I don’t like hero worship.  When I hear about bad people I want to see the good in them and when I hear about great people I want to see the insane.  In light of that, I present to you three of history’s greatest minds and the mad things they believed on the side.

Johannes Kepler

One of the greatest scientists ever to have lived, Johannes Keplet advanced the scientific view of the solar system from a model of nested spheres to the modern mathematical model of planetary motion.  He was the first astronomer to realize that all planetary orbits are elliptical and he codified the laws describing the movement of the six known planets.  Many see Kepler as the father of Astrophysics.

Kepler also spent a good chunk of his life building models of platonic solids, of which there are six, in order to represent the movements of the known planets, also numbering six at the time, in order to understand the geometry of the universe.  Because his models never lined up with mathematical observations, he eventually discarded this belief.

Isaac Newton

The author of classical physics, Newton is often called the greatest scientist ever to have lived.  His work Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, was the textbook for understanding the laws of motion for three hundred years.  Newton also made great contributions to the field of optics and invented an entirely new field of calculus.

Netwon happened to also believe in alchemy: the science of turning common metals into gold.  He believed that the Philosopher’s Stone was the secret to this process (Yeah, like Harry Potter.)  In fact, the study of Netwon’s life has shown that he was much more interested in uncovering the mystical wisdom of the ancient world than in science.  Inventing modern physics was something of a side project.

Thomas Edison

Holding 1093 US patents, Thomas Edison is one of the most prolific inventors ever to have lived.  He is credited with inventing the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the first long-lasting light bulb.  He developed an electricity generation and distribution system that is the foundation of all modern electrical grids.

He also believed that inside every person’s head there were fifteen tiny men that were responsible for our dreams.  Be believed that reincarnation was simply the fifteen tiny men climbing out of your head when you die and into the head of someone else.

Believing in hogwash didn’t prevent these men from changing the way we view the world forever.  The takeaway from this is as follows: you may know a lot about something, you may think that you’re really quite clever, you may have invented an entire field of science, you may be the smartest person alive, but that doesn’t mean some of the things you believe are total, complete, and utter nonsense.  These guys inspire me to set my sights high and live up to my highest aspirations, but also to be self critical in every belief I hold.

I’ve never believed that wisdom is knowing how little to know.  Humanity knows more each day than it did the day before.  It also knows how much more there is to be known.  In other words, our understanding is growing but the mysteries of the universe are growing faster.  Wisdom then is looking into straight at the mysteries of life and the universe with humble determination.

What do you think?  Does a person’s genius validate the mad beliefs that they hold?  Or do their mad beliefs undermine their genius?