Unfortunately, scientific genius doesn't necessarily come with superhuman social skills. The great minds on this list may have made significant contributions to their fields, but even hundreds of years later, we're still shaking our heads at their petty, ruthless, dishonest, and downright cruel behavior.
1. Thomas Edison, The Animal Torturer
In 1884, Nikola Tesla moved to New York City to meet Edison, who was famous for his low-voltage, direct-current electricity. Tesla believed the higher-voltage alternating current electricity was superior and suggested creating an AC-powered motor, but Edison claimed it was too dangerous. Instead, Edison promised the recent immigrant $50,000 (over $1 million today) if he could improve upon his DC generators, or "dynamos."
After toiling for several months and making significant advances, he returned for his reward, only for Edison to say, "When you become a full-fledged American, you will appreciate an American joke." Tesla quit—but the bullying didn't stop there.
George Westinghouse had purchased Tesla's patents and became the pioneering force behind AC power and its widespread implementation. Edison, who was ideologically and financially invested in his own DC power, began a publicity campaign against AC power. The campaign was ruthless; he wanted to prove that the high voltage of AC power was too dangerous for public use, so he and his cohorts began publicly electrocuting animals—stray dogs and cats, cattle and horses, and even, notoriously, "Topsy" the elephant.
The story gets worse. Edison was asked whether electrocution was a humane method of execution. In reply, he claimed that with Westinghouse's AC power, it was indeed a humane and reliable execution. Westinghouse of course tried to prevent such an association, but Harold Brown, one of Edison's employees, was hired by the state of New York to build the first electric chair. Obviously, he used AC power.
The execution—the first use of the electric chair—took place on August 6, 1890. AC power proved neither reliable nor humane. The first, 17-second-long charge failed to kill the man, an alleged axe murderer; after waiting for the generator to recharge and amping up the voltage, the next charge at last brought an end to the horrible, 8-minute long ordeal. Westinghouse, disgusted, reportedly said, "They would have done better with an axe."
Despite all that, AC won out in the battle of currents. Its higher voltage meant it could travel much greater distances, which made it easier and cheaper for widespread use, and could be made safer for households with an alternator. Edison's extensive and cruel efforts to defeat his opponents and prove his own invention's superiority were in vain, and near the end of his life he finally owned up to that fact.
If you need a laugh after all that morbidity, check out the "Drunk History" version of this story.
2. Richard Owen, The Egomaniac
Nineteenth-century naturalist Owen is known for his many contributions to science—he was the impressive paleontologist who coined the term "dinosaur"—but also for being a jerk to his peers. He is described, among many other scathing summations, as "vain, arrogant, envious, and vindictive"—an egomaniac.
One example is his long rivalry with fellow paleontologist Gideon Mantell. Their initial cooperative relationship went awry; they competed tirelessly in print, each trying to oust the other as the preeminent dinosaur discoverer. According to some, Owen relied heavily on Mantell's work throughout his career, but due to his own excessive pride, he was never willing to admit it.
In 1844, Owen was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society for a paper that Mantell felt was full of errors (and which, it turned out, totally was). By 1848, Mantell had published a paper to illuminate those errors, and Owen retaliated with an indignant verbal assault. The next year, Mantell himself was nominated for a Royal Medal, and Owen tried in vain to dissuade the council from granting it to him. Mantell described Owen as "overpaid, over-praised, and cursed with a jealous monopolising spirit!"
Yet Mantell was not the only target of Owen's contemptuous treatment; other victims included none other than Charles Darwin and his "bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley. Owen attempted to preclude Darwin's Origin of Species with his own article arguing that humans were entirely unrelated to apes; then, after Darwin released the book, Owen published an anonymous, lengthy, harsh refutation. Huxley, upon learning of Owen's ways, expressed his desire to "nail... [Owen]... that mendacious humbug... like a kite to the barn door."
Many other contemporaries were treated similarly, especially those who threatened his own esteem with groundbreaking findings. Later in his life, his reputation finally caught up with his oversized ego and continues to do so today.
3. William Shockley, The Fraud
Shockley is the guy who brought silicon to Silicon Valley. He was a physicist, an inventor, a Nobel laureate, and...reviled.
After leaving MIT in 1936 with a PhD, Shockley joined Bell Laboratories (now AT&T). Soon, WWII started up and he joined the war effort as a civilian scientist. He proved himself quite useful to both the Navy and the Army Air Corps, and after the war he won the National Medal of Merit. Following the war, Bell Labs put Shockley in charge of a team to research semiconductors, which they thought could replace inefficient vacuum tubes to control electricity.
