6 Stupid and Dangerous Things Scientists Did to Themselves


[♩ INTRO ] Most of the time when we talk about science,
there are a lot of careful methods and meticulous calculations involved. But occasionally, it can get a bit … unconventional. Over the years, there have been some things
done in the name of science that were pretty outrageous, even if they taught us something
along the way. Some of them were just outrageously stupid. Others were both stupid and really sad. Here are six of them. [1. Isaac Newton] Isaac Newton is best known for discovering
gravity, but he also did a lot of research in optics. Around 1665, he began studying prisms and
how they interact with light, and his experiments were among the first to demonstrate that white
light can be split up into a spectrum of colors. But his curiosity about light and color wasn’t
limited to physics. He was also interested in how the mind perceived
the idea of color, and how physical sensations in his eye could affect his perception. So he stuck a bodkin — aka a long thin needle
— almost directly into his eye. Or more specifically, between his eyeball
and the bone near the back of his eye socket. Because that’s totally a great idea. He used the bodkin to poke different parts
along his eyeball, and he noticed that different colored spots would appear. He also found that the colors changed depending
on the pressure he applied and the amount of light in the room. For a less dangerous and terrifying experiment,
you can see something similar if you rub your eyes while they’re closed. We now know that what Newton experienced came
from photoreceptors called cones, which are specialized cells in your retina. Cone cells contribute to your perception of
color by responding to different wavelengths of light. By applying pressure to his eyeball, Newton
was essentially stimulating these cells as if they were being hit by light. Which I’m sure was cool, but you’d think
Newton would’ve realized that eyes are pretty delicate, and that poking them with a giant
needle would be risky. He was okay, but that doesn’t mean it was
a smart thing to do. [2. Isaac Newton, AGAIN] The bodkin incident wasn’t the only time
Newton was careless with his eyes. He also performed an experiment where he was
trying to evoke afterimages — those fuzzy shapes or spots you see after looking at a
bright light, like a camera flash. Afterimages happen when the photoreceptor
cells in your retina become overstimulated, and remain active for a while even after the
light is gone. To recreate this effect, Newton decided to
go into a dark room with a mirror and stare at the reflection of the sun with his right
eye. When he looked away, he noticed a spot. So he stared at the sun again. And again. Because sometimes you don’t learn the first
time. After a while, he noticed that the image of
the sun had made such a lasting impression that he could even see the spot if he closed
his right eye and opened his left one. And he realized he might have damaged his
eyes when he couldn’t see anything but the image of the sun wherever he looked. So, he locked himself in a dark room for about
three days until his vision started to return, but it took several months to go back to normal. Today, we know that Newton likely suffered
from solar retinopathy, or damage to the retina caused by bright light or ultraviolet rays
from the sun. That’s why wearing protective eyewear while
welding or watching a solar eclipse is so important. [3. Sir Humphrey Davy ] Speaking of precautions, if you’ve ever
taken a science class, you probably know that safety is the first thing you talk about when
you step foot in a lab. Well, unless it’s 1799 and you’re working
with Sir Humphrey Davy. Before Davy became one of the most famous
figures in science history, he was a lab assistant at the Pneumatic Institution in England. And his work was focused on determining the
medical uses for different gases. He tested them by setting up reactions, then
inhaling the unknown gas products and noting their effects, without any idea of how dangerous
the gases might be. One gas, which Davy’s boss had worked with
before, had especially unusual effects. It was nitrous oxide, and when Davy inhaled
it, he felt like his senses were heightened, and had the urge to laugh at everything. We still don’t totally understand how nitrous
oxide works in our bodies, but we do know that it can lead to euphoria. It’s also associated with reduced anxiety
and a higher threshold for pain, which is why some dentists use it. Typically, dentists give patients a dose of
half nitrous oxide and half oxygen at about 5 liters per minute. But on one occasion, Davy inhaled about 15
liters of pure nitrous oxide in 7 minutes to determine the effects of the dosage. And, thankfully, didn’t hurt himself. Instead, he liked the experience so much that,
after work hours, he encouraged his friends to inhale it out of silk bags. It became almost a social trend, used by poets
and philosophers to heighten their senses and supposedly bring them closer to their
art. Davy’s risk-taking helped launch his fame
as a chemist, and a few years later, he discovered the elements sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium,
strontium, and barium. Which is an impressively long list. But he didn’t do it by inhaling them. Still, during his career, he did breathe in
a lot more than the relatively harmless nitrous oxide. All the exposure to toxic gases probably took
a toll on his health, and at just over the age of 50, he quickly became ill and suffered
a stroke and heart attack. Davy had one of the most successful careers
in science, but ultimately, the thing caused him to rise to fame also likely caused his
death. [4. Stubbins Ffirth] Another risk-taker was Stubbins Ffirth, who
arguably has one of the coolest names in science. He also has one of the most disgusting stories,
so … you’ve been warned. In 1804, to obtain his medical degree, Ffirth
put his life on the line to research yellow fever. It’s a viral disease that can cause fever,
muscle and joint pain, and jaundice — or yellowing of the skin, which is where the
name comes from. It’s a common virus in tropical areas, but
