Image: Erica P. Johnson

When it comes to doing research on the cheap, few scientists can hold a candle to the late physicist Herbert Anderson. While a graduate student at Columbia in the 1930s, he needed large amounts of tungsten for the cyclotron he was building. With his grant money all used up, Anderson started stealing light bulbs from subway platforms and mining them for tungsten. He continued the practice even after getting arrested by New York City police. In the end, he got enough tungsten to complete the cyclotron, which he later shared with Enrico Fermi. Anderson went on to participate in the Manhattan Project, serving as director of the Fermi Institute in Chicago before dying in 1988 from berylliosis caused by his exposure to radioactive materials.

These days, with the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and countless private granting agencies offering billions of...

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