I'm trying to write a comedy where as a plot device I have:

  1. Some of the greatest western minds of human history, who lived between 1643 and 1900, are transported into the modern age. I still haven't decided how this will work: magic, time travel or simply left unexplained.

  2. They mysteriously understand & speak modern English, with some archaic word or foreign accents thrown in for good measure.

  3. Their IDs belong to high school dropouts.

  4. Nobody believes that they are who they claim they are.

  5. They would live in a big city in some English-speaking western country; USA, UK, Canada, Australia, etc.

With that said, is there anything that people like Euler, Newton, Gauss, Pasteur, Maxwell, Brunel, or similar could offer to the modern employer?

I would prefer something related to the talents that they are known for.

I expect that in the beginning they would take some odd jobs to survive, but is there anything that could make them successful later?

The story is a comedy, and I know there would be a psychological shock, but since I handwave, time travel, language, etc. I might as well handwave the shock and just assume Euler has applied for a job, because he needs the job, or Brunel applies to work in a construction company.

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    My personal opinion is that they would be too detached from modern society to be able to fit in, without long time in closed facility.It would be the harder, the more disconnected are their and our times. – Feanorek Aug 10 at 12:28
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    I think the answer is really going to depend on when they came from - Isembard Kingdom Brunel is going to have a much easier time adjusting to a modern Western society than Archimedes, because he'll already be used to living in a capitalist society, as well as the couple of thousand years less catching up he'll have to do. Can you narrow the question a bit by specifying a) where they're going to live in the modern age, and b) perhaps narrow the range of dates from which these people are taken? – walrus Aug 10 at 12:33
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    @saxaje If it's a comedy, you can do lot of jokes, like Newton working for apple (bonus point if they still have their old logo). However, you should narrow your question, I'm afraid it could be seen as too broad – Kepotx Aug 10 at 12:39
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    The obvious choice is becoming a youtube star. The channel those people can create together sounds like something even I would watch. I'm not talking about them doing math there or something but you know, talking about stuff. Perhaps some makeup tips now and then – Raditz_35 Aug 10 at 12:43
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    I vote for Ada Lovelace (1815-1852). She sort of invented computer programming. I'd love to see her master either the computer language or the cryptocurrency named after her! – Shawn V. Wilson Aug 10 at 22:26

10 Answers 10

Euler

Euler was a brilliant astronomer, but unfortunately he probably wouldn't be able to get a job in modern astronomy without a college diploma, much less without a high school diploma. He was also an excellent mathematician, though, and I think that is his best bet in the modern world.

It seems likely that Euler would find a job as a programmer (once he got used to the idea of a computer). Programming is one of the most meritocratic fields, and many programming companies don't care about credentials as much as ability. Euler made important contributions during his life to graph theory, topology, analytical number theory, etc, all important in computer science. He was even the one who introduced the concept of a function to mathematics, something which programmers use day-in and day-out.

Likely Euler would end up back in academics eventually. He had a top-notch mathematical mind (see this list of things named after him), and because mathematics and computer science are relatively meritocratic he could publish several papers and use those to leverage himself back into an academic post.

Newton

I think Newton might have a hard time in any job he could get without a diploma. He was essentially an academic from the time he was twelve until his death, and apparently disliked manual labor. Living in 2018 without a high school diploma rules out most of the types of jobs Newton would be good at. I think he would do his best to get back into academics: you can get a GED with a simple test, and from there he may be able to find his way into a university to begin his studies anew.

However, I pose an alternate route: religion. Newton was always interested in religion (Christianity, specifically), and he knew Latin well enough to write entire books in the language. In this confusing, modern world, he may turn to the one thing he knew which has changed the least: the church. If Newton, in his new life, became a well known and accepted member of the Christian community, it's even possible that he might find himself on the road to becoming the next pope, although some of his ideas about religion may be a bit too outdated for him to succeed.

Gauss

Gauss was another stunning mathematical mind (he also has an impressive list of things named after him). It's very likely he would end up in academic mathematics again (although apparently his disliked teaching), but as this route is similar to what I proposed for Euler, here's an alternative: geoscience.

One of Gauss's notable achievements during his life was mapping the Kingdom of Hannover. Today, we have accurate satellite maps of the whole planet, but many of the processes that shape the Earth are still mysterious. It's possible that, uninspired to rejoin the mathematical community, Gauss would embrace some of these new mysteries of our age, applying his precise mind to problems such as how Earth's magnetic field arises and the mechanisms by which water- and wind-borne sand change the shape of the Earth's surface.

