A story titled "Exotic Creatures Making Their Way Into South Florida" on the front page of Sunday's Sun-Sentinel elucidated some of the dangers of the exotic-pet trade. Deep into the story's second page, the pet industry was given its say.
"A lot of children spend hours in front of the TV and the computer and have very little contact with nature," claimed Jamie Reaser, vice president of environmental policy for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. "So I think it's very important for children to learn about animals and the environment" -- presumably by owning an exotic pet.
And why not? What better way to learn about the environment than by fucking mercilessly with an otherwise homeostatic ecosystem? Many of humanity's most profound scientific discoveries have been accidental, unintentionally disastrous, or accompanied by unanticipated consequences.
Here, then, are the top ten all-time accidental science experiments. Which we assume are endorsed by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.
10. Beast Wars
The question: Who would win in a fight between a gator and a python?
The answer: The science student.
How we found out: Exotic-pet owners in Florida, not realizing the dimensions their cute baby Burmeses would assume after a few years of growth, began releasing these massive snakes into the Floridian wilds in the '90s. Science then took care of itself. In 2007, strange scenes of carnage began appearing in the Everglades -- images of huge snakes ripped open from the inside; the bodies of slime-covered gators protruding from the rupture. Apparently, the gators and the pythons, seeking to fill the same ecological niche, had turned on each other. The snakes had attempted to swallow the gators whole and couldn't quite hack it. All died. But the pictures were awesome.
The question: What happens when you get experimental blood pressure medication on your hand?
The answer: The 1960s.
How we found out: In 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman decided to reexamine an apparently useless analeptic he had synthesized five years earlier: lysergic acid diethylamide 25. Quite accidentally, he got some of the stuff on his fingertips and proceeded to spend the afternoon tripping out. He had a lovely time and defended the use of LSD until his death 65 years later as an old, happy acidhead.
The question: What happens if you spend all of your working hours around radium?
The answer: Death, immortality.
How we found out: Marie Curie was brilliant. She isolated the first radioactive isotopes from mineral ore and even coined the term "radioactivity." She also quite enjoyed the pretty, soft-blue light given off by her samples of radium and polonium, with which she worked without the benefit of any protection from radiation. She died of aplastic anemia in 1934, and her research papers are so hot that, to this day, they're kept in a lead-lined vault in Paris. Still, we have Curie's unwittingly suicidal experimentation to thank for all kinds of things -- radiation oncology, experimental quantum physics, and "The Bomb" among them. We ought to thank her too for her relentless boosterism of poisonous radium gas, which she recommended inhaling as a restorative. The treatment's popularity waned after Curie croaked.
7. Cohabitation With Bears
The question: Can man and bear live as one?
The answer: Kind of.
How we found out: Timothy Treadwell was a self-taught scientist and naturalist who never felt entirely comfortable around people. Fleeing alcohol and drug addiction, he made a life for himself among the grizzlies at Katmai National Park in Alaska, where he spent his summers without any of the usual protections employed by close-up bear observers. He confided to interviewers and to his journals that he actually believed himself to be a grizzly. Which is what he became, ever so briefly, when he and his girlfriend were eaten by one in 2003.
The question: How does food feed us?
The answer: Chemically!
How we found out: For as long as humankind has eaten, it has wondered why. What happens within the body to transform food into energy? The process was long considered to be mechanical. Dr. William Beaumont changed all that when a young Canadian of his acquaintance was struck in the stomach with a musket ball. Through the fistula, Beaumont was able to make visual observations of the digestive process, which he learned was accomplished largely via gastric acid. He would occasionally drain gastric acid from his patient, so he might use the stuff to digest food remotely, in beakers on his desk.
The question: What happens when an overeager scientist grabs hold of an electrical conductor in the middle of a savage lightning storm?
The answer: Death, immortality.
How we found out: Taking his cue from Benjamin Franklin, Georg Wilhelm Richmann, of Russia, ran home in an electrical storm to test a theory about electricity. Grabbing a conductor, he proved quite another theory, as a tremendous jolt of lightning came screeching out of the sky. To wit: electricity freaking burns. He was blown out of his shoes and died instantly, thereby teaching us all a valuable lesson. Science FTW!
4. Malaria and AIDS
The question: Can malaria cure AIDS?
The answer: No, you fool.
How we know: Dr. Henry Heimlich, of the famed (and discredited) Heimlich Maneuver, for two decades has promulgated the theory that malaria infections can treat, or even cure, HIV/AIDS by stimulating the immune system. Despite frequent tests on AIDS patients in Africa and China, this has not been demonstrated. What has been demonstrated is that giving already-sick people severe cases of malaria can really ruin their day.
3. Smoke Inhalation
The question: What happens when you spend all of your waking day breathing nicotine-laden smoke rather than oxygen-laden air?
The answer: TBA. Also, looking cool. Also, death.
How we know: The American tobacco industry spent the first half the 20th Century conducting a science experiment of unprecedented size and scope by convincing all of us to smoke lots and lots of cigarettes. As early as 1930, available evidence suggested that smokers developed lung cancer and other ailments at vastly inflated rates, but the keen scientific minds of Big Tobacco were not satisfied. Nor were they satisfied as countless studies poured out of universities worldwide in the 1950s and '60s: Their restless curiosity filled them with a lust for data that has struck less ambitious scientists dumb with admiration. To this day, their experiment continues amain. Even though we're pretty sure it's killing lots of people.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The question: What happens when you broadcast messages of welcome, and directions to Earth, to any and all extraterrestrials who might be smart enough to decode them?
How we know: We don't. Since the launch of Pioneer 10 -- and arguably even earlier -- scientists have broadcast messages to the stars and hoped for a response. It's slow-going work. Our fastest messages travel at the speed of light -- which isn't very fast, if you're traversing interstellar distances -- and there's no reason to suppose that intelligent life, if it exists elsewhere in the galaxy, will exist anywhere close to our own sun. Still, scientists have often speculated about what might happen if some boundlessly advanced race should receive our broadcasts. Carl Sagan suggested the aliens might be so kind as to reunite Jodie Foster with her dearly departed dad. Stephen Hawking thinks they'll kill us all. Stay tuned!
1. Global Warming
The question: What happens when you release billions of tons of carbon from the Earth's crust into the atmosphere?
The answer: TBA.
How we know: We don't. This is science experiment is very much in-progress, and none of us knows how it'll turn out. Exciting, yes?