Sometimes, human beings lose their heads for a love. That happened to Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and an eccentric scientist and millionaire who left his enormous fortune to use it as the source of the famous prizes that bear his name. Of course we could ask ourselves why that money was not inherited by his relatives.
The answer is that Nobel never married and never had a happy personal life . He was in poor health and suffered from continual depression. He lived so darkly and privately that when he died in 1896 no one knew if he had ever had relations with a woman. However, three women crossed paths in his life: a love of youth that, following the canons of the purest drama, ended tragically with her death; an unrequited mature love affair with his secretary Berta Kinsky ; and a last, turbulent and unhappy one, at the end of his life with Sofie Hess, a beauty in her twenties eager to go through life enjoying it to the fullest: in the inventor’s absences she left her bedroom door open to a whole cohort of young suitors and freeloaders.
To whom does the heart of an investigator belong? Microbiologist Lynn Margulis said that a true scientist cannot love another person because his great love is his work . And perhaps she is right, but that was not what she thought in her youth, when she married Carl Sagan. Their marriage was not really one of being happy and eating partridges. In reality, the celebrated scientist forced his young wife to postpone her scientific career to care for him while he finished his doctoral thesis and obtained a stable position as a researcher, proving that being a good scientist does not mean being a good husband.
Einstein’s emotional blindness
Neither was Albert Einstein, a man whose words in public contradicted his deeds in private and whose emotional myopia left many wounds in those who were intimate with him. One was Marie Winteler, a pretty young woman who fell in love with a sixteen-year-old Einstein. When he moved to Zurich in 1896 to enter the Polytechnic he suggested, without warning, that they should stop writing. Love was over, but that didn’t stop Einstein from sending his dirty laundry to Marie to be washed while he dated a classmate, Mileva Maric, who would eventually become his wife.
In January 1902 Mileva gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl. The attitude of Einstein, who was working as a teacher in the city of Schaffhausen while Mileva remained in Zurich, is striking. During the pregnancy her letters reveal an expectant and enthusiastic father, but after Lieserl’s birth her attitude became distant and cold. He never mentioned her again in his letters and never went to see her . As if they had entered into a pact of silence, neither of them mentioned her again in their letters. Einstein’s illegitimate daughter disappeared from history two weeks after her birth and has never been heard from again. Since then the marriage went into a tailspin and little by little it became a nightmare, with domestic violence included.
Darwin in love
However, the proof that perhaps Margulis is not right is found in another of the giants of science, Charles Darwin . At the end of 1837 he sat solemnly before a sheet of paper ready to decide whether he should marry. He began to write the advantages and disadvantages of marriage . Among the first were “children -constant company (friendship in old age)-, the pleasure of music and female conversation, good for health”. Against this, he opposed “a terrible waste of time” due to the obligatory and inexcusable social life, the expenses and the concern of the children, and being tied to a house.
In the end Darwin gave in to his feelings and wrote: “My God, it is unbearable to think of spending your whole life as a worker bee, working, working, and doing nothing else. No, no, that can’t be. Imagine what it can be like to spend the whole day alone in dirty, blackened London. Just think of a good and loving wife sitting on a sofa, with the fireplace burning, and books and maybe music… Get married, get married, get married”. On November 11, 1838, he asked for the hand of Emma Wedgwood, one of his uncle Josiah’s daughters. Although they loved each other intensely, the two suffered from their irreconcilable religious differences . In a letter that Emma wrote to him before they were married, he begged him to abandon his mania of “believing nothing until it is proven”. Darwin said it was a precious letter and wrote on the envelope: “When I am dead, I want you to know how many times I have kissed it and cried over it.”
The pain of a loss
Despite the stereotyped image we have of the scientist, a cold and rational being little given to emotions, the reality is very different, despite the fact that it is difficult to understand the scientist away from his work. We have an example in Louis Pasteur, whose life orbited around the laboratory , his “tiny temple of experimentation”. Only on one occasion was the discoverer of rabies unable to work, just shortly after completing his doctorate. In those jubilant moments the news reached him that his mother had suffered a stroke; within a few hours, he died. For weeks Pasteur locked himself in total silence and stopped investigating. His greatest pain was not being able to say goodbye: “when I arrived he was no longer with us”. But she did. In her last letter, Pasteur’s mother wrote: “Let nothing cause you sorrow. In life there are only chimeras. Farewell, my dear son.”
Another who also subordinated his life to his work was the French astronomer Charles Messier , whom Louis XIV called “the ferret of comets”. One night, with his wife about to die, he gave up looking at the sky and stood by the bedside of his dying wife. And that same night a comet was discovered that he would have undoubtedly ‘hunted’. Shortly after, an acquaintance presented his condolences for the irreparable loss. Grateful, Messier confided in him how upset he had been that he had missed what would have been the discovery of his thirteenth comet . One can imagine the surprise of the visitor and the embarrassed silence that follows. Then Messier realized what the friendly visitor was really saying and added: “Ah! The poor woman.”
Davidson, K. (2000) Sagan: a life, Wiley
Frängsmyr, T. (2004) Alfred Nobel, Swedish Institute
Bowly, J. (1990) Charles Darwin: a new biography, W. W. Norton