Everyone loves a good tortured genius story: musical savants wrestling with deafness, demanding and reality distorting technological visionaries, and Nikola Tesla, darling of certain Internet circles, being bizarrely fixated on the number three. But not all brilliance — as these 11 thinkers and tinkerers demonstrate — is served with a slice of mental anguish.
Some people are just smarter than you. And that’s not such a bad thing.
3. Emilie du Chatelet
Rank hath its privileges, and for French courtier Emilie du Chatelet, such privileges meant a fantastic education — particularly for a woman in the 1700s — as well as a bunch of lovers, including the philosopher François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire. In between entertaining guests and performing sketches written by Voltaire, du Chatelet translated Isaac Newton’s mathematical bible Principa into French, which, according to Smithsonian Magazine, is still used by physics-loving Francophones.
1. E. O. Wilson
E. O. Wilson has an origin story that could have led down the tortured genius path: As a kid, he blinded one eye in a fishing accident. But Wilson parlayed that injury into a long and illustrious career observing bugs. “I have only one functional eye, my left eye, but it’s very sharp,” he told the Harvard Gazette. “And I somehow focused on little things. I noticed butterflies and ants more than other kids did, and took an interest in them automatically.” Wilson helped create the field of sociobiology — the idea that all animals, not only humans, have the genetic foundation for social behavior — and won the Pulitzer Prize twice, for his books On Human Nature and The Ants.
2. Tycho Brahe
The astronomer Tycho Brahe was a 16th-century Danish noble who meticulously catalogued stars, supernovae, and comets. He lost a bit of his nose in a duel with a fellow student of mathematics, sure — this was a time before mathletes and Math Olympiads — so he wore a jaunty metal prosthesis to cover the wound. He could also find solace in his private island of Hven, a gift from King Frederick II, upon which Brahe built an observatory-palace called Uraniborg. He died at 54 from, according to legend, a burst bladder after literally drinking himself to death at a banquet.
4. Craig Venter
Craig Venter may, in fact, be an asshole, as a 2000 New Yorker profile so exclaimed. If so, Venter is not just a wildly successful asshole — he was one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome. His beach-dude vibe (Venter loves to surf and has at least once wandered a French Polynesian shore naked while picking interesting things out of the water) is undercut by a massive ego, one which led him to declare to his brother that “A researcher can save the whole world.” The overall image Venter has cultivated is less quirky world-saver, however, and more swaggering billionaire biologist.
5. Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin was not only the inventor of bifocals and a Founding Father, but he was a windsurfer, a retiree at 42, and an “inveterate flirt,” according to historian J.A. Leo LeMay. Franklin may not have actually coined the phrase “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but he once published 200 different ways to describe a drunk in the Pennsylvania Gazette, at once showing off his wit and appreciation for the less stuffy things in life.
6. George Lucas
Star Wars — which continues to be an insanely lucrative franchise — was the spawn of George Lucas’ brilliant idea to combine the artistry of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, the pulpy space heroics of Flash Gordon, and the mythology of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces. If there was anything tortured in what came after this master stroke, however, it was the cries of a million people who refuse to believe that Greedo shot first.
7. Josephine Cochrane
Midwestern socialite Josephine Cochrane constructed the first successful mechanical dishwater in the late 1800s. But her brainchild wasn’t meant to spare anyone the manual labor. Instead, Cochrane was upset her servants kept chipping the family china, notes University of Houston historian John Lienhard. Cochrane’s device took off, laying the foundation for what would eventually become part of the modern-day Whirlpool Corporation.
8. Charles Bukowski
Poet and writer Charles Bukowski experienced his share of tortured genius tropes: a habit of downing a bottle of wine in a sitting, a brush with his own mortality from a bleeding ulcer, and the death of a girlfriend. According to culture critic Maria Popova, however, he ultimately rejected the idea that a tortured life begets creativity with his poem “So you want to be a writer” — his words are a reminder, she writes, that “to create is to celebrate rather than bemoan life.”
9. Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman probably sketched out fewer theories of quantum electrodynamics in strip clubs than he would have liked people to believe, but he was, in fact, a Nobel Prize-winning, bongo-playing frequenter of topless bars. As Julia Lipman notes at M.I.T., Feynman had a life full of charming anecdotes, though he also “gleefully wrote about his incessant womanizing.”
10. Kerry Mullis
In 1983, Kerry Mullis created the process of polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, which lets researchers copy a lone string of DNA millions of times. To biologists around the world, this was a huge deal. Another three-letter acronym that’s a big deal, to Mullis anyway, is LSD. The drug, which Mullis says played a role in the discovery of PCR, “was a mind-opening experience,” he told California Monthly in 1994. “It was certainly much more important than any courses I ever took.”
11. Georges de Mestral
Inspiration comes in many forms, and all Swiss inventor Georges de Mestral needed was a stroll through shrubby woods. Upon noticing the burrs caught in his slacks, de Mestral devised a system of hooks and fabric: Velcro, which the New York Times recognized is used by everyone from astronauts in space to heart surgeons in the operating room.