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15 of History's Greatest Mad Scientists

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When it comes to scientists, brilliance and eccentricity seem to go hand in hand. Some of the most innovative minds in human history have also been the strangest. From eccentric geniuses to the downright insane, here are some of history’s greatest mad scientists.

1. JOHANN CONRAD DIPPEL 

Born in Castle Frankenstein in 1673, Johann Conrad Dippel was a theologian, alchemist, and scientist who developed a popular dye called Prussian Blue that is still used to this day. But Dippel is better remembered for his more controversial experiments. He mixed animal bones and hides together in a stew he called “Dippel’s Oil,” which he claimed was an elixir that could extend the lifespan of anyone who consumed it. He also loved dissecting animals, and some believe he even stole human bodies from Castle Frankenstein. Dippel is often cited as an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though the claim remains controversial.

2. GIOVANNI ALDINI 

Another possible Frankenstein inspiration was mad scientist Giovanni Aldini, who among other strange experiments, was obsessed with the effects of electrocution. Aldini, who was something of a celebrity in the early 19th century, travelled Europe, demonstrating the powers of electricity. He was also one of the first scientists to treat mental patients with electric shocks. Though his methods were unconventional, Aldini was well respected in his time, and the emperor of Austria even made him a Knight of the Iron Crown. 

3. WILLIAM BUCKLAND 

Nineteenth century theologian and paleontologist William Buckland was the first person to write a full description of a fossilized dinosaur, which he called the Megalosaurus. But though his work was admired, the early paleontologist had some pretty strange appetites: Buckland was obsessed with trying to eat his way through the entire animal kingdom. He claimed to have consumed mice, porpoises, panthers, bluebottle flies, and even the preserved heart of King Louis XIV.

4. PYTHAGORAS

Anyone who took high school math knows about the Pythagorean theorem. But they might not know that, in addition to being a brilliant mathematician, Pythagoras really hated eating beans. If that sounds more like a personal preference than a mark of madness, consider the fact that he not only avoided eating legumes, but that he went so far as to forbid his followers from eating them as well. It’s unclear where Pythagoras’s bean aversion came from, though some believe Pythagoras saw them as sacred. According to one legend, Pythagoras died when he was being pursued by a group of ruffians, but refused to seek refuge in a nearby bean field. 

5. BENJAMIN BANNEKER 

Eighteenth century engineer, astronomer, and professional tinkerer Benjamin Banneker is believed to have made the first clock built entirely in America. Banneker helped survey the boundaries of the area that would become Washington D.C., charted the stars and planets every night, predicted eclipses, and was one of America’s earliest African American scientists. How did he make time to do all that? By working all night, and sleeping only in the early hours of the morning, of course. The quirky scientist was said to spend each night wrapped in a cloak, lying under a pear tree, meditating on the revolutions of heavenly bodies. Instead of in a lab or office, the astronomer dozed where he could also (potentially) do work: beneath a tree. 

6. ISAAC NEWTON 

One of the most influential scientists in history, Isaac Newton was also one of the quirkiest. The physicist and mathematician was known to experiment on himself while studying optics, even going so far as to poke himself in the eye with a needle. He was also obsessed with the apocalypse and believed the world would end sometime after the year 2060. 

7. LADY MARGARET CAVENDISH

One of England’s first female natural philosophers, Margaret Cavendish was a controversial figure in the 17th century. An outspoken intellectual and prolific writer, she ruffled a few feathers among those who believed women had no place in the scientific community. As a result, Cavendish was often called “Mad Madge.” But though Cavendish wasn’t truly insane, she was more than a little socially inept. On one occasion, Cavendish was “pondering upon the natures of Mankind,” and decided to write down all of the positive qualities possessed by one of her friends on one piece of paper, and on another, all of the woman’s negative qualities. Cavendish then decided to send her friend the list of positive qualities, which she assumed would be appreciated. Unfortunately, Cavendish accidentally sent the wrong list, and received an outraged response from her friend. Cavendish also acted as her own physician, and likely died as a result of her refusal to seek outside medical care.

