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

by Clifford A. Pickover


Plenum Trade, New York, 1998, 332 pp., hardcover, $28.95.


Reviewed by Douglas Chapman

Some of the cleverest minds in scientific and philosophic history have also been the strangest. Clifford A. Pickover, a skillful science writer, glories in this fact. His website at http://sprott.physics.wisc.edu/pickover/home.htm or www.pickover.com is determinedly strange, mind-expanding, and should be of special interest to Strange Magazine readers -- and so should this book.

Geniuses have often had their quirks. Nikola Tesla, who developed radio (really!), the alternating current generator, the fluorescent lightbulb, and a 19th century radio-controlled robot boat, among many other things, had an aversion to women's pearls. And he was attracted to pigeons -- especially white ones -- instead of women.

Another genius, Oliver Heaviside, came up with the mathematical foundations for the design of modern-day electrical circuits and thus long-distance telephony, and predicted what came to be known as Cerenkov radiation. But, like numerous brilliant people, he had a weird side. There was a female companion he kept as a near-slave and he once replaced all his furniture with granite blocks.

More recently, Ted Kaczynski, a math genius with an IQ of 170, turned a teenage compulsion to scare classmates with noisy and smoky gadgets into a lethal adult practice as the Unabomber.

In the first part of the book, obsessive-compulsive geniuses are profiled. In the second, a variety of brain-connected topics are covered, and, in the third, Pickover writes of how the people were selected for coverage in this book. He wraps up his discussion on "the association of genius and strangeness" and discusses how other disorders have affected things.

Tesla, of course, gets the grand treatment. Pickover quotes science and science fiction editor Hugo Gernsback's contemporary assertion that: "Nikola Tesla is the world's greatest inventor, not only at present but in all history...."

In 1893 Tesla appeared at the Chicago World's Fair, and administered 200,000 volts to his person. According to reporters, he still glowed after the power was turned off. Tesla recommended the application of electrical currents to make people feel livelier -- including to performers and schoolchildren.

When working with a radio receiver in his lab during 1900, he heard rhythmic sounds that he announced to the world were from intelligent inhabitants of Mars or Venus. (He had actually detected what are now known as pulsars.) Late in life, Tesla expected to be able to photograph thoughts, and he was always good for news stories about such things as death rays.

Thus, the very real achievements of his early decades gave way to a shakier reputation. But the U.S. government spirited off his documents upon his death, to keep his work out of the hands of the country's enemies.

Oliver Heaviside, like Tesla, loved birds. He is quoted as saying, "A little bird has made friends with me. He knows what horrid creatures men are." Paul Nahin, his biographer, places Heaviside's effects on modern life as more important than Einstein's. Yet Heaviside preferred his only applied honorific -- W.O.R.M. -- to any medals or awards.

Other inventors, of course, find their places here, including Francis Galton, who coined the words "eugenics" and "anticyclone," who was the first to bring certain blind amphibians to London, and who studied many fields. He invented a brow-cooling top hat, which had a lid designed to be raised by pressure upon a rubber bulb.

Along with the genius' ideas came their compulsions. Some obsessive-compulsives hoard, others (like Tesla) are obsessed with certain numbers, some collect books -- lots of books -- and ruin their families.

Pickover also covers other afflictions. Temporal lobe epilepsy can manifest apparent religious visions, UFO abductions, and out-of-body experiences. Like obsessive-compulsive genius, TLE geniuses have been influential to the world in various ways. Epileptic geniuses include Flaubert, Philip K. Dick, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and perhaps Moses and St. Paul.

Questions about other aspects of brains are brought to bear late in the book, such as whether humans really use only ten percent of their brains, or whether a brain is really necessary at all. He describes folks with working "potato chip" brains, and quotes an account of a 21-year-old man with untreated congenital hydrocephalus who nevertheless got a university degree, with first class honors, in economics and computer studies.

In conclusion, Pickover writes of the special uses of strange minds. These include how obsessive-compulsive behavior allows extreme focusing on thorny problems, leading to their solution, and how TLE and bipolar disorder can play roles in creative abilities.

He shows, in no uncertain terms, that society needs its mad geniuses.