Singular scientists – English

Ioan James
J M W Turner, the composer Be´la Barto´k and the
philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, where there also seems
to be a possible case.
Autistic people experience a profound feeling of being alone in the world—‘unable to form a conception of others
that attributes mental states to them’. For example, Isaac Newton’s boyhood has been described as lonely and loveless. Henry Cavendish was said by a contemporary to
‘consider himself as a solitary being in the world, and to feel
himself unfit for society’. Of the many stories told about his idiosyncrasies, one concerns a distinguished foreign scientist
who said he wished to meet ‘one of the greatest intellectual
ornaments of this country, and one of the most profound
philosophers of all time’. Cavendish was so embarrassed
that he was reduced to total silence and escaped in his
carriage at the first opportunity. Einstein too was a loner:
‘I’m not much with people’, he declared. As a child he was
shy, lonely and withdrawn from the world. One of his
biographers remarked that he ‘never really needed human
contacts; he deliberately freed himself more and more from
all emotional dependence in order to become entirely selfsufficient’.
A lack of interest in communication with others is another characteristic. It is said that Newton deliberately
made the Principia abstruse, using mathematical arguments
to put off the uninitiated. He did not find it easy to express
fundamental convictions publicly, preferring to remain silent rather than expose himself to the risk of criticism.
Henry, later Lord, Brougham said that Cavendish ‘probably uttered fewer words in the course of his life than any man who lived to fourscore years, not at all excepting the monks
of La Trappe’. Einstein explained, ‘I do not socialize
because social encounters would distract me from my work
and I really only live for that, and it would shorten even further my very limited lifespan’.
As a child Newton was ‘never known scarce to play with the boys abroad’. One of his biographers described him as
‘singularly unable to form intimate friendships. Morbidly
suspicious and secretive, he was subject to peevish
outbreaks of ill-temper, even towards those who were his
best friends. On such occasions he stooped to regrettable
acts which involved him in a succession of painful
controversies that plagued his life, robbed him of the just
fruits of his work, and disheartened his sincere admirers . . .’. Newton ‘had not within himself the resource
from whence to inculcate high and true motives of action
upon others,’ said another, ‘The fear of man was before his
eyes. All his errors are to be traced to a disposition which
seems to have been born with him.’

Einstein was described as ‘lonely and dreamy’ as a child, with a difficulty of making friends. Very early he decided to
establish himself as an entirely separate entity, influenced as
little as possible by other people. In his youth and later in
Berlin he had friends to whom he could talk and unburden
himself, such as the atomic physicist Lise Meitner, but she
commented on his elusive coldness towards colleagues,
even those who knew him well. One of these colleagues
concluded: ‘Einstein was a naturally solitary person who
didn’t want his weaknesses to show and didn’t want to be
helped even when they did show’.
Some peculiarity of dress is also common in Asperger
people, perhaps a reflection of the disregard for the feelings
of others. Newton was said to be untidy and slovenly; when
in Cambridge he very rarely went to dine in the college hall
and then ‘if he had not been minded, he would go very
carelessly, the shoes down at heels, stockings untied,
surplice on, and his head scarcely combed’. Cavendish
retained the dress of his youth—faded violet suit with high
collar, frilled shirt-wrists, and a knocker-tailed periwig.
Each year on a fixed day his tailor provided him with a new
suit which was a replica of the old one. Although Einstein
kept a wardrobe of seven identical suits to wear on formal
occasions, his ordinary dress was casual; he favoured
sweatshirts, leather jackets and sandals.

A strong adherence to routine is another characteristic of Asperger people.

