12 Acts of Genius Ripped From the Tabloids

Forget Brad and Angelina. It’s time to put the spotlight back where it belongs—on history’s biggest nerds! Whether it’s sex, drugs, or the propensity for climbing trees in a three-piece suit,  mental_floss has all the juiciest gossip about the world’s greatest minds.

1. Scientist, Editor Duel Over Marie Curie's Honor! Gunshots Barely Avoided as Albert Einstein Weighs In

Marie Curie is well known as the first genius to have snagged two Nobel Prizes. The first came in 1903, when she and her husband, Pierre, were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for their radiation research. Then, in 1911, she nabbed a Nobel in chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. But as her reputation as a brilliant scientist was growing, the Polish-born mother of two found herself at the center of a spectacular sex scandal.

Four years after Pierre Curie died in a 1906 carriage accident, Marie became entrenched in a torrid love affair with one of his former students, physicist Paul Langevin. The two were sharing a love nest in Paris when Langevin’s wife grew suspicious and decided to investigate. She hired a man to break into their pad and steal incriminating letters, which were then leaked to the press.

French newspapers went after the story with gusto. They painted Curie as a home-wrecker and a seductive Jew, even though she wasn’t Jewish. The story played into the xenophobia of the time, and it fanned public outrage. The situation got so bad that one night, Curie returned home from a conference in Belgium to find an angry mob surrounding her house, tormenting her two daughters. She quickly packed up her family and fled to a friend’s home.

Eager to defend Curie’s honor, Langevin challenged one of the newspaper’s editors to a duel. The two men faced off against one another, but no one fired a shot. Meanwhile, another man came to Curie’s defense. Albert Einstein offered a bit of reasoning that seemed both peculiar and offensive. He argued that Curie “has a sparkling intelligence, but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to represent a threat to anyone.”

In 1911, at the height of the whole scandal, Curie won her second Nobel Prize. The Nobel committee suggested that she skip the awards ceremony, but she went anyway. The furor died down eventually, no doubt aided by Curie’s humble demeanor and blinding dedication to science. Curie ultimately died for her work, succumbing to illnesses caused by her prolonged exposure to radioactive materials. Even now, Marie Curie’s notebooks are too radioactive to be picked up by hand.

2. American Writer Confuses Press with American Jokes

On November 5, 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature. That morning, a Swedish newspaper called Lewis to interview him about the news. But the witty author, known for such literary staples as Babbitt and Elmer Gantry, felt sure it was a prank call. Instead of answering the questions, he responded by launching into his best Swedish Chef accent and taunting the reporter. Lewis continued his “Bork, bork, meatballs!” ramblings until the man on the other end of the line finally hung up.

A few minutes later, Lewis received a second call, this time from an American who verified the news. When the stunned Lewis went to tell his wife, he got a taste of his own medicine. “How nice for you!” she replied sarcastically. “I have the Order of the Garter!”

This wasn’t Sinclair Lewis’ only adventure in misplaced sarcasm, though. Over the next few days, reporters began asking the 46-year-old author what he was going to do with his $46,350 in prize money (worth $600,000 today). Lewis promised to donate it to “a well-known young American author and his family, to enable him to continue writing.” The European press thought this was extremely generous of Lewis and praised him for using his money to support an up-and-coming artist. American news reports, on the other hand, were quick to point out that Lewis was referring to himself.

3. Eccentric Physicist Climbs Trees in His Suit, Makes Monkey of Nobel Committee

British physicist Paul Dirac was obsessed with the aesthetics of math. He believed that the more beautiful the equation, the more likely it to be true. And although the idea sounds kooky, for Dirac, it was surprisingly effective.

In 1928, this pursuit of beauty led Dirac to formulate a single equation that meshed quantum theory and special relativity, explaining the behavior of electrons and predicting the existence of antimatter. The Dirac Equation won him the 1933 Nobel Prize in physics, and even today, scientists use it to understand how tiny particles and powerful forces shape the universe.

But Dirac’s eccentricities weren’t limited to his lab work. For one thing, he wore the same three-piece suit at all times. Although the outfit made sense for formal dinners, he also insisted on wearing it during tree climbing -an activity he enjoyed in his spare time. Even stranger was his habit of suddenly going quiet. Not only did his silences last for long periods of time, but when he finally did speak, his comments were invariably strange. Like the time his wife asked him, “What would you do if I left you?” After a long pause, Dirac replied, “Well, I’d say, “‘Goodbye, dear.’”

The stories don’t stop there. After reading War and Peace, Dirac’s only comment was to point out Tolstoy had accidentally written in sunrise twice in one day. And after hearing a ghost story, his only question was whether the ghost appeared at midnight Greenwich Mean Time, or whether it had made allowances for Daylight Saving Time.

