Author Archives: Max Hartshorn

Mad Scientist #10: Otto Lilienthal

History books, Smithsonian tour guides, and commemorative North Carolina state quarters would have us believe that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane. Sure, they managed to launch the first manned, powered, controlled heavier-than-air flight, an improbable feat in its own right. But without the lessons gleaned from nearly a century of ill-informed flight experimentation, they’d never have amounted to squat.

We don’t diminish the Wright’s legacy paying homage to the gliders, calamitous multiplanes, and giant man-lifting kites, that paved their way—but we do open a door to some pretty funky, Victorian-style derring-do. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #9: Sir Isaac Newton

Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians…
—John Maynard Keynes, economist, historian, baron.1

Fateful apple falls from a tree and bonks young Isaac Newton on the head. Newton has an epiphany (and presumably a heart-healthy snack).

Why, he wonders, should objects always fall down. Why not up? Or sideways? Or in some crazy, unrealistic corkscrew fashion? Then it hits him: Maybe the apple didn’t just fall. Maybe it was drawn down, by an invisible force emanating from our Earth. Bouyed by the fruit’s anticarcinogens and glucose-regulating phytonutrients, he then proceeds to sketch the foundations of the theory of universal gravity, differential calculus, and classical mechanics, unwittingly kick-starting the Enlightenment.

We all know the legend, but is there any truth to it? Is Newton’s apple a handy metaphor for serendipitous innovation? Or is it rather, a trick, designed to draw attention away from Sir Isaac’s true inspiration? A source so cultish, so cripplingly obscure, no grade school science teacher would dare speak its name. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #8: Jack Parsons

A little over 65 years ago, rocket scientist Jack Parsons and his scribe (a then unknown L. Ron Hubbard) embarked on grueling course of sexual magick designed to conjure an elemental mate.1 It was the first step in what Parsons believed would become his greatest legacy…the invocation of the Goddess BABALON, the female messiah.1

On the 14th day, Parsons sensed the working was complete. He returned to his home in Pasadena to find his future wife Marjorie Cameron waiting for him. Together, the pair would attempt to incarnate a living vessel for BABALON herself. It was Parsons’ conviction that, if they succeeded, the spirit of female lust and Dionysian freedom would walk the Earth, and the blind Aeon of Horus would be redeemed.2

Oddly enough, this wasn’t the first time Parsons’ would crazily attempt to shape the future of humanity. Less than a decade earlier, this occult priest of the Ordo Templi Orientis pioneered a similarly far-flung set of experiments in rocketry. His research, though to this day obscure, led directly to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and set the stage for the era of spaceflight. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #7: Joseph Faber

13th century Friar Albertus Magnus is said to have spent upwards of three decades engineering a mechanical head that could move and speak. So terrifying was his creation that Thomas Aquinas smashed it on first sight.1

It would take another 500 years for Europeans to finally ease their attitude toward lifelike automata. In 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson captured the public imagination with his “Defecating Duck,” a bizarre clockwork apparatus that ate food pellets and shat them out the other side. In 1770, Wolfang von Kempelen debuted his mystifying chess-bot (known simply as “The Turk”). The machine would go on to best the likes of Napoleon and Benjamin Franklin.2

Simulating human speech, however, proved a more elusive goal. While Pierre Jaquet-Droz’s robots could be programmed to write and draw pretty much anything, the most advanced mechanical speech synthesizers of the 18th century could utter nothing more than a few select words and phrases. It wasn’t until the early 1840s that an obscure German inventor by the name of Joseph Faber conjured up the very first bona-fide talking head. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #6: Bart Huges

On January 11th, 1965, at an art happening in Amsterdam’s Dam Square, failed med student turned New Age medical revolutionary Bart Huges slowly began to uncover his self-inflicted head wound. Though his audience was composed of some of the grooviest, most psychedelically-minded people in Europe, few could have been prepared for what lay beneath the thirty-two meters of day-glo surgical gauze: a gaping, pulsating hole boring directly into the outer layers of Huges’ brain! Continue reading

Mad Scientist #5: Paracelsus (pt. 2) – Paracelsus’ Homunculus

It is the project of the mad scientist, whether he knows it or not, to extract all that is crass, hidden, and horrifying, and flay it mercilessly before the light of science. Doing so does not strip the world of her wonder. On the contrary—it breathes new life into the magic of old. To witness an account of this process in action, we need look no further than the homunculus of Paracelsian lore.