in 1793, a large epidemic killed thousands of people in Philadelphia. The prominent doctors at the time hypothesized
that the disease was due to rotten coffee imports, brackish water, or something called
miasma — by which they basically meant “bad air.” But Ffirth wanted to figure out the true cause
of the disease, and he suspected it had to do with the patients ’ black vomit. And that’s where it got nasty. First, he fed the vomit to dogs. They wouldn’t get sick, so he injected it
into the veins of both dogs and cats — but there were no results there, either. So he decided to expose himself to it. Which was noble of him, I guess, but still
very dumb. He poured vomit into open cuts and into his
eyes, boiled it and inhaled the gases, and eventually just drank the stuff. And when he still didn’t get sick, he repeated
the experiments using other bodily fluids from infected patients. Ultimately, despite all these dangerous experiments,
he never got sick, so he concluded that yellow fever couldn’t be an infectious disease. What Ffirth didn’t know is that infectious
diseases don’t always pass from person to person directly. Because we’ve since learned that yellow
fever is actually spread by mosquitos. Thankfully, we also now have a vaccine and
preventative measures to protect us from the virus. And it doesn’t even involve drinking bodily
fluids! [5. Louis Slotin] Over a hundred years later, in the 1940s,
scientists like Louis Slotin were still making bad decisions — except this time, they involved
nuclear weapons. So the stakes were a little higher. It was a few months after World War II ended,
and the scientists who’d developed the first two atomic bombs at the secret Los Alamos
Laboratory in New Mexico were studying a third nuclear core. If the war had still been going, it would’ve
been developed into another bomb. But since the war was over, they were instead
using it to study exactly what happens when a nuclear reactor goes supercritical, and
how to get it there. Nuclear reactors work because elements like
plutonium radiate neutrons. And when there are enough free neutrons bouncing
around in an enclosed space, it can create a self-sustaining chain reaction. If the reaction rate gets high enough, it
becomes supercritical, and the plutonium atoms split apart in fission reactions that release
a ton of energy. Slotin led a team that worked on the third
plutonium core, trying to bring the reaction as close to supercritical as possible so they
could study it. Their core was surrounded by two halves of
a beryllium sphere, which was great at reflecting neutrons and letting them bounce around. To prevent the core from going supercritical,
Slotin needed to keep the two halves of the beryllium sphere separated, so the reaction
couldn’t get out of control. Except, instead of using the pre-approved
spacing blocks, Slotin just wedged a screwdriver between the two halves. It had worked a dozen times before, and he
was the expert, so why not? But Slotin should have realized how dangerous
it was. His predecessor, Harry Daghlian, had died
from radiation poisoning just months earlier. From the same plutonium core. In Daghlian’s case, he was conducting an
experiment that used bricks to reflect the neutrons. At one point, a brick slipped out of his hands,
making the reactor go supercritical. He was able to knock off the brick and stop
the reaction, but his exposure to the radiation killed him after only 25 days. Despite that accident, Slotin just kept using
his screwdriver. And this time, it didn’t go so well. As he slowly lowered the two halves closer
and closer together, the screwdriver slipped. The nuclear core immediately created a fission
reaction, causing a radioactive flash of blue light. After only 9 days, Slotin died of severe radiation
poisoning. It’s calculated that he was exposed to 1000
rads of radiation — more than twice the lethal dose. After his death, the core was dubbed the “demon
core”, and all hands-on criticality research at Los Alamos was terminated. [6. Werner Forssmann] In 1956, Werner Forssmann, André Cournand,
and Dickinson Richards collectively won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for
their work on a technique known as heart catheterization. But the research actually began almost 30
years earlier in 1929, when Forssmann broke all the rules to prove a point. Fresh out of medical school, he began a surgical
residency, which allowed him to pursue one of his big ideas. He’d read about inserting catheters into
the animals’ hearts as a diagnostic technique to measure the pressure in their hearts. And he wondered if this was possible in humans,
too. His mentor supported his ideas, but like any
reasonable person, encouraged him to do more research to make sure the procedure was safe. But Forssmann was convinced that it was doable,
so he went ahead and tried it … on himself. He used a ureteral catheter — a long, skinny
tube normally used to drain urine from bladders — and inserted it into a major vein in his
arm. Then, he pushed the catheter about 65 centimeters
up his vein towards his heart. As if that wasn’t intense enough, he casually
walked through the hospital to the X-ray room — with the catheter still in his arm! — and
had a nurse help him use the X-ray to guide the catheter into a chamber in his heart. It was really risky, and Forssman got in trouble
with the hospital for breaking the rules, but it worked! And over 10 years later, thanks to additional
work by Cournand and Richards, heart catheterization became accepted in the medical community. In the end, it might have been worth it for
Forssmann, since he was fine and the experiment eventually led to a Nobel Prize. But he risked both his career and his life
in the process — and as scientists like Davy and Slotin learned the hard way, ignoring
safety can end in tragedy. From their stories, we can learn how to become
better scientists and curious thinkers — but we can also learn to have more common sense
than they did. Because, sometimes, really smart people can
make really bad decisions. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
brought to you by our patrons on Patreon! If you’d like to help us keep making episodes
like this, you can to go patreon.com/scishow. [♩OUTRO ]

