If you've been reading Cracked for a while, you probably already know that some scientists had pretty unorthodox methods of experimentation, and that some others were thought of as idiots in their time. But those are all just cases of misunderstood genius -- brilliant people doing crazy things in the service of the scientific method. What's harder to figure out are the famously brilliant scientists who went above and beyond to proudly wave two middle fingers in the face of reason.
Everyone knows that Sir Isaac Newton was one of the greatest scientists to ever live. He discovered the laws of gravitation, invented calculus and generally made enlightenment more popular than stupidity and madness, which had been topping the charts for most of human history. Even more impressive: He accomplished all of this in his spare time, figuring out gravity, calculus and optics during a single break from university. Newton's main area of interest, and the academic pursuit to which he dedicated the most time, was pants-soiling insanity.
"It's not science if you're covering your junk."
It's estimated that Newton devoted more time to the study of scripture than to science, and he was generally considered a religious nut at a time when everyone took their religion pretty seriously. Newton treated the Bible like Russell Crowe treated newspaper clippings in A Beautiful Mind, poring over it for hours, looking for hidden codes. Newton also spent quite a bit of his time trying to figure out the exact measurements of the Temple of Solomon, which he modestly claimed would allow him to predict the exact date of the apocalypse.
Because all numbers add up to a wolf eating the sun.
Not all of Newton's scientific beliefs have stood the test of time quite as well as gravity. For instance, he also poured hours and hours of his time into alchemy. In fact, he was so interested in alchemy that it is now believed that alchemy was his main focus, and real science was more of a pastime for him. Unlike mathematics and the laws of physics, Newton wasn't even trying to take alchemy in new and interesting directions, opting instead to pursue theories that had long since been disregarded by people who still believed alchemy was possible. His time as an alchemist was mainly devoted to creating the philosopher's stone, which he believed could transmute other metals into gold and grant human beings immortality.
Apple-induced head injuries are kind of a double-edged sword for scientists.
This might sound familiar if you read the first Harry Potter book, where Harry pursues the same stone as Newton. Of course, in the book, Harry has to find the stone to keep the evil noseless warlock who lives on the back of his teacher's head from gaining too much power. Thanks to the alchemical experiments he performed on himself, Newton had so much lead and mercury in his system at the time of his death that he might have been pursuing the stone for the same reason as Harry.
"Behold, I control the RAINBOW. I am your God now, leprechauns!"
If you're only familiar with one biologist, it's Charles Darwin, inventor of the theory of evolution, and mascot for ill-advised religious debates ever since. Alfred Russel Wallace, one of the most accomplished biologists who ever lived, also came up with the theory of evolution, but he's mostly remembered as a lesson in why you shouldn't send a copy of your career-making theory to a competing biologist.
Wallace sent Darwin a copy of his theory of natural selection in 1858, before Darwin had published a word of his own theory (having been too busy eating every creature he came across). Letters and notes from the time seem to indicate that Darwin was already kicking around a theory of natural selection, but also that he didn't understand key concepts like divergent evolution until Wallace explained them to him.
We're not sure we understand it now either.
Even worse, the field aside from biology in which Wallace was most influential is also dominated by other, much more famous experts, like Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost and Egon from Ghostbusters.
The guy who probably beat Darwin to the theory of evolution was also hugely interested in practicing spiritualist seances. In fact, he believed seances allowed him to communicate with ghosts on the other side of the divide. Most of his paranormal experiments involved staring at ectoplasm. Not the kind that is part of a cell membrane, which would be understandable for a biologist -- Wallace was interested in the type of ectoplasm that characters in Skyrim and Ghostbusters know as matter that bridges the physical and spirit realms, and that everyone else knows isn't real.
Or is actually what ghosts create when they vomit.
A small hindrance like reality, however, wasn't going to stop Wallace, one of the greatest minds in the history of biology, from claiming that communications with the spirit realm inspired a large portion of his work. The scientific method was also important, but Wallace rarely talked about it, presumably because it sucked at making tables levitate.
Understandably, his friends and colleagues, like Thomas Huxley, weren't on board with his beliefs, and Darwin openly wondered if Wallace's magical belief system was hurting the credibility of the theory he stole from him. Actually, if Darwin hadn't cockblocked Wallace's claim to history, we might associate evolution with the crazy guy who thought he could talk to ghosts.
And then the atheists wouldn't be able to use that argument at all.
Joseph Priestley was a British chemist who was responsible for inventing the process for carbonation and the production of laughing gas, and therefore is indirectly responsible for "David After Dentist" and every soda you've ever enjoyed. Oh, he also discovered oxygen in 1774, which we guess is kind of useful, if you're one of those people who's into breathing.
"This 'oxygen' doesn't get me high at all. Back to the laughing gas!"
When Priestley discovered oxygen, he didn't actually call it oxygen; he called it "dephlogisticated air," but that's probably pretty common. You don't let the doctor who delivers your baby name it just because he's the first person to discover it. Priestly probably had a simple but perfectly scientific reason for naming oxygen something so profoundly stupid.
Actually, he only went out of his way to discover oxygen in the first place to prop up his belief in the phlogiston theory, which is based on the assumption that there are four elements: water, earth, fire and air. While it was once the most popular explanation for the natural universe, the phlogiston theory has since gained attention for being the most swiftly and utterly disproved theory ever taken seriously by people over the age of 5.
Responsible for more cries of "Remember that? What were we thinking?" than parachute pants.
Unfortunately, the theory's plummet from grace occurred right smack in the middle of Priestley's promising, and then increasingly hilarious, scientific career. While Priestley used his discovery of oxygen to declare "Phlogiston for life, bitches!" the rest of science was using it to demonstrate the exact degree to which his pet theory was full of shit, which turned out to be substantial. It was as if he'd discovered stem cell research, and then used it to support his belief that male babies are more likely to be delivered by a gray stork.
"Look! All this phlogiston is setting fire to my research! Wheeee!"
Seeing their opportunity to rub Priestley's face in his own bullshit theory, science proved that matter combines with oxygen through a process called oxidation and reduction, which in turn unlocked the building blocks of the natural universe. Despite his peers repeatedly pointing out how completely crazy it made him look, Priestley stuck to his guns. As the rest of science raced forward to where we are today, Priestley told them, "You guys go ahead without me, I'm going to hang back. I've got a good feeling about this theory that seems more appropriate for World of Warcraft." (Not an exact quote.)
And then he was butt-forked by Satan and aged in an oak cask. Just like Einstein.