Damn the Torpedoes!
May 13, 2010 10:45 AM   Subscribe

I need your favorite badasses of history and science!

Background: I have an idea for a podcast that tells the stories of the bravest, most daring, and most innovative men and women the world has known. I picture this in a similar vein as Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, i.e. I want to give tons of context so my audience will understand the world in which these innovators lived. (One of my goals is to dispel the notion that people in the past were foolish or backwards-minded, and I think context of the times is important.)

I'm aware there are a few resources of "badassery" on the internet, but I'm not interested in the "Swear word kill shoot kill swear word SWEAR VERB F-BOMB YEAH!!!!" style adopted by most of these sites. Also, I don't inherently define a badass as a guy who killed a lot of other guys because of his huge testicles. I'm more interested in those who had a radical idea and stuck out their neck/reputation to prove it.

John Stapp is my favorite example and probably my first subject. To keep it short, Air Force crash standards of his time dictated that the human body could not survive a force greater than 18Gs. John thought humans could survive greater, so he built a rocket sled, pushed it to ~600mph, and brought it to a rapid halt. To test this on humans, he strapped himself into the rocket sled and rode it a few dozen times. Each run was at a higher speed, until he sustained a 42G stop, which struck him blind for 10 minutes after the test and made his eyeballs bleed. Because of his work, the crash test dummy was invented, auto safety was improved, and he even coined Murphy's Law.

(Other subjects: The Manhattan Project scientists, the space program, the guy who proved ulcers are caused by bacteria, anyone who put their well-being on the line to prove a crazy idea.)

I think the history of science is rife with stories of bravery by forgotten individuals that have long-lasting effects. This fascinates me, and I want to tell these stories.

In listy format:

1. Who's your badass of choice?

2. What did they do?

3. What are good resources to learn their story?

4. What are good resources to learn about the times in which they lived?

5. Why are they important?

Bonus points for the following:

-A new angle on a familiar story or individual
-Resources that describe the context of the times, as I think that will be my greatest challenge
-Resources for effective podcasting (Easy enough to find on my own, but I'm willing to collect as much advice as I can.)
posted by Turkey Glue to Media & Arts (142 answers total) 183 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not going to do your research for you, but among my favorite women badasses:

- Lucy Burns and Alice Paul
- Margaret Sanger
- Elizabeth I of England

posted by runningwithscissors at 10:58 AM on May 13, 2010

(It also strikes me that this might be better suited for Projects, if you want all this help.)
posted by runningwithscissors at 10:59 AM on May 13, 2010

The N'zara chapter of Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague describes the dangerous work a group of scientists did in trying to stop one of the first outbreaks of Ebola virus.
posted by lakeroon at 11:00 AM on May 13, 2010

I don't have all the details you're looking for, but I would suggest the following people, and Wikipedia as a starting point

Darwin -- still upsets the religious to this day with his science

Socrates -- His logic ended with him being executed

Galileo Galilei -- Like Darwin, his science upset the Vatican

Norma L. McCorvey -- A LOT of controversy on this one, but she single-handedly was the reason the Supreme Court gave the right to choose. Her later changing of her views notwithstanding, it was badass for a woman to fight that fight in the 70s.

Abraham Lincoln -- His strong viewpoints (about slavery, yes, but also about state rights versus federal rights) led to the US Civil War. Refusing to back down despite such a cost = badass

Rosa Parks -- Sure, there is some discussion that her refusal to give up her seat was staged but STILL badass.
posted by arniec at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2010

Joe Kittinger, if you don't mind another Air Force pilot.
posted by _cave at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2010

posted by oinopaponton at 11:04 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nestor Makhno did some cool shit during the Russian Revolution that very few people have heard about.

Also Emma Goldman and Ada Lovelace.
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:05 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: To clarify: I'm not looking for more than a list of names. Pretty much anything additional in terms of resources, advice, etc. is simply a greatly-appreciated bonus.

If nothing else, this thread will provide a good excuse to burn through half a day on Wikipedia.
posted by Turkey Glue at 11:05 AM on May 13, 2010

This MeFi post explains the badassery of Kris Kristofferson.

The people who cleaned up the Chernobyl disaster site were also extraordinarily brave.
posted by molecicco at 11:07 AM on May 13, 2010

William Marshall. Baddest-ass knight of the Middle Ages.
posted by bryghtrose at 11:09 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Teddy Roosevelt for history. Barry Marshall for science.
posted by infinitywaltz at 11:10 AM on May 13, 2010

1. Who's your badass of choice?

Alan Turing

2. What did they do?

Church-Turing Thesis. Cracked the enigma code then got prosecuted and given hormone treatments for being gay, then may have killed himself with a poisoned apple.

3. What are good resources to learn their story?

There's several good biographies about him.

4. What are good resources to learn about the times in which they lived?

Am too lazy.

5. Why are they important?

Even if you are courageous and daring and heroic in one area you may be weak in another. Also your contributions apparently don't mean shit if you are from the wrong subculture at the wrong time.
posted by edbles at 11:12 AM on May 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

Oh and Justinian's main general guy. Uhhh Belisaurius, just good at what he did.
posted by edbles at 11:15 AM on May 13, 2010

Clara Maass was a nurse who worked for the US Army in the Spanish-American War and the Philippines, then went to Cuba to volunteer for medical research on yellow fever, which killed her.
posted by Quietgal at 11:16 AM on May 13, 2010

Johannes Kepler. Among other more famous accomplishments, he successfully defended his mother from being burned as a witch.
posted by blucevalo at 11:17 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nikola Tesla, Grade A Badass.
posted by The Michael The at 11:18 AM on May 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

This guy is not a scientist and maybe even fits into your "do not want" category, but there are such crazy stories about him that I am amazed there is not a movie of his life.

1. Smedley Butler

2. He was a U.S. Marine who was a leader in fighting guerrilla warfare in the Phillipines and Central America. He did stuff like capture rebels by claiming to have bags of dynamite that were really just sandbags. He also got the president of Haiti to sign a treaty by climbing a ladder through a second floor window to get into a locked bathroom where the president was hiding.

3. None of the really good stories about him are on his Wikipedia page, but they are in The Savage Wars of Peace by Max Boot. Parts of it read more like an adventure novel than nonfiction history.

4. The same book.

5. He became a staunch pacifist after his retirement. The book cited is also a good source on the dangers of imperialism and the role it played in US history.
posted by AtomicBee at 11:21 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Alan Turing Father of modern computing, secret war hero, unrepentant homosexual, can run a marathon in 2:46:03, is a squeky voiced big nerd who wears a tie as a belt and wears a gas mask to avoid allergic reaction when bicycling, public defender of thinking machines.
posted by Free word order! at 11:23 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Barry Marshall--chugged a dish full of Heliobacter pylori to prove the bacteria's link to ulcers.
posted by divka at 11:26 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

My definition of bad-ass fluctuates a bit, falling in two categories: 1. Someone who preserves against impossible odds, and 2. Someone who undergoes radical transformation, admitting they where wrong and works to remedy the wrong.

in no order:

Caesar Chavez
The Dalai Lama
Marie Currie
Rosalind Franklin
Dian Fossey
The Buddha

Honestly though, those who find history boring in the first place have been either ill served by teachers, or have little curiosity...
posted by edgeways at 11:27 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ernest Shackleton. Not a single man lost. Absolutely beyond comprehension.
posted by madmethods at 11:29 AM on May 13, 2010 [13 favorites]

Ben Franklin was totally a badass. It took me a year to read his biography, but he was just a funny cool smart dude who was interested in any and every kind of nerdery available to him. Snarky mofo, too.
posted by edbles at 11:29 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Certainly not a popular guy in most of the world, but Otto Skorzeny covered quite a bit of badass ground in his time.
posted by rhizome at 11:32 AM on May 13, 2010

1. Who's your badass of choice?

Tycho Brahe

2. What did they do?

Astronomer who improved stargazing instruments and increased precision in measuring the locations of planets and stars. He also lost the tip of his nose in a duel and wore a metal nose prosthesis. He also had a pet elk that died in a drunken fall. Also rumored to be an alchemist.

