5 Bizarre Pet Projects from Seminal Scientists
Scientists are lucky that, for the most part, if you manage to lock down an important discovery or invention, all the things that didn’t work will fall by the wayside. Nobody’s out here batting a thousand on experiments anyways, hence the idea of a “hypothesis.” Figure out gravity, for example, and nobody’s going to care that you spend a significant amount of your other billed hours working on turning lead into gold.
Here are five seminal scientists with curious pet projects…
Pierre and Marie Curie’s Seances
When the field of science you’re most famous for concerns radiation, an invisible force with the power to sentence people to a torturous death, the idea of ghosts might not seem so outlandish. Famously ill-fated couple Pierre and Marie Curie, when they weren’t tossing around loose uranium, were fascinated with the idea of seances, and attended some with a scientific eye. The idea of having scientists attend seances on anything not involving a bet was more reasonable in those days as well.
They were right around a point at which they were figuring out just how weird a whole bunch of shit was, but would die before anybody could explain why. So why not exhaust all avenues, even if one of those involves crystal balls and shaking tables? In Pierre’s case, he came away from their Ouija-adjacent experiments with a stated belief in the supernatural. Marie was, at the very least, less vocal about her affirmation of apparitions, but she did attempt to communicate with her husband after his untimely death. Your call on whether that was another experiment or just crushing, horrific grief!
Jack Parsons’ Demon Summoning
Given that “rocket scientist” is basically modern parlance for the smartest job you could possibly hold, the title of “the father of modern rocketry” has to make you King Genius, right? Jack Parsons certainly proved his pedigree when it came to jet propulsion. A type of fuel he developed had the honor of carrying the space shuttle out of our atmosphere, and the dishonor of being the juice of choice behind plenty of ballistic missiles. So why, exactly, is he maybe one of the names on this list you’re most unlikely to have heard of?
Parsons was involved in some, even by eccentric scientist standards, extracurricular activities best kept secret. Especially when your field of expertise exclusively deals with controlled explosions, people like to think the guy in charge is a straitlaced go-getter who never saw an i he didn’t dot. It’s a less appealing notion to strap your nation’s best and brightest into a rocket built on the work of a man who was literally trying to summon the devil on his days off. Parsons had a deep interest in the occult for most of his life, and that naturally drew him to Aleister Crowley and the teachings of Thelema. NASA and the military still loved his rockets, just not without the amateur magician behind them, and so, mentions of Parson himself were carefully pruned from public mention.
Again, we’ve got a scientist with a hell of a laurel placed upon his head. Paracelsus is known as the “father of toxicology” and “the man who brought chemistry to medicine.” Based on those interests and achievements, you might imagine a no-nonsense sort of man, harrumphing at the ideas of humours and similar pseudo-medical mumbo-jumbo. A champion of the scientific method above all else, perhaps. A fellow who hand-waved away more spectacular explanations of science in favor of cold, hard evidence.
Not so much. Paracelsus’ science was (for the time) sound, that much is true. The problem was that he was also a big-time alchemist, a discipline more common in anime than in any modern scientific discussion. He wasn’t just into the tame stuff, either, like the idea of transmuting lead into gold. He swung for the crime-against-god fences with a particular focus on creating a homunculus, basically a much more literal and horrifying representation of the term “test tube baby.” There are a couple recipes for spawning one of these atrocities, and they all have one thing in common: They are very, very gross. A lot of blood and semen getting stuck in different places they don’t really belong until, hopefully, a tiny guy pops out and says hi.
Francis Crick’s Alien Theories
Francis Crick and James Watson, are best known for their discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, a finding that would lead to massive scientific advancement and a beloved animation from the original Jurassic Park. Whether they deserve this credit or if they’re over-glorified men who were lucky enough to stumble onto the notes of Rosalind Franklin, a woman who was, quelle surprise, almost entirely left out of the history books, is up to you.
One point against their reputation are the future beliefs held by Crick in particular. Not just something a little non-traditional, but a theory that crosses over into full “okay sir, It’s time to leave the Au Bon Pain” territory. He was a believer in panspermia, which is not, in fact, a continent from an sci-fi pornographic Flash game, but the idea that life on earth was placed there by aliens in special little spaceships. Meaning we’re basically some little gray men’s wet, gross, garden plant.
Nikola Tesla’s Pigeon Wife
Nikola Tesla is a hero to scientists of every stripe, and now will be remembered forever through the modern product that bears his name: self-crashing electric cars. It’s also no secret that he was a bit of a weirdo. You don’t get David Bowie playing you in a movie by being a normal guy. Of his many irregularities, maybe my favorite just happens to be a lovely etymological tie-in to the idea of a pet project. Which is, of course, his romantic relationship with a pigeon. Tesla had a general obsession with the species, but he was convinced that one particular white pigeon was his soulmate. He didn’t mince words when it came to his bird beau either, saying, “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.”
I’ve never been happier to know Tesla died celibate.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.