The father of the laws of motion and a leading figure in the Enlightenment, Newton spent much time in deep, isolated scientific meditation. Perhaps that was for the best, as some of his experiments ”” such as sticking a needle in his own eye with a "small pointed bodkin" or needle to test an hypothesis of his about optics ”” would not have gone over well at a coffee shop where others were chewing the fat. Leaving few mementos of his personal life behind it is hard to glean much from the life of one to whom science owes so much. However, we do know two things: the first, that Newton enumerated all the sins he committed (to the best of his memory) in a direct letter to God. The second is that in 1693 (at the age of 51), Newton suffered from a nervous breakdown after a five-day all-nighter, which resulted in him fearing his friends were in cahoots against him. He recovered, and spoke of his breakdown to one of his confidants, Leibniz, one of his friends he formerly thought were conspiring against him.
For a devout and professed Catholic, Galileo Galilei ran afoul of the Church in a number of ways. The multi-hyphenate scientist made frequent junkets to Venice, and on one of those he met Marina Gamba, whom he invited to live in his house in Padua and by whom he sired three children, all out of wedlock. He chose not to pay the steep dowry that would legitimize his daughters, so they took to the convent and became sisters. He ended up renting a villa that adjoined the convent so that he could be closer to his children. Galileo's other "crime" was endorsing Copernicus's heliocentric model of the solar system, for which he was sentenced to a life of house arrest by the Inquisition.
Known for discovering radioactivity, and basically engendering a whole field of physics, Marie Curie neé Skladowski was stalwart in her ambitions . Arriving from Poland, then Curie moved to Paris and lived with her sister and her brother-in-law, and suffered through some very trying, abstemious conditions. She put all her time, money and energy into her studies, and would often faint from both lack of food and her reluctance to eat while lost in her books. After graduating from the Sorbonne, Skladowska was searching for ample lab space to conduct experiments when a friend recommended she get in touch with Pierre Curie, whom she later married and collaborated with.
Anyone who knows of Tesla knows that not only was he a genius, but he was also a celebrated eccentric. And his offbeat-style was apparent even in his youth. At the inveterate age of five, Tesla assured his father that he would exploit water for power, and in turn created a water-run egg beater. He then swapped out eggs for bugs, and used them to run the machinery. At school, Tesla was solving math equations with uncommon speed and accuracy, and even intimated that one day science would advance so far that literal memories could be photographed.
The evolutionist and major proponent of natural selection, Charles Darwin had quite the interesting domestic life. Firstly, his marriage to Emma was as loving as it was atypical for the Victorian vogue, which expected patriarchal dominance over a submissive wife. As can be gleaned from their letters back and forth, this was not the case: Charles relied greatly on his wife to "humanize" him, and looked to her for almost motherly support. By all accounts, Emma was emotionally more stable. Another factoid, as eclectic as his scientific pursuits were, Darwin also enjoyed feasting on the flesh of exotic animals, the primary pastime of the Glutton Club, a hunting-gastronomy group.
Ada Lovelace's exceptional mathematical talents can partly be attributed to her mother's strictness when it came to her daughter's studies. Not wishing her to grow up a little Lord Byron ”” the mercurial and emotionally unstable poet, she put her daughter on a stiff regiment of books, lessons and learning. Though she grew up to a techno-genius, contributing to Charles Babbage's prototypical computer, she was skewered by the local papers as being "the most coarse and vulgar woman in England!" No doubt this appellation was given in response to rumors of her many affairs, both before and after her marriage to the Earl of Lovelace. One such affair was with a professor of hers.
The author of Silent Spring and staunch environmentalist, Rachel Carson stayed strong under pressure. She was a prodigious science and nature writer, exhorting the American public to heed the ways of conservationism. After World War II and the government accelerated its use of pesticides, Carson came out in vocal criticism of the practice. Consequently she was targeted by the government and environmental scientists toeing-the-line and branded an extremist, but she remained constant. She even prompted a great hoopla inside the chemical company DuPont, afraid that her findings and survey of the use of pesticides would ruin them.