3. What are good resources to learn their story?

On Tycho's Island

4. What are good resources to learn about the times in which they lived?

He lived from 1546-1601, so there's lots of stuff out there!

5. Why are they important?

He was the last notable pre-telescope astronomer. Coined the term 'nova' for a new star. His collected measurements contributed to the scientific revolution in the years following his death.
posted by kittyloop at 11:32 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Big Bill Haywood
posted by Bango Skank at 11:37 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Marie Curie:

"Due to their levels of radioactivity, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. They are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing."
posted by benzenedream at 11:40 AM on May 13, 2010 [16 favorites]

What, no one has mentioned Simo Häyhä?!
posted by k. at 11:41 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have the time right now to find links or anything (resources are very easy to find on him), but Alexander the Great was certainly a badass, and he did a lot to advance science in his day.
posted by The Potate at 11:42 AM on May 13, 2010

JFK wrote a book called Profiles in Courage about politicians who put their reputations on the line to do what they thought was right.

And in fact, JFK went against all his advisors in the Cuban Missile Crisis, as depicted dramatically in Thirteen Days, which is also a movie.

And Ghost Map tells the story of an intrepid scientist and his colleague the brave priest who join forces to fight a deadly outbreak of cholera. This one isn't a movie...yet.
posted by chatongriffes at 11:46 AM on May 13, 2010

Agreeing about Shackleton. By the time I read about them climbing OVER the mountain because they had landed on the wrong side of South Georgia, I was beyond exhausted. The miniseries with Kenneth Braunaugh about him was very good. When you read his story you're like omg this is all TRUE?!
posted by Melismata at 11:48 AM on May 13, 2010

Ernest Shackleton. Not a single man lost. Absolutely beyond comprehension.

Actually, the Wikipedia link for the ship is better. And I think this is the book that I read about the expedition.

To summarize: Expedition to the Antarctic trapped in the ice in 1915. Two years later, through various completely preposterous feats, they managed to reach help and every single crew member was brought to safety.
posted by madmethods at 11:48 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Five Fists of Science was an entertaining spin on this idea.

Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain and Bertha von Suttner combine forces to try to bring about world peace through superior firepower. The comic's introduction shows Twain explaining that the story does not concern itself very much with historical accuracy, and this assertion is borne out by the story: Twain and Tesla use scientific know-how, general trickery and media manipulation techniques to try to scare world leaders into following their noble path. In the company of several allies, the two are soon confronted by dark forces led by the dastardly Thomas Edison, John Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Guglielmo Marconi. The inventors and financiers are collaborating on a bizarre new skyscraper, the Innsmouth Tower, on whose building site many construction workers have already died in mysterious accidents.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:50 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

William Dampier. He's a scientist-pirate.

If you need me to explain why a scientist-pirate is cool, I don't know what to say.

You can read about him here; I can attest it's a bloody good book.
posted by rodgerd at 11:50 AM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Cracked has an appropriate list which includes Stapp and Barry Marshall.
posted by logicpunk at 11:52 AM on May 13, 2010

Thomas Paine
posted by mareli at 11:54 AM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Harriet Tubman is about as badass as it gets:

"Moses": For eleven years [even with the Fugitive Slave Act in effect] Tubman returned again and again to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, rescuing some seventy slaves in thirteen expeditions...She also provided specific instructions for about fifty to sixty other fugitives who escaped to the north...Slaveholders in the region, meanwhile, never knew that "Minty", the petite, five-foot-tall, disabled slave who had run away years before and never come back, was behind so many slave escapes in their community.

The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the Civil War: When the American Civil War began, Tubman worked for the Union Army, first as a cook and nurse, and then as an armed scout and spy. The first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war, she guided the raid on the Combahee River, which liberated more than seven hundred slaves.

The Pre-Rosa-Parks Rosa Parks: Tubman returned to Auburn at the end of the war. During a train ride to New York, the conductor told her to move into the smoking car. She refused, explaining her government service. He cursed at her and grabbed her, but she resisted and he summoned two other passengers for help. While she clutched at the railing, they muscled her away, breaking her arm in the process. They threw her into the smoking car, causing more injuries. As these events transpired, other white passengers cursed Tubman and shouted for the conductor to kick her off the train.

Suffragette: A white woman once asked Tubman whether she believed women ought to have the vote, and received the reply: "I suffered enough to believe it." Tubman began attending meetings of suffragist organizations, and was soon working alongside women such as Susan B. Anthony and Emily Howland. Tubman traveled to New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C. to speak out in favor of women's voting rights. She described her actions during and after the Civil War, and used the sacrifices of countless women throughout modern history as evidence of women's equality to men...An 1897 suffragist newspaper reported a series of receptions in Boston honoring Tubman and her lifetime of service to the nation. However, her endless contributions to others had left her in poverty, and she had to sell a cow to buy a train ticket.

Seriously Badass: At some point in the late 1890s, she underwent brain surgery at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital. Unable to sleep because of pains and "buzzing" in her head, she asked a doctor if he could operate. He agreed, and in her words, "sawed open my skull, and raised it up, and now it feels more comfortable." She had received no anesthesia for the procedure, and reportedly chose instead to bite down on a bullet, as she had seen Civil War soldiers do when their limbs were amputated.
posted by sallybrown at 11:58 AM on May 13, 2010 [12 favorites]

Bill Bryson's book "A Short History of Nearly Everything" is full of badasses. I'd heard of most of them in school, but they had never been presented the way he presented them. Read that book and you'll have loads of examples.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 12:05 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Carl F(ucking badass) Gauss

Paul Erdos

Georg Cantor

Sam Vimes (wait, they can be fictional, right?)
posted by kmz at 12:07 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: All these answers are flippin' fantastic, and each gets me excited to plow through a book on the subject. Thanks, and keep 'em coming!
posted by Turkey Glue at 12:10 PM on May 13, 2010

Sir Richard Francis Burton. He's best known in the west for being the first to translate the "One Thousand nights and a Night" from Arabic to English. He's also known for getting the Kama Sutra published in the west.

Among his other examples of badassery, he visited Mecca in disguise, a death penalty offense for a non-Muslim.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:25 PM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

Louis Pasteur, baby.

