Badasses in the Sciences

by by Joanna Zhang & Ashton Strait

illustration by by Annika Finne

Eric Pianka
In 1952, Eric Pianka was a curious 13-year-old exploring the mountainous border between California and Oregon. The Pianka home was near an army base, and after military trainings Eric and his brother would collect leftover shrapnel and shell casings. One day, the two came upon an intact bazooka shell. When they brought it home to his front yard, Eric dropped it, and the explosion left him seriously injured. His leg wound became gangrenous, and he was left with a partially paralyzed, shorter left leg.

Pianka was bedridden, and a teacher visited him daily at home to go over English and typing. In high school, in another early assertion of his badassery, Pianka became a lifetime member of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists, a society dedicated to the study of fish, reptile and amphibian scientists. And he hasn’t looked back—he has since devoted his life to the study of evolutionary biology and ecology and (literally) written the textbook (the classic, Evolutionary Ecology).

Despite his partially paralyzed and seriously injured left leg, Pianka went on to travel and conduct intensive field research in vertebrate ecology—hiking harsh environments and deserts on three continents—in the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora in North America; the Kalahari in Africa; and the Great Victoria in Australia. Currently, Pianka is studying lizard communities in Australia and has produced over 100 scientific publications.

In 2006, after a speech accepting the Distinguished Texas Scientist Award, Pianka became the focus of some media attention. He reasoned, “In addition to our extremely high population density, we are social and mobile, exactly the conditions that favor growth and spread of pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes. I believe it is only a matter of time until microbes once again assert control over our population, since we are unwilling to control it ourselves.” Amateur scientist and creationist Forrest Mims interpreted this as “endors[ing] the elimination of 90 percent of the human population through a disease such as an airborne strain of the Ebola virus.”

But Pianka clarified his opinion in an essay on his faculty website: “I do not bear any ill will toward people. However, I am convinced that the world, including all humanity, would clearly be much better off without so many of us. What nobody wants to hear, but everyone needs to know.” Spoken like a true badass. —JZ

Tycho Brahe
A lot can be said of a man’s character by his facial hair. With a handlebar mustache worthy of the most whimsical of bicycles, Tycho Brahe is one of these men. Born to Danish nobility in the 1500s, he was raised by a childless uncle and aunt—also of nobility (it’s possible that he was kidnapped at birth).

Initially pushed to study law at the University of Copenhagen at the age of 12, Brahe instead became interested in astronomy. He identified the need for better data on celestial bodies—all of the charts and measurements at the time differed wildly, and there was no standard for data. He then devoted most of his adult life to carefully and systemically observing and recording celestial bodies using the highest quality instruments available at the time (which did not include telescopes). He pioneered this rigorous collection of data of the stars and planets over time, and intended to use the data to prove his model of the universe, a geocentric model that fused Copernican and Ptomelaic ideas. And aside from the disproved geocentric part, the Tychoic system incorporated a lot of accurate information on planetary motion.

Tycho built his dream observatory, Uraniborg, in the 1570s, and over the course of 21 years some 100 students and artisans worked there. The observatory and research center, clothed in an extravagant palace facade, featured rooms of for giant instruments, a paper mill and printing press, an alchemist’s furnace, a mural of himself, and a detention facility for anyone who caused problems (Tycho was somewhat notorious for treating his workers poorly).

Alongside his devotion to his scientific pursuits and ambitions, Tycho played hard—regularly throwing parties at his castle. He also kept a jester—a dwarf by the name of Jepp—who sat beneath the dinner table during meals. Brahe believed Jepp had extra-sensory capabilities and was clairvoyant. Tycho also had a domesticated elk, who met an untimely end during a visit to one of Tycho’s nobleman friends.The elk died from injuries sustained after lapping up a good deal of fermented beverage and subsequently falling down the stairs.

The precursor to modern “grills,” Tycho sported a nose made of the finest metals (silver and gold) as well as having different “day” noses for more casual wear (made of copper, which would be lighter than a denser, heavier gold one). He lost part of his biological nose in a duel with another Danish nobleman.

Days after attending a banquet, Tycho died suddenly—according to his assistant Johannes Kepler, he had been holding off to use the bathroom because he didn’t want to be rude and leave the table. Kepler, who later made a name for himself in astronomy, used Brahe’s data to develop his own theories of planetary motion.

Contemporary doctors said he died from a kidney stone, but recent medical assessments determined mercury poison may have been the culprit, after scientists found dangerously high levels of mercury (where else?) but in the recovered hairs of his mustache. —JZ

Marie Curie
Sure, we all know Marie Curie as the token female  scientist (aside, of course, from Rosalind Franklin, who assisted James Watson and Francis Crick, the discoverers of the double-helix model of DNA). Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the only woman to win two, and the only person to win in more than one category (Physics and Chemistry). Sure, Marie Curie was a cool lady, but she was also a badass.

Childhood was a struggle for Marie and her siblings, who grew up in a poor Warsaw family. While working as a governess to support her sister’s medical studies, she fell in love with the son of the family, Kazimier Zorawski, who would later become a preeminent mathematician. But his parents disapproved of the relationship did not want to see their future preeminent mathematician son to marry a working class girl.

In the late 1880s she tutored and studied at the “Flying University” a secret underground school started in 1885 in Poland for women who wanted to take college-level courses but could not afford to go abroad for their studies. At 24, after six years of self-study, she moved to Paris and enrolled in the Sorbonne.  She would later meet the physicist Pierre Curie during her graduate studies, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While studying the properties of radiation and its atomic origins, Curie discovered polonium and radium, which netted her a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. She shared the honor with her husband-cum-research partner, Pierre, and prominent physicist, Henri Becquerel.

By the time she won her first Nobel, Curie had been working with radium for years. At the turn of the century, the effects of radiation were not well understood. In fact, the prevailing thought of the era—a belief Curie held  herself—was that radium had therapeutic properties.  Poisonous radon gas was even used to treat wounded soldiers in the field during WWI.

In pursuing their investigation of radium, the Curies ignored increasingly deleterious effects on their health. During the course of her research she lost a great deal of weight, struggled with bouts of depression, and suffered ulcers on her skin beneath the pockets where she carried vials of radioactive salts. Her fingertips were also permanently scarred and pained from touching and carrying radioactive samples. Estimates place her exposure to the harmful gamma rays emitted by radioactive elements at about 1 rem (the designated unit of radiation) per week. Today, exposure to .03 rem or greater is considered hazardous.  Indeed, Curie’s entire lab was shockingly contaminated—enough to turn all her glassware purple from the exposure to radium. Even today, her papers and  research materials are still radioactive and stored in lead boxes. If you want to see them firsthand, be prepared to suit up in radiation-proof gear. Curie also kept vials of radium salts by her bed and in her desk drawers because she enjoyed the blue light they gave off. Nevertheless, she soldiered on in the face of increasing illness, winning yet another Nobel in 1911 for the advances her radiation work had made in the field of chemistry.

When Pierre died in a carriage accident, she was devastated at the loss of her partner in both research and life. But she wasn’t on the market long before becoming involved with with one of Pierre’s former students, physicist Paul Langevin. And the genius also didn’t end with her. Marie’s daughter with Pierre, Irène, went on to win Nobel prizes with her husband—also for work studying radioactivity.

Curie died in 1934 at the age of 67 due to aplastic anemia, a complication brought about by years of exposure to gamma radiation. She discovered nuclear radiation while it was an infant scientific phenomenon, and laid the groundwork for the advances in nuclear energy that would shape the decades following her death. —AS & JZ