You get the picture. Even his Nobel award went this way: Dirac almost turned it down because he didn’t want to become famous, but then someone pointed out that he’d become even more famous if he rejected it. When he showed up in Sweden to collect the prize, Dirac completely failed to notice the long line of dignitaries who were there at the train station to greet him. Instead, he sat patiently on a bench -for several hours- waiting of this ride, while the welcoming committee worried that he’d missed the train.

4. Scientist Goes with the Grain, Feeds World in Process

In 1953, Iowa-born agronomist Norman Borlaug figured out how to feed the world, or at least most of it, by growing better wheat. At the time, other scientists were hard at work experimenting with new strains that would yield more food. But their wheat ended up so top-heavy that it often toppled over in the field, breaking the stems and destroying the grain. Noticing that the wheat needed a lower center of gravity, Borlaug crossed the high-yield wheat with a mutant dwarf wheat, creating a plant that was short and stocky enough to support big grains. He also moved to Mexico, where he could breed his new hybrid in the type of soil and climate that proved inhospitable to wheat production. Eventually, he produced a strain of hardy, high-yield wheat that could grow almost anywhere.

The results were remarkable. For the first time, heavily populated, dry climate places like Mexico, Pakistan, and India were able to grow their own wheat in massive quantities. They even produced enough to export it to other countries. The phenomenon was especially stunning because, in the 1950s, several researchers had predicted widespread famine in these regions. Based on some estimates, Borlaug’s wheat saved the lives of almost a billion people. It also earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

By the time of his death in 2009, however, Norman Borlaug had plenty of critics. Growing his hardy wheat required additional resources, including synthetic fertilizers and intensive irrigation. While it saved lives, the wheat also drained local water supplies and created a dependence on oil (a component of synthetic fertilizer). Borlaug acknowledged these problems, and he spent his last years figuring out ways to curb population growth -the only way, he said, to stop the cycle of needing more and more food.

But for critics who claimed his wheat had done more harm than good, Borlaug had little sympathy. “Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists,” he once said. “They’ve never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. …If they lived just one month among the misery of the developing world, as I have for over 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things.”

5. Alfred Nobel's Sad Story

Despite being one of the richest people in Europe, Alfred Nobel was not a happy man. The Swedish industrialist made his fortune by inventing (and later producing) dynamite. But his work made him a recluse. He spent most of his life traveling to oversee his vast multinational business, and he filled the rest of his time with reading and inventing. In fact, Nobel patented more than 300 inventions. While many were related to explosives, others included ideas for aluminum boats and artificial silk.

Nobel never married. Too cerebral for his own good, he considered himself “a worthless instrument of cogitation, alone in the world and with thoughts heavier than anyone can imagine.” So, he decided to leave his riches to those who “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” instead.

But even in this final act, Alfred Nobel managed to spread misery. His will enraged his nieces and nephews, who stood to inherit a fortune. It also angered millions of Swedes, who believed that Nobel was unpatriotic because he made the prizes open to people of all nations. Of course, four years after the philanthropist died, when the first Nobel Prize committee was assembled, the resentment began to evaporate.

6. Doris Lessing Unfazed by Prize Patrol: Celebrated author claims, "I couldn't care less."

In 2007, British writer Doris Lessing, best known for her 1962 feminist masterpiece The Golden Notebook, won the Nobel Prize in literature. Thing is, she wasn’t exactly gracious about her win. She told the hordes of reporters camped outside her door, “I couldn’t care less.” Lessing then elaborated on why she was so unmoved: “I’m 88 years old, and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.”

(Image credit: Elke Wetzig)

7. The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank- Deposits and Withdrawals

The Repository for Germinal Choice, better known as the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, was founded in 1980 by multimillionaire Robert Graham, inventor of shatterproof eyeglass lenses. His goal was to combine the sperm and eggs of superior men and women -ideally Nobel laureates- to produce superior babies. If all this sounds an awful lot like eugenics, well, it was.

In practice, most Nobel Prize winners were smart enough to steer clear of the bank, but three decided to make a deposit. One of these was William Shockley, who won the award for inventing the transistor and was an unapologetic racist. The other sperm donors were more random, and at least one of them lied about his intelligence. But was The Repository for Germinal Choice a failure? That’s hard to say. It brought more than 200 babies into this world, and many had higher-than-average IQs. In the end, however, its biggest legacy was that it changed how sperm banks work by offering detailed profiles of the donors. Now it’s commonplace for women to choose the looks, professions, and interests of the men whose sperm they wish to use.

8. LSD-Using Nobel Laureate Speaks Out: Cites Belief in Ghosts, Disbelief in AIDS

Kary Mullis won his 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing a way to quickly replicate DNA, which paved the way for modern genetic mapping and fingerprinting. But had the Nobel committee been giving out prizes for drug use and showboating, he probably would have won those, too.