This guy was a dynamo of innovation. Made a discovery foundational to our current theories of the origin of life for his doctoral thesis. Saved the French wine industry, showed how make many drinks, most notably milk, much safer while also contributing significantly to the germ theory of disease by inventing pasteurization. Just to top it off, he then popularized the idea of the vaccine. He first tested it on animals (this helped prevent many animal deaths from anthrax/cholera) and eventually created the first rabies vaccine for humans.
posted by Truthiness at 12:37 PM on May 13, 2010

Seconding Ernest Shackelton. Read the book Endurance: Shackelton's Incredible Voyage. All the other polar explorers lost men in their outfit. He never did. This book shows what a true leader is.
posted by luvmywife at 12:41 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Candido Rondon- I heard about him while reading The River of Doubt about Roosesvelt's trip down the river of the same name. He is a heroic figure in Brazil with a state named after him. He fascinated me because of his approach to dealing with the native peoples he encountered. If I remember correctly I think he told members of his explorations to never shoot at Indians even to protect themselves. He was instrumental in creating the Servico Nacional de Proteção aos Indios (National Service for Protection of the Indians) and ran it for many years. He was an advocate for saving the Indians of Brazil and treating them with dignity. He was also a Positivist.
posted by leetheflea at 12:42 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Genghis Khan

His biography as told in Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, is utterly amazing. The modern world really was shaped by him.
posted by MustardTent at 12:46 PM on May 13, 2010

One of my friends quotes the following on her Facebook page:

"Evans boldly put 50 ATM of ethylene in a cell with 25 ATM of oxygen. The apparatus subsequently blew up, but luckily not before he obtained the spectrum in figure 8."
~ A.J. Merer, R.S. Mulliken. Chem. Rev. 69, 645 (1969)

The title of the paper is "Ultraviolet Spectra and Excited States of Ethylene and its Alkyl Derivatives," and the journal is Chemical Reviews. You can access the full text of the paper for free on the ACS website (well, at least I can at the moment; I'm at a university). I know nothing else about this Professor D.F. Evans, but he's my science badass of the moment.
posted by sigmagalator at 12:47 PM on May 13, 2010

If you’re serious about the podcast thing (and I really hope you are) the bare minimum you need to get started is a mic for your computer, a free copy of audacity, and I paid for a $20 a year wordpress audio/video blog when I started mine. But I believe you can find free hosting out and about. I also picked up a feedburner account to not have to learn all the rigamarole of creating RSS feeds properly to sync with the various podgrabbers.
posted by edbles at 12:52 PM on May 13, 2010

1. Who's your badass of choice?
Imhotep (not the mummy character -- the real Imhotep, circa 2600 BC.

2. What did they do?

He was the first healer to emerge from history. He designed the step pyramid at Saqqara, the first large building made of stone. He became vizier to King Djoser.

3. What are good resources to learn their story?

He lived in the Third Dynasty and not much is known about him -- but there's a fair bit of info available via Google.

4. What are good resources to learn about the times in which they lived?

Again, the Third Dynasty is relatively unknown... there is disagreement about the order of some of the kings (they weren't called 'pharaohs' yet). But most histories of Egypt will give you the details.

5. Why are they important?
Third dynasty Egypt (or Kemet), the Old Kingdom, was vigorous, young, and feisty. The Great Pyramid (Dynasty 4) came about as a direct result of Imhotep's work. Oddly, he was renowned in his own time (as far as we can tell) mostly for his fame and skill as a magician. He was also an astronomer, astrologer, sage -- and, of course, a healer. Doctors in those days used magic in addition to potions and medicines, and his cure ratio was supposedly through the roof. He wrote some of hisgtory's first medical texts. Imhotep was so good at what he did that he later was worshiped as a god -- one of the very few commoners to be deified. (The pharaohs don't count, as they were not commoners, and were regarded as divine anyway.) He followed his star, you could say, and is history's first example of a multi-talented man -- a true genius, the first one we know of, the Leonardo of his time. Four thousand years later, we still know his name.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:55 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Theodore Roosevelt was the most badass U.S. president. He was a prodigious correspondent, a prolific author, a trained naturalist who almost singlehandedly established the US system of national parks, refuges, forests and monuments, a consummate conservationist, an explorer, a crafty politician, a hell of an outdoorsman, hunter and fisherman, a one-time deputy sheriff, mountain climber (Mont Blanc), New York City Police Commissioner, New York Assemblyman, New York State Governor, philanthropist, assistant secretary of the Navy, Colonel in the Spanish American War and leader of the Rough Riders, "hero of San Juan Hill," Medal of Honor winner (posthumously in 1997), trust-buster and bully pulpiteer.
posted by beagle at 1:03 PM on May 13, 2010

Bengali scientist and author Jagadish Chandra Bose. Wrote sci-fi, did groundbreaking physics and botany, all while Great Britain had India under its boot.
posted by brainwane at 1:08 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Feynman. A smartass and a badass. No better combination on Earth.
posted by mykescipark at 1:10 PM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

I see you didn't exclude religious examples, of which there are many. Usually people who gave up their lives by speaking out against oppression and serving the poor. Archbishiop Oscar Romero comes to mind. So does Mahatma Ghandi.

If by badass you can include one who has no regard for himself in the service of others, you cannot beat St. Lawrence. He was a deacon of the early Christian church who was a servant of the poor by vocation. During the persecution of Valerian in the third century, he was asked by the Romans to turn over the 'treasures of the Church' to the emperor. So he brought a group of poor, lame, and sick peasants and slaves. Which got him martyred by being slow-roasted on an iron grate. After a few hours, legend has it, he turned to his executioners, smiled and said "Let my body be turned; one side is broiled enough." After having been turned over a while, he turned to the executioner and said, "It is cooked enough; you may eat."

Sounds pretty badass to me.
posted by cross_impact at 1:30 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Chuck Yeager. He broke the sound barrier, with broken ribs. He bailed out of an F-104A, the rocket from the ejector seat crashed into his helmet, and he parachuted down with his face on fire. Hardcore!

Giles Corey. He was crushed to death with stone weights during the Salem witch trials. "After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, 'More weight.'" Hardcore!
posted by kirkaracha at 1:30 PM on May 13, 2010 [4 favorites]


Joseph Warren was the head of the spy network, The Committee for Public Safety, during the American Revolution up in Boston. He was the one who coordinated the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere and 40 other riders the night of April 18th 1775. Joseph Warren found out which way the British Regulars were going to invade Lexington and Concord the next day (Shot heard around the world, first battles of the revolution... which we lost... anyways). Joesph Warren supposedly got that information from Margaret Gage, the wife of British General Thomas Gage. She gave out her husbands information either because it was some torrid love affair with Warren, OR because she was American, and therefore loved her soon-to-be country more than her husband. Warren's information gave the advance warring for the Americans that night before the battle becoming a hero. However, he was killed two months later at the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was shot in the back. Some historians believe he actually set out to get himself killed that day because there was no actual reason for him to be on the front lines fighting. Maybe he went love crazy after Gage was sent back to England for betraying her husband, never to return again.
posted by nbaseman at 1:39 PM on May 13, 2010

Here's another. Emil Kaupan, an Army Chaplain in the Korean War.

