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Worst Science Experiments Gone Wrong

Written by Kevin Jennings

          When it comes to doing things in the name of science, there’s not a lot that people aren’t willing to try. Whether it involves violations of safety protocols, a wonton disregard for laws and ethics, or even experimenting on oneself, the prospect of scientific progress and the greater good can often be seen to outweigh the potential consequences. Sometimes this results in amazing scientific advances, and sometimes it results in the MK-Ultra program. Today we’ll be looking at scientific experiments that had disastrous results.

The Demon Core

By Los Alamos National Laboratory – From LANL’s report on criticality accidents, 2000, http://www.csirc.net/docs/reports/la-13638.pdf PDF at http://www.csirc.net/library/la_13638.shtml, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=114470

              On August 13, 1945, the United States scheduled the third atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan. It was expected that the bomb would be ready by the 16th and dropped on the 19th, but this would fortunately never come to pass. On August 15, Japan surrendered. The bomb was no longer necessary and was going to remain at Los Alamos.

              With the radioactive core of the bomb no longer scheduled to explode, it was time for some reckless scientific experimentation. Radioactive material goes critical when it is able to sustain a nuclear chain reaction without any outside intervention. As that process speeds up, it is known as going supercritical. Scientists already knew how to trigger criticality of the material within a bomb, but they understood a lot less outside of the applications of war. The first nuclear power plant was still six years away, and better understanding exactly where the line was at which material would go critical would be an important step towards realizing more efficient global energy.

              The easiest way to generate a reaction using the radioactive core was to reflect the neutrons it shed back onto itself. On August 21, physicist Harry Daghlian of the Manhattan project was doing just that. He was building a reflective wall of tungsten carbide bricks around the core and measuring the results. Each new brick brought the core closer to criticality. As Harry went to place another brick on the wall, he dropped it. The brick landed on top of the core, leaving it surrounded with neutron reflective material.

              Harry removed the brick as quickly as possible, but it was too late. For that moment, the core had gone supercritical, and Harry received a lethal dose of radiation. He died 25 days later of acute radiation poisoning.

              Nearly a year later, physicist Louis Slotin was experimenting with the core again. He had also worked on the Manhattan project and was a friend of Harry’s. Given Harry’s untimely death, you might think that Louis would have been a bit more careful than his late friend, but there was science to be done, and he was needlessly arrogant.

              In the new experiments, the core was placed inside two half spheres of beryllium to reflect the neutrons back on itself. There were supposed to be two shims to keep the halves separate, but Louis had no interest in using those. Instead, he would perform the experiments by sliding a flathead screwdriver between the two halves to keep them from completely sealing. He had performed experiments in this way nearly a dozen times, so one might think he had gotten the hang of it.

              Others, however, would think he was a lunatic that should know better. Enrico Fermi said they would all be dead within a year if they kept performing experiments in such an unsafe manner, and Richard Feynman compared their experiments to “tickling the tail of a sleeping dragon.”

              As literally everyone predicted, something eventually went wrong. Louis was performing his experiment, manipulating the sphere and taking Geiger counter readings, when the screwdriver slipped outward. The two halves of the sphere immediately slammed shut, and the core once again went supercritical. Louis ripped the top half of the sphere off and through it to the floor, but he knew it was too late. In both supercritical events, there was a flash of blue light, followed by and a feeling of incredible warmth as if radiating outward from each person’s body.

              On May 26, 1946, after Louis dropped the beryllium sphere to the ground, the first words he uttered where, “Well, that does it.” He saw what had happened to his friend Harry, and he knew he was already dead. Nine days later, he died of acute radiation poisoning.

              Harry was alone for the first incident, but there were 7 others in the room for the second. Others would become hospitalized with severe radiation poisoning, but ultimately they would all recover. Scientists are not generally superstitious people, but after these two events the core was given the nickname the Demon Core, on account of the lives that it had claimed.

              The Demon Core was intended to be detonated in nuclear tests later that year, but due to delays and cancellations with the tests that didn’t happen. Instead, rather than keep the cursed Demon Core around any longer than necessary, it was melted down and recycled to be used in other nuclear cores.

Scientist Sticks Head in Particle Accelerator


            If you asked a random physicist on the street what would happen if you stuck your hand in the Large Hadron Collider, there’s a good chance they would just laugh and tell you that they don’t know, but that it’s probably a bad idea.  The scientists working at the site itself are much more confident in the result, having already placed sheets of metal in front of the beam to see the holes it will tear through the metal. Obviously, the soft tissue of your hand would stand no chance for such a high powered beam. So what if you put your head inside one?

              On July 13, 1978, 36 year old Russian scientist Anatoli Bugorski was working at the Institute for High Energy Physics in Protvino, in the then Soviet Union. It was the home of the largest particle accelerator in the Soviet Union, the U-70 synchrotron, and it was Anatoli’s job to fix a malfunctioning piece of equipment.

              What Anatoli didn’t know was that the equipment he intended to fix was not the only part of the particle accelerator that was malfunctioning. The warning lights had broken during a previous experiment and were never fixed. Without those warning lights, he had no reason to believe that the beam of highly energized protons was still traveling through the accelerator’s tunnel. As he leaned his head inside the machine, he immediately knew what had happened.

              Anatoli said that he didn’t feel any pain, but that he saw a flash of light “brighter than a thousand suns”. But this was the Soviet Union, so he wasn’t going to tell anyone what happened. Instead he completed his work, presumably after making sure that the accelerator really was shut off this time, then went home for the evening.

