We've all heard stories about killers in the back seat and puppies that turn out to be rats, but hapless heroines aren't the only ones who spawn urban legends. There are a number of urban legends about famous scientists. Some are funny, some are mere inaccuracies, and some are about committing murder by accident.
10. Galileo Drops the Cannonballs
This makes the list because it is probably everyone's very first science urban legend. Galileo, an acknowledged genius during his lifetime, went up to the top of the leaning tower of Pisa with two cannonballs of different weights. He dropped them over the side, and as they both touched the ground at the same time, he proved to everyone watching that heavy objects do not fall faster than light ones. It's a fun story to teach young kids, and it gets the point across. Unfortunately, Galileo's experiments weren't as clear. He was in Pisa when he proved that gravitational acceleration is equal for heavy and light objects, but performed a number of experiments. He rolled balls down long wooden ramps, made pendulums of different weights, and yes, occasionally dropped objects. He just didn't drop them off the Leaning Tower, because as we'll see later on in this list, his genius was limited to science, not public relations.
9. Lilavati Is Science Eve
Lilavati was the daughter of Bhaskara, a 12th century Indian mathematician and philosopher. Ever use zero? If you have, you can thank Bhaskara, who came up with the symbol, and wrote about its various mathematical properties. One of his books, in which he describes a dizzying amount of mathematical, astronomical, and geographic phenomena, is called Lilavati. That was also the name of his daughter. When she was about to be married, Bhaskara worked out via astrology (hey, everyone has flaws) that her bridegroom would die young unless they married at a certain hour.
To help her get the hour right, he gave her a water clock — a cup with a small hole in the bottom that would be placed in a bowl of water. It slowly takes on water, and sinks after a set amount of time. He told her not to go near it, so of course Lilavati waited until he was out of the room and ran right up to it. A pearl from her nose ring fell into it and upset it, causing the marriage to take place at the wrong hour, and the bridegroom to die young. If you ask me, it's Bhaskara's fault for not bothering to explain the clock to his daughter. Leave the estimation of pi out of your book and explain how a cup with a hole in it works, dude. That can't take too long.
8. Archimedes Was Deathly Dedicated to Research
Archimedes has so many legends associated with him that it's hard to pick one. He happened upon a solution to a problem while in the bath and ran around naked screaming, "Eureka!" He invented a giant claw that destroyed ships and a giant heat ray that also destroyed ships. My favorite legend, though, concerns his death. He was in Syracuse when it was conquered by General Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Marcellus ordered that Archimedes' life be spared.
From there there are two versions of the story. One has a soldier breaking into the Archimedes' home and demanding to know who he is, but Archimedes merely tells him not to mess up some calculations he'd been making in the dirt. The soldier kills him. The other story has the soldier telling him to come meet Marcellus, and Archimedes telling him to go away until after he has solved the problem he was working on. The soldier got mad and killed him. Either way, I sympathize with the soldier. I'm not taking attitude from a guy who has been attacking me with a death ray.
7. Alfred Nobel Collects Two Legends
Alfred Nobel had a couple of legends swirling around him. The first is that he created the Nobel Prizes because he read his own premature obituary. Nobel had invented dynamite, which he had hoped would be a safe mining material, but actually became a weapon. When his older brother Ludvig died, the papers mistook him for Alfred, and published the famous line, "The merchant of death is dead." Legend has it that Nobel saw this headline and secretly endowed the prizes to change his legacy. This is unlikely, since he corresponded with people regarding the prizes for a long time prior to his death. In fact, many say it was just his way of advancing the sciences that interested him.
The second legend concerns the first prizes given out. Nobel specified that prizes be awarded for, "physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace." He didn't include math, although much was being done with math at the time of his death. The legend goes that he deliberately snubbed mathematicians because one had an affair with his wife. This is unlikely, as Nobel never married.
6. NASA Scientists Confirmed the Old Testament
Sometime in the 1960s, NASA scientists were doing calculations regarding the past and present motions of the planets. They found their calculations were off by one day. Puzzling. They went over everything again. Again, it appeared that one day just hadn't happened. It was missing from history. But how could that be? One of their number then remembered the Bible, and in particular Joshua 10:13.
