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10 Most Dangerous Scientific Experiments in History
The times in history when science was deadly and dangerous.
Science is a force for good in our world, improving lives of people all across Earth in immeasurable ways. But it is also a very powerful tool that can become dangerous in some situations. Especially when it gets entangled in politics. At other times, science’s inherent ambition to push boundaries of what is known can also lead to some heart-stopping moments.
The following list is in no way exhaustive but gives us a place to start when thinking about the serious responsibility that comes with the march of science.
1. Project MKUltra
The infamous project MKUltra was CIA's attempt at mastering mind control. The program started in the 1950s and lasted seemingly until 1966. Under MKUltra, often-unwilling subjects were given drugs, especially hallucinogenics like LSD. The people tested were also put through sleep and sensory deprivation, hypnosis, sexual abuse, and other kinds of psychological torture, while some tests proved lethal.
The supposed goal of the project was some combination of chemical weapons research and effort to create mind-controlling drugs to combat the Soviets.
2. Weaponizing the Plague
The last time plague roamed around, it killed around half of Europe’s population, reducing the amount of people in the world by nearly a 100 million during the 13th and 14th century. In the late 1980s, the Soviet Union’s biological warfare research program figured out how to use the plague as a weapon, to be launched at enemies in missile warheads. What could go wrong? Besides the plague, defectors revealed that the Soviet bio-weapons program also had hundreds of tons of anthrax and tons of smallpox.
3. The Large Hadron Supercollider
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland, built to study particle physics, is the world’s largest machine and single most sophisticated scientific instrument. Because of this and the cutting-edge research its involved in, the LHC has prompted more than its share of fears from the general public. It has been blamed for causing earthquakes and pulling asteroids towards Earth.
A giant magnet used in the Large Hadron Collider, weighing 1920 tonnes. 28 February, 2007 at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. (Photo credit: JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images)
While conspiracy theories around the LHC have generally been disproven, it has also been accused of potentially creating black holes that could swallow Earth, a possibility that was curiously not completely discounted by the CERN, the organization running the collider.
CERN claimed the LHC is not dangerous, but also acknowledged that some type of black hole could be created.
"The LHC will not generate black holes in the cosmological sense. However, some theories suggest that the formation of tiny 'quantum' black holes may be possible. The observation of such an event would be thrilling in terms of our understanding of the Universe; and would be perfectly safe,“ said CERN’s statement.
A quantum black hole would be tiny. Don’t you feel better?
4. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment
A government-funded “study” from 1932-1972 denied treatment for syphilis to 399 African American patients in rural Alabama, even as penicillin was found to be effective against the disease in 1947. The patients were actually not told they had syphilis, with doctors blaming their “bad blood” instead and given placebos.
The goal of the experiment, carried out by the U.S. Public Health Service, was to study the natural progress of syphilis if left untreated. 28 of the people in the study died directly from syphilis while 100 died from related complications.
Doctor drawing blood from a patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. 1932.
5. Kola Superdeep Borehole
A Soviet experiment, started in 1970, sought to drill as deeply as possible into the crust of the planet. By 1994, they bore a 12-km-deep hole into the Kola Peninsula in Russia’s far northwest. The record dig provided much scientific data, like the finding of ancient microscopic plankton fossils from 24 species.
While nothing negative happened, there were concerns at the time that drilling so deep towards the center of Earth might produce unexpected seismic effects. Like cracking the planet open.
The hole’s site is currently closed.
6. Guatemalan STD study
This horrid experiment is another instance of the U.S. government causing harm in the pursuit of “science”. From 1945 until 1956, around 1500 Guatemalans were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis and gonorrhoea. The subjects included orphans, prisoners, prostitutes and military conscripts. Researchers used disease-infected prostitutes, injections, and other unscrupulous methods to make their subjects sick.
Subjects of the experiment are currently suing John Hopkins University for $1 billion for its role in the study.
7. The Aversion Project
A medical torture program was instituted in South Africa between 1971 and 1989 to “cure” homosexuality in military conscripts. The policy, carried out under apartheid, included forced “aversion therapy” treatments like electric shock therapy and chemical castration. The army also authorized as many as 900 sex change operations.
It was widely believed in the medical community at the time that homosexuality was a mental illness that could be cured. Dr. Aubrey Levin, in charge of the program as chief psychiatrist of the South African military, was eventually accused of human rights abuse by international organizations and received a prison sentence.
