by Maggie Koerth-Baker and Linda Rodriguez
Forget Brad and Angelina. It’s time to put the spotlight back where it belongs—on history’s biggest nerds! We've got all the juiciest gossip about the world’s greatest minds.
1. Scientist, Editor Duel Over Marie Curie's Honor! Gunshots Barely Avoided as Albert Einstein Weighs In
Marie Curie is well known as the first genius to have snagged two Nobel Prizes. The first came in 1903, when she and her husband, Pierre, were awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for their radiation research. Then, in 1911, she nabbed a Nobel in chemistry for her discovery of radium and polonium. But as her reputation as a brilliant scientist was growing, the Polish-born mother of two found herself at the center of a spectacular sex scandal.
Four years after Pierre Curie died in a 1906 carriage accident, Marie became entrenched in a torrid love affair with one of his former students, physicist Paul Langevin. The two were sharing a love nest in Paris when Langevin’s wife grew suspicious and decided to investigate. She hired a man to break into their pad and steal incriminating letters, which were then leaked to the press.
French newspapers went after the story with gusto. They painted Curie as a home-wrecker and a seductive Jew, even though she wasn’t Jewish. The story played into the xenophobia of the time, and it fanned public outrage. The situation got so bad that one night, Curie returned home from a conference in Belgium to find an angry mob surrounding her house, tormenting her two daughters. She quickly packed up her family and fled to a friend’s home.
Eager to defend Curie’s honor, Langevin challenged one of the newspaper’s editors to a duel. The two men faced off against one another, but no one fired a shot. Meanwhile, another man came to Curie’s defense. Albert Einstein offered a bit of reasoning that seemed both peculiar and offensive. He argued that Curie “has a sparkling intelligence, but despite her passionate nature, she is not attractive enough to represent a threat to anyone.”
In 1911, at the height of the whole scandal, Curie won her second Nobel Prize. The Nobel committee suggested that she skip the awards ceremony, but she went anyway. The furor died down eventually, no doubt aided by Curie’s humble demeanor and blinding dedication to science. Curie ultimately died for her work, succumbing to illnesses caused by her prolonged exposure to radioactive materials. Even now, Marie Curie’s notebooks are too radioactive to be picked up by hand.
2. The Nobel Prize Sperm Bank—Deposits and Withdrawals
The Repository for Germinal Choice, better known as the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, was founded in 1980 by multimillionaire Robert Graham, inventor of shatterproof eyeglass lenses. His goal was to combine the sperm and eggs of superior men and women—ideally Nobel laureates—to produce superior babies. If all this sounds an awful lot like eugenics, well, it was.
In practice, most Nobel Prize winners were smart enough to steer clear of the bank, but three decided to make a deposit. One of these was William Shockley, who won the award for inventing the transistor and was an unapologetic racist. The other sperm donors were more random, and at least one of them lied about his intelligence. But was The Repository for Germinal Choice a failure? That’s hard to say. It brought more than 200 babies into this world, and many had higher-than-average IQs. In the end, however, its biggest legacy was that it changed how sperm banks work by offering detailed profiles of the donors. Now it’s commonplace for women to choose the looks, professions, and interests of the men whose sperm they wish to use.
3. Doris Lessing Unfazed by Prize Patrol: Celebrated author claims, "I couldn't care less."
In 2007, British writer Doris Lessing, best known for her 1962 feminist masterpiece The Golden Notebook, won the Nobel Prize in literature. Thing is, she wasn’t exactly gracious about her win. She told the hordes of reporters camped outside her door, “I couldn’t care less.” Lessing then elaborated on why she was so unmoved: “I’m 88 years old, and they can’t give the Nobel to someone who’s dead, so I think they were probably thinking they’d probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.”
4. Alfred Nobel's Sad Story
Despite being one of the richest people in Europe, Alfred Nobel was not a happy man. The Swedish industrialist made his fortune by inventing (and later producing) dynamite. But his work made him a recluse. He spent most of his life traveling to oversee his vast multinational business, and he filled the rest of his time with reading and inventing. In fact, Nobel patented more than 300 inventions. While many were related to explosives, others included ideas for aluminum boats and artificial silk.
Nobel never married. Too cerebral for his own good, he considered himself “a worthless instrument of cogitation, alone in the world and with thoughts heavier than anyone can imagine.” So, he decided to leave his riches to those who “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” instead.
But even in this final act, Alfred Nobel managed to spread misery. His will enraged his nieces and nephews, who stood to inherit a fortune. It also angered millions of Swedes, who believed that Nobel was unpatriotic because he made the prizes open to people of all nations. Of course, four years after the philanthropist died, when the first Nobel Prize committee was assembled, the resentment began to evaporate.
5. LSD-Using Nobel Laureate Speaks Out: Cites Belief in Ghosts, Disbelief in AIDS
Kary Mullis won his 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for inventing a way to quickly replicate DNA, which paved the way for modern genetic mapping and fingerprinting. But had the Nobel committee been giving out prizes for drug use and showboating, he probably would have won those, too.