When his regiment was overrun by the Chinese, he stayed behind with the wounded and allowed himself to be captured so that he could minister to the prisoners. He prevented many who could not walk from being shot at great peril to his own life. In the prison camp he stole food from the commissary at night for his starving men knowing that he would be shot on sight if discovered. A Protestant chaplain with a wife and children at home was severely depressed and Emil knew he would die if something didn’t change. He deliberately said things to make him angry knowing that the experience of anger would bring him out of himself. It worked, and the man lived to return to his family. Emil tried everything to keep the men positive and hopeful. The men who got dysentery, he carried on his shoulders to the latrine and cleaned them. Eventually he got sick and the guards took him off to die. The last thing his men heard was Emil assuring the guards he held no animosity or hatred for them.
posted by cross_impact at 1:46 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

JFK wrote a book called Profiles in Courage about politicians who put their reputations on the line to do what they thought was right.
"Wrote" should be in quotes.

posted by kirkaracha at 2:07 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Alvin York.

In WWI he almost single handedly captured 132 armed German soldiers using nothing but a rifle and a pistol.

Read more here.
posted by Thorrent at 2:09 PM on May 13, 2010

Alexander Shulgin was a research chemist who synthesized hundreds of novel hallucinogenic and psychoactive drugs. His process was to start with a known active structure, tweak it slightly, synthesize the new product, then ingest it and document its effects. This allowed him to gradually develop a sense of how differences in structure correlated with subjective effects. He did this legally for years, first for Dow Chemical, then on his own as a DEA-licensed researcher and consultant.

Did I mention he also published two massive books (PIHKAL and TIHKAL) with detailed synthesis instructions for each product, complete with accounts of his reasoning behind each attempted structural variation, and flowery first-person descriptions of their psychedelic effects? As you can imagine, the DEA wasn't too thrilled about that. He had his license revoked shortly thereafter.

The man was brilliant and insane. He was single-handedly responsible for the many popular mescaline derivatives now floating around, and his improved synthesis of MDMA played a big role in popularizing the drug.
posted by dephlogisticated at 2:13 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Badass of the Week offers dozens of these, interspersed with more questionable badasses like "Kefka" or "the S&W .500 Magnum."
posted by Iridic at 2:14 PM on May 13, 2010

One of my favorite Indian scientists: G. N. Ramachandran, whose name might be familiar to you from biochemistry class for developing the Ramachandran plot, to study the dihedral angles of polypeptides. He also discovered the triple helical structure of collagen and did this all while working in the rather poorly funded labs in my hometown (I know, I've worked in them), as well as other labs in India.
There's also the great Indian mathematican Srinivasa Ramanujan who had no formal training in mathematics. Despite winning a scholarship to attend college, he lost it due to his poor non-mathematical scholarship. He eventually began work as a clerk and sent samples of his mathematical work to G. H. Hardy and others at Cambridge. He was invited to work with Hardy at Cambridge and became a Fellow of the Royal Society. Unfortunately, he died at the young age of 32 -- it seemed as though the air of England did not suit him. He famously left behind many thousands of results the proofs for which kept mathematicians busy for many years after his death.
posted by peacheater at 2:16 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Ranulph Fiennes. The man cut off the tips of his own frost bitten fingers with a fucking hand saw.
posted by nestor_makhno at 2:30 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Saint Simeon the Stylite was one of the early Christian ascetics who lived on a pillar for 37 years. The first was 4 meters high but it was replaced over time; the final one was apparently 15 meters high. He inspired several other ascetics to copy his routine, but he was the original stylite.

Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate, which eventually became the official translation). He was quite a partier before he converted to Christianity and became an ascetic. He was asked to translate the Bible into Latin by the pope, which involved learning Hebrew and Greek. He originally didn't think it was going to be that big a task, but collecting and sifting through all the different sources in their original languages was much harder than he anticipated and he worked on it on and off for decades. He traveled around a lot, mentoring some women in Rome (some say they were a little too close...), and eventually settled in a cave in Egypt where he kept working on the Vulgate. He had to stop for awhile because he went blind because he had such poor nutrition. I'm sure there's more awesomeness to the story that I can't remember from my class a few years ago.
posted by lilac girl at 2:40 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Alcibiades of Athens Sparta Persia Athens. The trickiest motherfucker ever born. Betrays the Spartans to become an Athenian general, then defects to Sparta when his enemies in Athens frame him for knocking the dicks off of the bases of busts of Hermes (no, really); leads the Spartans to many victories in the Peloponnesus but then knocks up the Spartan Queen and defects to Persia. Tricks the Persian satrap into funding the overthrow of Athenian democracy, then talks the Athenians into recalling him as general. Defeats the Spartans at Abydos and Cyzicus, conquers the Hellespont, finally exiles himself after defeat at Notium.
posted by nicwolff at 2:56 PM on May 13, 2010 [6 favorites]

Humphrey Davy, a proto-chemist and all-round scientific badass who regularly experimented on himself (and his friends) and produced spectacular public demonstrations of his discoveries.
posted by lex mercatoria at 2:59 PM on May 13, 2010

JBS Haldane (More)

In his decompression chamber experiments, he and his volunteers suffered perforated eardrums, but, as Haldane stated in What is Life, "the drum generally heals up; and if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment

In one experiment, he drank quantities of hydrochloric acid to observe its effects on muscle action; another time he exercised to exhaustion while measuring carbon dioxide pressures in his lungs.

During World War I, Haldane volunteered for the Scottish Black Watch and was sent to the front. There he found, to his shock and dismay, that he liked killing the enemy. Twice wounded, he personally delivered bombs and engaged in sabotage behind enemy lines, prompting his commander to call him "the bravest and dirtiest officer in my Army."
posted by lalochezia at 3:37 PM on May 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm fond of the stories of the female pirates of yore: Anne Bonny, Mary Read, Grace O’Malley (who commanded three galleys and 200 men), etc.
posted by jokeefe at 4:45 PM on May 13, 2010

Also, if you think of Florence Nightingale as merely the angelic "Lady of the Lamp", you should read her biography. She was seriously badass.
posted by jokeefe at 4:52 PM on May 13, 2010

defects to Sparta when his enemies in Athens frame him for knocking the dicks off of the bases of busts of Hermes (no, really);

Verdict out that he was framed. He and his drunken frat guy buddies had been carousing the night before and he did scarper pretty quick the next morning. And he was pretty full of himself.

But to the question - Orde Wingate. Joseph Stilwell. Hayreddin Barbarossa. Francis Walsingham.

And seconding the men of Malta. A good eyewitness account is by Balbi di Correggio.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:08 PM on May 13, 2010

Oh, and of course: Emma Goldman.
posted by jokeefe at 5:08 PM on May 13, 2010

Archimedes, of course. Brilliant scientist who was also first rate military engineer.

Similarly, and more obscurely, Gabriele Tadini da Martinengo, who showed his stuff to best advantage at the Siege of Rhodes. Midnight escape from Crete to join the cause, invented a primitive mine detector, fought hand to hand in dark tunnels, took a bullet in the face and was back at the front in weeks- oh, he's a piece of work, was Martinengo.