Now the real question is: how does Gauss manage to break into this field? Is it possible for him to use publicly-available data to analyze these things and publish answers, or does he need to get his GED and work his way back into academics?

Pasteur

Pasteur has a clear place in the modern world. Biology, especially microbiology, is one of the widest frontiers in modern science. As with all of these luminaries, however, the lack of a high school diploma will hinder Pasteur here. After getting up to speed with modern developments such as genetics (which would take a little while, I'm sure), Pasteur would have the same long academic route ahead of him as I've suggested for these others.

However, there is a movement these days called bio-hacking or DIY Bio which Pasteur could get involved in without any academic credentials. If he can soak up enough of the modern literature about genetics, there are resources available to do experimentation with genetic engineering - even cutting-edge technologies like CRISPR/Cas-9 - at home or in a community lab space.

Maxwell

Maxwell is, of course, known for his extraordinary work on electromagnetism. However, without getting back into academics, there's not much he could do related to this. Perhaps he could become an electrician?

I think it would be more interesting to see Maxwell get into psychology. He apparently had some interest in it while has was alive (like Newton, he was particularly interested in color). This could take two routes: academic (which we're ignoring) or therapeutic. William Garnett, a contemporary who knew Maxwell, once wrote,

Such complete unselfishness and tender consideration as he exhibited for those around him . . . are seldom to be met with.

and,

. . . he never spoke a hasty word, even to his attendants. His self-sacrificing devotion to those he loved was the marvel of his friends.

Combining this human-centered personality with a chance to study the mind up-close and personal could, potentially, be attractive to Maxwell.

Brunel

Brunel would get into business, no doubt about it. It seems like he would have the savvy needed to work his way up inside a private company. Perhaps more interesting is the idea of seeing Brunel as a technological entrepreneur akin to Musk. Most of his interest seems to have been in transportation infrastructure, so maybe he would take up the challenge of the next big transportation revolution: self-driving cars. Or perhaps, if he could somehow get the money, he would get involved in big infrastructure projects such as the ones going on in places like Dubai and Hyderabad.

How would he get the money though? Maybe he would have a talent for the stock market? Or maybe he would begin again as he did in real life, working as an assistant engineer and making his way up until he ends up in charge.

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    Newton would most certainly not find himself on the road to becoming the next pope. He was a convinced anti-Trinitarian, among other heresies. However, it is certainly possible that he would exploit the removal of the risk of burning at the stake for heresy and dedicate himself to proselytising his views. – Peter Taylor Aug 10 at 19:06
  • @PeterTaylor Ooh, interesting, I didn't know that. I don't have a lot of specifications knowledge about Newton's religious beliefs, I only knew he wrote several books on the subject. Do you have information on any of his other heresies? – realityChemist Aug 10 at 19:54
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    This paper is primarily about how he concealed his heresy, but it says that "in addition to denial of the Holy Trinity, he also rejected the immortal soul and evil spirits". It's too long since I read it to remember it well enough to recommend it, but the book which introduced me to Newton as heretic was a biography called IIRC Isaac Newton: the Last Alchemist (although Googling it, it may actually have been Isaac Newton: the Last Sorcerer). – Peter Taylor Aug 10 at 20:12
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    This is a very cogent answers that is logically self consistent, but it doesn't provide very fertile ground for the comedic narrative. – Iron Gremlin Aug 11 at 0:42
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    Of all the answers so far, I like this one the best because it recognized that these men were not static, but rather were capable of learning what was around them and then taking that too the next level. If Newton learned relativity, what might be come up with? Pasteur deduced that microbes are responsible for food spoilage, and could be manipulated, what happens when he's handed CRISPR? – pojo-guy Aug 11 at 11:49

Euler

Euler's interest in stellar paths would transfer well into being a bus driver.

"I've charted paths through the heavens! I can certainly memorize the rout of your carriage."

Newton

Newton's expertise in Newtonian physics would make him well suited to building demolition. He was kinda scrawny, so he'd perform well as the guy operating the wrecking ball.