Cavendish was very much a man of habit, invariably dining off leg of mutton, and taking exactly
the same solitary walk every day, wearing an old-fashioned three-cornered hat. During his Berlin period, Einstein was in the habit of sailing a dinghy by himself on one of the numerous lakes formed by the river Havel. Perhaps it is
unfair to class this as a strong adherence to routine, but
later in his life, when he had moved to America, he said that
really his only friend in Princeton was the neurotic
mathematician Kurt Go¨del, who used to call for him every
morning at 11 o’clock so that, whatever the weather, they
could walk together the mile to Fuld Hall.
Some degree of obsessive behaviour is also to be
expected, but evidence for this is more difficult to
produce. Of course it could be argued that, when the
object of the obsession is an important scientific problem,
it is partly this which enables Asperger people to make
major discoveries. Newton’s boyhood enthusiasm for
constructing mechanical models developed into a passion
for making scientific instruments, especially optical
instruments, and he did so supremely well. However,
Newton had other obsessions which were less commendable. Alchemy was one of these—an offshoot of his
chemical experiments. Among his other peculiarities was a
compulsion to make draft after draft of his papers—as
many as eighteen, differing only slightly from each other,
for the first chapter of his Chronology—and he even felt the
need to copy routine documents relating to the business of
the Royal Mint, where he held the position of Warden.
The Chronicles of the Ancient Kingdoms Amended and
Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of
St John, books that appeared after his death, were the
fruits of an obsessive interest in such matters during the
latter part of his life.
Newton was described as a man of very few words: ‘he
would sometimes be silent and thoughtful for above a
quarter of an hour together, and all the while almost as if he
was saying his prayers; but [that] when he did speak, it was
always very much to the purpose’. ‘Newton would with
great acuteness answer a question,’ it was said, ‘but would
very seldom start one.’ Einstein was a confusing lecturer,
giving specific examples followed by seemingly unrelated
general principles. Sometimes he would lose his train of
thought while writing on the blackboard. A few minutes
later he would emerge as if from a trance and go on to
something different. Like many Asperger people5, Einstein
had a predominantly visual style of thinking and learning. As
he explained: ‘thoughts do not come in any verbal
formulation. I rarely think in words at all. A thought
comes and I try to explain it in words afterwards’.
Some of the characteristics I have described can, of
course, be found in some degree in normal people but
others not. For example, unusual vocalizations and unusual
gait can occur. Brougham recalled seeing Cavendish at a Royal Society conversazione and hearing ‘the shrill cry he
uttered as he shuffled quickly from room to room, seeming to be annoyed if looked at, but sometimes approaching to
hear what was passing among others’. He also remarked
that Cavendish’s walk was ‘quick and uneasy’. As a child Einstein was echolalic, repeating to himself what he heard
to make sure he heard it correctly, and continued to be so as an adult.
One of Newton’s biographers described his complex personality in the following words:
‘. . . some evil fate cursed him with a suspicious and jealous temperament which marred his life. This taint in
his blood did not show itself in the form of ordinary vanity but in an inordinate sensitiveness to any personal
criticism or to a reflection on his personal honour. In spite
of his love of meditation and of peace free of all
distractions it involved him in constant quarrels and
altercations; and during a long and illustrious life it raised
an impenetrable barrier between him and other men. To
his friends he was never more than lukewarm and he kept them constantly uneasy lest they had offended him; to his
rivals he was, at times, disingenuous, unjust and cruel.’
Cavendish, like Newton, was highly sensitive to criticism. As a result he published remarkably little—for
example, only two research papers on electricity—although
when Clerk Maxwell was editing Cavendish’s electrical
researches for publication, after his death, he found twenty
packages of manuscripts on the subject.
All biographers agree that Einstein had an extraordinary
passion for music. He was an enthusiastic violinist; Bach, Mozart and Schubert were his favourite composers. When
he was world-famous as a physicist he is reported to have said that music was as important to him as physics: ‘it is a
way for me to be independent of people’; on another
occasion he described it as the most important thing in his
life. Photographs of him playing the violin with scientists
such as Max Born, Paul Ehrenfest, Jacques Hadamard, Adolph Hurwitz or Max Planck show a different Einstein from the more familiar images.
Einstein was a Nobel Laureate, and it is not difficult to find others who might well have been Asperger people.

