The Incredible Shyness of Henry Cavendish


 If history has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes science is – quite frankly – absolutely bonkers. One of the things I love about science is that, throughout our admirable, steadfast quest for understanding, we scientists haven’t half done some ridiculous things. The history of science is full of delightfully odd characters, outrageous rivalry, wacky contraptions and instruments, not to mention some rather questionable experiments that would fly in the face of Health & Safety and ethics committees today (think suspiciously-acquired body parts, hair-raising self-experimentation and being just a little too laissez-faire with deadly bacteria). So, to bring a bit of a chuckle to your Fridays, every week I’ll be sharing some of science’s silliest tales and anecdotes which have tickled me, leaving you in no doubt as to where the ‘mad’ in ‘-scientist’ came from. Enjoy!

Image: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

Today in our Facebook and Twitter-savvy society we are plagued by the over-use of many annoying words and phrases. Take ‘awkward’ for instance: the word-of-choice of many young people, particularly. These days everything and everyone is ‘so awkward’, whether it’s accidentally wearing odd socks, or realising that you’ve gone out and bought the wrong type of milk. I feel your pain. But, I think it’s time to put things into perspective a little: because you see, there’s awkward…and then there’s Henry Cavendish. Wander back into the mid-18th century – an age obsessed with the physical properties of fundamental things such as gases and electricity – and you might just meet one of the most brilliant yet strangest of Britain’s physicists: Henry Cavendish. But then again, as a man whom one biographer described as ‘shy to a degree bordering on disease’, actually you probably wouldn’t. Best known today for being the first person to isolate hydrogen, to combine oxygen and hydrogen to produce water oh, and for weighing the Earth; Henry Cavendish was born in 1731, conveniently into one of the richest families in England at the time. He spent most of his adult life ensconced, like a fairy-tale princess, in what can only be described as a ‘Science Palace’, having used his wealth to build an enormous lab full of gizmos and gadgets. He seldom spoke to anyone and even his domestic servants were under strict instructions only to communicate with him in writing (one can only assume that he was summoned to dinner every evening by paper-aeroplane.) His only regular ventures into society were to weekly club gatherings of science’s movers and shakers back then, where other guests were warned that on no account were they to even look at Cavendish, let alone be so outrageous as to approach him. For those that did wish to make scientific conversation with him, the suggestion appears to have been that they behave as one might when trying to avoid startling a rare and nervous wild animal and ‘wander into his vicinity as if by accident and to talk ‘as if into vacancy’.’ If their contribution was of scientific worth, they might receive a mumbled reply; but more often than not, as one Lord Brougham recollected, they would encounter a ‘shrill cry’ and a fleeing Cavendish shuffling from the room post-haste. But, of course, this could only be applied if you happened to have picked an occasion when our dear HC had gotten as far as actually entering the room, as biographer remarked in 1851: ‘I have myself seen him stand a long time on the landing, evidently wanting courage to open the door and face the people assembled, nor would he open the door until he heard someone coming up the stairs, and then he was forced to go in.’ Indeed, Cavendish seems to have been a master of escape to an extent that almost puts Houdini to shame, something which surely deserves some recognition. He may have labs named after him, but I heartily suggest that the artful manoeuvre of escaping awkward social occasions should henceforth be referred to as ‘the Cavendish’. Next time you find yourself at a boring party, perhaps cornered by someone telling you how ‘totally awkward’ something was, why not whisper to the person next to you ‘I’ve had enough, let’s Cavendish!’ and make a speedy exit, with optional high-pitched squeak of outrage. But it appears that sometimes he couldn’t even find refuge at home in his science-fort. On one occasion he is reputed to have answered the door to a well-meaning Austrian admirer of his work, who proceeded to lavish him with praise. For a few minutes a horrified HC received these compliments as if they were physical ‘blows from a blunt object and then, unable to take any more, fled down the path and out the gate, leaving the front door wide open’ and no doubt a rather confused Austrian on his doorstep. Allegedly several hours passed before Cavendish could be persuaded to come back home. In the late 19th century – well after his death – upon going through his papers it became apparent that Cavendish had been so absorbed in his work that he’d somehow not thought to mention he’d either discovered or anticipated, amongst other things: the law of the conservation of energy, Ohm’s Law, Dalton’s Law of Partial Pressures, Richter’s Law of Reciprocal Proportions, Charles’ Law of Gases and the principles of electrical conductivity! Notice the theme that most of these things now bear the names of other scientists, and therein is something even more flabbergasting than the fact that the endearing eccentricity of one incredibly shy physicist generates enough anecdotes alone to almost justify a blog in itself. But, if there had been a ‘Cavendish’s Law’, part of me likes to think that it might have been this: ‘run!’

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