Inside The Twisted Brain Of History’s Craziest Scientist
He counted hot girls to create a “beauty map” of England. Yes, really.
Genius and madness are tightly intertwined, and many of the greatest minds in the world were also a little…off-kilter. For my money, though, nobody was quite as nutty as Sir Francis Galton.
Born in Birmingham, England in 1822, Galton was a child of privilege. The son of a prosperous banker, he was reading at the age of two and devouring Shakespeare (metaphorically) at six. His wide-ranging intellect continued to develop through turns at King’s College and Cambridge, but academic life wasn’t for him and eventually he dropped out due to overwork.
One of Galton’s problems was that he simply couldn’t stop experimenting. At the age of 18, he started working in a hospital. When stationed at the drug dispensary, he had the bright idea to test the effects of every single medication there on himself, in alphabetical order.
This ill-fated experiment ended midway through the Cs when Galton downed a dose of croton oil, a disgusting substance distilled from the seeds of a tree that was used to induce massive, unstoppable vomiting. His conclusion: It worked, and he wasn’t going to test any more drugs, thanks.
Francis was 22 when his father died, leaving him a massive inheritance. He used it as any young man of the day would, traveling to Africa with a costume crown he’d bought, intending to give it to the most impressive tribal ruler he met there. After an arduous 1,000-mile trek through parts of the continent no white people had ever seen, he presented it to King Nangoro and was rewarded with the king’s daughter. Not wanting to settle down yet, Galton beat feet back to England and embarked on a journey of the mind that would occupy him for the rest of his life.
Once unleashed upon the world, Galton began conducting experiments day and night, propelled by his motto “Whenever you can, count.” Anything and everything was fodder for his measurement, from dinner parties to the power of prayer.
As a not-very-religious man, Galton aimed to show the world that asking God for help isn’t effective. He did so by measuring the lifespan of royalty, for whom the public prayed for long life, against normal Joes. Because royals typically died younger, Sir Francis determined that prayer doesn’t work.
In 1905, Galton hired an artist to paint his portrait. Unable to sit still without doing science, Galton occupied himself by counting every single brush stroke that hit the canvas, compiling his data into a report for a scientific journal.
Galton was obsessed with physical appearance, and one of his most oddball experiments involved creating a “beauty map” of the British Isles. For hours a day, he would stand in public places looking at women and recording their physical attractiveness, as he saw it, on a special device in his pocket. At the end, he tabulated the results and concluded that the ugliest women in the Kingdom lived in Aberdeen.
It should come as no surprise that Sir Francis was a little socially awkward. His long-suffering wife Louisa was made to learn a system of complicated hand signals so she could let him know if he was speaking too loudly or too long at parties. He also installed a system of pressure sensors in all the chairs around the dinner table to test his hypothesis that if a dinner was going well, the guests would lean towards each other.
Even though his experiments mostly consisted of observations, Galton also dabbled with invention. Some of his creations included a hat with a retracting flap to keep overheated brains cool, and a pair of spectacles that he claimed let him read the newspaper underwater. Probably his most notorious creation was a whistle that sounded just beyond the upper limits of human hearing, which he used to blow indiscriminately in the street, to the intense irritation of local dogs.
The thing with Galton is, despite all his quirks, the man was a certified genius. His shotgun approach to science produced a number of incredibly important discoveries, among them:
Fingerprinting: Galton’s 1888 paper for the Royal Institution mathematically postulated that no two people could have perfectly identical fingerprints. Although some law enforcement agencies had been using prints to identify suspects as far back as 1860, Galton lent scientific credence to the idea. He also developed a system of categorizing the loops and whorls of your fingertips that is still in use today.
Standard deviation: When you deal with numbers as much as Sir Francis did, you start to see patterns. While examining the 800+ entries in a contest to guess the weight of an ox, he applied an elliptical curve to the results to demonstrate the distance from the median entry. Others would carry his work forward, but Galton is widely regarded as one of the most important early contributors to the world of statistics.
Eugenics: This is probably Galton’s most controversial contribution to the scientific world. Inspired by his cousin Charles Darwin’s theories on heredity, Galton began to explore the passing on of traits from generation to generation. He first started by tabulating data on notable people within families to see whether genius is passed on from parent to child. He discovered a strong correlation, which inspired him to examine other inherited qualities.
At his Anthropometric (a squish-together of the Greek words for “human” and “measure”) Laboratory, he measured over 10,000 people in dozens of ways, from hearing acuity to skull size and neck sensitivity.
But he didn’t just want to observe. Sir Francis wanted to improve on Nature’s plan. In his book “Eugenics,” Galton suggested that rich and successful people be paid cash to get married and have children early. Really sensitive guy.
For all of his foibles, Sir Francis Galton was an eminent man of his time. Before science fractured into the individual disciplines of physics, chemistry, et al, pioneers explored the universe from whatever angle they saw fit. If Galton hadn’t followed his bizarre obsessions, the world as we know it would be very different.
If you want to learn more, check out “Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton.”