The Apocalypse and the Occult

Perhaps the most celebrated genius in the history of science is the great Isaac Newton, the man who quite literally revolutionised the world of science through his unification of terrestrial and astronomical physics into the best account of dynamics that the world had ever seen.

Oh, and he invented calculus.

Although science textbooks have often presented Newton as a refined and clear-headed scientific thinker and as the first truly modern scientist, historians of science all agree that Newton’s superstitious beliefs were more important than his scientific ones, or so Newton himself seemed to think. Interestingly, it was Newton’s work on topics like alchemy and the Biblical Apocalypse to which he applied his greatest interest. As a result, Newton held a number of bizarre beliefs from the notion that metal could be alive to his earnest desire to create the mythic “Philosopher’s Stone” which was said to transmute lead into gold.

He also thought that he would become a saint and help to rule the earth for 1,000 years.

It was because of his odd and archaic practices that the great John Maynard Keynes once wrote of him that

“Newton was not the first of the age of reason, he was the last of the magicians.”

Although many scientists in the 17th century, and even to this day, used religious notions of God and Divine order to explain the predictability and uniformity of nature, Newton took his spiritual quest much farther than most. Not only strange from a modern perspective, alchemical and occult practices were also treated with scorn in 17th century England and so Newton never published his occult writings which have only become known after his death.

Paracelsus - Creating a Homunculus

The once famous doctor and most influential chemist of the 16th-century, Paracelsus began a branch of science, now outdated, known as iatrochemistry, an early form of chemistry which viewed itself as a servant to medicine. Although the basis of this system required only three “basic principles”, salt, sulphur, and mercury, (as opposed to the 118 chemical elements acknowledged today) iatrochemistry managed to provide a useful theoretical basis to what we may now think of as very early pharmacy and toxicology.

A 19th-century engraving of a homunculus (right). Credit.

It may seem strange, then, that a man who largely provided progress and clarity to the burgeoning science of chemistry would believe that he could generate a homunculus by mixing together warm blood and semen.

Iatrochemistry itself, like many early sciences, was very prone to mythical interpretation. This is well exemplified by the later Iatrochemist Jan Baptiste van Helmont who believed that a knife wound could be treated by applying a “sympathetic unguent” to the corresponding blade rather than the wound itself since, after the act of cutting, the knife and body had become spiritually linked.

Tycho Brahe - Clairvoyant Dwarves

Imagine being so good at something that your country gave you 1% of its total GDP to do it. This is exactly what happened to Tycho Brahe in the 16th century. The Danish nobleman was such an internationally revered astronomer that the royal family paid him to set up his own naked-eye observatory and to measure and catalogue the heavens. Brahe was so brilliant in fact that the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (the man who discovered elliptical orbits) travelled all the way to Denmark to become his assistant and later used his data to inform his own revolutionary work.

A painting of a dwarf from the mid 17th century. Credit.

Regardless of his esteem, however, Brahe was rather odd. Aside from his brass nose and alcoholic pet elk (one of which was the result of a duel and the other a result of his flamboyant eccentricity), Brahe kept very odd beliefs for a man of science, a fact which becomes particularly apparent when we consider his close relationship to Jepp, a psychic Danish dwarf. In addition to his strange belief that height was inversely correlated to clairvoyance, Brahe also insisted that his stout companion eat under his table at every meal out of superstition.

Hugh Everett - Quantum Immortality

Although the previous entries have involved beliefs which are largely falsified by modern science, the strange opinions of Hugh Everett are not necessarily at odds with the views of current scholarship.

Everett was a talented 20th-century physicist and the first to propose the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of quantum physics which postulates that there are a theoretically infinite number of universes which run parallel to our own.

The Many Worlds theory is derived from observations of quantum duality or the fact that quantum particles appear to exist in two opposite states at the same time. Because larger things only exist in one state, however, it is theorised that these particles need to take on one state when they become part of a larger system. This is a simple account of “quantum coherence”.

But this rather begs the question, did the other state just vanish, or is it still there, in another universe? If so, could these quantum differences escalate upwards through the system creating an entirely different and parallel universe?

To Everett they certainly did.

But more than that, this interpretation seemed to offer an equally strange consequence: that we may have infinite parallel lives.

Everett appeared to be a firm believer in this theory up until his death at age 51. One other thing which may separate Everett from the other entries in this article is that his beliefs may have been partly responsible for his physical appearance. After drinking, eating and smoking excessively in later life, the physicist became dramatically overweight and unhealthy. We are left to wonder whether in his later years Everett devalued his own life after realising its apparent insignificance relative to the other infinite parallel lives he believed he had.

In any case, this strange and compelling belief still holds credibility today with many still committed to the idea of a Many-Worlds Interpretation.

Despite its sterilised language, forthright theories, and sanitised discourse, science has a long track record of being developed and diversified by strange and outlandish thinkers. Myth, religion, superstition and personal beliefs, though often portrayed as limiting or restraining science, have nevertheless been inextricably linked to it from its conception, and though modern science has done its best to distance itself from these non-scientific systems, if historical trends are anything to go by, it is unlikely that science will ever entirely free itself from superstitious or spiritual interpretation.