So, you want to be a mad scientist?

Exceptional scientists are often a bit crazy:

  • Kurt Gödel starved to death when his wife was hospitalized. He was paranoid.
  • John Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
  • Paul Erdõs was a homeless itinerant most of his life.
  • Henry Cavendish was so shy that he only communicated with his servants by writing notes.
  • Theodore Kaczynski (the Unabomber) became assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley at the age of 25, before going to live in a cabin without electricity or running water.
  • Nikola Tesla was obsessive compulsive and mysophobic.

Further reading: Scientists and their emotions.

Source: tvtropes via Daniel Lowd.

Daniel Lemire, "So, you want to be a mad scientist?," in Daniel Lemire's blog, January 6, 2011.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “So, you want to be a mad scientist?”

  1. For a while now, I’ve been wondering if genius is less of a gift and more of a focus. Perhaps the brain can only do so much. To be exceptional along one axis may require being dysfunctional along others.

  2. @SoloGen

    Showing a list of “mad” scientist does not prove much.

    It proves that exceptional scientists are sometimes out-of-balance. Many people, especially those who have not spent much time in the research business, think that famous researchers must be wise men (or women).

    For related thoughts, see my posts Why you may not like your job, even though everyone envies you and Working long hours is stupid.


    I cover Boltzmann in Scientists and their emotions.

  3. Showing a list of “mad” scientist does not prove much. It is an example of sampling bias. One can similarly provide a list of “ordinary” people with schizophrenia and then claim that all ordinary people are schizophrenic.
    And as a final note, I am not saying that there is no correlation between being an exceptional scientist/artist/etc and their abnormal emotional state. There might be.

  4. Schizophrenia is a particularly interesting link as its primary treatment these days is with dopamine inhibitors. This suggests an excess of the learning chemical in our brain. Understandably this can profoundly alter our perception of the world, but it’s a logical continuation that under the right circumstances a mind could more quickly learn certain topics, or at least obsess over them.

    Similarly, OCD and Depression are correlated or caused by low serotonin levels. Serotonin is again linked with memory and learning, and it’s also connected with “contentedness”. So perhaps where better balanced individuals can eventually look back happily at accomplishments (either over a life time or at the end of the day), a Tesla did not have a voice in his head saying “Good enough, let’s go for a stroll now”. And indeed, he was active in science into his 80’s.

    While I’d never deign to put myself in the shadow of these men, I can certainly relate with Cavendish’s shyness. If I embarrass myself, or hurt somebody, or fail at a task, it can really bother me for days. The solace I can take in the physical discomfort and sleeplessness after an argument is that this aspect of my psyche probably made me a better person. I’m very judicious with my words, I’m very determined to finish a task I’ve promised for someone else, and I suspect if it weren’t for some deep seeded need to please others I’d be a lot less likely to better myself or behave morally.

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