See, besides the links, The two sieges of Rhodes, 1480-1522 by Eric Brockman
posted by IndigoJones at 5:37 PM on May 13, 2010

Stanislav Petrov may have saved the world from nuclear annihilation.
posted by kprincehouse at 5:42 PM on May 13, 2010 [7 favorites]

1. Who's your badass of choice?
Benjamin Thompson, Lord Rumford

2. What did they do?
Stole from the Americans and spied on them, stole from the British and spied on them, stole from the Germans and spied on them, stole from the French and spied on them. Made and lost several fortunes. Invented thermodynamics and the modern kitchen.

3. What are good resources to learn their story?
It's hard to find good comprehensive stories of his life because he did so much work in science, politics, espionage, military, and scoundrelry - most articles tend to focus on only one activity. Most reference works avoid the scoundrelry. Start with the wikipedia article and try this and this and this.

4. What are good resources to learn about the times in which they lived?
The American Revolution and its aftermath? There are a lot of resources out there.

5. Why are they important?
Rumford disproved the phlogiston model of heat transfer, and demonstrated that heat is generated by mechanical work and can be measured. He applied his work on heat transfer to improve designs for chimneys and kitchens. He invented some techniques for raising and equipping the German army.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 5:50 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

1. Who's your badass of choice?
Logan Scott-Bowden, a major in the British army and member of the Corps of Royal Engineers during World War II.

2. What did they do?
Along with Sergeant Bruce Ogden-Smith, he conducted a secret mission for the British military on New Year's Day 1944 to take soil samples from the beaches at Normandy, six months before the Allied invasion. Aerial photos had shown the beach to have large sections of peat and soft clay, which could have been disastrous for the tank invasion the Allies were planning. Scott-Bowden's results showed that the ground was indeed too soft for tanks, but British engineers came up with a workaround (laying out sheets of canvas ahead of the tank treads).

In order to get the samples without getting caught by the German patrols (and possibly compromising the whole D-Day invasion), he and his partner had to sail in stormy conditions to a point two miles from the beach and then swim the rest of the way. In the English Channel. In January. Then, armed with pistols and knives, they made their way stealthily along the beach taking soil samples with a custom spring-loaded tool designed to be silent. Finally they had to swim the distance back to their boat, but it took them several attempts because the waves kept bringing them back to the shore.

3. What are good resources to learn their story?
There was a TV series called Coast that did a story about him. I think since then there have been other documentaries and books written about the mission. This article could get you started.

4. What are good resources to learn about the times in which they lived?
Lots of books about World War II.

5. Why are they important?
Without the results he gathered, the invasion of Normandy might not have been a success.
posted by albrecht at 6:35 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I came in for the sole purpose of mentioning J.B.S. Haldane, but lalochezia beat me to it.
posted by pemberkins at 6:37 PM on May 13, 2010

I was going to mention J.B.S. Haldane too, but lalochezia and pemberkins were there before me.
posted by brianogilvie at 7:44 PM on May 13, 2010

Alvin York was awarded the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machine gun nest, taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers and capturing 132 others.

He was backed up by seven men, and was lucky enough that during the firefight - without taking cover - he was not injured.
posted by talldean at 8:00 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

For the person who mentioned Alexander Shulgin, the guy's still alive.

He published PIHKAL working hand-in-hand with the DEA, reporting his results to them first, and getting approved to publish the book. Later, his lab was raided by the DEA, and they destroyed a few priceless things when they went through. He was upset, and then published TIKHAL.

The man has balls, and if his brain is still ticking at 80-some-years old, he's gotta be made of some stern stuff.
posted by talldean at 8:03 PM on May 13, 2010

Lots of great stuff above. But surely a list of badass scientsts wouldn't be complete without evil geniuses and mad scientists. How about the cofounder of the JPL, Jack Parsons? Occultist, friend of Hubbard, attempting to sire a "Moonchild", and massively disfigured in a home laboratory after an explosion of mercury. Supposedly he died hours later, I'm sure he's recovering quite well in his volcano lair.
posted by pwnguin at 9:08 PM on May 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I might add,

1. Roald Dahl
2. He was caned by the (subsequent) Archbishop of Canterbury, he was a Flying Ace for the RAF in WWII, he coined the word "gremlin", he was a spy for the British, he wrote macabre short stories (many of which were picked up by Alfred Hitchcock), he married Patricia Neal and nursed her back to health after she suffered three burst cerebral aneurisms, he invented a valve to alleviate his son's hydrocephalus, and he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
3. Start with his two autobiographies, Boy and Going Solo. There is an official site. His fans have a site. There are some good references on the wikipedia page.
4. The 20th century? There's lots of material on it.
5. Roald Dahl is important because his writing, both for children and adults, opens our eyes to the unexpected, to the unpleasant, to the subversive, to the imaginative.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:33 PM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

1. Who's your badass of choice?

BUZZ fucking ALDRIN, Col., (Ret) USAF.

2. What did they do?

Dude walked on the MOON. And he stood back and held the door for someone else to go first. So, while his inventions aren't front page material, he is still privileged to have eaten the cherry off the top of the science sundae.

Not only that, he has defended humanity's pinnacle achievement with humanity's original persuader, the right hook. When a notorious crackpot flat-earther got up in his face accusing him of space-fraud, Buzz, then in his seventies, punched him in the chops.

Plus, he's been on the Simpsons, the Colbert Report AND 30 Rock.

And so, in conclusion, yay, science.
please note: punching people is not nice. but punching that dude was required by law, and the defining point of badassery in this particular instance. yay science.
posted by Sallyfur at 9:35 PM on May 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Mrs. Methods had a very interesting suggestion: Henrietta Lacks.

Quoting from the Wikipedia article: "Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells. Doctors still have not discovered why HeLa cells are so unique. There are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells."

Not just a badass -- a unique, disease-conquering, scientist-confounding, immortal badass.
posted by madmethods at 10:06 PM on May 13, 2010 [5 favorites]


What did he do?
A few of many: Archimedes was able to use infinitesimals in a way that is similar to modern integral calculus (~250 B.C.). He also created siege engines that successfully defended entire cities.

Why is he a badass?
...the Romans being in such abject terror that, "if they did but see a piece of rope or wood projecting above the wall they would cry ' there it is,' declaring that Archimedes was setting some engine in motion against them, and would turn their backs and run away, insomuch that Marcellus desisted from all fighting and assault, putting all his hope in a long siege".

His death:
The most picturesque version of the story is that which represents him as saying to a Roman soldier who came too close, " Stand away, fellow, from my diagram," whereat the man. was so enraged that he killed him.

posted by benzenedream at 2:29 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Eighteenth century engineers could be pretty tough. Brunnell, Washington Roebling, Bazalgette. You have to consider the sheer size of what these guys managed to accomplish, and that's besides having to beat down the bureaucrats and sharpies.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:18 AM on May 14, 2010

This may not fit exactly with your theme, but Évariste Galois was definitely a certified badass in a couple of different ways. By 17 he had published his first mathematical paper and by the time he was barely out of his teens, he had laid the groundwork for a new branch of mathematics (what would become Galois theory). Along the way he became an anti-monarchist activist, for which he was expelled from the École Normale, arrested twice, and imprisoned once. His life ended at 20 when he died in a duel under mysterious circumstances, and his last words (to his brother) are allegedly the following:
Ne pleure pas, Alfred! J'ai besoin de tout mon courage pour mourir à vingt ans! (Don't cry, Alfred! I need all my courage to die at twenty.)
posted by en forme de poire at 8:58 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two favorite early 20th century women badasses:
Beryl Markham, pilot
Alice Hamilton, MD, pioneer in occupational medicine (she discovered the association between radium and cancer in watch dial workers, carbon monoxide poisoning in steelworkers, the effects of mercury poisoning in hatters, and "Dead fingers" syndrome among laborers using jackhammers, among many many many risks to workers of her time).
posted by gubenuj at 9:59 AM on May 14, 2010

Do astronauts count? The space race was, IMO, overflowing with badassery. Check the Apollo Surface Journals and a Vostok-1 analysisfor a sample.

