10 Great Scientists Who Were Also Jocks

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Brain and brawn have never been enemies; in fact, some of the most gifted scientists of all time were also dedicated athletes.

1. Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937)

As a young man, the “father of nuclear physics” played rugby for Nelson College and the University of Canterbury.

2. Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)

When he wasn’t training dogs to salivate on cue, Pavlov excelled at the Russian sport of Gorodki. He also made weekly visits to a St. Petersburg gym with some of his fellow physicians while working at the Institute of Experimental Medicine.

3. Preston Cloud (1912-1991)

This geologist really packed a punch. After enlisting in the U.S. Navy in 1930, Cloud became the Pacific Scouting Force’s bantamweight amateur boxing champion. Today, he’s best remembered for helping to change how we view the history of life and our planet itself.

4. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

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Franklin’s contribution to DNA research was—criminally—never appreciated during her tragically short life. As a teen, she competed in tennis, cricket, and other sports while enrolled at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in London.

5. Meredith “Flash” Gourdine (1929-1998)

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One and a half inches stood between Gourdine and a gold medal. That was the distance which separated his leap from fellow American Jerome Biffle’s at the 1952 Olympic long jump competition. “I would have rather lost by a foot,” Gourdine later confessed. Despite this second-place finish, the man’s knack for experimentation secured his place in history. A prolific inventor, Gourdine held a PhD in engineering physics and over 30 patents before passing away from stroke-related complications at the age of 69.

6. Buzz Aldrin (1930- Pres.)

“[American] Football was my passion and homework was my nemesis” sounds like a pretty ironic statement coming from the man who piloted Apollo 11. Once a prolific high school quarterback, Aldrin eventually decided to put athletics on the back-burner and focus on his grades before applying to West Point.

7. Edwin Hubble (1889-1953)

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The cantankerous Hubble telescope is named for a man who excelled at the shot-put and at dazzling recruiters. His biggest sporting achievement, however, came in 1909, when he helped the Chicago Maroons basketball team clinch its third consecutive national title.

8. Enrico Fermi (1901-1954)

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Fermi, who won the 1938 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in radioactive isotopes, was noted for his tenacity. Physically strong and ferociously competitive, Fermi loved playing tennis and often defeated opponents by wearing them down into near-total exhaustion.

9. Carl Sagan (1934-1996)

As a lad, Sagan was the captain of his high school’s intramural basketball team and almost passed up his first meeting with Seymour Abrahamson—an Indiana University grad student who’d help the future astronomer nab his first laboratory job—because he wanted to go out and shoot some hoops instead.

10. Niels Bohr (1885-1962)

A key figure in the Manhattan project, this giant of twentieth-century science seemed remarkably down to earth. At least, the aforementioned Ernest Rutherford thought so. Rutherford categorically disliked theoretical physicists—whom he found snobbish—but said “Bohr’s different. He’s a football player!” Niels Bohr enjoyed a celebrated collegiate career as a goalkeeper at the University of Copenhagen. Harald Bohr, his younger brother, also adored football and even helped the Danish Olympic team win a silver medal in 1908.

All photos courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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