If you have access to some vials, semen, and significant quantities of human blood and putrefied horse manure, you may want to try Paracelsus’ recipe on your own time: Continue reading

Mad Scientist #5: Paracelsus (pt. 1) – Science and Magic

All the universities have less experience than my beard. The down on my neck is more learned than my antagonists. You must follow my footsteps. I shall not go in yours. Not one of your professors will find a cover so well hidden that the dogs will come and lift them by the legs and defile them. I shall become a monarch, mine will be the monarchy which I shall rule to make you gird up your loins!

Every historian who wants to prove science emerged neatly as a reaction against medieval magic and mysticism, will at some point be faced with the paradox that is Paracelsus. One part proto-renaissance physician, one part medieval magus, this so-called “Luther of Medicine” harrowingly straddled the light and dark worlds of 16th century Europe. If single-handedly, he crossed the Rubicon into modern medicine, chemistry, toxicology, and psychiatry, he also bore the full force of their birth pangs. Scorned by the establishment in his own time, and obscured by history since, Paracelsus is never quite where you look for him. But root him out, and his rich hoard of alchemical treasures is yours for the taking. For science, as anyone who looks deep into Paracelsus’ eye will see, is at heart a form of magick! Continue reading

Mad Scientist #4: Sigmund Rascher

Well, you do not know what you have even suffered.
–an anonymous inmate at Dachau, addressing a survivor of one of Dr. Rascher’s infamous freezing experiments.1

Okay, so you’re a Nazi paratrooper on a sensitive recon mission for the Luftwaffe in Norway. Because of the secrecy of your operation, you must deploy from a height of 45,000 ft. Because of the weather, it’s not safe to open your parachute above 4,000 ft. Your commanding officer is expecting you at a base outside Narwik by sundown tomorrow, but you never arrive. In fact, you’re dead before you even hit the ground.

The physiology of manned flight has been the subject of rigorous investigation within the aviation medicine community. Yet research ethics and a general regard for human life have prevented scientists from studying the physiology of a man plummeting to his own death. That is of course, until the Nazi Dr. Sigmund Rascher came along. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #3: Duchenne de Bologne

The first problem with cadavers is that they’re actually hard to come by. The early Italian anatomist Vesalius was known, on occasion, to send his students into cemeteries to obtain recently deceased corpses for his famously theatrical public dissections.

The second problem is that cadavers are…um…dead. All the muscles, viscera, nerves and ligaments are there in plain sight, but they’re still and lifeless. What’s more, the very act of dissection cuts their connection to the skin, prohibiting us from understanding precisely how the body’s internal mechanics give rise to a coherent outward appearance.

19th century French physiologist Duchenne de Bologne cracked this little conundrum. He discovered a way to perform living dissections through electrical stimulation, which is (slightly) less sadistic than it sounds. Continue reading

Mad Scientist #2: Alexander Bogdanov

Few nations in history have produced more mad scientists than the USSR. We’re going to spend plenty of time plumbing the depths of Soviet insanity here on Mad Scientist Blog, so it only seems fitting to begin our exploration with Bolshevism’s earliest oddball intellectual: Alexander Bogdanov.

A trained physician and master theoretician, Bogdanov began his career as a Marxist ideologue, and wound up creating a body of work so staggeringly pretentious, it transcended all known bounds of philosophy and science. In the process he lay the groundwork for cybernetics and systems theory, pioneered the genre of Soviet science fiction, and inadvertently established a Russian tradition in blood science.

Sound like a mouthful? Bogdanov’s career defies easy characterization. Any attempt to understand the man must engage him at his own level, which, as you might have guessed, is really way the fuck out there. Continue reading