The silliest mistakes made by the cleverest people in history from Albert Einstein to Charles Darwin

The silliest mistakes made by the cleverest people in history from Albert Einstein to Charles Darwin

The silliest mistakes made by the cleverest men and women in history from Albert Einstein to Charles Darwin

The Limits of Genius  

by Katie Spalding (Wildfire £13.49, 352pp)

Having travelled all the way to Mars, a $125 million NASA probe, launched in 1999 to survey the red planet, got too close to the surface and disintegrated.

Had the agency’s famously intelligent scientists been defeated by bad luck? No. They’d been defeated by their own failure to remember that the probe’s software operated on imperial, rather than metric, measurements. 

What’s more, NASA made the same mistake six years later, destroying another spacecraft, this one worth $110 million.

Just because you’re clever and successful, it doesn’t mean you can’t also be stupid and self-defeating. 

Spalding has gathered together tales that prove how fallible the greats can be, from 19th-century computing pioneer and gambling addict Ada Lovelace losing £3,200 in one bet (worth about £270,000 today), to Albert Einstein repeatedly capsizing his boat at sea and having to be rescued. 

His folly was all the greater because he couldn’t swim.

Some of the failures are comically inept. Charles Darwin was fond of eating the new species he was cataloguing. After months spent searching for a lesser rhea (a flightless bird), he found one but mistook it for something else. 

He and his shipmates on the Beagle were half-way through eating it when Darwin realised the error. He quickly collected what was left on their plates and sent it to London. 

As Spalding points out, this means the first example of the bird in England ‘was essentially reconstructed from stew’.

Other failings are more serious. Sigmund Freud was a fan of cocaine, both for himself and his patients, but the drug made him paranoid, so much so that by a 1904 holiday to Greece, he thought the numbers 61 and 62 were out to get him. 

When he was given room 31 in a hotel, the psychoanalyst was horrified — it was half of 62. ‘This wilier and nimbler figure proved to be even better at dogging me than the first.’

A lot of the stories are just plain weird. Napoleon celebrated signing a treaty with Russia by organising a rabbit shoot, but when the bunnies were released into the field, they turned out to be domesticated rather than wild, so ran enthusiastically towards the great military leader, who stormed off in a huff.

Darwin almost ruined his own life's work with carelessness

Margaret Thatcher wouldn't accept that Mozart had a silly obsession with bums and poo

Mozart was obsessed with bums. The text of his 1782 canon in B-flat major translates as ‘kiss my a**e, quick, quick!’, while over ten per cent of his 400 known letters mention backsides or poo. 

After seeing the play Amadeus in 1979, Margaret Thatcher refused to believe that Mozart could have been so fixated. The director Peter Hall replied that there was lots of evidence he was. 

‘I don’t think you heard what I said,’ Thatcher responded. ‘He couldn’t have been like that.’

Another lesson is that you should never give up. Before he made his fortune as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle tried setting himself up as a doctor. 

He went weeks without attracting a single patient, so when someone did arrive, he eagerly sat him down and started diagnosing the man’s cough. Only then did the visitor reveal he was a debt collector, who had come about the unpaid gas bill.

Mark Mason

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