Shockley tried in vain to construct such a device. After months of trial and error and hard work, two of his co-workers—John Bardeen and Walter Brattain—succeeded, building the first functioning transistor in 1947. Shockley erupted when he learned that his name wasn't tagged on the discovery's patent, and eventually Bell Labs caved and added his name. The photo above, showing the trio and the transistor, "marked the first and last time William Shockley ever laid hands" on the transistor and for that reason was "always detested" by Brattain, according to the Los Angeles Times. He continued to be credited—sometimes even solely—with the discovery for years.
His undeserved fame wasn't even enough for him. In 1956 he started his own semiconductor company in Palo Alto, California. He charmed and hired an impressive team of scientists, but soon his tone changed; he would publicly fire people or demote people with PhDs to lowly production jobs, the Los Angeles Times reports. But in November of that year, Brattain, Bardeen, and Shockley were awarded the Nobel Physics Prize. Just over a year later, all eight members of his struggling company's research group resigned. They would eventually found Intel.
The later years of Shockley's life brought out the worst in him. In 1963, he was hired as a professor of engineering by Stanford. Soon thereafter, he began a two-decade long tirade of touting eugenics and certain races' genetic inferiority, snippets from which further paint an ugly, self-aggrandizing picture of the man. He had lost his friends and fame by the time he died in 1989.
4. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and 5. Isaac Newton, The Frenemies
(It might not be fair to call either of these two a bully, but their feud was remarkable and at times, ugly.)
Today, consensus seems to credit both Newton and Leibniz with the invention, or discovery, of calculus.
The backstory is much more convoluted, though. Newton (four years older than Leibniz) had been developing his own calculus for longer than Leibniz, and he had entrusted a few of his preliminary papers in the hands of John Collins (a government clerk in London and, "in modern parlance, a scientific groupie," as Brian E. Blank tells PopularScience.com).
By the 1670s, Newton and Leibniz were both working on their own versions of calculus. Collins and Henry Oldenburg (the secretary of the Royal Society) encouraged Newton to write Leibniz. Leibniz responded "somewhat cagily," Blank says. As Newton wrote his reply (remember: correspondence used to take time), Leibniz, intrigued, pursued his competitor's work further while in London. He tracked down and studied the trove of Newton's work in Collins' possession.
Historians interpret Newton's reply to Leibniz in various lights: some say that Newton was friendly and encouraging, sharing his progress and helping Leibniz; others claim he was paranoid and guarded. Yet it was "obviously circumspect to all," explains Blank, and "effectively ended the correspondence."
Yet, when Leibniz published his famed paper in 1684, he failed to note Newton's contributions whatsoever. Newton, busy with other work and largely uninterested in publishing, did not initially react. But in 1699, their feud began: Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a mathematician close to Newton, publicly expressed his opinion that "Newton was the ﬁrst and by many years the most senior inventor of the calculus… As to whether Leibniz, its second inventor, borrowed anything from him, I prefer to let those judge who have seen Newton's letters."
Five years later, in 1704, Newton published Opticks along with De quadratura. Leibniz anonymously reviewed the work the following year, and his message was condescending and deceitful: he wrote as if he were praising Newton for discovering an alternative way to do what he had already done. But: "From his correspondence with Newton, Leibniz knew that Newton was first by about 10 years," Blank explains.
Five years passed once more, until a 1710 paper (by an astronomer, John Keill) espoused Newton as the true discoverer: After praising Newton's brilliance, Keill claimed that "the same arithmetic… was afterwards published by Mr. Leibniz in the Acta Eruditorum having changed the name and the symbolism." Leibniz reached out to the Royal Society—the president of which was none other than Newton—calling for a retraction.
Newton then learned of Leibniz's arrogant, anonymous review of Opticks, and his indignation was spurred. He wrote the Society's report on the dispute himself, and ensured international circulation. Of course, he hailed himself as the "first inventor." Not long after, he anonymously published a follow-up account to the original report, "Account of the Book entituled Commercium Epistolicum," and had it translated to Latin and French while provoking good reviews. Newton wanted the word out there that he was the true inventor, and wanted history to remember that fact. He continued to pursue that goal for years after Leibniz's death in 1716.
May I also nominate Alexander Graham Bell? Although he had a deaf mother and wife, he basically wanted the end of deaf culture, trying to pass laws against marriage between deaf people, as well as the end of ASL, and growth of Oral methods.
I second the nomination. And I'd like to put into the record that Bell's patent for the telephone was based on a lifetime of work done by Antonio Meucci.
Today's magic is tomorrow's technology.
Could James Watson get at least a (dis)honorable mention? He did make the claims that black people are genetically inferior and that stupidity was a disease. Also, his co-discovery of DNA's structure was based on work he stole from Rosalind Franklin's team.
