Science Online 2012: Weird and Wonderful Stories in the History of Science

This is the first of a series of posts summarizing my observations and experiences at Science Online 2012, which I attended last week.  

When I was starting out as a student of physics, most of the stories I heard about the history of physics were anecdotes about the eccentric behaviors of various famous figures.  There is so much more that we can learn from the history of science, however, and at the same time that we entertain people with stories from the past we can educate them about how science works.

This was, in essence, the idea behind a session co-moderated by myself and Brian Malow (Science Comedian) at Science Online 2012, “Weird and Wonderful Stories in the History of Science”.  We asked people to share their weird stories of science and tried to provide some thoughts on the lessons that those stories taught.  What follows is a rough transcript of the stories & events of the session.  At the end, we also had a bit of a discussion of books that tell excellent stories about historical science; a list of those books is provided at the end of the post!

Tom Swanson opened the discussion with an anecdote about wine! (Highly appropriate for this meeting.)  Now that science is learning more about the process of wine aging, others are taking advantage of that knowledge to “fake” bottles of old wine.  This story is a fascinating example of how good science can be manipulated to both good and nefarious purposes.

I mentioned one of my favorite stories: “Lewis and Clark and the grizzly bears“!  When Lewis & Clark set off in 1804 on the first transcontinental expedition, they were tasked with collecting scientific information as well as commercial.  As they progressed west, they were warned by natives that the bears in that direction were different — and far more dangerous than any others they had encountered.  L&C dismissed these views at first, until they started to have encounters with the highly aggressive and nigh-indestructible creatures.  One spectacular incident involved a group of the explorers being charged by a grizzly that shrugged off their gunfire; the men leaped off a 20-foot cliff to escape — and the bear cannonballed in after them!  Even after their first few harrowing encounters, Lewis wrote, “I find that the curiossity of our party is pretty well satisfyed with rispect to this anamal.” To me, this story gives at least two good lessons about science: the significance of native knowledge (Lewis & Clark should have paid more attention to the natives’ warnings) and the dangers of technological hubris (L&C were confident that their guns would easily handle any threat they encountered.)  I’ll blog more about “Lewis and Clark and the grizzly bears” in the near future…

Romeo Vitelli followed up with another anecdote about Lewis & Clark.  The explorers brought with them a large quantity of dubious emergency medicine: the Bilious Pills of Dr. Benjamin Rush.  Hawked as a cure-all, the pills in fact contained large quantities of mercury, now known to be toxic!  (To me, this story highlights how little we understood about medicine and health even such a short time ago.)

Greg Laden provided an anecdote about German refugee Gunter Holzmann, whose rheumatoid arthritis began acting up in the Bolivian jungle in the 1970s.  He was told by the natives to go get bitten by some ants, and this helped immensely with the pain!  Again we learn the importance of native knowledge.  Furthermore, Greg pointed out that such discoveries show what we can lose when native languages disappear: the medical/scientific knowledge contained in those languages can vanish along with them.

Maggie Koerth-Baker shared an amusing and enlightening story about Thomas Edison’s early implementation of electrical power!  In 1882, a faulty junction box turned one New York City intersection into a gigantic joy-buzzer for horses.  Edison was actually approached by an entrepreneur the next day who wanted to install a similar system in his horse stalls, to make old nags seem like thoroughbreds!  To me, this story shows how new technology can have unintended consequences, and surprising applications (though, thankfully, it does not seem that Edison helped out the man with his electric stables).

Thinking of Edison, Brian Malow brought up the (in hindsight) amusing and hostile rivalry between Edison and Nikola Tesla to dominate the electrical power industry, in what is now often referred to as the “War of the Currents“.  One quote stood out: Tesla, bashing Edison’s style of research, commented, “If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.”  To me, this is both an illustration of how strong personalities can shape the nature of scientific discourse.  It is also a good illustration of how different styles of research can produce equally effective results (despite Tesla’s gripes, it is clear that Edison and Tesla were both very successful scientist/engineers).

