Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen by Clifford A. Pickover, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen

Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen

by Clifford A. Pickover

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Never has the term mad scientist been more fascinatingly explored than in internationally recognized popular science author Clifford Pickover's richly researched wild ride through the bizarre lives of eccentric geniuses. A few highlights:

"The Pigeon Man from Manhattan" Legendary inventor Nikola Tesla had abnormally long thumbs, a peculiar love


Never has the term mad scientist been more fascinatingly explored than in internationally recognized popular science author Clifford Pickover's richly researched wild ride through the bizarre lives of eccentric geniuses. A few highlights:

"The Pigeon Man from Manhattan" Legendary inventor Nikola Tesla had abnormally long thumbs, a peculiar love of pigeons, and a horror of women's pearls.

"The Worm Man from Devonshire" Forefather of modern electric-circuit design Oliver Heaviside furnished his home with granite blocks and sometimes consumed only milk for days (as did Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison).

"The Rabbit-Eater from Lichfield" Renowned scholar Samuel Johnson had so many tics and quirks that some mistook him for an idiot. In fact, his behavior matches modern definitions of obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette's syndrome.

Pickover also addresses many provocative topics: the link between genius and madness, the role the brain plays in alien abduction and religious experiences, UFOs, cryonics — even the whereabouts of Einstein's brain!

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Filled with 200 years of eccentric geniuses, this delightful collection of profiles assembles an eclectic and fascinating sampling of scientists (as well as some artists and writers) with a far-ranging assortment of phobias, compulsions, odd belief systems and extraordinarily weird habits. Chief among the scientists is Nikola Tesla, father of alternating current and countless other electrical devices, who could be seen on New York City's streets covered in pigeons, was obsessed with the number three and repulsed by jewelry, particularly pearls. Then there is Oliver Heaviside, a Victorian mathematician and electrical researcher who painted his nails bright pink, signed his correspondence "W.O.R.M." and cruelly kept the woman charged with his care a virtual prisoner in her own house, later driving her into catatonia. Also explored are the lives of Samuel Johnson, van Gogh and legendary mathematician Paul Erdos, among others. Pickover, a high-tech inventor and researcher at IBM and a prolific author (TimeA Traveler's Guide; Forecasts, Apr. 20) shows genuine fondness for his subjects and an appreciation of their accomplishments, which he explains clearly and succinctly. More than simply cataloguing unusual traits, Pickover also speculates on causes and diagnoses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE). This is lively and immensely enjoyable scientific history. Photos throughout. (June)
Library Journal
In his latest offering, Pickover, an authority in computer graphics and a prolific popularizer of science (Black Holes: A Traveler's Guide, LJ 4/1/96), purports to explore the link between eccentricities and obsessive-compulsive disorder in geniuses. The bulk of his book comprises nine biographical/psychological profiles, uneven in length and applicability, of such figures as Nicola Tesla, Samuel Johnson, and Ted Kaczynski. The rest of the book is a hodgepodge of essays on brain chemistry and mental disorders, intelligence, and over 25 pages of verbatim results from an unscientific Internet questionnaire. Two appendixes round out the volume: a runners-up list and an updates-and-breakthroughs section that reads like Oliver Sacks-lite. The amount of filler in this book, from lists of Johnson's epigrams to Kaczynski's scientific papers to superfluous illustrations to the aforementioned Internet discussion, detracts from the quality of the work. Recommended only for nonresearch collections.--Wade Lee, Univ. of Toledo Libs.
School Library Journal
YA-Pickover tackles an attention-grabbing topic with clarity, understanding, and a sense of fun. The dedication summarizes the tone of the volume: "This book is dedicated to the cracked, for they shall let in the light." Among the "strange brains" discussed are Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber; and Francis Galton, world traveler, inventor, and racist. Each chapter has a "Fact File" of basic information on the individual, while the "Straight Dope" section delineates that person's history, achievements, and compulsions or oddities, often including diagrams or reproductions of their famous accomplishments. In the chapter on Nikola Tesla, the lesser-known proponent of AC current in opposition to Edison's DC, readers learn of his strange abhorrence to pearls that rendered him incapable of conversation with a pearl-wearing companion. The author concludes with a summation of mental disorders that have often afflicted the talented and genius among us: bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and temporal lobe epilepsy. An interesting topic, presented in a readable manner.-Carol DeAngelo, American Chemical Society Library, Washington, DC
Explores the links between genius and madness in scientists and philosophers. Profiles several geniuses with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, beginning with Nikola Tesla, and then presents a smorgasbord of short subjects ranging from IQ to the influence of the brain's structure on behavior and the significance of unique features of Einstein's preserved brain. Discusses genius and strangeness, and briefly describes the effects of other disorders such as bipolar disorder and temporal lobe epilepsy on creativity, religion, and the alien abduction experience. Includes b&w illustrations. For general readers. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Ian Stewart
Pickover's originality has found itself the perfect topic.
Scientific American
Wired Magazine
Bucky Fuller though big, Arthur C. Clarke thinks big, but Cliff Pickover outdoes both.
Kirkus Reviews
A haphazardly assembled collection of profiles of inventors, philosophers, writers, artists, and just plain brilliant madmen. The bulk of the book consists of gossipy portraits of a rather diverse group of men that ranges from the famous to the relatively obscure: Nikola Tesla, Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Oliver Heaviside (an inventor), Samuel Johnson, Richard Kirwan (a scientist), Jeremy Bentham, Henry Cavendish, Francis Galton (a jack of all trades), Geoffrey Pyke (ditto). The link among all these men is tenuous at best: They all displayed obsessive-compulsive behavior, some more than others. Pickover, author of the mind-boggler column in Discover, assigns each of his subjects rather irksome nicknames: Samuel Johnson is known as "The Rabbit-Eater from Litchfield" and Nikola Tesla is called "The Pigeon Man of Manhattan." Each profile begins with a quick sketch of the subject, including marital status and "favorite quotes" about the man. Pickover then breathlessly goes through several anecdotes that illustrate the particular subjectþs weirdness but fails to shed much light on him. The last section of the book is an attempt to link obsessive-compulsive disorder with genius. Here, again, Pickover's lack of a clear narrative line subtracts from the overall effect of the book. The second to last chapter is entitled, "Curiosity Smorgasbord," and that is indeed how the whole book feelsþa collection of profiles, anecdotes, interviews, and factoids. While some of the anecdotes are entertaining, theyþre not assisted by Pickover's hackneyed writing, nor does his random use of the first and second person bring the reader closer to the material. More of a þgreatesthitsþ of madmen than a measured look at madness and genius.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Read an Excerpt


