How Mad Can a Scientist Get?

Illustration for article titled How Mad Can a Scientist Get?

You probably already knew that Nikola Tesla, who developed alternating current electricity, was so OCD that he couldn't eat food until he'd determined its exact mass. But did you know that Jack Whiteside Parsons, founder of NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, was a Pagan who loved orgies? Or that Marie Curie, who discovered radium and coined the term "radioactive," suffered bouts of depression because as a woman she wasn't allowed to work as a professor even after she'd won two Nobel Prizes? This week you can delve into the lives (and madness) of well-known scientists with a new book from Daniel "How to Survive a Robot Uprising" Wilson and Anna C. Long, The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame. Funny and filled with good, crunchy facts, The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame is like "Behind the Music" for scientists. We learn a little about the scientists' brilliance, and then discover how it all went terribly, terribly wrong. Plus, about half the scientists that Wilson and Long discuss are fictional, which gives the profiles of real-life scientists a delightful, sensationalistic flair. Each chapter gives you a little backstory about the scientist and then analyzes just how mad they really were. The armchair psychologizing of the fictional scientists is especially amusing. Here's a snippet from the analysis of Dr. No, of James Bond fame:

High levels of intelligence and control (not to mention nuclear capacity) are dangerous weapons in the hands of a scientist who exhibits severe symptoms of antisocial and narcissistic personality disorder.

Mixed in with the pop culture analysis of scientists like The Fly's Seth Brundle and Dr. Evil are factual discussions of psychology and even nuclear physics. Despite the inherently amusing idea of putting Captain Nemo and Dr. Moreau on the analyst's couch, the chapters on real-life scientists are far more riveting than the ones about fictional characters. We are treated to a fascinating account of Stanley Milgram, the man who became famous in the 1950s for testing how people would respond when told to shock a person to death in a lab experiment (the people "shocked" were actors who were told to act like they were in pain and dying). Many of the people Milgram tested continued to shock a person they were convinced was dying, simply because an authority figure (Milgram himself, in his white lab coat) told them to do it. And as I mentioned earlier, Wilson and Long's account of Jack Whiteside Parsons was amazing — I wish there were a whole book (or an episode of "Behind the Science") about him. While he was at the helm of the lab that builds U.S. spaceships to this day, he was an active member of the Church of Thelema, founded by "magick" practitioner Aleister Crowley. He also threw hedonistic sex parties at his house. Parsons' wife Helen was in a polyamorous relationship with both Parsons and L. Ron Hubbard, and the three lived together in a large house along with other members of their local Church of Thelema congregation. Whoa, way to go Parsons. I never knew rocket science was so naughty. Don't even get me started on Sidney Gottlieb, the scientist and CIA agent who was famous for dosing everybody with L.S.D. to "see what would happen." If you love bizarro science and true crime novels, The Mad Scientist Hall of Fame will deliver a strong dose of both and keep you up late reading. If the analysis of fictional madness begins to seem twee, just skip to the real-life stuff and be amazed. Mad Scientist Hall of Fame [via Amazon]

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Annalee Newitz

@Annalee Newitz: Just checked, and the authors never say Satanism — I just threw that in to be funny, largely due to my exposure to Ozzy Osbourne songs about Aleister Crowley. I guess I'll go fix the post . . . grump.