There is a quote attributed to Enrico Fermi on what characteristics were common to Nobel Prize winners: "I can't think of a single one. Not even intelligence." While there's no solid evidence he really said that (people have attributed it to two different pages of an old physics journal), I like to believe he did because it's humorously bitchy. Oh no you din'nt, father of the nuclear reactor!
"Oh I went there."
The point is, geniuses tend to only be geniuses on one subject. Just as you don't ask Peyton Manning for soccer tips, you don't ask a veterinarian to do your prostate exam. And you really don't want to ask William Shockley about genetics.
#4. William Shockley
Talked Out Of His Ass About: Genetics
William Shockley was probably named by the same people that write Batman comics, because he invented the transistor.
Rejected names: John Electron, Brian Semiconductor.
The transistor became the basis of a new invention called the "computer" which I suspect those of you reading this may be familiar with.
After a failed attempt at running a business, he became a professor at Stanford, which was more than happy to take on a Nobel Prize winner. While he enjoyed the job, he apparently had way too much spare time to think about non-physics related things. Like eugenics.
He decided that intelligence is determined by our genes, which most people agree is partially true. Then he decided that black people had less of these good genes, and it all went to hell. Highlights of his self-destructing career path include a Senate campaign on the platform of sterilizing people with sub-100 IQs, and becoming the only Nobel Prize winner to answer a call for donations to a superbaby sperm bank.
According to IMDB, he also played a rapist in Showgirls. Movie makeup is amazing these days!
Robert Graham, the founder of the sperm bank, sent out invitations to 25 or so Nobel Prize winners as part of a mission to encourage reproduction of the best and brightest before the world was flooded with morons. Three actually participated but none admitted it except for Shockley, who also added that the Nobel winners that refused to donate should be ashamed. Graham advertised his... product... as a selection of "the choicest genes... above average is not enough." For some reason, the public responded negatively to this, forcing Shockley to, uh, pull out, so to speak. Someone out there was buying though, because the bank stayed in business for 19 years.
And who could blame him for wanting to spread his sexy superhero genes?
As he saw it, all the hubbub was because everyone was misunderstanding his views, blowing it out of proportion when he said innocent things like, "If you found a breed of dog that was unreliable and temperamental, why shouldn't you regard it in a less favorable light?" Communication issues aside, he literally did want to reduce the black population and sterilize low-IQ people, and all his care in selecting interviewers and tape-recording every conversation did nothing to clear up the "misunderstandings" he thought were causing his problems.
How did this affect his career? Well, Stanford really didn't do anything about it except let him keep on keeping on, even making him a professor emeritus when he retired (about 10 years after he started airing his views on eugenics). That's Latin for a retired professor who is so awesome that he will be given an honorary title for the rest of his life and will always have a home at Stanford.
Yes, it's really called Leland Stanford Junior University. One of the more useful facts I learned at Berkeley.
The protection of Stanford aside, very few others wanted anything to do with Shockley as the years went by. He died an outcast, which is a little sad considering those who knew him paint a picture of a guy who was not a horrible man, but just... really clueless about anything that was not a transistor.
#3. Kary Mullis
Talks Out Of His Ass About: Everything Else
On the other hand, Kary Mullis, 1993 chemistry Nobel Prize winner, is by all accounts a dick.
First his accomplishments: He invented a process called PCR, which is every bit as important to biology as the transistor is to computers. You're not here for a biology lesson, but without PCR, we basically wouldn't be able to study DNA. That also means we wouldn't have the CSI shows, so, was it worth it? You decide.
Kary Mullis is directly responsible for this. Directly responsible.
All right, now for his dickishness: Mullis feels that figuring out how to copy a molecule that has been copying itself since life began apparently qualifies him to say that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. What does cause AIDS? Maybe promiscuous gay sex, says Mullis. That causes gay men to become breeding grounds for a mass of viruses which somehow trigger an "immune chain reaction."
Instead of ignoring the crazy old man, mainstream media outlets like Spin and ABC's Nightline eagerly gave him a platform to yak on about his ideas.
Far from the only questionable decision Spin has made.
In the Spin interview, which introduces him to readers as a "rebel genius," he explains why we shouldn't pay attention to things we can't see, like molecules, but instead pay attention to things we can see, like gay orgies:
"People who sit there and talk about it don't realize that molecules themselves are somewhat hypothetical, and that their interactions are more so, and that the biological reactions are even more so. You don't need to look that far. You don't discover the cause of something like AIDS by dealing with incredibly obscure things. You just look at what the hell is going on. Well, here's a bunch of people that are practicing a new set of behavioural norms. Apparently it didn't work because a lot of them got sick. That's the conclusion."
Left: science. Right: hogwash.
And still some people can only see the Nobel Prize. When places like Saddleback College (not related to the church) keep inviting him to ramble about whatever the hell he wants for an hour or two, it makes a guy like Mullis think that whatever he says must be important.
When a student at the Saddleback lecture pointed out that he was a not a biologist or a doctor but a chemist, the Nobel laureate rebutted him with the irrefutable argument, "And you're a little boy!"
Left: How Mullis thinks he comes across (from his book). Right: How Mullis actually comes across.
Even now, he's still got videos on TED, a non-profit foundation dedicated to spreading "ideas worth spreading" that features speakers like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Bill Gates, Bono and Nobel Prize winners like Mullis. TED mentions that Mullis invented PCR and surfs and seems to skim over a few other things.
Reviewers and biographers often latch on to his contrarian nature and his enjoyment of drugs, womanizing, and surfing to paint him as some kind of cool rock star rebel instead of a half-lucid old guy addicted to feeling more special than everyone else. When a regular old guy surfs, parties, drives fast cars, and goes to strip clubs, we shake our heads and say, "Mid-life crisis." Add a Nobel Prize and suddenly other people start acting like he's so cool for doing things stuffy old scientists aren't supposed to do.
It's like how people don't pay any attention if you pull into a parking space properly, but when they see you were a woman, they start clapping.
Some people suggest his heavy LSD use when he was younger might be contributing to his... eccentricity. Whatever the cause, Kary Mullis is the poster child for not assuming a Nobel Prize is a qualification for anything.