"We've built too many walls and not enough bridges." - actual Newton quote

Gauss

Gauss's expertise in algebra would make him well suited to working at Subway. He'd never get the quantity of ingredients wrong, he'd remember orders well, and he'd probably improve their methods for toasting sandwiches.

"An x inch sub has y meatballs, so it shouldn't be toasted less than z minutes!"

Pasteur

Pasteur's interest in Biology would serve him well as an operator in a state park. Maybe a tour guide, or a cashier at the souvenir shop. And, I mean, look at that facial hair! It's got "state park" written all over it.

"The airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow from this region is..."

Maxwell

Maxwell's beard would place him squarely into the role of professional hipster, and his knowledge of electromagnetism and mathematical physics would yield excellently to his ability to utilize the equipment at a coffee shop and make perfect lattes. And, I mean, "Maxwell House", right?

"The electric motor driving this grinder produces an electromagnetic field which can be used to divert the flow of half and half in transit to this tall coffee...."

Brunel

Brunel's top hat would attract the immediate attention of Men's Wearhouse. He'd be able to quickly catch a job selling suits, while he acclimated himself to the modern landscape. Eventually, he'd probably land a job as a maintenance technician in some production environment, and from there he could build his way up to a better job. As an engineer, maybe I'm biased on this one because of my personal admiration for Brunel.

"No, you may not try on my top hat."

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    I love this. Very funny. And realistically their knowledge is completely outdated, so they would only be able to get the same jobs that the rest of us can get. Unless they went back to school. – Tyler S. Loeper Aug 10 at 19:59
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    "No, you may not try on my top hat." --- actual Brunel quote. – elemtilas Aug 11 at 2:41

The particular knowledge and skillset of each of these people is really too out of time to be of immediate use. Hiring Brunel into a modern architectural-engineering-design firm would be like hiring someone only familiar with punch card computers into Samsung's smart phone division.

Which leads to where these people's particular knowledge would be of use.

  • One possibility is in the historical reenactment / museum curation / chautauqua spectrum of work. Brunel, having designed a number of broad gauge locomotives could probably find work in the antique locomotive restoration industry. On the side, he could go on the chautauqua circuit impersonating, well, impersonating himself!
  • Another possibility is in the history department of a university. While it would be deliciously ironic for Newton to reoccupy the Lucasian Chair at Cambridge, I think it far more likely that these men would be more apt to teach history. They are all intelligent, broadly educated men, interested in many areas of study. And they where there at the time. They could offer great insights into the periods in which they lived.
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    The perfect place for Brunel to act as a guide for already exists S.S. Great Britain docked in the city of Bristol in England.ssgreatbritain.org – Sarriesfan Aug 10 at 17:53
  • "On the side, he could go on the chautauqua circuit impersonating, well, impersonating himself!" openculture.com/2016/06/… – NPSF3000 Aug 10 at 18:55
  • @Sarriesfan In addition Clifton Suspension Bridge isn't that far away either. Nor is Box Tunnel, which he would want to visit every year on April 9th – dgnuff Aug 10 at 23:46
  • Ah, if only Brunel could reverse the Narrow Gauge Travesty! (Love those broad gauge trains!) – elemtilas Aug 11 at 2:39

I think it's most likely that they'd turn their prodigious intellects to trying to understand the force that summoned them into the future. Newton was, in life, an alchemist, and while he wasn't the most socially inclined (it's possible that he was on the autistic spectrum), I think it's likely that he'd be able to persuade the others to help him decipher this mystery they're presented with.

Or, alternately, if there's an obvious explanation why, and it's mystical in nature (e.g. a modern-day wizard casting a summoning spell like in the Fate francise), it's likely that he'd be interested in studying their magic, assuming that his studies into alchemy didn't give him magical powers when he himself was alive in this setting.

All of the people you mention were intelligent and independent, a combination of traits rarely tolerated in a modern office environment, much less the academia. Fortunately, all of them had multiple talents they could put to better use.

Euler would wash up a professional gambler in Las Vegas. His one-eyed stare would end in many a poker player's and pit boss's nightmare.

Newton was a high school dropout, so little would change for him. His talent for investigative police work and office politics would see him rise through the lower ranks, find his way into Quantico, and ultimately head up the bureau.

Brunel could get an decent payday each time someone agreed to buy one of the bridges he's built. This would last until he crossed paths with agent Newton and made a career case for him.

