Science is a dangerous business, full of risky propositions and strange experiments. And sometimes, scientists wind up going to jail for their pains. Some of them for the integrity of science, and some for far more sordid reasons.
Here are 10 scientists who spent some time in the slammer. Caged specific heat!
Top image: Sin City.
10. Stewart Nozette: From NASA to Fraud to Espionage to Prison
Sometimes things just start rolling downhill. Stewart Nozette started out working on lightweight spacecraft for NASA, and had top level clearance. And then, he wandered from the research department into accounting, and allegedly made up some fraudulent billing to NASA from a nonprofit company that he ran. When people started getting curious about this alleged fraud, Nozette apparently realized that he might need a little more money to cover things like lawyer bills, or living in a non-extradition country for the rest of his life — so when he was approached by an Israeli agent who offered money for top secret documents, he allegedly ran right out to fetch them. Alas, the Israeli agent was actually an FBI agent, since NASA likes to keep an eye on top-level clearance people whom they're also investigating for fraud. Nozette is still serving his 13 years in prison. In a statement that showcases how one can use language to edge around responsibility, he said that he regretted "failing to report," when the agent first contacted him.
9. Sir Francis Bacon Was a Good Scientist and Bad Public Figure
Sir Francis Bacon is known as a pioneer of experimental, rather than philosophical, science. The idea of experimentation is not as obvious at it would seem to us today. Science was originally "natural philosophy." Natural philosophers thought about basic philosophical truths, and built up a theory of the world using them as a starting point. Bacon, and others, came up with a new method in which a person instead set up tests, to observe the unique behavior of the phenomena they were dealing with.
But Bacon wasn't so good in discharging his duties as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor. He had fallen into debt, and had accepted many bribes sent to sway his judgment. When people inevitably noticed, he wrote and signed a confession, along with a note that read, "My lords, it is my act, my hand, and my heart; I beseech your lordships to be merciful to a broken reed." Damn, that's eloquent. Still, they stripped him of his rank and fortune, and he spent some time in the Tower of London, before getting out to experiment some more.
8. Anna Freud Made the Right Enemies
Anna Freud is, perhaps, a more controversial figure than her father. She took the roiling mess of sexual dysfunction that Sigmund Freud thought explained much of the world's behavior — and applied it to children. She was a child psychoanalyst who added and expanded her father's theories all her life. She and her father were very close, and it was common knowledge that she was continuing his work.
Famously, the Nazis sought to quash what they called "Jewish science," including both the works of Freud and of Albert Einstein. And they believed the Freud family was intent on fleeing beyond their reach, despite having confiscated their money and passports. As a way of putting pressure on the whole family, the Nazis arrested and questioned Anna, jailing her for the night. The detainment of Anna had the opposite effect that the Nazis intended. Sigmund Freud had been dithering longer than most well-connected Jews, and the arrest caused him to obtain passports from a Nazi who admired his work — and then the entire family made it out of the reach of the occupying forces.
7. Santiago Ramón y Cajal is the Nobel Laureate and Preteen Hooligan
I love the word hooligan, don't you? And little Santiago must have. He was kicked out of schools again and again for disrespect towards his teachers. When he wasn't being kicked out, he would run away. His parents tried letting him stay home from school. That didn't work out either. For fun, he constructed a homemade cannon and blew up his town's gate. For this, the young Santiago spent a night in jail, making him the youngest jailbird on this list. And then he turned himself around, at least in some ways. Although he was said to be a pretty unpleasant man to be around, he did great work in neuroscience. He was a gifted anatomist, and revealed small structures and pathways in the brain that nobody else ever had, but he wasn't always right. He was quoted as saying, "the nerve pathways are something fixed, ended and immutable." Not if you look at your own life, Santiago.
6. Johann Conrad Dippel Had a Prison Lab
Johann Dippel was born in Castle Frankenstein in the mid-1600s. That is not a promising start. When he grew up, he set up a laboratory in the castle's prison, doing all kinds of experiments to gain immortality. It was rumored that he attempted to transfer the soul of one person to another via a funnel, a hose, and a lot of lubricant. He also created an "elixir of life" called Dippel's Oil, a mix of stewed animal's bones and blood that was not the secret to immortality, but turned out to make an amazing blue dye, thereafter known and marketed as Prussian Blue. Surprisingly, despite all of his scientific and pseudoscientific messing around, what got him thrown in prison for a time was the fact that he was also a theologian. Some of his teachings angered church elders, and got him tossed in prison for heresy. Apparently, they had no problem with lubricated soul transference, though.
