Awesome Science Terrible for Humans

Philosophers of science (and scientists, and science journalists, teachers, etc.) like vivid examples of sciencey things happening that illustrate various scientific or philosophical concepts. Examples that make you gasp or chuckle or compulsively send the link to everyone in your contacts list. Most philosophers have a list of such examples that they carry around in their mental back-pocket and pull out to explain their research to non-philosophers, impress people on airplanes, and win bar bets. 

So I have my own list. Stained-glass-is-nanoscience is way up there, and so is how nanomaterials can be used to cure cancer. There is a special subset of back-pocket examples that I think of as “Awesome Science Terrible For Humans.” Top biller here is probably nuclear weapons testing. But there are a lot of others; they are the stories that make you go “NEAT!” and then feel like a bad person for thinking something so destructive could be just utterly fascinating. “ASTFH” cases are useful because they are gripping both in talking and writing settings. When something is terrible, it is easier to see why one might want to do something about it; it’s the difference between knowing that malnutrition is a global-crisis issue and walking by someone who is starving and asking for help.


ASTFH cases cause something like the cognitive equivalent of rubber-necking at the site of a car crash, and they’re not for everyone or for every day. But I got to write about my favorite ASTFH example recently, and it inspired me to share my top four. Pace yourselves:

4. Bewitching Rye: Ergotism is a malady caused by ingestion of the ergot fungus that grows on grains such as rye and barley. It has the craziest list of associated symptoms: diarrhea, convulsions, pins and needles, psychosis, and, oh yeah, gangrene. The fungus contains the vasoconstrictor ergoline, which just wreaks effing havoc on the body, as it turns out. Ergoline is a kind of building block for a hugely diverse number of chemical compounds that some people put in other people’s bodies (or their own), including LSD and medicine for migraines. What’s even cooler than ergoline’s action as a building-block compound is its function in illustrating one way science and history can interact: over the course of 20th-century research on ergoline and on Western political history, many historians have come to suspect ergot fungi as responsible for some of the more mass-psychosis-y behaviors in both the Salem witch trials and the Anabaptist seiges in Muenster during the latter days of the protestant reformation. So Monty Python should have been asking “Did she feed you beer that tasted of mushrooms?” rather than “Does she weigh more than a duck?”

3. How radium gets in the body: After Marie Curie discovered radium, people were excited to put it everywhere. In their watch dials, in their water. Radium spas became the new “it” getaway vacation. Radium paint became an invaluable asset in the trenches of World War 1. And the women who worked in factories that painted watch dials and other instruments of war with radium would dip their brushes on their tongues to keep the bristles moistened and sticking together. Everyone knows the macroscopic story: radium made their teeth and hair fall out, made them lose weight (hence radium spas), made their bones so brittle they couldn’t walk. But the reason radium was so effective at destroying people from the inside out isn’t just because of radioactive decay. It is also because of the periodic table: radium is a Group 2 metal, an alkaline earth. Which means it has the same outer electronic structure as all the other alkaline earth metals, including calcium. This electronic similarity is a disguise of sorts, allowing radium to enter the body by the same channels that calcium usually makes its way it. It’s kind of like when the old cartoon skunk, Pepe le Pew, is tricked into thinking a pretty cat is a skunk like him because the cat has accidentally walked through paint. And this is a really neat (terrible) stunt that radium can pull off. Then, of course, it gets into the calcium channels and “takes off its mask.” It starts radioactively decaying and basically bull-in-a-China-shop-ing any nearby cellular structures, leading to cell death and, if enough cells die in the right (wrong) places, human death. Bonus: If we only tell bottom-up stories about the structures of atoms and molecules, we would start with the difference between radium’s nucleus and calcium’s nucleus, not the similarity in their outer electronic structures, and we wouldn’t get a good explanation of why radium so easily travels along calcium uptake channels. So, yay anti-reductionism.

2. Thalidomide: Thalidomide is a chiral molecule that gave a generation of children birth defects. It was first received on the market as a wonder drug, a sedative that also alleviated stomach issues. So it was given to pregnant mothers to ease morning sickness throughout the early 1960s. Now, thalidomide has two enantiomers, two ways of arranging itself that are not superimposable on one another–like how we have right and left hands. It turns out that one enantiomer is responsible for all the palliative effects that users experienced. The other enantiomer prevented proper development of fetuses and resulted in really horrific disfigurements of limbs of children whose mothers took the drug during the first three months of pregnancy. This case is fun because not only is it a good illustration of anti-reductionism (lists of atomic makeup are not sufficient to describe the structure and properties of the chemical), but also the story of how thalidomide got approved for, and then pulled from, commercial markets is a gripping case for beginning conversations about bioethics and science in society.

1. De Havilland Comet: Okay, check this out. The first commercial jetliners had square windows. The sharp corners of those windows caused massive amounts of metal fatigue, which increased with changes in pressure and temperature as the jets took to the air. The result? The metal body panels of the planes sheared into pieces, looking like a giant tiger had run its claws down the length of the plane, and causing the planes to depressurize, lose their aerodynamic design, crash, and of course, kill lots of people. The continuum models of metals that were being used to design the planes failed to account for corner-based metal fatigue, which is a phenomenon explicable only by structural (i.e. not continuum) models.

Well, it turns out most of my examples are pretty chemical. No surprise there. But I am so, so curious what other episodes of Awesome Science Terrible for Humans show up in other areas of science. Please share in the comments!

About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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