6 Famous Scientists and Inventors Who Struggled With Math

John Collier, Wikimedia Commons
John Collier, Wikimedia Commons

Does trying to calculate a tip make you break out in a cold sweat? You’re definitely not alone. Math can be intimidating, to the point where sometimes even the earth's most brilliant scientific minds have trouble crunching numbers. 

1. MICHAEL FARADAY (1791-1867)

Thomas Phillips,Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to say which is more amazing: Faraday’s discoveries or his life’s story. Against all odds, this son of a poor blacksmith overcame class prejudice to become Britain’s preeminent scientist and, in many ways, the father of modernity itself. If you’ve ever pushed an “on” button, you’re in his debt. Faraday built the first electric motor—along with the first electric generator. He also invented the rubber balloon, laid the groundwork for today’s refrigeration technology, and helped illuminate the mysterious world of electromagnetism.

Yet, despite all this, Faraday’s upbringing never stopped haunting him. Like most impoverished boys, he’d received little formal education. Hence, Faraday’s math skills left a lot to be desired. In 1846, he boldly proposed that visible light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. But because he couldn’t back up the idea with mathematics, his colleagues ignored it. Enter James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Believing the older scientist’s hypothesis, this Scottish physicist & mathematician used ingenious equations to finally prove Faraday right eighteen years later.

2. CHARLES DARWIN (1809-1882)

Darwin came down with some serious math envy. As a collegiate student, he loathed the subject. “I attempted mathematics,” reads Darwin’s autobiography, “… but I got on very slowly.” The affluent young naturalist went so far as to invite a tutor to join him at his summer home in 1828. After a few frustrating weeks, Darwin dismissed the man.

“The work was repugnant to me,” he wrote, “chiefly from my not being able to see any meaning in the early steps in algebra. This impatience was very foolish, and in after years I have deeply regretted that I did not proceed far enough at least to understand something of the great leading principals of mathematics, for men thus endowed seem to have an extra sense.”

3. ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1847-1922)

Harris & Ewing,Wikimedia Commons

In high school, the Scottish-born inventor of the telephone had a love-hate relationship with math. According to biographer Robert V. Bruce, Bell “enjoyed the intellectual exercise” of this subject, but was “bored and hence careless in working out the final answer once he learned the method.” His grades suffered accordingly. Bell’s mathematical aptitude never improved and, for a scientist, it would remain sub-par until the day he died.

4. THOMAS EDISON (1847-1931)

Louis Bachrach, Bachrach Studios,Wikimedia Commons

“I can always hire a mathematician,” Edison once remarked, “[but] they can’t hire me.” Like all successful entrepreneurs, he was keenly aware of his strengths and weaknesses. As a boy, Edison trudged through Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (“Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy”). In his own words, according to one Thomas Edison biography, the book left him with nothing but “a distaste for mathematics from which I never recovered.”

Higher math was a topic about which Edison knew almost nothing. So, after co-founding the General Electric Company, he brought German mathematician Charles Proteus Steinmetz into the fold. A numerical genius, Steinmetz oversaw many of G.E.’s technical underpinnings. Previously, Edison had recruited yet another mathematician—Bay Stater Francis Upton—to make calculations that could help him carry out various lab experiments. Together, they worked on such gadgets as the incandescent lamp and the watt-hour meter before parting ways in 1911. 

5. JACK HORNER (1946-PRESENT)

FunkMonk,Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0

This summer, Horner cameoed in the third highest-grossing movie of all time. Over the past quarter century, he’s served as a scientific consultant for all four Jurassic Park films and was just rewarded with a brief on-screen appearance during one of Jurassic World’s raptor scenes. Back in the 1970’s, Horner found the western hemisphere’s first-known dinosaur eggs. A legendary paleontologist, he’s forever changed our understanding of how these incredible animals grew up and raised their young.

Horner’s success must have shocked his childhood teachers. The Montana native did poorly in school, which he found “extremely difficult because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow.” Teenage Horner flunked high school algebra, much to his math-savvy father’s disappointment. Horner would go on to flunk college seven times, and in fact, never graduated with a formal degree—which means any jobs in the field he was most passionate about weren't available to him. (Horner, who worked a series of odd jobs as a young man, eventually began writing “to every museum in the English-speaking world asking if they had any jobs open for anyone ranging from a technician to a director.” Clearly, it paid off.)

