Famous scientists and their true stories

Today's column is a random collection of true stories about famous scientists, mostly taken from The Human Side of Scientists…

Today's column is a random collection of true stories about famous scientists, mostly taken from The Human Side of Scientists, by RE Oesper (Univ. Cincinnati, 1975).

Andre-Marie Ampere (1775- 1836) was a French physicist and mathematician. He derived a formula describing the interaction between two electrical currents.

As an adult Ampere was plagued by absent-mindedness. One day while concentrating on a mathematical problem, he came on a stationary cab in the street. The back of the cab was a convenient blackboard and, whipping out a piece of chalk, he covered it with calculations. However, after a bit the cab moved off and Ampere watched helplessly as his solution sped away.

Svante A Arrhenius (1859-1927), a famous Swedish chemist, won the Nobel prize in 1903 and pointed to the warming effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


Arrhenius was a jolly fat figure and did not impress visually as a man devoted to intellectual endeavours. Once, at a scientific congress, he went to the hotel where the professors were holding a social affair. He checked in his coat and proceeded towards the professors' room. The cloakroom attendant ran after him and pointed to another room saying, "Excuse me sir, you are headed for the wrong room. The butchers are holding their party in that other room."

Stephen M Babcock (1843-1931) was an American agricultural chemist. He once worked on the analysis of feeds for dairy herds.

One day he showed his boss two sets of analyses and asked, "'Which of those materials would be the best ration for a dairy cow?" The boss said, "'I cannot see any significant difference between them."

"Neither can I," said Babcock, "but one is the ration fed to the cow and the other is the excrement that came out."

Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was an eminent Danish physicist, awarded the Nobel Prize in 1922. On one occasion he was pondering a dilemma - whether to accept either of two theories about a phenomenon, or a mixture of the two. Both theories seemed correct, yet they were markedly different. He said the situation reminded him of the boy who asked the shopkeeper for a penny's worth of mixed candy. The man handed over two pieces of candy and said, "Here is what your money will buy. You can do the mixing yourself."

Bohr was awarded a gold medal with the Nobel Prize. He took an active part in the resistance when the Nazis invaded Denmark. When he had to flee Denmark in 1943, he dissolved the medal in acid and hid the bottle. On his return to Copenhagen he retrieved the bottle, precipitated the gold and had the medal recast.

Robert Wilhelm Bunsen (1811-1899) was an outstanding German chemist. His most practical contribution was devising the gas burner that bears his name. He refused to take out patents on his inventions, believing that scientists should not become wealthy through their discoveries.

In his youth, Bunsen liked mountain-climbing but, as he aged, he developed an easier approach to climbing. He would, with his companions, select a peak. Then, near the starting point, he would pick a shady tree and tell his party to go on without him.

He would sit in the shade, light a cigar, burn a hole in his handkerchief and, drawing the cloth over his face as a protection against insects, he would insert his cigar through the hole and smoke and doze until his companions returned.

Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) was an eminent English chemist and physicist. He inherited great wealth but had little appreciation of it. His banker once told him that a vast sum lay idle in his account, which bothered the banker. Cavendish replied that if the sum of money was a burden, he would remove it from the bank.

The banker shyly suggested that part of the funds be placed in safe securities. Cavendish angrily replied, "Proceed as you wish, but do not dare to return and bother me further with such affairs; otherwise I will remove my funds from your care."

Cavendish seemed afraid of women. The maids in his house were instructed to stay out of his sight or be dismissed, and he communicated with his housekeeper by leaving notes on the hall table.

Maire Curie (1867-1934) came from Poland to study in Paris. She earned her keep giving grinds and cleaning. She sometimes fainted in class from hunger and often slept in her clothes for lack of coal. She graduated at the top of her class. In 1895 she married Pierre Curie, a young physicist.

The 1903 Nobel Prize in physics was awarded to the Curies and Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity and in 1911 Marie was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Pierre died in 1906 and Marie succeeded him as Professor in the University of Paris, the first woman to teach there. Nominated for membership of the French Academy of Science, she was defeated by one vote because she was a woman.

The Curies refused to patent their discoveries, believing it would be ignoble to make money in this way.

William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and director of microscopy at UCC