              The incident itself may not have been painful, but the aftermath certainly was. The left side of Anatoli’s face began to swell dramatically, and after a brutal, sleepless night, he finally decided to seek medical attention. He was rushed to a special clinic it Moscow that treated victims of radiation. There, the doctors assumed he only had days to live. While the exact amount of ionizing radiation that Anatoli was exposed to cannot be known for sure, some sources estimate he absorbed as much as 750 times the lethal dose of radiation. Estimates vary dramatically, but there is no dispute that he experienced significantly more than a lethal dose of radiation.

              As the days went on, the skin where the concentrated energy beam had entered Anatoli’s skull and exited through the left side of his face peeled away, revealing exactly what had happened. The beam had burned a thin hole directly through his head. Brain, bone, skin, and muscle were all burned away as the beam passed through his head. However, despite the predictions of the doctors and most logical guesses as to the outcome, Anatoli is still alive at the age of 79 years old. Despite the exceptional high dose of radiation, due to the nature of it being in such a concentrated beam Anatoli was able to survive.

              That’s not to say there weren’t consequences. Despite the hole burned through his brain, Anatoli’s intellect seemed to remain intact. He finished his work earning his PhD and continued his work as a physicist at the Institute. The main change intellectually was only that he found mental exertion much more tiring than he previously had. Another unwanted side effect of the hole drilled through his brain was seizures.

              Anatoli would occasionally suffer from complex partial seizures. This is the type of seizure where a person seems to momentarily stare off into space as if they’re either thinking extremely hard or just really don’t care what you’re trying to tell them. On rare occasions, he would also suffer tonic-clonic seizures, the sort of full on seizures where people fall to the ground convulsing.

              He would also find that the left half of his face eventually became paralyzed and he became deaf in his left ear. The deafness was accompanied by tinnitus, a common but extremely annoying symptom of hearing loss. One particular medical oddity, as if this entire case wasn’t odd enough, is that the left half of Anatoli’s face seemed to stop aging. The right half of his face continued to age normally, but the paralyzed side seemed almost completely free of the expected effects of aging.

              It was over a decade before the Soviet Union would fall and Anatoli would ever be able to speak publicly about what happened to him. Citizens of Western countries might think that this guy had hit the workman’s comp jackpot, but such was not the case in the Soviet Union or Russia. In 1996, Anatoli applied for disability status that would allow him to receive his anti-seizure medication for free, but his claim was denied. He had also expressed interest in making himself available for study by Western scientists, but he could not afford to leave Protvino.

              Of course, we opened this by asking what would happen if you stuck your hand in the Large Hadron Collider. To date, Anatoli is the only human to be exposed to an active particle accelerator beam, so we can still only guess the exact results. But for a frame of reference, the U-70 synchrotron only has about 1% of the energy output of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Doctor Gives Himself the Wrong STD


            Born in 1728, John Hunter was a well respected British surgeon who studied various areas of medicine, from bloodletting to venereal disease. John was actively working during a time period when it was very common for doctors and scientists to experiment on themselves. Although it has been reported for over a century that John experimented on himself, there are relatively recent claims to the contrary, believing it to just be a myth. Whether the experiment was performed on himself or a third party, the effects were the same.

              In 1767, John was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. At the time, he was considered to be the leading authority on venereal diseases. He also believed that gonorrhea and syphilis were the same disease, and that gonorrhea was just the earlier stage of the disease.

              If true, this would have been a massive breakthrough. London’s population had exploded in the 1700s. This increase in population brought with it a sharp increase in sex workers, and since condoms didn’t exist yet sexual transmitted diseases were a hot topic. Because both gonorrhea and syphilis are bacterial infections, they are both curable today with the right antibiotics. However, in John’s day, only gonorrhea was treatable. Syphilis, on the other hand, could cause severe neurological symptoms and ultimately death.

 It was known that syphilis had multiple stages and took a long time to become fatal, so if it could be proven that gonorrhea was really just the same disease but in the earliest stage, then the aggressive treatment of gonorrhea could wind up saving lives. We now know that it couldn’t be proven because they’re not the same disease, but John had a theory and he needed to test it.

              Taking pus from the sore of a boy infected with gonorrhea, John intentionally injected himself with the disease. If the infection turned into syphilis, he would know that his theory was correct. The only problem with this experiment is that, unbeknownst to John, the subject from whom he had acquired the pus was actually afflicted with both diseases.

              The results were devastating. First of all, John accidentally gave himself a deadly SDT which is not ideal. Aside from inadvertently injected himself with a contagious death sentence, which would be bad enough, it invalidated his entire study. That’s all pretty bad already, but even worse is that he never found out what he had done.

              For his entire life, John thought he had proved that gonorrhea and syphilis really were the same disease. Because he was so well respected, and was the leading authority on venereal disease, his findings were taken as fact. Knowledge regarding the two diseases was set back, and it would be another 51 years before French doctor Phillipe Ricord would prove what a blunder John had made. John had also recommended treating syphilis by burning the sores and treating them with mercury, which begs the question of how he had become the leading expert in this field in the first place.

              Though John’s A Treatise on the Venereal Diseases does not explicitly state that this experiment was performed on himself, it doesn’t make reference to a third party, either. The end result was the same either way, but it’s hard not to hope that John had experimented on himself. The only thing worse than setting back STD research by over half a century by injecting yourself with a deadly disease would be to set it back by injecting someone else.  And when the doctor’s theory is “if I inject you with gonorrhea it will develop into syphilis”, it’s hard to imagine there were many volunteers lining up for that experiment.

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