100 thoughts on “6 Stupid and Dangerous Things Scientists Did to Themselves

  1. On optics: we know now for certain that when radiation passes through the eyes it creates illusions of floating lights. This was suspected after astronauts started hallucinating in open space. This was fully confirmed by a scientist who blasted his head with heavy radiation. Dying to prove that this was the case

  2. Nitrous is a n-methyl-d aspartate receptor antagonist. The receptor that makes the neurons "activate". It is not known to be toxic but It can replace oxygen and in that way choke you.

  3. If you want to learn more about Isaac Newton sticking the needle in his eye; BBC In Our Time – The Eye: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03w2w19

  4. Which would you rather go with when doing a nuclear experiment?
    Government approved spacing blocks
    or
    One handy dandy screwdriver

  5. Do they not use N20 for pain relief in childbirth in the US? “gas and air” first line therapy over here as it has virtually no side effects.

  6. Newton best definition of a genius in history, described the laws of motion,calculated the orbits of he planets, invented calculus and started the rigorous study of optics- all by the age of 24.

  7. As dangerous as these might be , we still need ppl like these to take such risks. We need these risk taking to advance humanity . Only ppl like these go places

  8. Our teacher in school used to punish us by making us standing under the sun in the summer and make us stare at it..if we don’t' they would make us stand on one leg and look at the sun
    Now if i think about it….it feels like literally torture now lol

  9. wrong,idts. just you are stupid/not smart/dumb/bad decx/nocommonsensx reasonx etc, you have no idea about exploration or curiosity, cepu, do, think , can do, think any no matter what and any s ok, no anxietyx,stress etc for suchx, anyx

  10. Another scientist that pulled a boneheaded idea to isolate morphine was the chemist Friedrich Sertürner. This genius used himself as a guinea pig to test the drug and wound up addicted to the substance. If that wasn't enough he got his friends addicted too. From that point onward they kept chasing the dragon.

  11. Some would argue it is a greater risk to us all when interest in safety is greater than interest in science. Bravery can look like stupidity to the timid or cynical. This video encourages weakness and discourages progress by undermining the intelligence of risk taking, selfless men of genius… all in the name of safety, aka cowardice.

  12. My brothers and sisters in humanity, please be aware! A cat scan exposes you to 500x more radiation than a normal X-ray. (So I was told afterwards). I was carelessly given the scan of the head in A&E. Not long after, I began suffering in from eyesight problems. I was diagnosed with high intra-ocular pressure. If not controlled the excess fluid can put pressure on the optic nerve and cause permanent blindness. I truly believe the radiation fried my eyes and caused the condition. If I’d known, I never would have agreed to it. If it helps diagnose the problem, insist on an MRI every time.

  13. Fun fact: Before Isaac Newton discovered gravity no one ever fell down. It's true. Look it up.

  14. Damn scientist are totally insane but they did it for the humanity, thank you for the risk you've made

  15. #5 The "Demon Core"… there's more to that story. Many deaths attributed to that one.

    #6 WTF?!? stop making yourself the guinea pig!

  16. Everyone should experiment with drugs your dr.s do. May as well get mostly good effects and he was 55 in the 1800s pretty sure he lived a long life.

  17. Yea safety beacause who wants to be a figure of historic importance or have streets named after you or win a Nobel? Even the core guy went down with the ship in a blaze of badass notoriety (shame about everybody else in the room, science).

  18. I better see the "Demon Core" mentioned.
    It doesnt get much weirder then a scientist, a screwdriver, and an uncontrolled nuclear reaction!

    《Louie Slotin》

  19. Demoncore = good name for death metal or black metal band with albums called "Supercritical" and "Nuclear Catastrophe."

  20. Without self testing and sometimes stupid testing we wouldn’t know this much knowledge on what not to do. So it is not stupid.

  21. One of my favorites — Dr. Barry Marshall discovered that many ulcers were caused by a bacteria in the gut, but other doctors refused to believe him, so he drank the bacteria himself, giving himself an ulcer, and revolutionizing ulcer treatment. http://discovermagazine.com/2010/mar/07-dr-drank-broth-gave-ulcer-solved-medical-mystery

  22. Sounds like scientist (and people in general) back then just had more balls then the people of sci show.

    Oh and more than some scientist now as well

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