Friday, August 19, 2011

Mad Scientists

I’ve never really read much of Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods and a good bit else). But I picked up his 2003 A Short History of Nearly Everything at our town’s Swap Shop the other day and have read through the first few chapters with great interest. He does an excellent job at explaining science topics with a layman’s clarity – quite readable. Although he doesn’t worry much about highlighting oddities among accomplished scientists. Bryson seems to relish in these revelations.

I love his description of Sir Isaac Newton:

Newton was a decidedly off figure – brilliant beyond measure, but solitary, joyless, prickly to the point of paranoia, famously distracted (upon swinging his feet out of bed in the morning he would reportedly sometimes sit for hours, immobilized by the sudden rush of thoughts to his head), and capable of the most riveting strangeness. …For all his brilliance, real science accounted for only a part of his interests.  At least half his working life was given over to alchemy and wayward religious pursuits. These were not mere dabbling but wholehearted devotions.

In the 1970s, an analyst found mercury in a strand of Newton’s hair at forty times the natural level. The “Mad Hatters” disease could explain a lot.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Interesting. Mercury in the hair at death would have come min late, I think. Newton's most brilliant work essentially came in an 18 month period when he was quite young. He mined that for many years, but perhaps a sustaine mercury exposure took him gradually off his game.

Erin said...

I was planning on borrowing that book from the library...can I steal yours instead when you're done with it? :)

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Sure thing.