For example there is Paul Dirac, one of the architects of quantum mechanics, whose centenary has recently been
celebrated. His schoolfellows remember him as silent and
aloof. Dirac was remarkably taciturn; he explained that
when young he learned that he should not start a sentence
unless he knew how to finish it—not a recipe for
spontaneous conversation. Like Einstein, he was echolalic.
Dirac’s wife Margit described him as ‘too aloof’ with their
children, but the marriage seems to have worked. A
colleague in Cambridge, who had known Dirac for years,
said ‘I still find it very difficult to talk with Dirac. If I need his
advice I try to formulate my question as briefly as possible.
The response would come as from the witness stand. He
looks for five minutes at the ceiling, five minutes at the
windows, and then says ‘‘yes’’ or ‘‘no’’. And he was always
right. Dirac responded factually to direct questions, and the
five-word answer might take five days to comprehend’.
Many characteristics of Dirac remind us of Newton.
Another Nobel Laureate who might have had Asperger
syndrome was Ire`ne Joliot-Curie, elder daughter of Marie
and Pierre Curie. She inherited the shyness of both her parents as well as their abilities, and had great difficulties in
greeting and dealing with strangers. She was described as ‘rather awkward in her movements’, by nature very
reserved; she had difficulty in making friends. She never
acquired the art of casual conversation and grew up
insensitive to the attitude of others. In argument she was
incapable of the least deceit or artifice or of making the
smallest concession. With an implacable obstinacy she
would present her thesis, meeting her interlocutor head on,
whoever he might be. Her imperturbable calm and her
direct manner in replying to questions made her seem cold
and somewhat haughty. She took little interest in her
appearance and dress. Like her mother she always wore the
simplest of garments, but in her case they were crude and
Although the cause of the Asperger syndrome, and of
autism generally, remains unknown, a genetic factor is certainly involved. The condition is not exactly hereditary
38 but there is usually some trace of the syndrome elsewhere
in the family. There may be an example of this in the case of
Joliot-Curie; both her parents were introverted but she
seems to have taken more after her uncompromising
mother. Marie Curie did not greatly care what impression
she created. She was found difficult to engage in
conversation, and to be liable to naively misinterpret what
she believed to be other people’s reactions to her. The
famous determination to isolate radium had an obsessive
quality; likewise her practice of keeping a detailed record of
domestic expenditure. ‘I feel everything very violently’, she
once said, ‘with a physical violence.’ We know that Einstein
was violent as a child and, later, towards his first wife. He
said that Ire`ne, who became a close friend, ‘got her way
mainly by grumbling, like her mother’. Although it seems
very possible that both mother and daughter had the
syndrome, the evidence is stronger in the case of Ire`ne.
Since the syndrome occurs much more frequently in men
than in women, perhaps in a proportion of five to one, these
examples if confirmed would be particularly interesting.
According to the standard criteria there does not seem
much doubt that Isaac Newton, Henry Cavendish and
Albert Einstein were Asperger people; in fact Newton
appears to be the earliest known example of a person with
any form of autism. It may not be too late to obtain relevant
information from people who knew Paul Dirac or Ire`ne
Joliot-Curie to supplement the clues which may be found in
biographies. Since autism became generally recognized by
psychiatrists only in the past sixty years, many cases must
have gone undiagnosed. It is surprising that recent
biographers should pass over this aspect of their subjects.
Although it seems to be widely accepted that Einstein had
the syndrome, none of the many detailed biographies
mentions this.
Simon Baron-Cohen uses the suggestive term ‘folk
psychology’ to describe the normal ability to read the facial
expressions of other people and know intuitively what they
mean, and the term ‘folk physics’ to describe the ability that
certain professional people, such as architects, engineers
and physicists, have of thinking and working—and not only
professionals but also many kinds of craftsmen. He has
suggested that Asperger people have a deficit of folk
psychology, which is compensated for by an unusual ability
in folk physics. A recent survey6 of Cambridge undergraduates confirmed the belief that it is among the students
of mathematics, physics, engineering and computer science that Asperger syndrome is most likely to be found.
Asperger people who write objectively and accurately about their condition, as several have done6, describe the
great feeling of joy they experienced at discovering they are not unique in the world but that there are others just like themselves. There is no ‘cure’ for the Asperger syndrome, and those who have it say that on the whole they are glad of this. As thirteen-year-old Luke Jackson writes, in his
Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: a User Guide to Adolescence,
‘To cure someone of AS would be like taking away their personality, and some really cool abilities too’. What
Asperger people would appreciate is a little more understanding from the rest of us, so that their lives are
not made unnecessarily difficult. They tend to have a
particularly bad time at school. The syndrome is not
properly understood by otherwise well-informed people,
who find it hard to realize what those who are
‘handicapped’ in this way may be capable of achieving.

1 James I. Remarkable Physicists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003
2 Sacks O. Uncle Tungsten. London: Picador Books, 2001
3 Asperger H. Die ‘autischen Psychopathen’ im Kindesalter. Arch Psychiatrie Nervenkrankheiten 1944;17:76–136
4 Frith U, ed. Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991
5 Grandin T. Thinking in Pictures. New York: Vintage Books, 1996
6 Baron-Cohen S, Wheelwright S, Skinner R, Martin J, Clubley L. The
autism-spectrum quotient (AQ): evidence for Asperger syndrome/highfunctioning autism, males and females, scientists and mathematicians. J
Autism Devel Disord 2001;31:5–17
7 Jackson L. Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: a User Guide to Adolescence.
London: Jessica Kingsley, 2002


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