Ex­treme sci­ence

Socks, shocks, sau­nas and balls

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Matthew.reisz@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

A new book ex­plores the for­got­ten sci­en­tists who in­jected them­selves with minced tes­ti­cles, gave elec­tric shocks to ser­vants sus­pended in mid-air and an­a­lysed in de­tail the process of putting on their socks.

Sam Coo­ley, a re­search fel­low in sports psy­chol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Birmingham, be­came fas­ci­nated by re­search method­ol­ogy and “the books on weird and won­der­ful sci­en­tific ex­per­i­ments” dur­ing his PhD. Yet most of these fo­cused on “the fun­ni­est or most ex­treme as­pects of an ex­per­i­ment with­out al­ways paint­ing a full pic­ture of what went on”.

He there­fore de­cided to track down the orig­i­nal ar­ti­cles, scour age­ing jour­nals for fur­ther odd­i­ties and bring them all to­gether in a book called The Mu­seum of Bizarre and Ex­treme Sci­ence: A Col­lec­tion of the Most Out­landish Ex­per­i­ments in His­tory.

There was one re­searcher, he re­ports, who stud­ied fa­cial re­sponses to “emo­tion­ally charged sit­u­a­tions” by get­ting par­tic­i­pants to wit­ness events such as the de­cap­i­ta­tion of live rats. An­other hoped to il­lu­mi­nate the trans­mis­sion of yel­low fever by lock­ing up his sub­jects in an in­fected cabin for three weeks, “with lim­ited sun­light and lit­tle to do but lay around in ex­cre­ment, blood and vomit”. A third, less con­tro­ver­sially, looked into ther­moreg­u­la­tion by pub­lish­ing “the most de­tailed ac­count ever of a group of friends sit­ting in a sauna”.

Philo­soph­i­cal Trans­ac­tions, first pub­lished by the Royal So­ci­ety of Lon­don in 1665, fea­tured re­search by lu­mi­nar­ies such as Isaac New­ton, Ben­jamin Franklin and Charles Dar­win.

Yet in 1759 it also gave space to an ar­ti­cle by a Scot­tish re­searcher called Robert Sym­mer. He was fas­ci­nated by the phe­nom­e­non of static elec­tric­ity, Dr Coo­ley’s book says, and de­cided to in­ves­ti­gate, “armed with his finely tuned sci­en­tific ap­pa­ra­tus (ie, his socks) and a tightly con­trolled ex­per­i­men­tal pro­to­col (ie, tak­ing his socks on and off)”.

Never a man in a hurry – it took him 16 years to com­plete his de­gree – he “con­duct[ed] no fewer than four sep­a­rate ex­per­i­ments over the course of many months”, fea­tur­ing “dif­fer­ent tech­niques of re­moval”, “dif­fer­ent weather con­di­tions” and even “dif­fer­ent coloured socks”.

Dr Coo­ley’s gallery of mad sci­en­tists and their mad­der re­search fea­tures many ex­per­i­ments “pub­lished be­tween the mid-18th and early 20th cen­tury”, be­fore a no­table im­prove­ment in eth­i­cal stan­dards. He hopes it will prove “a use­ful teach­ing re­source”, amus­ing stu­dents while gen­er­at­ing de­bate about eth­i­cal and me­thod­i­cal is­sues that might oth­er­wise seem dull.

The book also tracks the strange path of sci­en­tific progress. In the mid- 1880s, a re­searcher called Charles-Edouard Brown-Séquard was happy to try and im­prove his health by merely self-in­ject­ing the mashed-up tes­ti­cles of dogs and guinea pigs. Fif­teen years later, doc­tors in Chicago were per­form­ing com­plete tes­tic­u­lar trans­plants.

Ruff treat­ment one re­searcher hy­poth­e­sised that in­ject­ing him­self with mashed-up dogs’ tes­ti­cles would boost his health

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