When we think about scientists we often imagine them as rationalists, applying the same criteria in their professional activities as in all areas of their lives, even when just buying a loaf of bread. And yet there are some notable examples of scientists who failed to apply rationality even in other fields of science than the one that brought them renown. The fact that this list includes numerous Nobel laureates has led to this curious behaviour being dubbed the “Nobel disease”, but the cases are not restricted only to laureates of these awards. Here we will review some examples of famous figures in science who have distinguished themselves with their bizarre and pseudoscientific claims.
Isaac Newton, alchemy and biblical prophecies
In the seventeenth century modern science was still in its infancy, and it was therefore not uncommon for many scientists to embrace postulates now considered pseudoscientific. But it is striking that the one thinker who is usually thought of as being the paradigm of reason, and whose work helped to establish the boundary between astronomy and astrology, was passionate about occult studies; the economist John Maynard Keynes described him as “the last magician”. Isaac Newton practiced alchemy when this discipline was already on the decline in Europe, and he was convinced that God had chosen him to interpret the hidden prophecies in the Bible, in addition to sponsoring a work describing the various types of dragons that allegedly inhabited the Swiss Alps.
Erwin Schrödinger, Quantum Mysticism
His equation of the wave function is one of the pillars of quantum mechanics, which earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933, and his famous mental experiment about the cat is one of the best known and most cited in the history of science. However, those who bought his 1944 book What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell, hoping to read a book on popular physics, suddenly found themselves entangled in a complicated gibberish that mixed science, philosophy and oriental mysticism. Schrödinger’s ideas about quantum mysticism and the relationship of physics to consciousness, which were also shared by other famous scientists of his time such as Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli and Arthur Eddington, anticipated the appropriation of quantum concepts by New Age pseudoscientists, whose most representative example is guru Deepak Chopra.
Linus Pauling, orthomolecular medicine
Linus Pauling’s legacy to science is so imponderable that it is difficult to highlight just one of his numerous contributions. His insight to connect quantum physics with chemistry and this with biology not only earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954, but also meant that his name is never missing from the lists of the greatest scientists of all time. On top of all this, in 1962 he also won the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet, despite all these achievements, he has also gone down in history as one of the most famous defenders of pseudoscientific theories.
In the 1940s he began experimenting with vitamin supplements, and in 1968 he surprised many by publishing in the journal Science an article entitled “Orthomolecular Psychiatry“, in which he blamed the lack of vitamins for mental illness. The fashion of consuming vitamins that emerged in the 1970s came about largely as a result of his work, with which Pauling tried to demonstrate, for example, the ability of vitamin C to cure everything from the common cold to cancer. The orthomolecular medicine advocated by Pauling has been widely discredited by science, although it has perpetuated myths such as the effectiveness of vitamin C against colds.
Francis Crick, directed panspermia
Genetic inheritance ceased to be a mystery in 1953 thanks to the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, among others. Unfortunately, neither of the two scientists, Nobel laureates in 1962, has managed to keep pseudoscientific ideas at bay.
Watson has distinguished himself by his racist statements, while Crick in 1973 defended the theory of directed panspermia, the hypothesis that life on Earth was deliberately sown by an alien civilization. All said and done, in later decades Crick moderated his discourse upon the discovery that RNA could act as an enzyme, which would have facilitated the emergence of life on Earth.
Marcel Vogel, crystals of mental energy
Although the name may not be familiar, to Marcel Vogel we owe the magnetic coating on the hard drives used every day in millions of computers. During his years as an IBM researcher, Vogel filed dozens of patents on different technologies, including liquid crystal displays. However, his work on crystals went too far: he is claimed to have once successfully used his mind to alter the growth of a liquid crystal so that it resembled the Madonna, and he went on to develop a whole theory on how quartz crystals absorb and amplify supposed mental energies such as love. He also believed that plants respond to human thought.
Kary Mullis, pseudoscience without limits
The winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a technique on which much of the development of today’s genomics has been based, was until his death in 2019 a colossus of pseudoscientific claims, defending numerous conspiracy theories as well as astrology, astral travel and alien abductions.
He denied the evidence that HIV causes AIDS, and disagreed with the science behind climate change and the hole in the ozone layer. In his autobiography he narrated his nocturnal encounter in a forest with a luminous alien raccoon. Mullis consumed various hallucinogenic substances throughout his life, which he himself said had helped him conceive the idea of PCR, although he denied having taken psychedelics at the time of the raccoon episode.
Luc Montagnier, homeopathy and anti-vaccines
The discovery in 1983 of the AIDS virus by Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was a climactic moment for the power of science in the service of society. The discovery, deserving of the 2008 Nobel Prize, could have capped off a brilliant career, but the year after receiving the award, Montagnier published two studies that caused the scientific community to blush. In one he defended the supposed memory of water —an idea on which homeopathy is based— and in the other the emission of radio waves by DNA, which would make it possible to recreate a microbe even by sending this information by e-mail.
To explain these results, which other researchers have not been able to reproduce, Montagnier has suggested some kind of quantum effect. In later years, the HIV co-discoverer, currently working in China, has gone even further into pseudoscience by supporting the hoax linking vaccines with autism and by claiming that AIDS can be cured with proper nutrition.