His educational woes remained a mystery until 1979, when Horner was diagnosed with dyslexia.  “To this day, I struggle with the side-effects,” he says. “Self-paced learning is a strategy that helps me cope. Audio books are also a very helpful technology.”

6. E.O. WILSON (1929-PRES.)

Ragesoss, Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0 

Apart from being the world’s top authority on ants, Wilson’s a first-rate science popularizer. He’s written dozens of bestsellers about everything from evolution and biology to philosophy and conservation. One of his offerings—2013’s Letters to a Young Scientist—reveals a tumultuous personal history with math.

The product of “relatively poor Southern schools,” Wilson admits that he “didn’t take algebra until my freshman year at the University of Alabama … I finally got around to calculus as a 32-year-old tenured professor at Harvard, where I sat uncomfortably in classes with undergraduate students only a bit more than half my age. A couple of them were students in a course on evolutionary biology I was teaching. I swallowed my pride and learned calculus.” While playing catch-up, he was “never more than a C student.”

For numerophobic science majors, he offers this tip: “The longer you wait to become at least semiliterate in math, the harder the language of mathematics will be to master … But it can be done, and at any age.” 

On This Day in 1953, Jonas Salk Announced His Polio Vaccine

Getty Images
Getty Images

On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk went on CBS radio to announce his vaccine for poliomyelitis. He had worked for three years to develop the polio vaccine, attacking a disease that killed 3000 Americans in 1952 alone, along with 58,000 newly reported cases. Polio was a scourge, and had been infecting humans around the world for millennia. Salk's vaccine was the first practical way to fight it, and it worked—polio was officially eliminated in the U.S. in 1979.

Salk's method was to kill various strains of the polio virus, then inject them into a patient. The patient's own immune system would then develop antibodies to the dead virus, preventing future infection by live viruses. Salk's first test subjects were patients who had already had polio ... and then himself and his family. His research was funded by grants, which prompted him to give away the vaccine after it was fully tested.

Clinical trials of Salk's vaccine began in 1954. By 1955 the trials proved it was both safe and effective, and mass vaccinations of American schoolchildren followed. The result was an immediate reduction in new cases. Salk became a celebrity because his vaccine saved so many lives so quickly.

Salk's vaccine required a shot. In 1962, Dr. Albert Sabin unveiled an oral vaccine using attenuated (weakened but not killed) polio virus. Sabin's vaccine was hard to test in America in the late 1950s, because so many people had been inoculated using the Salk vaccine. (Sabin did much of his testing in the Soviet Union.) Oral polio vaccine, whether with attenuated or dead virus, is still the preferred method of vaccination today. Polio isn't entirely eradicated around the world, though we're very close.

Here's a vintage newsreel from the mid 1950s telling the story:

For more information on Dr. Jonas Salk and his work, click here.

Drunken Thieves Tried Stealing Stones From Notre-Dame

Notre-Dame.
Notre-Dame.
Athanasio Gioumpasis, Getty Images

With Paris, France, joining a long list of locales shutting down due to coronavirus, two thieves decided the time was right to attempt a clumsy heist—stealing stones from the Notre-Dame cathedral.

The crime occurred last Tuesday, March 17, and appeared from the start to be ill-conceived. The two intruders entered the cathedral and were immediately spotted by guards, who phoned police. When authorities found them, the trespassers were apparently drunk and attempting to hide under a tarpaulin with a collection of stones they had taken from the premises. Both men were arrested.

It’s believed the offenders intended to sell the material for a profit. Stones from the property sometimes come up for sale on the black market, though most are fake.

The crime comes as Paris is not only dealing with the coronavirus pandemic but a massive effort to restore Notre-Dame after the cathedral was ravaged by a fire in 2019. That work has come to a halt in the wake of the health crisis, though would-be looters should take note that guards still patrol the property.

[h/t The Art Newspaper]

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