7 Scientists Who Died Violently

Violent death isn’t something modern scientists usually need to worry about. This hasn’t always been the case. Here are seven of the most famous examples of scientists whose lives were brought to an abrupt end:

Evariste Galois

Killed in a duel, aged 20

evariste galois

1811 – 1832

Evariste Galois was a brilliant mathematician.

At the age of 20, probably as a result of a romantic affair gone wrong, he fought a duel in Paris. He was shot and he died the following day.

In the days before the duel, convinced that he would be killed, he poured out his mathematical thoughts and sent them to his friend, Auguste Chevalier. In doing so, Galois invented an entirely new, immensely important field of mathematics – group theory, and also Galois theory.

The well-known German mathematician, Hermann Weyl, described the importance of Galois’s letter in 1952:

“This letter, if judged by the novelty and profundity of ideas it contains, is perhaps the most substantial piece of writing in the whole literature of mankind.”

Henry Moseley

Killed in battle, aged 27

Henry Moseley

1887 – 1915

In 1913, Henry Moseley discovered that every chemical element’s identity is determined by its number of protons. In doing so, he discovered the true basis of the periodic table.

When World War 1 began in 1914, he enlisted as a volunteer in the British Army. His family pleaded with him to continue his scientific research, but he felt his duty lay in becoming a soldier.

Second Lieutenant Henry Moseley was killed in battle at the age of 27, in Gallipoli, Turkey on August 10, 1915.

In 1916 no Nobel Prizes were awarded in physics or chemistry. Had he been alive, Moseley would almost certainly have received one of these awards.

Michael Servetus

Burned at the stake, aged 42

michael servetus

1511 – 1553

Michael Servetus had wide ranging interests in science, medicine, theology, law, and the humanities.

He made important contributions in medicine and anatomy: he was the first European to correctly describe blood circulation between the heart and lungs, independently of Ibn al-Nafis in Egypt.

He was pronounced a heretic by Protestant and Catholic Churches, because he denied the Trinity and he objected to the baptism of infants. He was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland.

In addition to burning Servetus, any books he had authored that could be found by religious authorities were also burned, so the importance of his work was unknown until many years after his death.

Hypatia

Murdered, aged 45, by a mob

hypatia

c. 370 – 415

Hypatia lived and died in Alexandria, Egypt, when it was governed by the Ancient Greeks. Little is known for sure about Hypatia and her achievements. Our best source is Socrates Scholasticus, a historian who lived in Alexandria at the time of Hypatia’s murder. He wrote:

Hypatia of Alexandria, daughter of the philosopher Theon, made such attainments in literature and science as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her students, many of whom traveled far to receive her instructions.

Hypatia was killed by a Christian mob, driven into a rage by claims that she was interfering in a religious dispute between the Governor and the Bishop of her city of Alexandria.

Antoine Lavoisier

Guillotined, aged 50

antoine lavoisier

1743 – 1794

Antoine Lavoisier is one of chemistry’s ‘greats.’

He helped put chemistry on a rigorously scientific footing by emphasizing the importance of accurate measurements. He discovered the law of conservation of mass through his devotion to accurate measurements.

Lavoisier also wrote the first list of the chemical elements – a forerunner of the periodic table.

He further found that about 20 percent of air is oxygen and that when something burns, it is actually reacting chemically with oxygen. Lavoisier’s theory of combustion debunked the then popular theory of ‘phlogiston.’

Antoine Lavoisier, who had wealthy background, was guillotined in Paris on May 8, 1794, during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror.

Giordano Bruno

Burned at the stake, aged 52

giordano bruno

1548 – 1600

Giordano Bruno supported the Copernican view – the view that the earth orbits the sun, and that the earth is not the center of the universe.

More than this, he held the thoroughly modern view that distant stars are orbited by their own, possibly inhabited, planets. He stated that the universe is infinite in size and has no center.

He was imprisoned for seven years while his trial took place. Eventually the Pope decided that Bruno was a heretic, with the result that he was burned at the stake in Rome. His beliefs about the earth, sun and universe were part of the reasoning behind his death sentence. He was also declared a heretic for his religious views about, for example, the Catholic Mass and the Trinity.

Archimedes

Murdered, aged about 75, by a Roman Soldier

archimedes

c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC

Archimedes is perhaps the world’s greatest ever scientist; he was certainly the greatest scientist of the classical age. He was a mathematician, physicist, astronomer, engineer, inventor, and weapons-designer.

He lived most of his life in the Greek city of Syracuse; his defensive weapons enabled the city to withstand a prolonged siege by Rome’s legions and navy. The Roman army was eventually allowed into Syracuse by a traitor.