Next, Amy Shira Teitel shared with us a wonderful story that she has recently uncovered about the space race: the problem of swearing astronauts!  Those pioneers traveling to the Moon were often overwhelmed by the amazing sights they were seeing, and bad words would slip out.  This was bad because their communications with mission control were being broadcast live around the globe.  One astronaut was so accustomed to cursing when his mind wandered that NASA had to take more elaborate steps to keep him in check — read the post to see what!  This story really puts a human face on those brave folks who traveled at great risk to explore the reaches outside of our atmosphere.

Marriane (whose twitter handle I did not get) shared an anecdote about a female researcher who did very good research on cockroach biology.  She chose this particular creature to study because they were in abundance in the basement of the research lab!  This tale both highlights the challenges that women in science have had to face throughout the years, and also shows that research is often guided by what is convenient, or possible.  There’s a lesson here about making more science funding available, I’m sure…

Cedar Reiner brought us back to the influence of Thomas Jefferson on science (Jefferson also sent Lewis & Clark off on their expedition) and told the story of “Jefferson and the Giant Moose“!  In the early years of the United States, Old World naturalists were convinced that the natural flora and fauna of the New World was “degenerate”, or inherently “weaker” than magnificent Old World life.  Jefferson sought to counter this by sending a giant specimen of a bull moose to the Comte de Buffon!  This story illustrates the power of backyard citizen science (the hunt for the giant moose) as well as the significant influence that science and politics can have on one another.

Dr. Rubidium brought us back down to Earth a bit with the sad story of Fritz Haber, 1918 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry but also the “father of chemical warfare”.  Haber’s wife and son would commit suicide over his work on such hideous weapons, and the Nazis expanded his research in the development of Zyklon B, used in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.  Haber’s sad story is a reminder that the life and work of many scientists is complicated: we should be careful about putting scientists “on a pedestal”.

David Manly introduced us to some current research, with lessons of its own!  The axolotl is an amazing species of salamander that can regrow limbs and skin, and recover from spinal damage seemingly without limit, and is furthermore incredibly cancer resistant.  Does this research bode well for human regeneration?  The researcher himself is somewhat doubtful that the work will go that far.  Then why do it?  “Because it’s cool!”  Lots of great science is done simply for the fascination of it, though one never knows where it might lead.

Henry Reich brought us back to the past with a tragic but fascinating story of invention.  In 1949, a group of smokejumpers parachuted into the Helena National Forest in Montana to fight a fire that had been sparked in Mann Gulch.  The fire surprised the men, jumping the gulch and burning rapidly uphill towards them.  Only one man, Wagner Dodge, realized that they would be unable to outrun the fire, and he started what could be considered the first “escape fire” in modern times, burning a region free of brush that he could lie in to survive unscathed.  Though he said the idea just “came to him”, it turns out that plains Indians had used similar techniques for centuries.  Again we have a situation when native knowledge was well ahead of modern thinking!

All this talk of history, however, can make us lose site of the fact that history is being made around us all the time in science!  This was the point made by Emily Finke, who noted that amazing things are being done at places like NASA and the LHC every day, and many of these will be looked back on as historical moments/discoveries.  This was backed up by Michelle Arduengo, who shared an anedcote about the “discovery” of PubMed by her advisor (“hey, have you guys seen this?”), a tool which has transformed medical research but went unnoticed by many at its inception.

James (twitter handle?) brought up another figure who has, unfortunately, already earned himself a place in the history books!  Newt Gingrich gets a lot of credence as a “science guy” these days even though he’s basically wrong about everything he says on the subject!

Another anecdote shared was the catastrophic mistakes made by early explorers in attempting to traverse the Northwest Passage.  Poor packaging of food and an incomplete understanding of the relation between fresh fruit and scurvy led to catastrophe on more than one occasion, most infamously in the Franklin Expedition of 1845.

As a counterexample to Emily and Michelle’s earlier observations, Michelle Banks noted that some science and technological history is appreciated as it happens!  For instance, just look at twitter when Apple is announcing/releasing a new product.

Michelle Banks also shared some art history related to science with us: in early painting, Jesus was depicted without a belly button!  This is presumably because his mother was a virgin, but this explanation does not quite make sense, since she still gave birth to him.  Here we have an interesting collision of scientific ignorance and bad logic.

