Like the rest of human beings, the life of scientists is not always rosy. The clearest example that sometimes fate is primed with one we have in the German physicist Max Planck . If we wanted to award a prize to the most unfortunate person of the 20th century , he would be one of the favorites to win the priceless award. In 1887 he married Marie Merck , with whom he had four children : two twin girls and two boys. The first blow came in 1909 , when his wife died . In May 1916 his eldest son, Karl, died in the Battle of Verdun, and the following year his daughter Grete did so when she gave birth . Her twin sister Emma took care of the baby and two years later , in January 1919, she married her widowed brother-in-law. But happiness is not the natural state of human beings (less, if possible, if we refer to the Planck family), and in November of that same year poor Emma awaited the same sad end as her sister. No wonder poor Max Planck wrote: “There have been times when I have doubted the value of life itself!”
His only living son , Erwin, was executed in January 1945 on charges of treason for having participated in the failed assassination attempt on Hitler in the Wolf’s Lair, a plot in which he had no part. In the last days of World War II, the elder Planck and his second wife Marga von Hoesslin, his first wife’s niece and 25 years his junior, wandered aimlessly through the forests near the Elbe. It was there that American soldiers found the father of quantum physics.
Another very unlucky scientist was the French astronomer Guillaume Le Gentil . If he had known what the future held, he would not have set sail in March 1760 for India to observe the passage of Venus in front of the Sun. This phenomenon can only happen between June 1 and 8 or between June 4 and December 9. Also, if we see a transit of Venus in a certain year, another one will happen eight years later. Then we will have to wait more than a hundred years for the phenomenon to repeat itself.
At the time of Le Gentil the transit was going to take place in 1761 so, in anticipation of the duration, the risks of the trip and the need to find a good location to place his instruments, Le Gentil was cautious and left 15 months early. But then war broke out between France and England over the colonial rule of India. When the ship in which Le Gentil was traveling sighted the coast, the English had already taken the port to which he was heading and had to turn around and head for the distant island of Mauritius . On June 6, 1761, when Venus passed in front of the Sun, Le Gentil was still traveling.
Instead of returning, the astronomer decided to wait for the transit to be repeated eight years later, in 1769. He settled in Madagascar and, taking advantage of an invitation, set sail for the Philippines. Le Gentil readied his instruments. Then the war ended with a British victory, so Le Gentil dismantled his observatory and returned to India. He arrived on March 27, 1768 and the authorities provided him with all possible facilities. He had a whole year ahead of him to prepare.
The day finally came, June 4 . Le Gentil was so nervous that he didn’t sleep at all the night before. But at dawn dark clouds appeared on the horizon: Le Gentil could only see storm clouds as Venus passed in front of the Sun again. He could no longer wait for the next transit, which would happen 105 years later. Le Gentil dismantled his observatory and returned to Paris. The return was very eventful: storms and corsairs delayed the journey, reaching France in October 1771, almost 12 years after his departure.
No one at home had heard from him. None of his reports and letters had arrived because of the war, the storms and the pirates. Le Gentil had been officially declared dead. His heirs had appropriated his assets and his chair at the French Academy of Sciences was occupied by another scientist. Le Gentil contested his death, but both due to legal difficulties and the opposition of his heirs to being recognized alive, during the 21 years he was still on the planet, he was unable to get the justice system to recognize that he was still breathing.