Archimedes died during the conquest of Syracuse. He was killed, against the orders of the Roman commander, by a Roman soldier.

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Author of this page: The Doc
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Science Myth or Truth? Can you tell?

question

Challenge

Can you tell truth from myth?

Test yourself with these tales.

Each could be true, part-myth or myth.

The truth about each story can be found below the image that follows the story.

Truth, Part-Myth or Myth?

1. William Shanks was an amateur mathematician who lived in the 19th century. His dearest wish was that his gravestone should record his devotion to mathematics.

He had calculated pi to as many decimal places as he could, which was 707. In those days, this was no mean feat, requiring over 15 years work, breaking the previous world record for pi’s precision.

Shanks had pi engraved on his gravestone to 707 decimal places.

Unfortunately, the last 179 decimal places in his calculation were wrong. Oops!

Truth, part-myth or myth?

Pi correct to 707 decimal places

pi-707-correct

Answer 1

Part-myth: there’s no evidence for the gravestone part of the tale. Shanks did actually calculate pi to 707 places, and he did get the last 179 places wrong. It took until the 1940s before Shanks’s error was discovered.

2. Okay, a solitary mathematician got things wrong. Science and tech as a whole don’t fail, do they?

Well, unfortunately they do, and when it happens, it can be big, costly and embarrassing.

In 1999, NASA’s Mars Climate Observer went AWOL because engineers at Lockheed Martin had been working in feet and pounds, while NASA had been working in meters and kilograms!

The Climate Observer was meant to go into orbit around the Red Planet, but the numbers fed into the navigation system were wrong; the Climate Observer crashed into Mars and was destroyed – a waste of over a hundred million dollars and a major setback to our knowledge about Mars’s climate. So, yes, even major-league Science & Tech can get it wrong.

Truth, part-myth or myth?

mars-surface

Is the wreckage of the Climate Observer out there somewhere?

Answer 2

Sadly, it’s all truth.

3. Menelik the Second, Emperor of Abyssinia, was a trendy sort of ruler, desperate for his people to have access to the latest technology. His big idea was to import electric chairs from the United States of America, so that Abyssinia could carry out executions using an up-to-date method. Hey, everyone would see how forward thinking Menelik was!

BUT… nobody had told Menelik that the chairs needed an electricity supply to do their grim work. Abyssinia didn’t have one! Nevertheless, impressed by the design of the chairs, Menelik had one of them converted into his new throne.

Truth, part-myth or myth?

lightning-bolt-chair

Answer 3

Myth. Electric chairs are simple wooden constructions – anyone with basic woodworking skills could make one. America’s execution centers used home-made chairs. There were no manufacturers. This is a persistent myth first reported in ‘interest’ sections of North American newspapers in the first half of the twentieth century.

4. On April 1, 1976, the well-known British astronomer Patrick Moore told early morning listeners to BBC Radio something very strange would happen that morning.

At 9:47 a.m. everyone would feel the effects of a rare alignment of the planets Jupiter and Pluto. When Pluto moved behind Jupiter, their gravities would briefly combine, reducing gravity on our own planet.

Listeners could verify the effect by jumping into the air at 9:47 a.m., when they would feel a floating sensation.

Of course, this was an April Fools’ prank cooked up by Moore and the BBC.

Sure enough, at 9:47 a.m., large numbers of people who had not realized it was a prank jumped into the air. Soon the BBC was getting hundreds of telephone calls confirming the decrease in gravity – yes, people had really felt like they were floating. One lady told the BBC that she and her friends had floated out of their seats at 9:47 a.m.

Truth, part-myth or myth?

levitation

Answer 4

Truth. It all happened.

5. Venus Hop by the one-hit-wonder group Frankie and the Fireballs peaked at number 16 in the U.S. Billboard Pop Chart on September 28, 1963.

Frankie and the Fireballs consisted of five of NASA/JPL’s young engineers: Frankie Webster (vocals), Bill Morrison (guitar), Stephen Renzetti (guitar), Gerald Neugebauer (bass), and Herb McDowell (drums).

Although such activities were in breach of their employment contracts, the positive publicity NASA/JPL got at a time when they were trying to convince Congress to increase their funding meant the engineers were encouraged to release more songs.

Unfortunately, their next four releases all flopped, and the engineers abandoned their pop music careers.

fireballs

Truth, part-myth or myth?

Answer 5

Myth. It’s all fiction. The group pictured is The Fireballs in 1959. There was no song called Venus Hop. The Fireballs had no connections with NASA or JPL.
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