The Top 10 Ballsiest Scientists in History

January 26, 2010

The science geeks we grew up with in high school may have been mouth-breathing social rejects who could easily be knocked over by glancing in their direction. But some of history's walking calculators have used their awesome powers of comprehension and reasoning to do things far gutsier than a night of underage drinking and a morning of regret can ever offer.

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By Danny Gallagher

10. Stanley Milgram

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Psychology always makes for the most interesting and awesome types of experimentation. It basically involves tricking people to do things against their will (fact: 80 percent of all Penthouse Forum letters take place in a psychology class). Milgram wanted to understand the reasoning behind atrocities that led to the Nuremberg trials, so he conducted one of his own.

He asked his test subjects to monitor a "learner," an actor pretending to be a test subject in their own experiment. Every time the "learner" made a mistake, the real subject would have to deliver increasing amounts of electricity into their body. Milgram was able to convince 60 percent of the subjects to deliver shocks leading up to 450 volts and none of the subjects refused to administer the shocks until they reached 300 volts. While none of the subjects were actually injured in the experiment, asking a total stranger to turn another total stranger into a crispy chicken nugget takes a mighty set of electron balls.


9. Carl Scheele

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Source: Evald Waldemar Hansen

This noted Swedish scientist has contributed to chemistry in ways that would not have made modern scientific achievement possible. For instance, he taught us that certain chemical elements were poisonous by stepping on that landmine for the rest of us. Scheele is considered in some circles to be the father of arsenic and cyanide, that popular poison used to move along the plots of Shakesperian plays and episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. If you don't consider him to be the father, you should since he probably ingested more of the stuff than any living human male.

He didn't just purposely swallow it. He studied it in every conceivable form and his constant exposure to it is said to have hastened his demise. He described its texture, smell, and even its taste, although his unfortunate death prevented him from discovering whether it goes with red or white wine. Ironically, he is also credited with discovering a number of other chemicals and substances including oxygen, which is amazing since he obviously got so little of it.

8. Giordano Bruno

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Standing up for your beliefs is hard to do. Just try getting your friends to back you in a "Better Darren on Bewitched" bar fight and you'll see what I mean. Bruno literally had his life on the line for believing something that has become a known fact, depending on who you ask and whether or not they have tin foil on their head. Bruno spent part of his life fleeing the oppressive violence of the Inquisition in the 16th century and when he was finally captured and taken to trial on grounds of heresy, he refused to back down from his beliefs and was burned at the stake. Some believe that his insistence that the universe stretched far beyond the Earth was what eventually did him in, earning him a front row seat to his own execution.

7. Stubbins Ffirth

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William Osler has often been called the "father of modern medicine." Otto Hahn is credited with being the "founder of the atomic age." Stubbs Ffirth might have just such a name, but being the "forerunner of vomit experiments" really doesn't look good on a business card.

The early 19th century scientist wanted to show the world that yellow fever was not a contagious disease, so he spent a long part of his life immersing his own body in more bodily fluids than a summer teen sex comedy. He poured vomit  from yellow fever victims into just about every orifice in his body, sat in a "vomit sauna" and even ingested the stuff directly from a patient's mouth. He didn't contract yellow fever even though it has since been proven to be contagious, but that's just because even yellow fever was too grossed out to go near the sicko.

6. Jean-Francois Pilâtre De Roziere

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Source: Gaston Tissandier

When this French chemist and physicist witnessed the first balloon flight launch in 1783, it inspired him to achieve greater and greater heights in man's unrelenting quest for flight. He managed to do just that with harrowing degrees of success (and I imagine several pairs of spoiled underpants later). His luck changed the following year when he ambitiously planned to cross the English Channel into England but failed to account for one tiny variable - the wind. It just pushed him and his partner off course, caused the balloon to break, deflate, and crash from a then-staggering height of 1,500 feet. To make matters worse, his luggage ended up in Vienna. (Thank you folks, I'll be here all week. Try the veal!)