A former LSD enthusiast, Mullis has no fear of sounding crazy. In his autobiography on the official Nobel website, for example, he includes a series of rambling anecdotes about the week he spent hanging out with the ghost of his dead grandfather. He’s also quick to praise his own scientific achievements, even though he hasn’t published a peer-reviewed paper since 1986. Arguably, he’s the most controversial living Nobel laureate by sheer force of personality. (Image credit: Erik Charlton)

Mullis’ talent for trouble extends to the details of his Prize-winning discovery. The tale goes like this: Back in 1983, Mullis was driving down a stretch of California highway with his girlfriend for a romantic weekend in wine country, when suddenly, he thought up the basics behind Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR. In essence, the reaction is a system of heating and cooling DNA that allows you to replicate fragments of genetic code. More importantly, it can be done quickly and repeatedly, turning one strand into thousands. Mullis, who takes sole credit for the invention, claims the company he was working for at the time, Cetus Corporation, cheated him out of millions in royalties, and that major scientific journals refused to publish him because they couldn’t comprehend the value of PCR.

Over the years, though, publications such as Salon.com and The New York Times have uncovered a more nuanced tale. Mullis came up with the original idea, but relied on other people to develop it and make it work. Mullis also put off the deadline for a paper about PCR for so long that another scientist at his company finally wrote it up instead. By the time Mullis finished his version, the other one had been published. Understandably, the journals rejected Mullis’ work for not containing any new information. As for the royalties, it’s common practice for a company to own the technologies that its employees invent. In spite of that, sources claim that Cetus would have compensated Mullis handsomely for his work, but that he quit the corporation before it made any money off his technology.

The PCR debate isn’t the only thing that makes Mullis a controversial figure. After receiving the Nobel, Mullis used his newfound status to talk publicly about topics far outside his field. Like, say, AIDS. Mullis doesn’t believe in AIDS -at least not in the way most of the scientific community understands it. Instead, Mullis claims that AIDS is actually several diseases linked together by big pharmaceutical companies to make money. He also says that no one has ever proven the link between HIV and AIDS. (Mullis must have missed a paper in a 2003 New England Journal of Medicine that summarizes more than 25 years of independent peer-reviewed studies showing that AIDS is, in fact, a single disease caused by HIV.)

Mullis has since taken a similar stance against global warming,and he’s expressed equally irrational notions about the U.S. space program. He believes that 90 percent of the money devoted to space research should go toward asteroid prevention, and the other 10 percent should be spent looking for aliens. The search for his lost dignity wasn’t factored into the budget.

9. Fashion Faux Pas! Should Linus Pauling Have Ditched the Beret?

Linus Pauling started conducting chemistry experiments at age 13, building a crude laboratory in his parents’ basement and stealing chemicals from a nearby abandoned smelting factory. By 1918, 17-year-old Pauling was not only a sophomore at Oregon Agricultural College, he was <>teaching chemistry there. His meteoric rise through the ranks of academia continued until he became a professor at Caltech at age 30.

Graced with an incredible memory -one that a biographer later described as “libraries of information in his head”- Pauling made huge strides in the burgeoning field of molecular biology. In 1948, he created the first detailed picture of a protein molecule, and the following year, he and a group of graduate students proved that sickle cell anemia is caused by a molecular defect in hemoglobin. In 1954, Pauling won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his research into chemical bonding, the force that holds molecules together. In effect, he provided the theoretical basis for explaining why chemical react the way they do.

As Linus Pauling became a scientific legend, he also earned a reputation as a social activist. Horrified by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan, he parlayed his academic clout into a campaign against nuclear weapons. Pauling marched, protested, and lobbied to ban nuclear testing, gathering the signatures of 36 Nobel laureates and nearly 10,000 other scientists in a petition he submitted in 1958. And he did all this during the height of the Cold war paranoia, incurring the wrath of Senator Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. (It didn’t help matters that Pauling wore a beatnik-style black beret all the time.) Accused of being a member of subversive organizations, Pauling was grilled by the HUAAC and forced to resign from some of his teaching duties at Caltech.

But Pauling’s anti-nuclear efforts paid off. He won the 1962 Nobel Peace Prize, making him the only person to win two unshared Nobel Prizes in two separate categories. But it wasn’t just the Nobel Committee that was paying attention to Pauling. The following year, his work paid off at home when the United States and the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty to freeze their nuclear arms race.