True artists and true scientists have firm confidence in themselves. This confidence is an expression of inner strength which allows them to speak out, secure in the knowledge that, appearances to the contrary, it is the world that is confused and not they. The first man to see an illusion by which men have flourished for centuries surely stands in a lonely place. In that moment of insight he, and he alone, sees the obvious which to the uninitiated (the rest of the world) yet appears as nonsense or, worse, as madness or heresy.

Gary Zukav
The Dancing Wu Li Masters

It is, so say humans, the most important thing in the world, but it looks as interesting as intestines, and indeed was frequently drawn formerly as if intestinal, a tube from start to finish. Our forefathers were more intrigued by the pulsing heart, the moody spleen, the color-changing liver, the wandering and peristaltic gut. Even urine, in their opinion, held more excitement than the brain.

Anthony Smith
The Mind

Sometimes you are a brain-snatcher.

You imagine yourself the Chief Curator of a futuristic museum of brains. You walk down fluorescent corridors filled with gray, wrinkled brains stored in formalin-filled jars to prevent decay.

On your left are the brains of the brilliant writers, artists, and composers who had bipolar disorder (manic depression), a genetic illness characterized by states of depression and mania that may alternatecyclically: Sylvia Plath, Walt Whitman, Cole Porter, Anne Sexton, Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Mahler, John Berryman, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, Herman Hesse, Mark Rothko, Mark Twain, Charles Mingus, Tennessee Williams, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Ezra Pound. In one smaller bottle are some fragments of Ernest Hemingway's manic-depressive brain — all that is left after he shot a bullet through his skull.