Sophie Germain, a French mathematician who made invaluable contributions to number theory, was first attracted to the field as a child, when she plunged into her father's library. To nourish this appetite, she took on male pseudonyms in order to gain access to lecture notes from the local university, and communicate with professors. Under the same nom-de-guerre and on the third attempt, she was able to have a paper accepted by the French Academy of Sciences. Her strides notwithstanding, Germain was isolated from the greater scientific community because of the sexism, and had limited avenues for pursuing her passions.
An Enlightenment mathematician and physicist, à‰milie du Châtelet was also known as being a flagrant progressive when it came to her love life. With one of her most famous paramours, Voltaire, she was known to paint the town in flamboyant red. The two of them flaunted their affair in public, much to the dismay and embarrassment of high society. Both highly ambitious, they collaborated and competed with each other. In 1738, though neither won, they each had a paper published by the French Academy ”” making du Châtelet the first ever woman to have achieved that success.
For those that haven't seen The Imitation Game, Alan Turing was a hero and a pioneer. An accomplished mathematician, theorist and computer scientist, he broke German code during World War II, giving the English a leg up. Because of his work, it is estimated that he shortened the war with the Nazis by two to four years. Turned on by his own country and convicted of homosexual activity (at that time, illegal in the United Kingdom), Turing opted for medical castration, but allegedly committed suicide before his 42nd birthday.
Master of sex and scorned entomologist (the study of insects), Alfred Kinsey's home life was peculiar. Though his wife and he were unable to consummate their marriage for over a year, they finally broke through their initial apprehensions (mostly because Kinsey himself had reservations, misgivings and uncertainties regarding bedding) and became "experts" at it. Kinsey's probing and vast look into the then sordid topic drew the suspicion, scrutiny and criticism of the government and other bodies. He was subject to anti-Communist inspection and targeted with a number of vicious rumors. Persevering, Kinsey's seminal work is still referenced and still bears importance today.
Famous 16th and 17th century German mathematician Johannes Kepler is best known for his work into the ellipsoid movements of planets orbiting the sun. He is not, however, nearly as well known by proxy for his mother's witchcraft suit brought against her in 1615, during which he vehemently defended her. While working on one of his seminal works The Harmony of the World, Katharina Kepler and 14 other women were charged with the crime of sorcery; eight were put to death. Employing assistance from the university he was affiliated with, Kepler defended his mother, and ultimately got her off on a technicality ”” the torture methods used in the trial allegedly were not up to code (go figure!).
Antoine Lavoisier can honestly be honored as a martyr for science. Touted as the father of modern chemistry, Frenchman Lavoisier drew from a number of his contemporaries and the thoughts of the day to publish what's considered the first textbook on the subject, published in 1789. This coincided with the escalation of the French Revolution. Until his death he remained a stalwart supporter of the sciences, and rallied to protect the Academy of Sciences from radical upheaval and razing. He was unsuccessful, and imprisoned, and eventually executed by guillotine, along with likeminded others.
Charles Darwin may have gotten the credit for his work on natural selection, overshadowing Alfred Russel Wallace who drew the same conclusions on his own. Wallace, like Darwin, was a man of the fields, and took his research outside and got very hands-on. On a trip back from Brazil, where he had been taking notes, his ship caught on fire and sank, and many of his most important notes were lost in the wreck. However, Wallace was not deterred, and undertook journeys to Asia and elsewhere, where he, albeit after Darwin, came up with his own take on natural selection.
The Italian famous for creating the first battery, and after whom the volt was named, Alessandro Volta had a light that from a young age others could just not recognize. Similarly to Einstein, Volta didn't speak until four years old, and his family believed him to be somewhat of a dullard. At age five, though, there was a transition, and Volta excelled in school, pleasantly surprising his family and his father, who remarked, "I had a diamond in the house but did not know it."