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Five Surprising Facts Re Famous Scientists We Bet You Never Knew

How about juggling, riding a unicycle, and playing bongo? Or catching criminals or cracking safes?

We know what famous scientists like Einstein are famous for but we don’t know much about who they are. Here are five personal life facts about scientists who made a big difference to our understanding of the world that you probably didn’t know. The most interesting one is saved for last.

1.Isaac Newton dressed as a bum to mingle with the unwashed and catch criminals.

Isaac Newton (1642 – 1727) was the father of classical physics and an inventor of calculus. When students take their first college classes in calculus and physics today, they study the concepts Newton developed in the 17th century.

But Newton also wrote over a million words on Biblical prophecy. He was also the Warden and Master of England’s Royal Mint in a day when counterfeiting was punishable by death. Taking a hands-on approach, he ignored England’s stratified class system by dressing like a bum and visiting bars and brothels where forgers of currency mingled. His greatest foe, forger William Chaloner, was executed in 1699 on account of Newton’s detective work. Newton the sleuth caught more than 20 counterfeiters via his undercover work.

2. Astronomer Tycho Brahe literally pasted his nose onto his face each day.

The famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546 – 1601, pictured) developed astronomical instruments to precisely measure positions of stars and the planets. His data famously led astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1730) to conclude that the solar system was heliocentric and planetary paths around the sun were elliptical.

But when he was young, Brahe had got into a drunken fight with his third cousin Manderup Parsberg over which of the two was the better mathematician. In the sword duel, Brahe’s nose was sliced off. For the remainder of his life, poor Tycho wore a prosthetic nose made of brass. He kept his nose in place using paste.

3.Richard Feynman, a physics genius, was also a bongo-playing safecracker

Richard Feynman (1918–1988) worked on the Manhattan Project for the development of the atomic bomb. He later won a Nobel Prize in Physics for contributions to quantum electrodynamics. He joined the Rogers Commission to investigate the space shuttle Challenger’s 1986 disaster. There, he demonstrated that the material used in the shuttle’s O-rings became less resilient in cold weather. During a panel presentation, he famously clamped a sample of the O-ring material and dunked it in ice water.

Feynman was also an enthusiastic amateur player of the bongos and often played in the pit orchestra in musicals.

And there’s more. Relying heavily on the psychology of safe owners, Feynman was also an accomplished combination safecracker. He practiced his art at the Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project where he was able to crack even safes containing classified nuclear secrets.

4.Claude Shannon, the Unicycling Juggler

If you use a cell phone, you are impacted by the work of Claude Shannon. (1916 – 2001). While working at Bell Labs in 1948, he published a paper that founded modern information theory. He was the first to use the term bit. He proved that digital transmission across a noisy channel could be accomplished with little to no error. Shannon also wrote what is possibly the most important master’s thesis in the 20th century. He showed that the switching networks used by Bell Telephone at the time could be analyzed and simplified using Boolean algebra. Shannon’s thesis work is taught even today to engineers and mathematicians.

But Shannon was also a juggler and was often seen around Bell Labs riding a unicycle while juggling. Shannon loved juggling. He even developed a juggling equation: (F+D)H=(V+D)N, where F = time a ball spends in the air, D = time a ball spends in a hand/time a hand is full, V = time a hand is vacant, N = number of balls, and H = number of hands:

He built a simple robotic machine that could juggle three balls.

5.Many Celebrity Scientists Go to Church

Some falsely claim that a true scientist cannot believe in God. They claim Christianity and science are mutually exclusive. Of course, there are outspoken atheist scientists today, as in the past. British polymath Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970) wrote an essay, Why I am Not a Christian (1927). The great mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 – 1827) is another historical example. When presented with a copy of Laplace’s work on celestial mechanics, Napoleon is said to have remarked, “I see no mention of God in this work.” Laplace is said to have replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

But now here’s the other side. As can be seen at the website ChristianCalculus.com, many celebrity scientists were also outspoken Christians. Here are some examples from yesterday and today.

