10 Quirkiest Scientists in History

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It’s been said that we’re all a bit eccentric in our own way. But what separates great minds from the rest of us? Is it the tenacity to attack a problem head on, or do great scientists truly have a different perspective on the universe than the rest of us? Stories of the peculiar habits of scientists abound, and have been popularized in fiction through the archetypal “mad scientist.” One could argue that unconventional thinkers are drawn to science to begin with, or perhaps their fame simply made their odd behavior more prominent. Either way, here’s a look at 10 of history’s quirkiest scientists who clearly marched to a different drummer.


10. Edwin Hubble

Edwin Hubble affected the manner of an English aristocrat, although he was from rural America.

Edwin Hubble: © The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif.; Fair use

The discoverer of cosmic redshift, American astronomer Edwin Hubble revolutionized our view of the universe in the early 20th century. Schooled in England at Oxford, he was known to talk in a fake British accent and fancied himself an aristocrat, often donning a cape and cane, although he was actually from rural America. A certain idea existed amongst the American elite in the early 20th century that European science was superior (remember, the concept of eugenics was in full swing at the time) and Hubble’s eccentricities exemplified this attitude.


9. Buckminster Fuller

Buckminster Fuller documented the final 68 years of his life in 15-minute intervals.

Buckminster Fuller; credit Dan Lindsay

One of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, Buckminster Fuller is best remembered for his pioneering work in architecture and engineering, especially in perfecting the geodesic dome. He had an acute visual sense, and thought of design in a holistic manner far ahead of his time; he pioneered the concepts of green living and environmentalism decades before they became famous. But he is also well known for something that most of us would consider, well, a bit crazy — from age 20 in 1915 until his death in 1983, he kept a detailed log of his life, in 15-minute intervals, recording his thoughts and activities. As a result, his life has been called “the most documented life in human history,” by a researcher at Stanford University, which stores the so-called “Dymaxion Chronofile.”


8. Gustav Fechner

Gustav Fechner went blind staring at the sun.
An 18th century psychologist, Fechner actually went blind staring at the Sun. Why would an educated man do that? Fechner found himself captivated with the after images that bright lights provoked. His greatest contributions to science were a law demonstrating the relationship between intensity and sensation, and discovery of the “Fechner Color effect”, or a perception of color in moving black-and-white objects. He was fascinated with optical illusions and hallucinatory phenomena, and also intrigued with the supernatural and “spirit rapping” as were many scientists of the day.


7. James Watson

James Watson helped discover the double helix of DNA, but aggravated many people along the way.

James Watson; credit: James Watson

Watson received the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology along with Francis Crick for the discovery of the structure of the DNA helix. While in college, he developed a code of conduct for living that stressed, “avoid boring people,” which later became the name of his autobiography. Many peers viewed Watson as condescending in nature, and at one time or another he has managed to offend women, minorities, homosexuals and others with his outspoken beliefs.


6. Nikola Tesla

Nikola Tesla made many important discoveries, but also had many quirks.
Tesla seemed far ahead of his time in many respects. Most significantly, Tesla pioneered the Alternating Current theory of electricity; the modern electrical grid wouldn’t be possible without him. Inventions such as the ominous-looking Tesla coil and ideas for directed energy weapons assured him a place as the stereotypical mad scientist. His behavior could be quite odd at times; Tesla would often just strike off on his own, working menial jobs in obscurity. He also exhibited several traits in later years that we would identify as obsessive-compulsive, such as a fear of shaking hands, a fascination with the number 3, and an insistence on personally polishing silverware before using it.


5. Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud kept a journal detailing his addiction to cocaine.
The father of modern psychoanalytic psychiatry, Sigmund Freud gave us the terms id, ego, and super ego to describe the subconscious mind. When Freud discovered cocaine, he convinced himself that he had discovered a miracle anti-depressant; his diaries tell an all-too-familiar tale to a recovering addict today. Still, they make a fascinating read as Freud comes to the hard realization that he himself is becoming addicted to cocaine.


4. Kary Mullis

Kary Mullis is a Nobel Laureate, but has earned scorn for his opinions on many issues.

Photo credit: Dona Mapston

Mr. Mullis is probably the most eccentric person to ever win a Nobel Prize. Kary Mullis discovered a method to amplify and rapidly speed up the growth of DNA; he totally revolutionized modern DNA sequencing. He is also very vocal about his beliefs in UFOs, astrology, AIDS denialism, (the idea that AIDS somehow doesn’t exist or is a mixture of other diseases) etc. He has also earned scorn for his denial of climate change. Many decried Mullis’s 1993 Nobel, but few can argue with his great singular discovery.


3. Tycho Brahe

Astronomer Tycho Brahe lost his nose in a duel.
Perhaps no astronomer led a more colorful life than Tycho Brahe. Tycho had his own private island and royal stipend, lost his nose in a duel, and died under suspicious circumstances in 1601. Brahe is best remembered for his meticulous observations, from which his protégé Johannes Kepler deduced his laws of planetary motion.


2. Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton often ingested dangerous chemicals to determine their nature.
Newton laid down the classical laws of motion and gravity, and later served as the head of the Royal Mint. He also invented the field of calculus while caring for his mother in 1666. Newton never married, and decided at an early age that he would devote his entire life to science. Newton also dabbled in numerology and the occult: chemistry was still intertwined with alchemy in those days, and Newton ingested a fair amount of mercury and arsenic, as it was common practice at the time to taste a substance to identify it. Newton was said to never have been very personable, and only published his landmark Principia after constant nagging by a colleague. A member of Parliament later in life, Newton was famously said to have only raised his voice once in his entire lifetime, demanding that a window be closed.


1. Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein said he lived for two things, light and gravity.
Einstein is the modern archetype of the absent-minded professor. One of the greatest minds of the 20th century; Einstein once said that he dedicated his life to thinking about just two things: gravity and light. He was famous for simplifying his life to this end, often forgetting to eat or showing up for photographs wearing mismatched socks. It’s amazing that he cranked out four landmark papers in one “miracle year” (1905). For all his celebrity, it’s been said that post-1920, Einstein could have just gone fishing in terms of the new discoveries in physics that he produced. Still, no other scientist better represents the popular notion of an eccentric thinker who could see the inner workings of the universe.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.