He's not exactly a household name, but Charles Steinmetz was responsible for over 200 patents, most of them having to do with alternating current motors, generators, and related material. He also had a fascination with high voltage "artificial lightning" and built his own high-voltage coils, quite possibly "borrowing" from Tesla in several ways.
Steinmetz was a dwarf, a hunchback, and had a form of hip dysplasia, which cause him to look odd and attracted ridicule from his peers and any number of other people. He became bitter, defensive, and in general impossible to work with in any way.
Chances are we would never have heard a thing from him, had General Electric (this was back in the days when corporations sponsored pure research) not recognized his potential and offered him a job. He refused, basically because he didn't want to be "on staff" or to work with other people. GE replied along the lines of: "ok, here's a salary, here's a laboratory, call us if you need anything, call us when you come up with anything". And he did.
The art, we must remember, is not the artist.
Edison, Telsa and Shockly were not scientist.
They were inventors and engineers. None of the three ever formulated a new understanding. In Shockly's case Bell labs was attempting to produce a device that quantum theory predicted. Edison, Telsa, Westinghouse, Speary and host of other late 19th and early 20th century inventors actively despised scientist because fundamental errors in the scientific theory of the electricity used back then confidently predicted that most of their inventions wouldn't work. It's arguably one of the reasons while America shot ahead in the development in electricity. In Europe, there was more deference to scientific authorities, especially among venture capitalist.
Singling Edison out for animal cruelty is an exercise in temporal bigotry. Horses suffered horribly in war and so much so that cavalry units started a campaign with five horse per man but after a just a couple of major battles they were all on foot. Officers carried pistols largely to kill wounded horses. It was common practice to drown all but one or two kittens or puppies from an litter and only then when you needed one. Steel jaw traps were considered unremarkable. Animal fighting for sport was legal in most of the world. Human treatment of animals is a side effect of isolation from nature and our vast technological wealth.
Telsa was actively psychotic and grew almost impossible for anyone to work with. Westinghouse and Hiram Maxim are somewhat notable for super successes who nevertheless retained some humility.
Most brilliant, game changing individuals eventually turn into horrible abusive human beings, at least to the intimates. Steve Jobs is a famous latest example. Even Einstein abandoned his first wife cruelly and ignored his sons. It's been theorized that being right so often and rising so far above others induces a form of mania in a mirror effect of repeated failures causing depression. Manics feel so correct that they become genuinely morally outraged when someone disagrees with them even over technical matters.
The problem has been around for a long time. It used to be called the madness of kings, royalty driven to arrogant madness by being fawned over and glorified since infancy. The Greek philosophers constantly warned of the dangers of hubris, which they saw as resulting great successes. IIRC, it was Euripides who said, ""Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make proud."
Success can make you a jerk if your not self-aware.
I find it hard to justify any defense of Edison. He was a jerk. While it is true that Tesla became mad near the end of his life, that does not diminish what he did before, nor how Edison tried to cheat and destroy him from the very beginning. Edison was above all a businessman which in almost all cases translates to "jerk" while Tesla was an inventor at heart and a very poor businessman. Westinghouse was kind to Tesla. Tesla in return gave back the share in Westinghouse's start-up power company, which ended up being worth millions all because he wanted that money to go back into Westinghouse's company to ensure it's success. In my book, Westinghouse and Tesla were great and virtuous men, while Edison should be remembered for the tiny little tyrant he was.
The article's comments about William Shockley's later years and his theory of "Dysgenics" are unfair and untrue. Shockley made a scholarly study of the IQ's of African Americans, and came up with a legitimate theory as to why they tested lower than the other races. Rather than being taken seriously, he was vilified as being a racist, much in the same way that anyone who opposes the current occupant of the White House on virtually ANY issue is also attacked as being a racist today. To this day I do not believe that anyone has ever offered a legitimate scientific challenge to Shockley's statistical analysis of the situation.
Shockley was NOT a racist. He looked at an existing problem as a scientist, came up with a theory to explain why the problem existed, and never made any comments either in speeches or publications that could be characterized as racist in nature.
Political correctness wasn't just invented yesterday. It's been with us for a while now!
@Swenson didn't know Shockley. There DO seem to be skin-color related differences in life outcomes, at least in America. But I doubt it's been any sort of long enough for European groups to have evolved any GENETIC adaptation to modern life, nor do I see any reason why they would have done so millennia ago.
What I do see is that (1)all humans interbreed; (2) the variety within people related by descent, and the diversity of the backgrounds of the folks at the extreme ends of any measurement of ability, both greatly exceed any differences between the groups over-all; (3) the cultural history of Americans had and still is enormously different; those of more or less "black" color were and are treated differently; (4) The ECONOMIC disparity in wealth - who has what schools etc. - is enormous and still corresponds much more closely to skin color, light vs. dark, than to any other identifiable factor.