How about this one... I grudgingly admit that, after seeing his TED talk, David Blaine does have badass potential. Although his actual contribution to society is quite limited.
posted by Harry at 10:02 AM on May 14, 2010

(Oh, and if would have to pick just one astronaut.. I would choose Micheal Collins, who was all alone in the Apollo 11 CM while his teammates made history... the most humble form of badassery)
posted by Harry at 10:05 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by jokeefe at 10:13 AM on May 14, 2010

Wittgenstein. The dude wrote an insane work of philosophical genius while fighting in the trenches in WWI before moving to Norway and living in a shack teaching rural school children before wielding a fire poker against Karl Popper.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:22 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I want to hear these podcasts when you're done. Let us know!
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 10:37 AM on May 14, 2010

1: Fridtjof Nansen

2: Athlete, Explorer, Scientific pioneer, Diplomat and Nobel Peace Prize winner.

3: Roland Huntford's 'Nansen' is pretty weighy in delivering his life story.

5: Early sports skier, but this is relatively trivial. Zoologist that went on to specialise and make significiant contributions to Physiology (specifically related to neuron theory) and Oceanography (including inventing the Nansen bottle). Skied across Greenland, which led to the more interesting Fram expedition. The Fram was a purpose built ship with a bottom shaped kind of like an egg shell, which was sailed into the arctic ice and left to drift to investigate currents in the arctic. when they didn't drift to the North Pole as Nansen was hoping they got off and walked, getting further north than anyone had previously been. Nansen and his companion lost their bearings on this return journey and ended up living on a small island for nearly a year, in a hut they made from sticks and moss. The voyage demonstrated the existence of the North Polar Basin and also led Nansen to make the first recorded description of Dead Water. The vessel popped out of the pack ice after a decent drfit and is now installed in a museum in Oslo, well worth popping in if you are in the neighbourhood, doubles up quite nicely for a visit with the nearby Kon-Tiki.

Nansen was involved in the Norwegian movement to become independent from Denmark which led to a career in diplomacy aand he became involved in the League of Nations as the first High Commissioner. for refugees He created the Nansen Passport for refugees, helped to get 450,000 WW1 POWs home from Russia, and led efforts to feed at least 7,000,000 starving Russians in the famine of 1921-22, leading to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
posted by biffa at 11:11 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

1. Who's your badass of choice?
Ines Ramírez Pérez
2. What did they do?
Performed Caesarean section on herself with a knife, saved her baby and lived to tell the tale
3. What are good resources to learn their story?
5. Why are they important?
Badassery goes to 11
posted by elgilito at 11:22 AM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Norman Borlaug.

Although most people have never heard of him, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Why? Through his agricultural research and activism, he is credited to having saved a billion people from starvation.

Billion. With a B.
posted by quin at 11:39 AM on May 14, 2010 [5 favorites]

Performed Caesarean section on herself with a knife, saved her baby and lived to tell the tale

Wasn't there someone who performed an appendectomy on himeself, too? Yeesh.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 11:44 AM on May 14, 2010

John Boyd was an Air Force Colonel who developed, among other things, the OODA loop and Energy-Maneuverability Theory, and was instrumental in the Marines' development and adoption of maneuver warfare.

He's a badass because he's a model of how you can change things - even in the most bureaucratic, change-averse environments like the military - simply by virtue of being right and having solid evidence to back it up.

Clearly I can't really do his achievements and their gravity justice, but I learned about him in Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War. It's a great read.
posted by joshuaconner at 11:52 AM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

John Roebling for history and science.
posted by jgirl at 12:03 PM on May 14, 2010

I should elaborate on my earlier comment.

E-M theory is important because prior to it the Air Force was singularly focused on building planes that could fly as quickly in a straight line as possible. Boyd realized that no matter how fast jets got, they'd never be able to outrun bullets, and so the defining characteristic of a jet was actually how well it could do maneuvers in the air. Many Air Force Generals fought him - and he was, at the time, a lieutenant IIRC - on this and he managed to prevail because he was RIGHT and he had the evidence to back it up and he was tenacious as hell about it.
posted by joshuaconner at 12:08 PM on May 14, 2010

Who: Werner Forssmann

What he did: he pushed two feet of cable up his arm and into his own heart, that's what. Quoting his biography on the Nobel Prize page, "he was the first to develop a technique for the catheterization of the heart. This he did by inserting a cannula into his own antecubital vein, through which he passed a catheter for 65 cm and then walked to the X-ray department [emphasis mine], where a photograph was taken of the catheter lying in his right auricle."

Why is he important: what he did might seem just another weird curiosity, until you realize that he got a Nobel prize for his work; the procedure he helped develop is used for examining the inside of the heart to diagnose potential heart problems.
posted by daniel_charms at 12:16 PM on May 14, 2010

1.) Admiral Thomas Cochrane

2.) Napoleonic era naval commander. Loose cannon, served with several rebel navies.

3.) Aside from the above wikipedia entry, you could check out Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander.

4.) Honestly? Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels give an excellent flavor of the period.

5.) Inspired Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, not to mention making an appearance in Sharpe's Devil.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:30 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Joseph Priestly - inventor of soda water! Discovered oxygen, but didn't really understand what it was. (See Rumford above.) One of the first Unitarians, burned out of his home for supporting the French Revolution. Great book about him by Steven Johnson.
posted by epersonae at 1:00 PM on May 14, 2010

I read this book years ago, but it comes to mind now, Reach for the Sky: The Story of Douglas Bader, Legless Ace of the Battle of Britain. He was a World War II pilot who lost his legs before the war even started. Great great read.
posted by knile at 1:20 PM on May 14, 2010

Jhansi ki Rani. I can't tell if these are only supposed to be science-related, so I'm just going to throw this in here anyway.
posted by sa3z at 1:27 PM on May 14, 2010

Ennio Bolognini. How many other world-class cellists also made a living as sparring partners for champion boxers, had pilot's licenses and drove race cars? He had the great musicians with whom he played sign his cello. With a nail. When he was fired from the Chicago Symphony (some say for complaints from bringing his dog to rehearsal) he retaliated by buzzing their outdoor concerts in his plane. He was also a polyglot and spent the last years of his professional life playing schmooze in Vegas to pay off his enormous gambling debts.
posted by dr. boludo at 1:39 PM on May 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hatshepsut. My favourite Pharoh.
posted by sandraregina at 2:09 PM on May 14, 2010

Bessie Coleman.

At one time a manicurist, at another, the only licensed Black pilot in the world, she surmounted every obstacle placed in her way. When she was refused flying lessons in the US, she learned enough French to get by, and went to Europe to train. Reeve Lindbergh (daughter of Charles) and Dr. Mae Jemison (first Black woman in space) each wrote a book about her. She appeared on a US stamp in 1995.

