Friday, August 17, 2012

Strangeness for the sake of science

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, experimentation

It starts out simply enough, with a story of Benjamin Franklin attempting to electrocute a turkey. This was before he proposed it as the national bird, many years before his more famous experiments with electrified clouds and kites, and it came closer to killing him. He got across the circuit while trying to hook up the turkey, and the rest might have been history, forty years too soon. Upon his recovery, he re-charged the Leyden jars and managed to zap the bird instead of himself.

Electrical experiments in a mix of the sober, the strange and the wacky form the first section of Electrified Sheep: Glass-Eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments, by Alex Boese (I assume the name is pronounced the same as Bose). It is a follow-on to his book Elephants on Acid: And Other Bizarre Experiments. He also originated Museum of Hoaxes. Seems he likes that word "bizarre". He also likes mad scientists, and all the people profiled in the book were attempting to further the cause of science, whether they themselves were sane or not.

An electric generator in the 1740s was a globe or large tube of glass that rotated on an axis, driven by a handle. You rubbed your hand, or leather, or felt on the glass and picked up the resulting charge using a Leyden jar, the first capacitor. It is easy to make a Leyden jar using a glass mayonnaise jar with a plastic lid: wrap it in foil, to about half an inch below the lid, fill it with salt water (easier than trying to wrap the inside with foil) and stick a metal rod through a hole in the lid into the water. Be careful. It is easy to generate 20,000 volts or more with a glass-and-leather generator, and the amount of charge stored in the jar can hurt you rather badly. I used such a jar as the tuning capacitor for a Tesla coil I once built.

Ol' Ben was not the first nor the last to "measure" the power of an electric charge by determining how large a bird it might kill. Two charged jars would kill a chicken but it took five to kill a ten pound turkey. But now we have voltmeters, so the only folks still zapping birds are the "killers" at chicken processing plants. Electrocution results in more tender meat.

Years after Franklin, in 1903 in fact, during the battle between Edison and Westinghouse over DC or AC electrical supply, a large Westinghouse generator was used to electrocute an elephant (A short movie of the event, recorded by Edison, is found here.) But later in the Twentieth Century electricity became a much more manageable commodity, and the rage among scientists got an atomic edge. When the shine wore off atomic energy, and the cold war got under way in earnest, there were still those who hatched schemes such as one to bomb the moon, and one H-bomb was actually set off in space, something over 200 miles up (View video compiled of formerly classified films of the Starfish Prime explosion. This video runs for more than an hour).

I would have thought at that point, things could not get more strange. I was wrong. The third section of the book is on deception, primarily the kinds of deception used by researchers into psychology who employ actors to subject unwitting persons to various kinds of stress and see how they react. The experiments into conformity and obedience to authority are the most disturbing. Stanley Milgram's work is a case in point. Students who thought they were administering painful electric shocks to an actor, as a purported "memory aid", could usually be made to run the current all the way up, in spite of the actor's screams, with surprisingly little coercion. But there are lots of ways for a shrink to lie, because people in general are very inventive liars. Scientists have to deceive us or else we will deceive them.

Note to those who inflict telephone surveys on the public: I lie flagrantly to survey workers.

The book's fourth section describes numerous experiments with monkeys, including some that finally helped crack the old canard that female primates (including female humans) do not experience orgasm. A couple of chapters also discuss the century-long effort to humanize apes, now thankfully pretty much over. You can't raise a chimp like a human kid, past about two years.

The last section is the toughest to read through. Titled "Do-It-Yourselfers", it chronicles self-experiments such as ingesting parasitic worms, drinking the vomit of yellow fever victims, and even a number of cases of deliberate suicide, for various scientific purposes. When Barry Marshall drank a concoction of H. pylori in 1984, to prove that the bacterium causes ulcers, it was such a case. Self-inflicted pain is a further step. The fellow who developed the scale of venom pain, that tops out at 4 for the sting of the Bullet Ant, must have been nearly nerveless. A bee or scorpion sting rates a 2. Apparently the boundary between 3 and 4 is where you have to scream. The pain chapter is followed by one on self-surgery (a few committed without anesthesia!) and then one about near-suicide, and a few cases of suicide, done to make scientific observations while dying. I admit I skimmed that last chapter very quickly. Detailed explanations of a half dozen ways to commit painful suicide are just beyond my endurance. Call it a 4 on my mental pain scale.

Each portion has a dramatized section, then a series of essays on an experiment, or kind of experiment. Each chapter has a few such portions, and 4-6 chapters comprise a section. The first four sections were quite entertaining. I suppose there are a few folks who'll find even section five an enjoyable read. At the very least, all the sections are quite interesting reading. It is amazing, what has been done to gather scientific data.

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