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.” 

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Bad Blood: The Hidden Horror of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study

A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.
A doctor draws blood from one of the study’s subjects.

In September of 1932, Public Health Service officials visited Tuskegee, Alabama, where they recruited 600 Black men to receive treatment for “bad blood.” The men didn’t realize they had become unwitting participants in one of the most controversial medical studies in recent times.

Of the study’s participants, 399 of the men were suffering from the advanced stages of syphilis, which at that time was incurable, while the other 201 served as controls. Under the guise of offering medical treatment, the Public Health Service set out to study the effects of untreated syphilis in Black men. Doctors enticed the poor, mostly illiterate Macon County residents to take part in return for free medical examinations, rides to the clinic, and hot meals on examination days. For the participants, many of whom had never even visited a doctor, the offer seemed too good to refuse.

A Secretive Study

Nurse Eunice Rivers interacts with a few members of the study.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

Deception was integral to the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. The men did not know they were actually participating in an experiment, and were kept in the dark about the true nature of their diagnosis. They were also unaware they weren’t receiving treatment at all: The drugs they were administered were either inadequate or completely ineffective. At one point, they were even given diagnostic spinal taps, a painful and often complex procedure the doctors referred to as a “special treatment.”

Though the study was originally meant to last for six months, the Public Health Service decided to continue it when the participating doctors deemed that only autopsies could determine the damage the disease caused. In other words, the doctors would keep tabs on the men until they died.

To ensure nothing would interfere with the experiment, doctors in Macon County were given a list of the subjects and instructed to refer them to the Public Health Service if they sought medical treatment. The Public Health Service even hired Eunice Rivers, a Black nurse, to maintain contact with the men and ensure their continued participation. All the while, the experiment's subjects were left to degenerate—when untreated, syphilis can cause bone deformations, heart disease, blindness, and deafness.

A medical breakthrough came in 1947, when penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis. Despite this, the doctors involved in the Tuskegee study opted not to treat the men so they could continue to monitor the disease's natural progression. As historian Dr. Crystal Sanders tells Mental Floss in an email, “By withholding treatment, doctors subjected these men, their spouses, and their offspring to serious health problems and death.”

The End of the Experiment

None of the medical professionals involved in the decades-long study admitted to any wrongdoing.National Archives/Center for Disease Control // Public Domain

The study was not without its critics. When Public Health Service official Peter Buxtun learned about the experiment in 1966, he expressed grave moral concerns to the Centers for Disease Control. After numerous organizations, doctors, and scientists still opposed ending the study, Buxtun took matters into his own hands and leaked information about the experiment to Associated Press journalist Jean Heller.

On July 26, 1972, The New York Times ran a front page story exposing the study. Public outrage immediately ensued, but by then the damage was done. At least seven of the men had died from syphilis, while more than 150 had died from heart failure, a condition commonly linked to the infection. Forty spouses had also contracted syphilis, and 19 children were born with the condition. Some of the infected women, who believed the study was legitimate medical care, were turned away when they attempted to enroll. 

Once the study became public knowledge, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare promptly ruled that the 40-year-long experiment come to an immediate end. Yet despite the national outcry, none of the medical professionals involved in the study were prosecuted. “They maintained that they had done nothing wrong,” Sanders explains. “Some even went so far as to assert that the Black male subjects would never have been treated anyway given their financial circumstances, so their study did not harm them.”

With the experiment finally over, the government appointed Dr. Vernal G. Cave to lead a team of Black doctors to investigate. He found that while the experiment was being carried out, at least 16 articles about it had been published in various medical journals. So why had it taken so long to bring the study to an end?

“The subjects were Black and poor and did not warrant much attention from the powers that be,” Sanders says. “Additionally, very few people with the political and social capital to ask questions would have been suspicious of a study underwritten by the federal government and carried out by medical practitioners who had the respect of the local white society.”

A Public Reckoning

In 1973, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the study's participants and their families, and the following year a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. The U.S. government also agreed to provide free medical treatment to the study’s surviving participants, as well as their family members who became infected during the experiment.

The story of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study was brought to the screen 14 years later in the made-for-TV movie Miss Evers’ Boys. When the study’s participants saw the film, they were disappointed by its portrayal of the series of events. It suggested the men had received treatment for their condition, and shifted the blame from the federal government to a fictitious Black doctor and a Black nurse. As a response to the film, the participants enlisted the help of attorney Fred Gray to make sure the nation understood the truth behind the study.

In March 1997, Gray wrote a letter to president Bill Clinton requesting the victims receive a formal apology. Two months later, and more than 50 years after the experiment began, Clinton delivered his apology in a speech at the White House. By that time, only eight of the men were still alive.

“The United States government did something that was wrong — deeply, profoundly, morally wrong,” Clinton said. “What was done cannot be undone. But we can end the silence. We can stop turning our heads away. We can look at you in the eye and finally say on behalf of the American people, what the United States government did was shameful, and I am sorry.”

Though the last survivor of the study died in 2004, the experiment has had a lasting effect on the African-American community. A 2016 study found that after the Tuskegee study was exposed, the life expectancy of Black men decreased by 1.5 years, with a marked decrease in patient-physician interactions [PDF]. “There is a long history of poor Black people seeking preventative care and getting anything but that,” Sanders says. “I wholeheartedly believe that there is a connection between present-day African American distrust of the medical field and the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.”