Thomas Bayes (1702 – 1761) originated Bayes’ Law in probability. Baysian classifiers, using Baysian statistics, are widely used today including in the identifying spam in your email. Bayes was a pastor of a church in England and could be more formally addressed as the Reverend Thomas Bayes. He wrote “God always does that which is right and fit, and that all his moral attributes [namely] justice, truth, faithfulness, mercy, patience [etc.] are but so many different modifications of rectitude.”

Francis Collins (b. 1950) discovered genes associated with many diseases and later led the Human Genome Project. He is currently the director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins said “On a beautiful fall day hiking in the northwest with my mind a little bit more clear than usual… I became a believer [in Jesus Christ]”

Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) is the father of electrical engineering. Faraday’s law in Maxwell’s equations, the Faraday Effect, the Farad unit for capacitance, and Faraday’s constant bear his name. He discovered electric induction and built the first electric motor. Faraday said “[T]hough… death brings the thought of judgment, it also brings to the Christian thought of Him [Jesus Christ] who died… [and] rose again for the justification of those who believe in Him.”

Leonhard Euler (1707 – 1783) is possibly the greatest mathematician who has ever lived. Wikipedia lists over 100 math accomplishments named after him including Euler’s number, Euler’s identity, Eulerian integers, and the Euler–Mascheroni constant. Euler’s quotes about Christianity include “The divinity of Christ’s mission in this world cannot be called into question,” “[It is] an established fact that Christ has risen from the dead” and “We can absolutely trust in all the promises given in the gospel [of Jesus Christ].”

George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943, pictured) is a well-known American botanist who invented over 300 agriculture products derived from the peanut. He said “Jesus said one must be born again, must become as a little child. [You] must let no laziness, no fear, no stubbornness keep [you] from [your] duty.”

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) accomplished a great deal in many areas in science and math. He studied pressure change with respect to altitude and today’s metric system unit for pressure is the Pascal. He invented a mechanical calculator for his father called the Pascaline. The computer program language Pascal is named in his honor. In a series of letters with fellow French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, the theory of probability was born. Pascal’s Triangle also bears his name. Pascal had a life-changing experience that historians call his “night of fire” and became a Christian. His subsequent writing on Christian apologetics in the book Pensées, still studied in seminaries, includes Pascal’s wager, a pragmatic reason for believing in God. Included in Pensées is Pascal’s famous quote “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man, which only God can fill through his son Jesus Christ.”

Robert Boyle (1627–1691) is the father of modern chemistry. He was one of the pioneers of the modern experimental scientific method. Boyle’s Law is named for him. Boyle wrote “The gospel [of Christ] comprises indeed, and unfolds, the whole mystery of man’s redemption, as far forth as it is necessary to by known for our salvation.”

Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1730), using data accumulated by the noseless Tycho Brahe, established Kepler’s Laws in a heliocentric solar system — a theory that was controversial in his time. Kepler wrote “I am a Christian… I believe… only and alone in the service of Jesus Christ… In Him is all refuge, all solace.”

Donald Knuth is a computer programmer extraordinaire. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he is a recipient of the National Medal of Science. His book series, The Art of Computer Programming remains a best seller. Knuth writes “Everyone who has faith — a personal trust that Jesus is God’s Son — has eternal life [and] lives forever.”

There is no reason to believe that an accomplished scientist cannot be a devout religious believer as well.

You may also enjoy: God’s existence is proven by science Arguments for God’s existence can be demonstrated by the ordinary method of scientific inference. (Michael Egnor)

Robert J. Marks II

Director, Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Besides serving as Director, Robert J. Marks Ph.D. hosts the Mind Matters podcast for the Bradley Center. He is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Marks is a Fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Optical Society of America. He was Charter President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council and served as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. He is coauthor of the books Neural Smithing: Supervised Learning in Feedforward Artificial Neural Networks (MIT Press) and Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics (World Scientific). For more information, see Dr. Marks’s expanded bio.

Five Surprising Facts Re Famous Scientists We Bet You Never Knew