8. SHEN KUO 

One of the most renowned scholars of the Northern Song Dynasty, Shen Kuo was a master of astronomy, physics, math, and geology, arguing, among other things, that tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational pull and that the Earth and the Sun are spherical, not flat. But he’s also credited as the first writer to describe a UFO sighting. Shen documented sightings of unidentified flying objects in his writing, describing the descent of floating objects “as bright as a pearl.” Nowadays, contemporary UFO theorists have latched onto Shen’s work as the first written record of an alien spacecraft. Shen himself never made that connection: Generally speaking, he was more interested in divination and the supernatural than alien visitors. 

9. TYCHO BRAHE

A great astronomer and an even greater partier, Tycho Brahe was born in Denmark in 1546, and lost his nose in a mathematical disagreement that elevated to a brawl. The scientist spent the rest of his life wearing a copper prosthetic nose. Brahe also threw elaborate parties on his own private island, had a court jester who sat under the table at banquets, and kept a pet elk who loved to imbibe just as much as he did. 

10. MARY ANNING 

Mary Anning was a mad fossil collector: Starting at age 12, Anning became obsessed with finding fossils and piecing them together. Driven by acute intellectual curiosity as well as economic incentives (the working class Anning sold most of the fossils she discovered), Anning became famous among 19th century British scientists. So many people would travel to her home in Lyme Regis to join her on her fossil hunts that after she died locals actually noticed a drop in tourism to the region. But it’s not Anning’s passion for fossils that sets her apart as a slightly mad scientist, but rather the supposed origins of her intellectual curiosity: As an infant, the sickly young Mary was struck by lightning while watching a traveling circus. That lightning strike, according to Anning’s family, was at the root of the once-unexceptional Mary’s superior intelligence. 

11. ATHANASIUS KIRCHER

Sometimes called the “Master of a Hundred Arts,” Athanasius Kircher was a polymath who studied everything from biology and medicine to religion. But Kircher didn’t just study everything, he seems to have believed in everything as well. At a time when scientists like Rene Descartes were becoming increasingly skeptical of mythological phenomena, Kircher believed strongly in the existence of fictional beasts and beings like mermaids, giants, dragons, basilisks, and gryphons.

12. LUCRETIUS

In contrast to Anthanasius Kircher, Ancient Roman poet and scientist Lucretius spent much of his life trying to disprove the existence of mythological beasts. But he employed some truly creative logic to do so. Lucretius is best known for being one of the earliest scientists to write about atoms. But he also argued that centaurs and other mythological animal mash-ups were impossible because of the different rates at which animals aged. A centaur, for instance, could never exist according to Lucretius, because horses age much faster than humans. As a result, for much of its lifespan, a centaur would be running around with the head and torso of a human baby on top of a fully grown horse’s body. 

13. STUBBINS FFIRTH 

While training to become a doctor at the University of Pennsylvania, Stubbins Ffirth became obsessed with proving yellow fever was not contagious. In order to do so, the young researcher would expose himself to the bodily fluids of yellow fever patients. Ffirth never caught yellow fever, though contemporary scientists know that this was not because the disease isn’t contagious (it is), but because most of the patients whose samples he used were in the late stages of the disease, and thus, past the point of contagion. 

14. PARACELSUS 

Renaissance era scientist Paracelsus is sometimes called the “father of toxicology.” But he also thought he could create a living homunculus (a living, miniature person) from the bodily fluids of full-sized people. He also believed in mythological beings like wood nymphs, giants, and succubae. 

15. LEONARDO DA VINCI

Though he’s best known as an artist, Leonardo thought up some pretty amazing inventions. From an early version of the airplane to a primitive scuba suit, Leonardo designed technological devices that are in use to this day. But Leonardo wasn’t your average inventor: He had no formal schooling, dissected animals to learn about their anatomy, loved designing war devices, and recorded many of his best ideas backwards in mirror image cursive, possibly to protect his works from plagiarism.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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