 

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5. Trofim Lysenko

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Source: Wikipedia

When science fails, at least the methods involved allow us to see and correct mistakes and make even bigger breakthroughs in the future. That would be true if the Ukrainian scientist Lysenko knew anything about science beyond concepts such as "if you kick a squirrel with your right leg, he will turn into a magical elf."

As the right hand science man of Joseph Stalin, Lysenko claimed he could grow entire crops of all kinds without the use of fertilizers or minerals. Since the early Soviets craved power more than any other commodity on Earth, they ran with his wild claims without bothering to check them. Stalin refused to believe that the science was bad, lavished Lysenko with even greater accolades, and touted its efficiency with the ever-increasing boldness of Terrell Owens' press agent after his third team move. When Stalin died, Lysenko fell out of favor and lost all of his power but still showed up for work, even though his doctor title had the same level of scientific accreditation as Dr. Teeth from The Muppet Show.

4. Franz Reichelt

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Source: Wikipedia

If someone came to you and said they could fly and you knew they couldn't fly and you made every effort to stop them from proving that they could fly, that doesn't mean you still wouldn't watch, right? Richelt, an Austrian tailor and makeshift scientific achiever, attempted to prove that same theory with his magical flying overcoat that he believed would work as a perfect parachute. He was so sure his scientific endeavor would work that he conducted his first and only test by jumping off of the Eiffel Tower. Did it work? Why don't you make that call?

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And even though Reichelt clearly had less grasp over scientific concepts than the air's pressure did on him on the way down, it takes a great deal of guts to back up that claim all the way down to his final demise. Plus, if it's any consolation, he did discover something else: a quicker way for tourists to get down the Eiffel Tower without having to use all those tiresome steps.

3. Barry Marshall

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Not all of science's ballsiest thinkers worked in the dawn of human enlightenment, when the most complex scientific concept that people could wrap their minds around was that the Earth is being held up by an angry turtle that requires large amounts of space fish to keep rotating the Earth. Back in 2006, this junior doctor so hoped to rock the medical boat by proving that stomach ulcers were not caused by a certain strain of bacteria that he ingested it himself without prior approval, knowledge, or even permission from his hospital. The strain he swallowed eventually lead to gastritis, a condition known to cause ulcers, but his and partner Robin Warren's theory that stress and lifestyle factors are bigger contributors has since become the more accepted cause, one that earned them a Nobel Prize in Medicine.

If you're reading this doc, I hope you're wearing that award around your neck like the biggest piece of bling around so every rival doctor in that motherf***ing clinic can see it. Pre-med 4 life, bitches!


2. J.B.S. Haldane

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Source: Wikipedia

Using the cause of science to help those men and women who give their lives and freedom to protect their country is admirable. Giving them the use of your eardrums should inspire a new Toby Keith song. This son of the late 19th physicist John Scott Haldane picked up where his dad left off by improving diving for the Navy at the turn of the century. Looking to one up dear ol' pop, he made himself the test subject by submersing himself in highly pressurized decompression chambers to improve submarine safety. He not only discovered that such conditions had burst his own eardrums, but also that "if a hole remains in it...one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment." He also discovered that blowing smoke out of your ear will never help you get laid...ever.

1. Augustus Hildebrandt

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Technically, Hildebrant wasn't the lead scientist on his most famous experiment, but that's just because he was the experiment. His German surgeon partner August Bier attempted to use cocaine as a spinal anaesthesia, which Hildebrandt first injected into Bier's spine through a hole in his neck. When that didn't work, he had his partner switch roles and made Hildebrant the guinea pig.

He completely anaesthetized Hildebrant and proceeded to test the limits of his central nervous system by stabbing him, burning him, hammering him, bludgeoning him, yanking out his pubic hairs by the root, and (topping off this "cake of pain") by smashing his testicles. Bier waited for Hildebrandt's faculties to return to normal and when they did, the two went out for a huge lavish meal, making it the one time in human history when the utterance of "separate checks" warrants full and immediate castration.

 

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