A former LSD enthusiast, Mullis has no fear of sounding crazy. In his autobiography on the official Nobel website, for example, he includes a series of rambling anecdotes about the week he spent hanging out with the ghost of his dead grandfather. He’s also quick to praise his own scientific achievements, even though he hasn’t published a peer-reviewed paper since 1986. Arguably, he’s the most controversial living Nobel laureate by sheer force of personality.
Mullis’ talent for trouble extends to the details of his Prize-winning discovery. The tale goes like this: Back in 1983, Mullis was driving down a stretch of California highway with his girlfriend for a romantic weekend in wine country, when suddenly, he thought up the basics behind Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR. In essence, the reaction is a system of heating and cooling DNA that allows you to replicate fragments of genetic code. More importantly, it can be done quickly and repeatedly, turning one strand into thousands. Mullis, who takes sole credit for the invention, claims the company he was working for at the time, Cetus Corporation, cheated him out of millions in royalties, and that major scientific journals refused to publish him because they couldn’t comprehend the value of PCR.
Over the years, though, publications such as Salon.com and The New York Times have uncovered a more nuanced tale. Mullis came up with the original idea, but relied on other people to develop it and make it work. Mullis also put off the deadline for a paper about PCR for so long that another scientist at his company finally wrote it up instead. By the time Mullis finished his version, the other one had been published. Understandably, the journals rejected Mullis’ work for not containing any new information. As for the royalties, it’s common practice for a company to own the technologies that its employees invent. In spite of that, sources claim that Cetus would have compensated Mullis handsomely for his work, but that he quit the corporation before it made any money off his technology.
The PCR debate isn’t the only thing that makes Mullis a controversial figure. After receiving the Nobel, Mullis used his newfound status to talk publicly about topics far outside his field. Like, say, AIDS. Mullis doesn’t believe in AIDS—at least not in the way most of the scientific community understands it. Instead, Mullis claims that AIDS is actually several diseases linked together by big pharmaceutical companies to make money. He also says that no one has ever proven the link between HIV and AIDS. (Mullis must have missed a paper in a 2003 New England Journal of Medicine that summarizes more than 25 years of independent peer-reviewed studies showing that AIDS is, in fact, a single disease caused by HIV.)
6. Gifted Physicist Points Finger on Live TV, Singles Out NASA as Weakest Link
It’s reasonable to think of winning a Nobel as an excuse to retire to a nice, sunny beach, but resist the temptation; important things may lie ahead. Consider Richard Feynman, who won the physics Nobel in 1965 for his work with quantum electrodynamics, which helped explain how certain atoms produce radiation. As with most high-order physics, the subject didn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination. That’s why, today, Feynman is best remembered for the things he did after the Nobel—namely, rooting out the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
After the Challenger broke apart following liftoff in January 1986, killing all seven astronauts aboard, Feynman was among the scientists and experts appointed to investigate the tragedy. Early on, evidence pointed to problems with the O-rings that sealed the joints inside the rocket boosters. But everywhere Feynman turned to learn more about the O-rings, he encountered stupefying levels of bureaucracy. He was even told it would take years to study the O-rings for flaws.
So, Feynman decided to take matters into his own hands. During a televised hearing, he showed off the strength and flexibility of the O-ring material. Then he dropped it into a glass of ice water. When he pulled out the O-ring, the once flexible material was suddenly brittle, and Feynman cracked it with only a small amount of pressure. Given the cold weather that had preceded the launch, Feynman’s demonstration was striking, and it made him a household name.
But he wasn’t done yet. Furious at NASA’s handling of the investigation, Feynman dug into the policies that led to the disaster. He found that launch crews were encouraged to push safety boundaries further and further each time the shuttle went up and that the administration willfully ignored politically and financially inconvenient warnings about iffy parts and materials—including the O-rings. Yet, ever humble, Feynman took no credit for the discoveries. Instead, he deflected it to the NASA contractors and engineers who had led him to this information, allowing him to publicize problems they could only speak about anonymously.
7. Economist Loses $4 Billion, Sparks Worldwide Financial Meltdown
Myron Scholes, co-winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in economics, has been called “the intellectual father of the credit-default swap.” Scholes won the award for what’s known as the Black-Scholes method for determining the value of derivatives and stock options. Over the years, his framework became the standard for financial markets and was even referred to as the Holy Grail of Economics.
Recently, however, all of that has changed. Although there was a lot of hype about the theory, the Black-Scholes model was limited in reality and dangerous when used incorrectly. In fact, it’s largely what defined the credit-default swaps that were behind the mortgage-backed securities that helped trigger the global economic crisis.
Even as Myron Scholes was being awarded the Nobel Prize, things weren’t going too well for him. The hedge fund he’d founded was about to lose an astronomical $4 billion in four months. More recently, Scholes came under fire for his ideas on debt. One writer said that rather than giving out advice on risk management, Scholes “should be in a retirement home doing Sudoku.”
But Scholes still believes in his theory. In an interview with The New York Times in May 2009, journalist Deborah Solomon asked, “In retrospect, is it fair to say that the idea that banks could manage risk was a total illusion?” Scholes responded, “What you’re saying is negative. Life is positive, too. Every side of a coin has another side.”
What exactly that other side is, Scholes didn’t mention.