cover image Strange Brains and Genius

Strange Brains and Genius

Clifford A. Pickover. Basic Books, $28.95 (350pp) ISBN 978-0-306-45784-5

Filled with 200 years of eccentric geniuses, this delightful collection of profiles assembles an eclectic and fascinating sampling of scientists (as well as some artists and writers) with a far-ranging assortment of phobias, compulsions, odd belief systems and extraordinarily weird habits. Chief among the scientists is Nikola Tesla, father of alternating current and countless other electrical devices, who could be seen on New York City's streets covered in pigeons, was obsessed with the number three and repulsed by jewelry, particularly pearls. Then there is Oliver Heaviside, a Victorian mathematician and electrical researcher who painted his nails bright pink, signed his correspondence ""W.O.R.M."" and cruelly kept the woman charged with his care a virtual prisoner in her own house, later driving her into catatonia. Also explored are the lives of Samuel Johnson, van Gogh and legendary mathematician Paul Erdos, among others. Pickover, a high-tech inventor and researcher at IBM and a prolific author (Time--A Traveler's Guide; Forecasts, Apr. 20) shows genuine fondness for his subjects and an appreciation of their accomplishments, which he explains clearly and succinctly. More than simply cataloguing unusual traits, Pickover also speculates on causes and diagnoses, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and Temporal Lobe Epilepsy (TLE). This is lively and immensely enjoyable scientific history. Photos throughout. (June)