She flew a Curtiss Jenny, and was killed in true daredevil fashion, by falling, unsecured, from an open cockpit.

She has the badassiest hero photo on her grave, where pilots still perform memorial fly-bys.
posted by Sallyfur at 2:31 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

As the story goes, Pythagoras pushed Hipposus off a boat for suggesting that there might be irrational numbers.
posted by NoraReed at 2:57 PM on May 14, 2010

He was a World War II pilot who lost his legs before the war even started.

Oh yes! The story I was told is that his prosthetic legs were damaged after he was forced to bail out over France, and that substitue legs were airdropped to him in prison camp via the Red Cross. He strapped on the legs and escaped that night; the camp commander caught up with him as he struggled along the road and insisted he return.
posted by jokeefe at 3:01 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, re: Shackelton. My mother, who was born in England in 1933, said that she was taught at school that Shackleton was a bit of a failure because he hadn't actually reached the South Pole; all the books hailed Scott as the genuine hero because he had actually made it (albeit late). The tragedy of Scott was considered far more compelling than the triumph of Shackleton, though I think today the reverse is true.
posted by jokeefe at 3:09 PM on May 14, 2010

Zhu Yuanzhang, born the youngest child in a poor peasant family, he eventually grew up to found the the Ming Dynasty.
posted by afu at 5:38 PM on May 14, 2010

Crazy Horse was amongst the most badassed Native Americans -- he was a respected mystic & tribal leader as well as probably the most successful militarily against European incursion. This was a pretty good book, and of course Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee covers the general era. Also, Black Elk Speaks is a transcription of verbal accounts from another tribesman who knew his stories.
posted by Devils Rancher at 6:35 PM on May 14, 2010

I gotta second Louis Pasteur. Okay, so the guy is essential for basically the entire of modern medicine via germ theory.

Especially bad-ass is the story of Pasteur and Meister. Pasteur had been working on a rabies vaccine, and had some good results, but just on animals. One day, a nine year old boy that had been bitten by a rabid dog. Pasteur really had no idea if his vaccine was going to work on the kid, but started treatment. The boy lived.

(You can contrast this with Edward Jenner, who wasn't so much bad-ass as just bad. When he developed the smallpox vaccine, he tested it out on a kid. First, he gave the kid cowpox. Not life-threatening, but hardly "do no harm." But he had to make sure the vaccine worked, right? So he exposed the kid to smallpox.)

In all fairness, Louis Pasteur probably lives on as a hero in many of our minds because he was an incredibly shameless self-promoter.

The boy treated by Pasteur was named Joseph Meister, and it's worth looking at his story too. I don't remember well enough, would have to dig through a couple of books. Something like Meister worked for Pasteur his whole life, and during WWII, forcibly prevented Nazi's from entering Pasteur's tomb. Don't quote me on this part.
posted by nathan v at 6:39 PM on May 14, 2010

Jane Goodall, as Dale Peterson's biography will atest :)
posted by supermedusa at 6:48 PM on May 14, 2010

A similar concept to this is BBC Radio 4's Great Lives. You may want to give it a listen.

My personal nominees:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A prolific writer, his Holmes novels were used as textbooks on deductive reasoning for many years by the French and Egyptian police forces. He played football for the Gentlemen of England, introduced skiing as a sport to Switzerland (from Norway, leading to the invention of Alpine skiing) was a key figure in the birth of English motorsports. During WWI he repeatedly petitioned the government to introduce tin helmets for soldiers and warned them, in vain, of the threat of German u-boats. His life is phenomenal.

Sydney Smith (1771 – 1845): Writer and clergyman. Fierce campaigner for the emancipation of Catholics (initially through his Peter Plymley's Letters), as it happens and an all round good egg. But more importantly probably the second greatest wit ever to hail from the British Isles (giving Wilde first place). My fav quote of his for now: "Daniel Webster struck me much like a steam-engine in trousers."

Alfred Russel Wallace: (from Wikipedia) naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist and biologist. He is best known for independently proposing a theory of evolution due to natural selection that prompted Charles Darwin to publish his own theory.
The man who discovered the Wallace Line, way before geologists began to understand plate tectonics he realised the dividing line that separated East from West by studying species.
posted by NailsTheCat at 8:42 PM on May 14, 2010

Ok its been said twice already, but I'll say it again.

In 1914, he led 22 men to saftey after their ship was crushed in the Antarctic Ice. They took 3 launches, trekked to the edge of the ice, found a safe spot to put in and made it to elephant isle.

From there, with 5 other men, they took the largest lifeboat, and set on an 800 mile course dead-reckoning from Elephant Isle to South Georgia during a storm that sunk a 500-ton steamer. They did it in roughly 7 days... this is like leaving Prince Edward Island and rowing to Long Island New York without the aid of costal geography as South Georgia is sort of in the middle of nowhere (likewise so is Elephant Isle)

Once they got to South Georgia they had to cross one of the hardest and most technical moutaineering ranges in the world with 50' of rope and a carpenter's axe. They did it in 36 hours.

From there, he had to rescue the crew back on Elephant Isle which took roughly 3 months to get to since there was ice, storms and other nastiness.

All 22 men survived.

Read SOUTH his account of the expidition. It is an absolute gripping tale.

I should note, that professional adventurers and guides have been unable to reproduce all of the things they did in the timeframe that they did them, with modern equipment.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:33 PM on May 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I picture this in a similar vein as Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

Derail, but for the love of all that is holy, similar vein all you want but do not use the voice of Satan when doing quotes. It makes the podcast unbearable for me.

For all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's scientific interest, do not omit his equally interesting obsession with the occult, specifically spiritualism and fairies. His brother, Charles Altamont Doyle, spent a fair amount of time in an asylum. His diary is split pretty evenly by pretty terrible puns, fairies, and an obsession with death. Not really history or science I suppose, but he'd make an interesting topic in his own right.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:26 PM on May 14, 2010

Ewart Grogan

In 1898, when his girlfriend's stepfather challenged him to prove he was worthy of marrying her, he responded by becoming the first person to walk the length of Africa, south to north, over 4,000 miles in 2 years.

At the age of 24. Almost died too many times to count: cannibals, charging elephants, constant malaria, you name it.

It worked. He made it home, married her and became the youngest person to address the Royal Geographical Society. Met the Queen, moved back to Africa, and lived to 92.

When someone asked him near the end what the secret of his longevity was, he said, “to smoke very heavily, drink and eat very little and not take anything in life too seriously.”

(Disclosure: I'm writing a book about him.)
posted by gottabefunky at 11:29 PM on May 14, 2010

Representing Wisconsin I would like to add General Billy Mitchell who recognized the importance of air power between the World Wars and continually put his career on the line to make his point. Certainly badass compared to today's senior military leaders.

Sorry The World Famous, but I would take Scipio Africanus over Hannibal anyday. Excellent reading list you have though.

In terms of fighting spirit I am seriously impressed by Admiral Sir Walter Henry Cowan, who was taken prisoner during the Second World War while attempting to fight off an Italian tank, armed only with a revolver - at the age of 71.