Greg Laden noted another interesting historical symptom of scientific ignorance.  We now know that the sea-level can vary by as much as 200 meters, depending on the behavior of the world’s glaciers.  Early naturalists were unaware of the possibility of dramatic sea level change, and instead attributed variations in coastlines and waterways as the result of variations in land height.  This is obviously wrong to modern scientists, but it took quite some time for the correct interpretation to appear.

Kaitlyn (not sure of twitter handle) took aim at a commonly-used phrase in the history of science — “On the shoulders of giants” — and noted that this phrase has a much older history than Isaac Newton — and that Newton himself was likely using it as a slur against Robert Hooke!

David Manly brought us back one more time to a discussion of the Current Wars of Tesla and Edison, and noted that Edison went so far as to electrocute animals with AC power to demonstrate the dangers of Tesla’s technique.

Finally, we had Jessica (twitter handle?) note the unusual attempts to apply penicillin soon after its discovery, including applications directly to the eyes.

All in all, it was a wonderful session — in the spirit of Science Online being an “unconference” in which the audience is expected to participate just as much or more than the moderators, we did very well!  Considering I love to hear myself talk, I was almost disappointed that there wasn’t time for me to lecture on about some of my other favorite stories!

Hopefully this summary gives an idea of the variety of stories that are out there in the history of science, and gives some indication of the lessons that can be learned from them, other then the familiar stereotype that “scientists are weird!”


Some participants in the session I was unable to get their full names or twitter handles; if you know them (or are them), please let me know and I’ll fill in the details.

What follows is a crowdsourced list of books that tell fascinating and educational stories about the history of science.  These books are all great examples of how science history can teach us more about science, doing science, and the scientists themselves:

Sam Kean, The Disappearing Spoon

Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook

Thomas Levenson, Newton and the Counterfeiter

Timothy Ferris, The Science of Liberty

Holly Tucker, Blood Work

Rob Dunn, Every Living Thing

Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder

Richard Conniff, The Species Seekers

Thomas Blass, The Man Who Shocked the World

Michael Faraday, The Chemical History of a Candle

John Grant, Discarded Science

Steven Johnson, Invention of Air

Mary Roach, Bonk (and others)

Any of Isaac Asimov’s books on basic science!

Any other suggestions?  Let me know in the comments!

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9 Responses to Science Online 2012: Weird and Wonderful Stories in the History of Science

  1. Michele Arduengo (@redwngblkbrd) says:

    Hi, It’s Michele (the PubMed discovery anecdote) and my twitter handle is @redwngblkbrd. Thanks for moderating this session and writing about it. I’m writing a “history of science” article right now, and thinking about some of the things we talked about as I do…

  2. Great grizzly story. Thanks for that. I’m sorry to have missed out on this session. My grizzly story is a sad one about how the last grizzly in the southwest–not that long, really, after Lewis and Clark, in Nature’s scheme of things–shot itself on a mountaintop after triggering a government agent’s trap. “Guns don’t kill people,” they say, but this one sure as hell killed that bear. And then there’s our tendency to hypercategorize–at one point, a taxonomist broke the grizzly into 78 species and 12 subspecies. Overdid it a bit, did he not?

    Then there are all the things that lice and typhus have done to shape our history and our science, but that’s a bit long for a comment. 🙂

    Love this post. Happy to say that I’ve read quite a few of those books listed and enjoyed them immensely.

    • Aw, that is a sad grizzly story! 😦 Seems like there are a lot of history of science stories that could be written about the grizzly bear alone.

      Glad you liked the post! If you have any other comments, regardless of length, feel free to post ’em!

      (And nice to have finally met you in person!)

  3. Great session, thanks for the blog:)

  4. Rebekah Higgitt says:

    Thanks for sharing what came out of this session. Some time back I wrote a couple of posts on ‘Good, popular history of science’. Both posts have some thoughts on the difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ history of science. The first links to a load of suggestions gleaned off twitter, the second some of my recommendations:

  5. Tom says:

    Faulty memory correction: the specific trek I had in mind was not the Northwest passage (though surely the gaps in the knowledge of scurvy were present in those and are hinted at in the link), but to the South pole

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