Genetic contributions to ability are on interest because they might shed light on future ways to model or even improve human abilities.
This whole thing as Swemson notes attracts an undue share of vehement comments, like climate or abortion, and like those topics, who is on which side or says what has no demonstrable association with any "facts".
I think this is GOOD if only we'd keep our tempers. In general people have not much need for facts as our inter-relations dominate our world. Without those inter-relations there'd be no taking advantage of such facts as we do discover.
So, DaveM49, let me get this straight. The topic is "beloved scientists who were actually bullies". And you nominate Charles Steinmetz, noting his physical deformities (which were considerable - Toulouse Lautrec was a virtual Adonis beside poor Charles), and describe him as bitter and impossible to work with. He even refused a job that was offered to him! The churl!
So, he was so insufferable he was given a lab of his own to work on whatever projects he chose to do...
And being a brilliant man so gifted that employers gladly offer him dream-job science gigs makes him a bully... how exactly?
I understand Da Vinci refused the first time the Pope asked him to paint the Sistine Chapel - surely he must have been one of history's greatest monsters! Plus, he was old and ugly!
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Why does PopSci ridicule men who made genuine contributions to science and technology benefiting all of humanity far more then say someone like Einstein? I'm waiting for a similar article about the great plagiarist, but I doubt we'll ever read about it here.
On the genetics / race argument. I have worked on Strong AI and the nature of Intelligence and mind for years, and could call myself an expert. The simple truth with intelligence is that the two most dominant factors are almost certainly culture and expectation. Exceptional intelligence is even more complicated, but in its case the most important factor is probably luck and chance.
Black people may seem to do statistically worse in IQ scores, - but a strong explanation of this is that a smaller fraction of black people have an expectation of doing well and many also have cultures that do not focus on or encourage intelligence. In short believing that you are intelligent or have the ability encourages your mind to improve and over time can actually make you more intelligent. - This fits totally with how the brain works as a self evolving machine. (Enjoying and working on intellectual type related problems helps too.)
On exceptional intelligence / genius another factor is that intelligence is somewhat inversely proportional to socialisation. - True geniuses tend to be outsiders and loners as children, they also need a lot of free time to themselves, and may do things like skip school. Genius is also somewhat associated with Schizophrenia, as in - Turing, Riemann, almost certainly Tesla, maybe even Einstein, etc.
Don't forget promiscuous Einstein.
Great comments, I appreciate all of them even though as some point out, they do have flaws.
The funny (strange, but sad, really) thing about this is that it fosters the idea that a few great scientists were "bullies" (even though it admits the thing between Newton and Leibniz was more of a mutual feud), whereas the real bullying that goes on in science is that of the official organizations toward the individual mavericks and minority views. Sadly, whereas science is supposed to always be open to new ideas, when scientists form associations they tend to become hidebound guardians of the status quo.
The Smithsonian didn't want to acknowledge that the Wright brothers succeeded where Langley, whom it had backed, had come short. Likewise there's now a claim that a Mr. Whitehead actually flew first (50 feet high for over a mile!) but now the Smithsonian won't even consider that due to a contract that settled their dispute with the Wrights. Don't know if Whitehead's claim is legitimate, although Jane's accepts it, or if the Smithsonian simply doesn't agree with Jane's assessment of the claims, but the initial snubbing of the Wrights is undisputed and the potential for influencing public opinion is clear.
The idea of continental drift as proposed by Wegener, which eventually became the plate tectonics widely accepted today, was at first generally attacked. Likewise, when J. Harlan Bretz proposed that a tremendous flood or series of floods had sculpted a huge area in the Pacific Northwest, he was met with a great deal of institutional resistance.
The largest and fiercest case of scientific bullying is, of course, the monopoly of evolutionism as a "scientific theory" and resistance to creationism and even intelligent design theory. For that matter, the neo-Darwinian establishment isn't exactly supportive of questioning by evolutionists with doubts and other variations on evolutionism, e.g. the Altenberg 16. One good, well-known example is what happened to Richard Sternberg, but Dr. Jerry Bergman has documented many more in his book, _Slaughter of the Dissidents_. Nobody has ever observed natural processes outside of living things producing anything with even basic organized dynamic complexity, nor has anyone demonstrated that living things can develop entirely new organized, dynamic parts through natural selection of mutations, and yet no alternatives are allowed to be considered.
Likewise there are many mysteries about the cosmos and its history, such as why Guth's inflation would have occurred and why it would have stopped when it did, why galaxies apparently formed as quickly as they did, what Dark Matter and Dark Energy are (and they apparently make up the vast majority of the universe's matter/energy total)... and yet we are constantly assured that the standard view is sound and alternative ideas, such as the Plasma Universe, are hardly ever mentioned.
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