You give a little tap on the jar marked "Poe." His cerebrum jiggles. Never more, never more. Genius and insanity are often entwined. You put Poe back in his place.

Today you are not interested in the artists and writers but in the strange brains of great scientists. Instead of having bipolar disorder, many great scientists in your collection were obsessive-compulsive — they felt compelled to commit meaningless repetitive acts such as excessive hand washing, collecting, or counting.

You walk a little further, wrinkling your nose at the strange chemical odors.

On your right are a few clear jars. You reach for the one marked "Isaac Newton," open it, and drag your fingers over his gray-white frontal lobes. Might there be remnants of his genius preserved in his neuronal networks: the time he formulated the law of gravitation or studied the nature of light? Could some fossil of his hatred toward his father and mother be buried within his brain's strata like an ancient ant trapped in amber? How could this great scientist have been such a suspicious, neurotic, tortured person? There were so few students going to hear Newton's lectures at Cambridge that he often read to the walls.

The brain: three pounds of soft matter that can take a split second of experience and freeze it forever in its cellular connections. A 100 billion nerve cells are the architecture of our experience. Recent studies have even shown that human talents are reflected in our brain structure. As just one example, consider the dendrites — tiny branches that convey signals to nerve cells. It turns out that machinists have more dendrites in certain areas of their brains than salesmen, who are less clever with their hands.

Is Newton still here in the wet organ draped by your palm? Could we reconstruct his memories? Would Newton approve such a breach of privacy?

You return Newton's jar and glance longingly at some of the other scientist brains in your possession: Oliver Heaviside, an eminent, brilliant Victorian mathematical physicist whose nails were always cherry pink; Henry Cavendish, one of the greatest scientists in British history who made discoveries in diverse fields of chemistry, electricity, and physics but who was so shy that he ordered his female servants to remain out of sight or be fired; Sir Francis Galton, distinguished British explorer, anthropologist, and eugenicist known for his pioneering studies of human intelligence, who once resolved to taste everything in the hospital pharmacy in alphabetical order. He got as far as "C" and swallowed some castor oil. Its laxative effects put an end to his gastronomical experiments.

Heaviside, Cavendish, and Galton are perhaps better preserved than Newton. Their brains are perfused with glycerol and frozen to — 320 degrees Fahrenheit with liquid nitrogen. Your cryonicist friends refuse to give up hope that memories still reside in the brain cell interconnections and chemistry, much of which is preserved. Maybe they are right. After all, far back in the 50s, hamster brains were partially frozen and revived by British researcher Audrey Smith. If hamster brains can function after being frozen, why can't ours? In the 1960s, Japanese researcher Isamu Suda froze cat brains for a month and then thawed them. Some brain activity persisted. Even as far back as 1891, Dr. Varlot, a surgeon at a major hospital in Paris, developed a method for covering people with a layer of metal in order to preserve them for eternity. This approach, however, probably did not appeal much to those hoping for eventual resurrection.

But what if there is an afterlife? You bang on the giant thermos bottle containing Oliver Heaviside's brain, causing the brain to splash, sounding like a drunken fish. When he died Heaviside's brain was immediately frozen. Therefore, if there is an afterlife, he must have already experienced it by now. What would happen if his brain were revived?

You shake your head to change your direction of thoughts.

There is one gem missing from your collection: Nikola Tesla, a visionary genius, a great electronics inventor, a man disturbed by round objects, particularly the pearls in women's jewelry.

You press a time-travel button on...

Strange Brains and Genius. Copyright © by Clifford A. Pickover. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Clifford A. Pickover is the lead writer for the brain-boggler column in Discover magazine and the author of numerous acclaimed science books. He has been featured on PBS, the Discovery Channel, and CNN. A research staff member at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center, Dr. Pickover is a prolific inventor who holds numerous patents. He lives in Yorktown Heights, New York.

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