8. Nazi Concentration Camp Experiments
Nazis carried out medical experiments on thousands of prisoners in concentration camps, without any regard for human life. Some of their “research” involved purposefully inducing hypothermia, infecting people with malaria, using mustard gas on people, forced sterilization, giving prisoners different poisons, infecting wounds with bacteria and filling them with wood shavings and ground glass.
The Nazi doctor Josef Mengele was the prototypical “evil scientist,” known for his concentration camp experiments, with a particular focus on twins, mostly Jewish or Roma (“Gypsy”). Supposedly in the interest of studying heredity, the SS physician Mengele was responsible for such atrocities as removing organs from people without anesthetics, injections with deadly bacteria, dismemberment and others.
Not surprisingly known as the “Angel of Death”, Mengele collected the eyes of murdered victims for heterochromia research and attempted to prove through experiments the supposed resistance of Jews and Roma to a host of diseases.
circa 1940: Joseph Mengele, before he became known as 'The Doctor of Auschwitz' and 'The Angel of Death' for his pseudo-scientific experiments on inmates in Nazi death camps. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
9. Unit 731
Unit 731 was a secretive R&D unit of the Japanese Army that carried out horrendous experiments on humans during World War 2. Commanded by General Shiro Ishii, the unit experimented on an estimated 250,000 men, women and children. Most of the victims were Chinese, along with some prisoners of war from Russia and the Allies.
The forced medical procedures involved vivisections - cutting open subjects usually without anesthesia, unnecessary limb amputations, and removal of body organs like parts of brain, liver, lung and others. Victims were also subjected to biological warfare, frostbite testing, forced pregnancies, and even weapons testing by grenades or flamethrowers.
Trinity Site - 0.016 second after explosion, July 16, 1945. The highest point of the cloud in this image is about 200 meters high.
10. The Trinity Test
It’s hard not to put the world’s first nuclear test on such a list. In the mad rush to develop the atomic bomb and gain a military advantage in World War 2, America instituted the secretive Manhattan Project. This resulted in the Trinity Test, a detonation of the first-ever nuclear weapon in a New Mexico desert on July 16, 1945.
While the scientists were relatively confident in their work, there were some famous doubters who wondered if the bomb would even explode or if it would perhaps cause the end of the world as we know it.
Waiting for the bomb to go off, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Enrico Fermi, wagered others whether the bomb would just destroy New Mexico or the world, potentially setting the Earth’s atmosphere ablaze.
A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.
- There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
- A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
- Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.
First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)
Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.
All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.
Image source: European Space Agency
The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.
Into and out of Earth's shadow
In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.
The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."
In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."
When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.
The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.
BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.
MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.
Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.
Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.
- Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
- A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
- A second study suggests that shadowy regions on the lunar surface may also contain more ice than previously thought.
Credits: NASA/Daniel Rutter<p>Still, it's not as if the moon is dripping wet. The observations suggest that a cubic meter of the lunar surface (in the Clavius crater site, at least) contains water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million. That's roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water. In comparison, the same plot of land in the Sahara desert contains about 100 times more water.</p><p>But a second study suggests other parts of the lunar surface also contain water — and potentially lots of it. Also publishing their findings in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1198-9#_blank" target="_blank">Nature Astronomy</a> on Monday, the researchers used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to study "cold traps" near the moon's polar regions. These areas of the lunar surface are permanently covered in shadows. In fact, about 0.15 percent of the lunar surface is permanently shadowed, and it's here that water could remain frozen for millions of years.</p><p>Some of these permanently shadowed regions are huge, extending more than a kilometer wide. But others span just 1 cm. These smaller "micro cold traps" are much more abundant than previously thought, and they're spread out across more regions of the lunar surface, according to the new research.</p>
Credit: dottedyeti via AdobeStock<p>Still, the second study didn't confirm that ice is embedded in micro cold traps. But if there is, it would mean that water would be much more accessible to astronauts, considering they wouldn't have to travel into deep, shadowy craters to extract water.</p><p>Greater accessibility to water would not only make it easier for astronauts to get drinking water, but could also enable them to generate rocket fuel and power.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers," said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in the advanced exploration systems division for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a statement. "If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries."</p>