Fun Facts: Geniuses
"The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits."
The word "dunce", meaning a dull-witted or ignorant person, comes
from the name of John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), one of the greatest
minds of his time. Scotus, born in Scotland, wrote treatises on
grammar, logic, metaphysics, and theology. He was educated at
Cambridge and Oxford and pursued his master's degree in theology at
the University of Paris where, in 1303, he became embroiled in one
of the most heated disputes of the day. France's King Philip IV had
moved to tax the Church in order to finance his war with England; in
response, Pope Boniface VIII threatened to excommunicate him. For
supporting the pope, Duns Scotus was banished from France. He later
assumed a university professorship in Cologne.
The term "dunce" was coined two centuries later by people who disagreed
with Scotus' teachings and his defence of the papacy. To them,
any of his followers (a "Duns man" or "Dunce") was dull-witted, "incapable of scholarship and stupid".
Leonardo da Vinci left notes with designs for the well digger, paddle
wheel boat, sprocket chain, parachute, life jacket, helicopter, water
turbine, steam gun, submarine, water pump, aeroplane, horseless carriage,
machine gun, and mass production.
Sir Isaac Newton was born on Christmas Day, in 1642.
Sir Isaac Newton's mother didn't think education was needed to become a
farmer, the profession she wanted him to take up, so he had to quit school.
Before Isaac Newton could become Lucasian Professor of Mathematics
at Cambridge, a special ruling by the Crown was required; the monarch
was head of the Church of England and Cambridge was a church school.
It was ruled that Newton did not have to become a church member to assume
the position. He delivered about eight lectures a year that were
deemed to be rather poor.
While Isaac Newton was a Member of Parliament, his only recorded
utterance was a request to open the window.
In 1667, Gottfried Leibniz, who would later become a well-known mathematician
and philosopher, wanted to join a society of alchemists. He compiled a
letter from the writings of the most celebrated alchemists and sent it to the
society. The letter consisted of the most obscure terms he could find, and
he himself, he said, did not understand a word of it. Afraid to be thought
ignorant, the society invited him to its meetings and made him secretary.
Albert Einstein did not speak until the age of four.
It is not true that Einstein was a terrible student as a youth.
While he was slow to learn to speak before entering school and did
poorly at French while in school, his academic records indicate that
he was a child prodigy who understood college physics before his
eleventh birthday, a strong violin player, and skilled in Latin and
Thomas Jefferson invented the swivel chair, the pedometer, a letter-copying
press, a tilting table, a more effective plough,
and several other items.
He never patented any of his inventions, wanting people to have
free use of them.
Eli Whitney made almost no money from his invention of the
cotton gin. Pirated copies of his gin appeared in such
quantities that it was impossible to sue all of the offenders.
Einstein's ideas on relative acceleration were partly inspired by
the free fall of a man who fell off a roof in Berlin. The man, who
survived without injury, told Einstein that he had not felt the effects
In 1905 Albert Einstein wrote his famous Special Theory of
Relativity. It was published in a scientific journal that
same year, but took many years to gain general acceptance.
In fact, it was not verified by actual experiment until 25 years later.
Two years after that paper was published, Einstein
wanted a job as assistant professor of mathematics. This job
required the applicant to submit a thesis paper, so Einstein
submitted his Special Theory of Relativity. The university rejected it.
Albert Einstein's last words will never be known. He spoke them
in German, but the attending nurse didn't know German and so couldn't
recall what was said.
Only 1% of the population has a "genius" IQ, one of 140 or higher.
Up to half of all North Americans with a genius IQ (140 or higher)
never graduate high school.
The Greek scientist Aristarchus believed that the motions of the
heavenly bodies could easily be understood if it were assumed that
all of the planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun and that
the stars must be infinitely far away because they seemed motionless.
Copernicus knew of Aristarchus' views and mentioned them in a
passage in De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium that he
later eliminated, as though not wishing to compromise his own
It was a cardinal who urged Copernicus to publish his theory that
the Earth moved around the Sun.
Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-94) did more for chemistry than anyone else.
He was one of the first to introduce effective quantitative methods in the study
of chemical reactions. He explained combustion. He clearly described the role
of oxygen in the respiration of plants and animals. He developed a system of
classification of substances that is the basis of modern chemical nomenclature
and the basis of the distinction between elements and compounds. However,
Lavoisier failed to do the one thing he wanted the most to do: discover a new
Because Saturn is tilted, when its rings are facing Earth edge-on they "disappear" from our view. We now know this happens every 14 years or so, but poor Galileo questioned his sanity when they "disappeared" and then "reappeared" a few years later.
Looking through his telescope in 1609, Galileo saw that there were spots on the Sun, imperfections on the Moon, and that the Milky Way was composed of millions of faint stars. His most stunning (and controversial!) discovery was of satellites orbiting Jupiter, dashing the concept that the Earth was the center of the Universe.
James Macie, the illegitimate son of the duke of Northumberland, was
an avid scientist who discovered a new way of making coffee, studied
tears, and did other research. Macie's illegitimacy handicapped
him in England, and, possibly for that reason, his will specified that,
if no blood relative survived him, his
entire fortune (worth 104,960 gold sovereigns at the time of
his death in 1829, an enormous sum of money at the time) would be left to
the United States of America, for the foundation of "an establishment
for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men", to be named after him.
Since on his father's death Macie had been given permission to take on his father's
name of Smithson, the new American institution was called the
It is believed that 90% of all scientists who have ever lived are
alive now, and that as many scientific papers have been published in
the years since 1950 as were published in all the centuries before 1950.
The inventor of the electric light was not Thomas Edison. In 1802,
77 years before Edison perfected a filament for the incandescent lamp,
Davy caused a platinum wire to glow by passing an electric current
Thomas Edison invented the word "Hello". The first written use of the
word spelled with an "e" is in a letter of his in 1887 suggesting that saying
"Hello" was the best way to start a telephone conversation.
In 1626, Sir Francis Bacon, one of the most influential minds of his
time, was watching a snowstorm. He was struck by
the notion that maybe snow could be used to preserve meat. Determined
to find out, he purchased a chicken from a nearby village, killed it,
and then, standing outside in the snow, tried to stuff the chicken
full of snow to freeze it. The chicken never froze, but Bacon caught
a cold that turned into pneumonia, and died shortly afterward.
In movies and television, scientists are more likely to suffer a violent
death than members of any other profession.
In 1920, the New York Times publicly scoffed at Professor
Robert Goddard, the father of space exploration, for his
claim that rockets could function in a vacuum. "[H]e seems only to lack
the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools", the paper stated in
its January 13 issue. However, on July 17, 1969, just before Apollo 11
landed a man on the moon, the Times published the
following statement: "It is now definitely established that a rocket
can function in a vacuum. The Times regrets [its] error".
Psychologist Catherine Cox has estimated that Goethe had an IQ of 210.
The first attempt to measure intelligence with a test was in a London
museum in 1882. Some of the tests involved judging the weights of rocks,
distinguishing between high-pitched sounds, and reacting to pinpricks.
Since Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) emphasised duty, stressing that
valid ethical rules must be applied in all circumstances, he gained a
reputation for being dry and humourless. However, that reputation is wrong;
he was a great conversationalist, a witty and imaginative
lecturer, and an excellent host.
Kant was probably the profoundest of metaphysicians that the world has yet
seen. It was his custom, when deeply engaged upon some abstruse topic, to
walk backward and forward, upon a moonlit evening, upon
the avenue (bordered on each side with magnificent trees) approaching his house.
He was observed, one one occasion, as he slowly, in deep meditation, moved
backward and forward along the avenue, to leap over the shadows of
the trees as they cast themselves before him in his meditative walk. The
delusion was strong upon him that these same shadows were ditches,
and that it was incumbent upon him that he should clear them, and that
precisely in the way he did. Such are the occasional aberrations of true