I also consider Theodore Roosevelt a badass and would highly recommend Edmund Morris' The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.
posted by Horatius at 11:53 PM on May 14, 2010

Ranulph Fiennes. The man cut off the tips of his own frost bitten fingers with a fucking hand saw.

Other great Fiennes stories:

When he was in the SAS he was outraged by the defacement of one of England's prettiest villages by an American studio for the shooting of Dr. Doolittle. Naturally he tried to blow it up.

Another great self-surgery example is Dr. Jerri Nielsen who performed a breast biopsy on herself at the South Pole base during the winter.
posted by atrazine at 12:40 AM on May 15, 2010

I'm sort of embarrassed that I named my mefi identity after my absolute favorite historical, scientist, badass because how could I think to compare myself to her? But I did it because she was so insanely awesome.

France Bloch-Serazin was:
- A PhD in chemistry at a time when I can't imagine women were getting a lot of doctorates
- A communist supporter of the Spanish Republicans (against the fascists)
- A member of the French Resistance during WWII who
- Used her chemistry know-how to build explosives for blowing up train tracks and shit and
- Was eventually beheaded by the Nazis.

Did I mention she was a mom too?
posted by serazin at 1:09 AM on May 15, 2010

Henry Paget, Lord Uxbridge. Commander in the Battle of Waterloo. His leg has its own Wikipedia page.
posted by Eumachia L F at 3:02 AM on May 15, 2010

John Garand, designer of many weapons (M1, M2, ...), internets and history books. Helped win some wars over in Europe and N of Australia a while ago.
posted by buzzman at 6:46 AM on May 15, 2010

Not science, but history: Richard Burton! Le sigh. And nthing Thomas Paine--I had such a girlcrush on him in school. All that passion in his words. Rowr.
posted by ifjuly at 8:39 AM on May 15, 2010

1. Who's you badass of choice?
Eugène François Vidocq

2. What did they do?
Master dueller in the Bourbon regiment by 17, jailed womaniser by 20, escaped several times, spent 11 years on the run, founded the Sûreté (originally the investigative bureau of the Paris police) in 1811 thus revolutionising policing. Was the basis for Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Hugo's Les Misérables

3. What are good resources to learn their story?
Wikipedia is a good place to start. Several biogs listed there.

4. What are good resources to learn about the times in which they lived?
He lived through – and was peripherally involved in – the French revolution, and died in 1857; take your pick of entire floors of University libraries on that.

5. Why are they important?
Invented the idea of a police CID unit, without which no Scotland Yard, FBI or any other investigative unit; basically invented the science of ballistics for the purposes of crime investigation; also recognised the significance of evidence at and around the crime scene, and its careful gathering and analysis, thereby inventing CSI: Second French Republic.

He also did stuff like this (from the last link):
Without a suspect in mind, Vidocq visited taverns in Paris frequented by thieves and came upon a known burglar who looked like he had recently been in an altercation. In order to get samples of the suspect’s blood, Vidocq picked a fight with this man. When the dust settled, Vidocq wiped the suspect’s face with his handkerchief. At the police station, Vidocq treated his blood-soaked handkerchief with a chemical that turned the drying bloodstains into a bright red color. He applied the same chemical to the crime scene blood left by the intruder, and when those stains turned bright red as well, concluded that he had connected his suspect, through his blood, to the murder site. Confronted with Vidocq’s findings, the suspect confessed, and a month later was executed by guillotine.
posted by Len at 10:50 AM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Captain William Bligh sailed an overloaded life raft almost 7,000 km using just a watch and a sextant for navigation. It should be considered one of the greatest feats of nautical navigation in history.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:19 PM on May 15, 2010

Lord Nelson.. Both entertaining, and a master of the seas. And the ladies.
Lost an arm to battle. But still hanging in there otherwise. Lord Nelson.
posted by buzzman at 2:09 PM on May 15, 2010

Claude Shannon!
posted by The_Auditor at 7:27 PM on May 15, 2010

Seconding Florence Nightingale
posted by littlecatfeet at 8:12 PM on May 15, 2010

Ibn Battuta - traveled for 30 years from Morocco to China and everywhere in between in the 14th century. And he wrote an account of his travels.

There's also Ibn Fadlan a 10th century traveler whose account of his journey up the Volga provided the inspiration for The 13th Warrior.
posted by MasonDixon at 8:31 PM on May 15, 2010

Wasn't there someone who performed an appendectomy on himeself, too? Yeesh.

wikipedia: self-surgery
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:41 PM on May 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Vidocq was preceded by la Reynie, who was less of a self promoter (no self serving autobiography). His investigations of the affair of the poisons was halted when the evidence started getting a little too close to the king. The records were burned - but not his own personal copies, from which much of the story comes down to us.

As to Arab travellers, check out Leo Africanus.
posted by IndigoJones at 7:31 AM on May 16, 2010

Major Louis Cukela
posted by IndigoJones at 9:07 AM on May 16, 2010

Alexander the Great: became king at 20, immediately had all his political rivals murdered, and then proceeded to conquer everything from Greece down to Egypt and over to India. I mean, he spent a year sieging Tyre because someone told him he couldn't do it.
posted by jeffamaphone at 9:49 AM on May 16, 2010

Response by poster: These are all so cool I can barely wrap my mind around it. Time to start researching!
posted by Turkey Glue at 2:02 PM on May 16, 2010

May I personally recommend the not-terribly-serious-but-terribly-awesome "Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live"? (Didn't see it upstream; apologies if already posted). Personal favs are Saladin (the original Kurdish badass, chivalrous but ass-whooping when it came to Crusaders) and Leonidas(of awful movie fame).
posted by Concordia at 3:05 PM on May 16, 2010

Not science, but history: Richard Burton!

That's Sir Richard Burton, if you please.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:06 AM on May 17, 2010

More on Ben Franklin an what makes him a total badass.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:25 AM on May 17, 2010

On the self-surgery front -- who was that guy just in the last few years who was out in the wilderness and got his arm trapped under a boulder and survived by cutting it off with a pocket knife?
posted by madmethods at 5:20 PM on May 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

The guy who cut his own hand off was Aron Ralston.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:49 AM on May 18, 2010

please consider joseph priestly :P

that is all!
posted by kliuless at 8:08 PM on May 18, 2010

You might consider:

1. Beatrice Shilling OBE PhD MSc CEng

2. Beatrice Shilling is most famous as a mechanical engineer who designed a modification to the SU carburettor on the Rolls-Royce Merlin aircraft engine. Her modification allowed the Merlin-powered Supermarine Spitfire fighter airplane to dive steeply without suddenly starving then suddenly flooding the engine with fuel. (Because of this design, she forever had to put up with snickering references to "Miss Shilling's Orifice".) She is less well known as a motorcycle and car racer. She lapped the Brooklands track at over 100mph on a Manx Norton 500 in the 1930s. After WWII, she raced cars prepped by her and her husband, George Naylor, a former Lancaster bomber pilot.

3. Negative Gravity: A Life of Beatrice Shilling is a good, but obscure biography.

4. Britain in the 1930's through the 1990's? There is a lot of material out there.

5. Her carburettor design helped Britain win the Battle of Britain. She proved that women could be first rate physicists and engineers in an environment of rampant sexism.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:53 PM on August 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

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