Science blog

14 March 2016

The secret lives of scientists

From Brian Cox and his past life as a pop star to Albert Einstein’s career as a patent clerk, PhD placement student Eleanor Sherwood delves into the more unknown pursuits and occupations of well-known scientists. 

Brian Cox 

©Vconnare at English Wikipedia

Brian Cox is an Advanced Fellow of Particle Physics at the University of Manchester and also conducts research at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.  Although a well-known face in the media, presenting popular TV shows such as The Wonders of the Solar System and The Wonders of the Universe1, Professor Cox has had previous brushes with fame as a member of two separate bands.  Between 1986 and 1992, Cox was a keyboard player in hard rock band Dare and, during the completion of his Physics PhD, Cox also played the keyboard in the more well-known pop rock/dance group D:Ream2,3.  The band’s best-known single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was performed live on Top of the Pops in 1994 and was featured heavily in Labour’s 1997 election campaign3

Read Brian Cox’s PhD thesis here via the British Library's online e-theses service, EThOS.

Albert Einstein

© Ferdinand Schmutzer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist born in Germany.  He is probably one of the most famous scientists of modern times and his most well-known work, the general theory of relativity, forms the basis of modern physics.  However, after graduating from the Swiss Polytechnic School in Zurich in 19004, Einstein struggled to find a job in academia and so found work as a clerk in the Swiss Federal Patent Office in Bern. He worked here throughout his ‘miracle year’ of 1905, where he was awarded his PhD and also published four groundbreaking papers, and only left in 1909 to accept the post of ‘Professor Extraordinarius’ in theoretical physics at the University of Zurich5.


Read some of Einstein's many books at the British Library, ranging from explanations of the Theory of Relativity to autobiographical writings

William HerschelWilhelm_Herschel_03

Friedrich William Herschel was born in Hannover yet moved to Bath, England at age 19.  An accomplished astronomer, Herschel is credited with the discovery of Uranus, the confirmation of the theory that nebulae were composed of stars rather than a luminous fluid, as was the opposing theory, and a theory of stellar evolution6. However, Herschel was only a professional astronomer from the age of 43; until this time, William Herschel taught, performed and composed music and was employed for some time as the organist of a chapel in Bath.

Alexander Graham Bell

By Moffett Studio, via Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh to a family of elocutionists.  Although he is most notably credited with the invention of the telephone,Bell contributed to many other inventions including metal detectors and early aircraft7, and was also a professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University8.  However, as well as his scientific endeavours, Bell was a teacher of his father’s ‘Visible Speech’ system at a number of institutions for deaf or deaf-mute students.  He also opened his own ‘School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech’; a notable student being Helen Keller, with whom he worked and was friends for over 30 years9.

Polly Matzinger

Polly Matzinger is an American immunologist and has held research posts at The University of   727px-Polly_&_Annie
Cambridge, The Basel Institute for Immunology and most recently at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in Maryland10.  She is most well-known for her work on ‘The Danger Model’, a theory explaining how immune cells can sense when the body is under attack and thus when to mount an immune response.  Leading up to her scientific career however, Matzinger undertook a number of ‘unconventional’ career paths.  Among many jobs, Matzinger worked as a jazz musician, problem dog trainer and even a playboy ‘bunny’, however it was her job as a cocktail waitress and an evening serving two university professors which led to her being persuaded to pursue a career in science11

Read Matzinger's 1994 review on the Danger Theory published in Annual Reviews of Immunology at the British Library - available to order as a hard copy here from the British Library collections.

Alan Turing

Alan_Turing_Aged_16 (1)
Author unknown, via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Turing was a British computer scientist, cryptanalyst, logician and mathematician, and is widely regarded to be the father of modern computing and artificial intelligence.  Turing is also credited with the design and development of the ‘Bombe’- an electromechanical device which was used during World War II to decipher Enigma-encrypted messages from the German military.  Aside from this, Turing was a talented long distance runner and used to frequently run the 40 miles from his work station at Bletchley Park to London for meetings.  Turing even tried out for the 1948 British Olympics marathon team and, despite being injured at the time, finished with a time only 12 minutes slower than winning time for that year12.

Read all about the life of Alan Turing in the book by Robert Hodges: 'Alan Turing: The Enigma'. Available to order here from the British Library collections



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