"So the sun stood still,
And the moon stopped,
Till the people had revenge
Upon their enemies."
Yup, according to the Bible, the moon and planets didn't move for one whole day. Once the scientists realized this, they could continue with their calculations. Of course, scientists can only predict the future motion of the planets, not check to see how they were moving in the past. There is no way they could have noticed a day was "missing" in the first place, so the story doesn't make sense.
5. Einstein Failed His Fourth Grade Math Class
No. No he didn't. Moving on.
4. Jakob Ackeret Didn't Prove a Bumblebee Shouldn't be Able to Fly
Jakob Ackeret was one of the most respected experts on aerodynamics of the 20th century. If you've ever heard a pilot in the movie saying that they're going "Mach 9," you can thank Ackeret; he came up with the concept and the term. He was a legend, and he seems to have collided with yet another urban legend. People had heard the old canard about how physicists studied the bumblebee and determined that it shouldn't be able to fly.
Somehow, people began guessing that the legend had sprung up as the result of a badly mangled interpretation of one of his papers. They stressed that he didn't come to the conclusion, just that people who had read his work had twisted his words. Actually, Ackeret should never have been involved, even in a legend about a legend. The real source of the bumblebee myth came from two scientists, Antoine Magnan and André Saint-Lagué, who did a quick calculation on a napkin that involved assuming the bumblebee's wings were rigid and that it could not change their angle with relation to its body. Neither they, nor anyone else, meant to take the idea seriously, but people liked the concept and kept repeating it.
3. Niels Bohr Deliberately Failed a Test to Show Up the Testing Committee
A teacher gives a test to physics students that asks them how they would measure the height of a building using a barometer. One student says he would go to the top of the building tie a string to the barometer, lower it down, and measure the string. The teacher fails him, but the student protests that it was a correct answer. A committee is assembled to re-judge the student. He shows up and gives many different ways to use the barometer (contemptuously including the way the teacher was originally looking for), and finally says, "Or you could go to the janitor and tell him that you'll give him a barometer if he tells you the height of the building." To be honest, I'm kind of surprised this is mostly attributed to Bohr. It seems like the kind of obnoxious, show-off move that would be attributed to Richard Feynman.
2. Vesalius Dissected a Living Person
Andreas Vesalius became known as "The Father of Anatomy" for hacking up corpses, and also became known as an inadvertent murderer for hacking up a live person. Dissections weren't common in the 1500s, and so when he dissected the body of a recently-executed criminal in Basel, Switzerland, it raised a few eyebrows. Vesalius did careful dissections, and left detailed images of the bodies, including their skeletons, organs, muscles, and nerves.
In 1564, he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but his ship was wrecked and he died before he could find passage back to Europe. After he died, an ambassador named Hubert Languet, who apparently enjoyed embellishing the truth, started a rumor that never entirely died away. He claimed that Vesalius was cutting into the body of a Spanish aristocrat, slowly peeling away skin and muscle, until he finally came to the heart... which was beating. The man had been sick, not dead. Vesalius had killed him and fled into exile.
1. Galileo Gives Attitude to the Inquisition
Galileo bookends this list because he's the center of two urban legends — one regarding his scientific work and one regarding his character. He made the questionable call of including a caricature of the reigning pope in his book about the heliocentric nature of the solar system. And calling that caricature what essentially translates as "Dummy."
Although his fame kept him from feeling the full wrath of the Inquisition, his books were burned, he was put under house arrest, and he was forced to publicly recant his previous claims. As he signed the paper stating that the Earth is the immobile center of the universe, he muttered to himself, "And yet it moves." It was one, final, passive-aggressive finger to people he found frustratingly stupid. Whether you're committed to integrity or to snarky backbiting, it's kind of badass. Unfortunately, it never happened. The first accounts of such a statement begin over a hundred years after Galileo's death, in a book called The Italian Library. It was such a good story that it was repeated, despite having no basis in fact.