But WHY? 5 self-inflicted science experiments
Scientists will do bizarre things to themselves if you leave them alone for a minute. By Alexandra Carlton
1. They sting themselves with insects: In 1984, entomologist Justin O. Schmidt spent a number of uncomfortable months allowing himself to be stung by insects, recording his findings in a very exacting table of hurtiness called the Schmidt Index of Sting Pain. His notes read like that of a rather exuberant wine tasting; he describes the sting from the sweat bee as “light, ephemeral, almost fruity” and that of the bald-faced hornet as “rich, hearty, slightly crunchy”. The stingiest sting of all? The bullet ant, which Schmidt says, with no small measure of glee, is like “fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel.”
2.They raise their children with monkeys: A 1930s psychologist called Winthrop Kellogg wondered whether a newborn chimpanzee would develop human traits if raised with a human family. Most people would leave the thought there, but not the intrepid Kellogg, who promptly procured a baby chimpanzee called Gua and welcomed her into his family home, alongside his 10-month-old son Donald. Disappointingly, Gua didn’t seem to catch onto the whole human caper very easily. Worryingly, Donald began to see some merit in acting like a chimp. When it became evident to Winthropp that the only one of the two who was likely to learn from the other was Donald, and that eventually the good psychiatrist might end up with a bizarre chimp-child for a son, Gua was swiftly removed.
3. They eat other people’s vomit A 19th century doctor-in-training who rejoiced in the name of Stubbins Ffirth went to startling lengths to “prove” that yellow fever not contagious, but was caused by heat, food and – improbably – noise. So convinced was he of this unlikely hypothesis that he poured “fresh black vomit” from yellow fever patients into cuts in his body, then dribbled it into his eyes, fried it on the stovetop to inhale the fumes and then drunk entire glasses of it, pure and undiluted. It’s tempting to believe observers were at this point spurring him on to more and more ridiculous lengths (“Now snort it!” “Now paint your house with it!”). Remarkably, he didn’t catch yellow fever (though his theory that it was caused by “noise” was, of course, preposterous – it is contagious, but usually via mosquitoes). It’s safe to say he probably didn’t get many dates for a while afterwards.
4. They pickle themselves in radiation: Pierre Curie burned a large scar into his arm with radium salts more or less just to see what happened. The physicist and his wife Marie believed radiation might be useful for treating cancers. Which of course it is – although not, it must be said, by taping hunks of it to your limbs. Unsurprisingly both Pierre and Marie died of radiation poisoning, but were awarded posthumous Nobel prizes for their going above and beyond with their experimentation.
5. They hibernate It’d must be exhausting to be a scientist, what with all the stinging and the vomit and the radiation. It’s no wonder they sometimes want a bit of a lie-down. A lengthy lie-down, in the case of sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman who moved into an underground cave in Kentucky for a month in 1938 to test out how humans reacted to long periods of darkness and removal from day/night stimuli. It gave the scientists lots of useful information about circadian rhythms and how best to go about things if you happen to be a shift worker. But most importantly, it legitimised the concept of having a kip on the job. Where do I sign?