10. Gifted Physicist Points Finger on Live TV, Singles Out NASA as Weakest Link

It’s reasonable to think of winning a Nobel as an excuse to retire to a nice, sunny beach, but resist the temptation; important things may lie ahead. Consider Richard Feynman, who won the physics Nobel in 1965 for his work with quantum electrodynamics, which helped explain how certain atoms produce radiation. As with most high-order physics, the subject didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination. That’s why, today, Feynman is best remembered for the things he did after the Nobel -namely, rooting out the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

After the Challenger broke apart following liftoff in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard, Feynman was among the scientists and experts appointed to investigate the tragedy. Early on, evidence pointed to problems with the O-rings that sealed the joints inside the rocket boosters. But everywhere Feynman turned to learn more about the O-rings, he encountered stupefying levels of bureaucracy. He was even told it would take years to study the O-rings for flaws.

So, Feynman decided to take matters into his own hands. During a televised hearing, he showed off the strength and flexibility of the O-ring material. Then he dropped it into a glass of ice water. When he pulled out the O-ring, the once flexible material was suddenly brittle, and Feynman cracked it with only a small amount of pressure. Given the cold weather that had preceded the launch, Feynman’s demonstration was striking, and it made him a household name.

(YouTube link)

But he wasn’t done yet. Furious at NASA’s handling of the investigation, Feynman dug into the policies that led to the disaster. He found that launch crews were encouraged to push safety boundaries further and further each time the shuttle went up and that the administration willfully ignored politically and financially inconvenient warnings about iffy parts and materials -including the O-rings. Yet, ever humble, Feynman took no credit for the discoveries. Instead, he deflected it to the NASA contractors and engineers who had led him to this information, allowing him to publicize problems they could only speak about anonymously.

11. DNA Pioneer Stunned, Learns Racism Isn’t Great for Image

There’s no doubt that James Watson and Francis Crick’s Nobel-winning discovery of the structure of DNA was one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century. But sometimes, really smart people say really dumb things. James Watson is one of those people.

During a lecture at UC Berkeley in 2000, Watson showed the audience a slide of model Kate Moss and said that thin people may be more ambitious because they’re less happy and, literally, more hungry. “Whenever you interview fat people, you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them,” he added.

During that same talk, he posited a relationship between skin color, exposure to sunlight, and sexual appetite, claiming that black people have higher libidos. “That’s why you have Latin lovers,” he declared. “You’ve never heard of an English lover, only an English patient.”

It gets worse. Watson also advocated a parents’ right to practice eugenics. In 1997, he told a British newspaper that once science isolates the “homosexual gene,” women should be able to abort gay fetuses. He said the same thing about babies with mental disabilities, calling stupidity a “disease.”

For the most part, Watson had gotten away with these comments. Between his Nobel stature and his role in the Human Genome Project -the effort to map the entire gene sequence for humans- he’d been given some slack. But his biggest gaffe was yet to come. In 2007 James Watson told the UK’s Sunday Times that he felt “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because he believed that, though unfortunate,  black people were simply not as intelligent as white people. “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours, whereas all the testing says ‘not really.’” He added that there is a natural desire to see all human beings as equal, but “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.”

The backlash against the 79-year-old scientist was swift. Watson had been on tour promoting his book Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science when his comments were reported. Immediately, all of his future lectures were cancelled. Then in the week following the uproar, he willingly retired from his post as chancellor of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island and apologized “unreservedly” for his comments. Maybe someday they’ll isolate the gene for asinine commentary.  

12. Economist Loses $4 Billion, Sparks Worldwide Financial Meltdown

Myron Scholes, co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in economics, has been called “the intellectual father of the credit-default swap.” Scholes won the award for what’s known as the Black-Scholes method for determining the value of derivatives and stock options. Over the years, his framework became the standard for financial markets and was even referred to as the Holy Grail of Economics.

Recently, however, all of that has changed. Although there was a lot of hype about the theory, the Black-Scholes model was limited in reality and dangerous when used incorrectly. In fact, it’s largely what defined the credit-default swaps that were behind the mortgage-backed securities that helped trigger the global economic crisis. (Image credit: Nobellaureatesphotographer)

Even as Myron Scholes was being awarded the Nobel Prize, things weren’t going too well for him. The hedge fund he’d founded was about to lose an astronomical $4 billion in four months. More recently, Scholes came under fire for his ideas on debt. One writer said that rather than giving out advice on risk management, Scholes “should be in a retirement home doing Sudoku.”

But Scholes still believes in his theory. In an interview with The New York Times in May 2009, journalist Deborah Solomon asked, “In retrospect, is it fair to say that the idea that banks could manage risk was a total illusion?” Scholes responded, “What you’re saying is negative. Life is positive, too. Every side of a coin has another side.”

What exactly that other side is, Scholes didn’t mention.


The article above by Maggie Koerth-Baker and Linda Rodriguez appeared in the Jan-Feb 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

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