5. Jack Kevorkian Was a Scientist and Not a Lawyer
Doctor Kevorkian earned the nickname "Doctor Death," early in his career, because he would, as a pathologist, rush to the bedsides of dying patients and take pictures, hoping to capture the moment of actual death. He wanted to set a cut-off point after which resuscitation would prove useless. Later, when he invented a "suicide machine," a machine that allowed people to trip it and inject themselves with a combination of drugs that would kill them painlessly, he spent a lot of time in prison. In 1998, Kevorkian put aside the machine and injected the lethal drugs into the patient himself — with the patient's consent. He represented himself in court. That decision got him convicted, in 1999, of second degree murder, for which he served eight years. He died in 2011.
4. Timothy Leary Was In As Many Prisons As Possible
Quite a lot of scientists have gone to prison — but it kind of looked as though one of them was trying to go to every prison, ever. Before Leary got on to LSD, he was an effective psychologist who was respected in the area of personality assessment. His early experimentation, in the scientific sense, with LSD led to just plain personal experimentation later on. And his dependence on, and faith in, the drug sent him around the world, and into and out of 29 prisons. While sitting in those various prisons, he compared himself to both Jesus and Socrates, nearly getting jailed again for causing extreme and possibly harmful public eye-rolling. When he landed in Folsom for what would be decades, he immediately turned state's evidence.
3. Klaus Fuchs Took Everyone With Him
Klaus Fuchs was a British scientist sent over, despite the protests of US military officials, with minimal security checks, to work on the atomic bomb project. And he was a spy for the Soviet Union. He passed along messages for years, and became part of a network of scientific spies. When he was picked up, in 1950, he named Harry Gold, a research chemist, as his collaborator. Gold named David Greenglass, another Manhattan Project scientist, who in turn named Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Klaus, by the way, had a conversation with Richard Feynman about espionage while they were on the Manhattan Project. They discussed their professional strengths and personal interests and both agreed that Feynman would make the more likely spy. Well played, Fuchs.
2. Richard Feynman Arrested For Breaking Into His Workplace
Richard Feynman, by all accounts, managed to be both smart and insufferable. How that balance worked out depended very much on who was attempting to suffer him, and why. The military personnel at the Los Alamos base, where a group of scientists were attempting to construct a nuclear bomb before Nazi Germany did, were not in the mood to suffer any more than strictly necessary. Feynman was fond of straining their patience by breaking in to people's lockers and safes to get documents when getting them through official channels would be too tedious. They strained his, by forcing him to go through annoying military check points whenever he had left the base and wanted to get back in. One day, instead of going through the checkpoint, he walked around the perimeter fence until he found a hole. After that, he never checked back in once he'd left. He just went through the hole. Eventually someone noticed many Richard Feynmans leaving, but no Richard Feynmans coming back in. The military police came by his quarters on the base and arrested him. He told them that they should, instead, have just fixed the hole.
1. Galileo Was Jailed (In His Home) for Jerkiness
Oh we all knew who was going to top this list! Galileo, famous for being an arrogant ass — and for actually deserving to be an arrogant ass — received special permission from the Pope to write a dialog in which he compared heliocentric and geocentric theories of the universe. He did just that, except he gave all the good arguments to the heliocentrist, named the geocentrist "the Simpleton," and had that Simpleton directly quoting the Pope. The Pope searched his soul and decided that he was supposed to display forgiveness, but not a sense of humor about himself. Although powerful political friends kept Galileo from losing his life, he spent the rest of that life under house arrest, had the copies of his book burned, and was forced to recant his views in public. He spent the last nine years of his life locked up, which makes him the longest term convict on the list.
Bacon Image: National Portrait Gallery, London
Cajal Image: Nobel Prize.org
Kevorkian Image: Halebtsi
Klaus Fuchs Image: UK National Archives
Galileo Image: RMG