A ‘friend’ of mine wants to lend me the book The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments which is about elegant and simple experiments done to figure out some really fundamental stuff about our universe. It sounds pretty good but I figured I should take a moment and come up with my own favorite experiments first before reading it. If there’s overlap I’ll seem on top of my game, if there’s not I’ll seem original. Win-win. So with that in mind I’d like to present my top four favorite experiments scientists (or just humans) have done and why I like them so much. Why only four and not five or even ten? I wrote too much and didn’t want to push your interest to the breaking point, so enjoy what you’ve got and suggest a 5th in the comments!
Sometimes science happens via a happy accident, which often makes for a good story. And I think science desperately needs to get back to a place where we tell stories. So here’s this one. Basically this entomologist, Dr. Steve Yonoviak, was bored in a tree in the rainforest (we’ve all been there) so he starts flicking ants off the trunk. Some of these ants appeared to change direction mid fall and land back on the tree before hitting the ground. So what does our good Doctor do upon witnessing this? Why he paints them white, so they can be seen on camera, and starts dropping these ants, along with any other animal he can get his hands on, out of the tree to see how they fall.
Why did this awesome skill of “falling with style” evolve? As you may know ants use chemical trails left by other members of the colony to get around. Certain colonies of ant species in the jungle live entirely on one tree so the only chemical signals to get a lost ant back to the nest are located on said tree. If the ant leaves the tree it’ll be lost and there likely won’t be a Homeward Bound style ending.
I like this story so much because I love the idea of accidental discovery as well as the image of a bored scientist flicking bugs off himself and watching what happens. Sometimes it’s just that simple.
This is a long story but the cliff notes are evocative enough. The skinny is in the 1790’s Edward Jenner noticed milkmaids who had previously been infected with cowpox were then immune to smallpox. He thought there might be something to this so he did what any responsible scientist would do: He injected the puss from a cowpox lesion of a milkmaid into an 8-year-old boy. Then a few weeks later he tried to give the young lad smallpox. Fortunately it didn’t work, and I can only imagine the mixed feelings that story is likely to give an anti-vaxxer. I don’t mean to make Jenner seem irresponsible, this was the end point of a pretty rigorous study of disease and the guy was doing legit science, but the story is funnier without context.
Why do I like this story so much? Two reasons, the first being that the word vaccination is funny. It comes from the Latin root vacca for cow. So a vaccine is something I’ve always thought of as a medicine to make you more like a cow. I know that’s not technically the case and that the word immunization is a more inclusive term, but thinking of people getting injected and becoming cows makes me smile. The other thing that makes me smile is that one can argue that vaccines are the single greatest medical intervention ever made by humanity. Ever. That’s a bold claim and recently there are groups who seek to undermine the integrity of something that has saved more human lives than anything before or since. I have a problem with that, but this isn’t the proper forum for it. Suffice it to say I think vaccines are awesome and safe, and now you know why.
You’ve no doubt seen at least one, if not many, images collected by the Hubble Space Telescope. I think there is little that needs to be said about the impact Hubble has had on the way we view the Universe around us. It’s given us access to so much beauty and put those images in the eyes of so many who may have not ever given a second thought to astronomy. If you’re not convinced this counts as an experiment, you may be right, but observation is also a critical part of the scientific method and the topic of another post altogether. I like to view Hubble as one of those “is it even possible to do this” type of experiments, which are also kind of a big deal. Now just enjoy some pretty pictures.
Domestication is one of my favorite topics within the broad field of evolution. It’s humanity saying, “Oh, so over the course of millions of years you evolved into that? Well that’s nice and all, but it ain’t what I want!” then we tinker with its genes until we get what we do want cause we’re humans and we’re awesome. Sometimes the effects of that process are less than awesome (sorry, Pugs) but the fact that we can do it at all and have been doing it for tens of thousands of years is nothing to shrug at.
Well this Russian scientist, Dmitri Belyaev, wanted to know more. How it happens, how quickly it happens, etc. He did what any good craftsman does, he started from scratch. He took over 100 Russian silver foxes and selectively bred them for nearly 50 years. The process was actually quite simple and is described in detail in a certain other podcast you may be familiar with. The experiment was a huge success and shows just how quickly, dramatically and easily these changes toward domestication can occur.
Why do I love this experiment so much? Fox puppies! I want two of them; one male and one female, and I already know what they’re names will be. The male will be Zorro, the Spanish word for ‘fox’ and one of my favorite swashbucklers. The female will be Laika, the name of the dog the Soviets launched into space aboard the second Sputnik rocket. The name is pronounced “lie-ka” which means when she’s acting silly I can say, “Quit being crazy… Laika Fox!”
Yes, this is what I spend my free time thinking about, thanks for reading this far.