Scientists Anecdotes

• Charles Babbage (1791-1871), an English scientist who devoted his life to creating programmable mechanical mathematical computers, was inquisitive even as a youth. He devoted some of his time to seeing if devil-worship incantations worked. He discovered that they didn’t. As a sophomore at Cambridge University, he joked to a friend that since some other people had formed a Bible Society to study the Bible, they ought to form a group to study a three-volume calculus textbook by the French mathematician Sylvestre-Françoise Lacroix. Mr. Babbage even made a small poster that was a parody of the Bible Society poster. However, other students took the poster seriously and soon a group of students were meeting regularly as the Analytical Society. Shortly after graduating from Cambridge, Mr. Babbage married — something his father opposed because he wanted him to be financially secure first. Mr. Babbage sent a letter that included this news and some mathematical calculations to his friend John Herschel, who wrote back and quoted from his letter, “‘I am married and have quarreled with my father’ — Good God Babbage — how is it possible for a man calmly to sit down and pen those two sentences — and then to pass on to functional equations?” Mr. Babbage could talk interestingly and at length about his mechanical mathematical machines. Scots chemist Lyon Playfair once went to breakfast with him at 9 a.m. and conversed with him about his work. Later, he looked at his watch because he had a lunch date at 1 p.m. His watch said 4 p.m., which he thought was obviously wrong, so he went into a hallway to look at a clock, which also said 4 p.m. Mr. Playfair wrote, “The philosopher had in fact been so fascinating in his descriptions and conversation that neither he nor I had noticed the lapse of time.” Mr. Babbage got old, but he did have a companion in his old age. In a letter, he wrote, “My lonely household has been relieved of some of its dreariness by the arrival of a fair young creature who gives me a joyous greeting every morning at my breakfast table. She sits quietly by my side whilst I am working in the drawing room, and in the evening delicately reminds me that it is time to retire to rest by saying, ‘Polly wants to go to bed,’ on which I ring the bell and the servant covers up her cage with a curtain whilst I dream of another far away.”

• In late December, 1566, Tycho Brahe fought a duel against Manderup Parsberg and lost part of his nose. Afterward, he wore an artificial nose. In 1901, medical experts examined Tycho’s body and found green stains around his nasal area, indicating that he wore an artificial nose made of copper, which acquires a green patina when exposed to air. Historical sources indicate that he also had artificial noses made of gold and of silver. The medical experts also took samples of his hair. On 13 October 1601, Tycho attended a dinner party and fell ill afterward. Johannes Kepler wrote that Tycho had a lot to drink at the dinner party but would not leave and urinate because he felt that it would be bad manners. After some hours, when he had an opportunity to urinate, he could not. For a long time, people thought that he died of uremia: an accumulation of poisons such as urea that are usually excreted in the urine. In the 1990s tests showed much mercury in Tycho’s hair and some people speculated that he had been murdered. However, another investigation concluded in November 2012 that Tycho’s body did not contain enough mercury to support the hypothesis of murder and that he probably died from a burst bladder. By the way, Tycho had some jesters who worked for him, including a dwarf named Jeppe, who acquired a reputation for psychic knowledge. Two of Tycho’s assistants had to sail from Tycho’s island to the mainland, and Jeppo said, “See how your folk wash themselves in the sea.” Later, they learned that the boat had sunk and the two assistants had to swim to shore. Tycho also once owned a tame pet elk. Unfortunately, the elk got drunk on beer, fell down a flight of stairs, and died. Tycho spent years making astronomical observations and measurements — they were the most accurate possible for his time. Kepler used Tycho’s observations and measurements to formulate his three laws of planetary motion. Later, Isaac Newton used Kepler’s laws as a foundation for his own work.

• Even as a preteen, Niels Bohr valued accuracy. When he was eleven years old, he was given the assignment of drawing a house with a picket fence. Before he began drawing, he counted the numbers of pickets in the fence. As a student in high school, he was able to find places where his science textbooks had inaccurate information because he read current scientific journals. A fellow student asked him what he would do on an exam where the teachers would expect outdated information in an answer. He replied, “Tell them, of course, how things really are.” Later, while studying in Cambridge, England, he read Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papersin order to improve his English. He looked up every word he did not know the meaning of, even if he could guess at the meaning from the context. To do that, he used a red dictionary that he kept and used for the rest of his life. Mr. Bohr cared deeply about his writing. Ernest Rutherford once reviewed one of his documents and suggested that he cut about one-third of a long section. Mr. Bohr travelled to England to talk to Mr. Rutherford and convinced him that the all of the long section was necessary. Of course, Mr. Bohr, a Dane who won the 1922 Noble Prize in Physics, was greatly respected. In his autobiography, What Little I Remember, Otto R. Frisch wrote about meeting the great man, who took him by a waistcoat button and invited him to work with him. Mr. Frisch wrote his mother, “You need no longer worry about me; God Almighty has taken me by my waistcoat button and spoken kindly to me.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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David Bruce’s Smashwords Bookstore: Retellings of Classic Literature, Anecdote Collections, Discussion Guides for Teachers of Literature, Collections of Good Deed Accounts, etc. Some eBooks are free.

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