Maxwell's social skills would hold him back from urban pursuits, but, capitalizing on his ancestry and leapfrogging Walker in inventing the square bottle, it's his silhouette you'd give a look before tipping it over into your coke.

Gauss actually made it through time, but most of us only know him under the name of Satoshi.

Assuming they are young enough, why not have them go to college? Financing would be tough, but if you're handwaving things, why not that too? Perhaps they are listed as California citizens. Free college! They just need GEDs and off they go.

In college, you can have them work as research fellows (mostly graduate school but some advanced undergraduates). Newton and Maxwell would be physics majors, etc.

Unfortunately, they'll all seem to be failing their history courses. They keep answering as if they lived through events, giving them the most ridiculous spins. No modern historian would believe any of that rot.

If they due to cultural discrepancy would fail modern schooling (college and above), which seems kind of probable - at least it would be more comedic if they did. My favourite would be something like:

  1. Set up hot dog stands or ice cream trucks at universities. While they may actually sell an occasional hot dog or two to a hungry student, the PhD students and faculty will soon pay them under the table for help and hints with research. Lots of comedic effects could be added here. What happens in their everyday life at campus. Maybe they befriend some student and join for a party et.c. Maybe have trouble finding accommodation and end up living in a camper or student dorm (illegally, of course). Maybe they visit the library and get into arguments with librarian about famous books of their own time which have been misinterpreted later throughout history up to our time.

  2. Become youtuber / blogger / vlogger celebrity. Given their supposed eccentric personalities this could probably give some comedy.

  3. They would use their smarts to learn digital media like video and image processing, web services and machine learning / AI and sell their services to security agencies making internet psych bots, advertisement agencies to boost advertisements for big consumer goods companies, maybe fashion or even porn business. Probably plenty of comedy here too. What happens when some guy speaking really old fashioned english and knows almost nothing about modern culture, TV, references to famous Kinos et.c. tries communicating with people in show biz for example.

They could get jobs related to their putative hobbies or amusing foibles and their main areas of renown would be relegated to the background.

Here are two examples:

  • Newton was probably interested in alchemy and would fit in well with modern pseudo science crowd.
  • Euler had a prodigious memory and went blind in later in life.

An aside, this may be better suited to Writing Stack Exchange.

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    Newton was the critical sort; I get the impression that his interest in alchemy was more speculative in the sense of modern theoretical physics than in the sense of modern pseudo-science, and he'd probably have some pretty ugly things to say about modern pseudo-science (he wasn't known for politeness). – Nat Aug 10 at 20:53

Comedy? They could work in a used and vintage book store owned by a hippie (who loves life's greater mysteries) while bringing themselves up to date to modern times by reading the books. Just dress them up like New York hipsters, and they'll be very charming.

I think invariably some would end up marvellously successful and others would end up dismal failures. (And this contrast could be quite comical.)

Many of the people you mention were shrewd and multitalented; but others just "struck gold" by bringing an unusual temperament to the right niche at the right time.

I don't think lack of qualifications would be a problem for any of them. If you're really good at something, soon enough you'll help a friend out, who will mention you to someone they know who will be willing to pay you, and then the jobs will become bigger and better. Snowball effect. Eventually your reputation will precede you and virtually anyone will employ you (unless there is a legal requirement to have a qualification).

Needless to say, many would immediately start consuming information and catching up with modern scientific knowledge, business practices, productivity tools, and whatnot.

Those that were shrewd and multitalented are likely to become entrepreneurs. Having a good understanding of how the world works is a boon to starting and rethinking business. Pasteur might burst into the scene by making yoghurt; Maxwell might start with garage door remotes—or a universal remote control.

Michelangelo (with his intimate knowledge of human anatomy obtained from dissecting corpses) might end up as a sought-after personal trainer. Newton would quite probably become a computer programmer (or perhaps some other sort of engineer) due to his disagreeableness; given how lucrative jobs are with numerical applications of calculus there is a good chance he would gravitate there. However, given his fringe views (alchemy etc.) he might end up being a website admin for some crackpot society. He might struggle to get into academia because of the politics and competitiveness surrounding the field.

Euler and Gauss would probably make excellent mathematics tutors and this might give them a leg up into universities or teaching positions. Euler would probably create something akin to Khan Academy (he wrote great textbooks in his time). Perhaps Gauss would be the most likely of all of them to become an academic.

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