My father used to say that there is a fine line separating the sublime from the ridiculous, and he was right about this. I have read about people who achieve the sublime. They discover important things that change the world, or perform physical feats, or give speeches, or write books, poems, or songs that serve as an inspiration for millions of people. And then years later I learn these very same people became mired in the ridiculous when they were caught engaging in criminal behavior, or saying or doing embarrassing things, or defending ideas that were wrong, immoral, objectionable, or silly. Even Nobel Prize winning scientists are not immune from this. It seems that for a few scientists, the very thought processes and character traits that led them up the path to the sublime, also thereafter diverted them down the slope to the ridiculous. Today we will take a look at a few of these scientists.
The Sublime – Stark was a German physicist who discovered the splitting of spectral lines of atoms and molecules in an electric field (today known as the Stark effect) which provided an important confirmation of the model of quantum physics of the atom. For this and other discoveries he received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1919.
The Ridiculous – Stark grew very vocal in criticizing mainstream physics and became involved in many disputes and power struggles, growing erratic and disruptive. The German scientific community shunned him, but when Hitler began his rise to power, Stark supported him and attacked the work of Jewish scientists in Germany, especially Albert Einstein. Stark joined the Nazi party, and assumed a leading role in a movement to rid German science of Jewish scientists and their ideas. However, he was eventually sidelined due to his incompetence as an administrator as well as his quarrelsome nature. Stark retired, and after the war he spent one year in jail for his associations with the Nazis.
The Sublime – Shockley was an American physicist who performed vital work for the United States navy during World War II that allowed the US to increase its success in tracking and attacking German submarines as well as evading German bombers, which saved many lives. He led the team at Bell Labs which invented the transistor, and then he improved on the device to produce a version on which most transistors are based today. For this discovery, Shockley and his team were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1956. After leaving Bell Labs, he founded a semiconductor company and attracted the talented people who would later go on to found companies that would usher a technological revolution in electronics in what is now known as Silicon Valley in California.
The Ridiculous – Shockley had a difficult temperament that caused him problems both in his family and professional life. He was rude and arrogant, and his managerial style was that of a dictator. Many people that worked with him for a while ended up leaving or refusing to work with him ever again. After he won the Nobel Prize, he started espousing racist views regarding the excessive reproduction and intellectual inferiority of certain groups of people or races and lashing out against his critics. He died only in the company of his second wife and estranged from his children and former friends and colleagues.
The Sublime – Watson is an American molecular biologist and the co-discoverer with Francis Crick of the structure of the molecule of life, DNA. This single discovery brought about a dramatic transformation in the biological sciences that is still ongoing. Watson along with Crick received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. But what made Watson a household name was his memoir about the discovery of the structure of DNA entitled The Double Helix which he wrote in a brash not-suffer-fools-gladly style which excited the imagination of a generation of scientists.
The Ridiculous – Watson has expressed controversial views including that blacks are less intelligent than whites, that some anti-Semitism is justified, and that women scientists are less effective and not as good at math as men and will not be taken seriously in science if they have children. But he also thinks that having some female scientists around makes things “more fun for the men”. He has also claimed that fat people are less ambitious than thin people, that libido is linked to skin color, and that if it were possible, parents should be allowed to choose the traits of their unborn children such as not choosing to have a homosexual child.
The Sublime – Gajdusek was an American physician who studied a rare and puzzling disease called Kuru prevalent among members of the Fore tribe in New Guinea. He found that it was spread by ritualistic brain cannibalism, and he succeeded in transmitting the disease to chimpanzees by injecting human brain extracts into their brains. Gajdusek observed that Kuru had similarities to another human disease called Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and to a disease of sheep called scrapie, and he proposed that the pathogen was a previously unknown infectious agent which he termed “unconventional virus”. Gajdusek received the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology in 1976 for his work on new mechanisms of dissemination of infectious disease. The pathogens in these diseases were later found to be misfolded proteins called prions.
The Ridiculous – Over the years Gajdusek adopted many boys from the Fore tribe, brought them over to the U.S. to live with him, and put them through high school and college. One of these individuals accused Gajdusek of molesting him when he was a child. Gajdusek pled guilty to the charge and spent one year in jail after which he was released, relocated to Europe, and never came back to the U.S.
The Sublime – Mullis was an American biochemist who invented a method to amplify DNA, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which brought about a revolution in areas ranging from medicine to forensics. PCR is used in the diagnostic test for COVID-19. Mullis received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993.
The Ridiculous – Mullis became infamous for his belligerent attitude and outrageous eccentric behavior. For example, he was once invited to give a lecture about PCR, and instead he criticized the science behind the treatment of AIDS, and the only slides he presented were photographs of naked women. His professed belief in astrology, ghosts, and aliens, as well as his denial of the ozone hole, global warming, or that the HIV virus causes AIDs also made him toxic in the eyes of most scientists.
The Sublime – Montagnier is a French virologist who with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi won the 2008 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their discovery of the AIDS virus (HIV). This discovery along with the work of Robert Gallo in the United States made it possible to produce antivirals and save the lives of millions of people.
The Ridiculous – After receiving his Nobel Prize, Montagnier started publishing research claiming that DNA can emit electromagnetic waves and create a memory of itself in the water used to dissolve it. He also claimed that this memory emits such waves allowing the DNA to teleport between solutions. Montagnier’s claims were interpreted as favoring the pseudoscience of homeopathy. He has also given talks at anti-vaccination conferences, claimed that AIDS can be cleared through nutrition and supplements, and that the COVID-19 virus is man-made. Montagnier has become a pariah to the scientific community.
As the above list (which is by no means exhaustive) shows, scientists are human beings, and even Nobel Prize winning scientists can make errors of judgement and display all the character flaws and contradictions that affect average individuals, and this can take some of them all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Photograph of Johannes Stark by A. B. Lagrelius & Westphal is in the public domain. Photograph of William Shockley by Chuck Painter is used here under an Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) license. The photographs of James Watson and Carleton Gajdusek are works of the NIH and therefore are in the public domain. The photograph of Kary Mullis by Dona Mapston is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license. Photograph of Luc Montagnier by Prolineserver is in the public domain.