Tag: danger

5 Most Dangerous Scientific Experiments in History

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

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.

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.

4. The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment

Doctor drawing blood from a patient as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. 1932.

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.

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.

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Can You Really Be Scared to Death?

A friend jumps out at you when you’re turning a corner. Your heart starts pounding, and you gasp. “You scared me to death!” you say.

Of course, the fact that you can utter this common phrase means that you are not deceased. But saying this is so common, in fact, that we have to ask the question: Is it possible to be scared to death?

The answer: yes, humans can be scared to death. In fact, any strong emotional reaction can trigger fatal amounts of a chemical, such as adrenaline, in the body.

It happens very rarely, but it can happen to anyone. The risk of death from fear or another strong emotion is greater for individuals with preexisting heart conditions, but people who are perfectly healthy in all other respects can also fall victim.

Being scared to death boils down to our autonomic response to a strong emotion, such as fear.

For fear-induced deaths, the demise starts with our fight-or-flight response, which is the body’s physical response to a perceived threat.

This response is characterized by an increased heart rate, anxiety, perspiration, and increased blood glucose levels.




How does our fight-or-flight instinct lead to death, though? To understand that, we have to understand what the nervous system is doing when it’s stimulated, primarily in releasing hormones.

These hormones, which can be adrenaline or another chemical messenger, ready the body for action. The thing is, adrenaline and similar chemicals in large doses are toxic to organs such as the heart, the liver, the kidneys, and the lungs.

Scientists claim that what causes sudden death out of fear in particular is the chemical’s damage to the heart, since this is the only organ that, upon being affected, could cause sudden death.

Adrenaline opens calcium to the heart. With a lot of calcium going to the heart, the organ has trouble slowing down, which is something that can cause ventricular fibrillation, a specific type of abnormal heart rhythm.

Irregular heartbeats prevent the organ from successfully pumping blood to the body and lead to sudden death unless treated immediately.

High levels of adrenaline aren’t caused only by fear. Other strong emotions can also incite a rush of adrenaline. For example, sporting events and sexual intercourse have been known to lead to adrenaline-induced deaths.

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Severed Gecko Tails Have A Mind Of Their Own

Even after they’re no longer connected to a lizard brain, gecko tails can flip, jump and lunge in response to their environment — and may even be able to evade predators.

Researchers have known for centuries that some animals can voluntarily shed parts of their bodies to keep from being eaten, but few studies have looked at the behavior of disposable body parts once they’ve fallen off.

Now, using high-speed video and a technique called electromyography, scientists have discovered that severed gecko tails exhibit complex behavior and even seem to react to environmental cues.

The scientists say that figuring out what controls the jumping gecko tail may help us understand why the paralyzed muscles of spinal cord injured patients sometimes exhibit spontaneous muscle contractions, which they hope could someday lead to treatments that restore some control over such movements.

After attaching electrodes to the tails of four adult leopard geckos, the researchers gently pinched the lizards to encourage them to shed their tails.




As soon as a gecko felt threatened, its tail began to twitch and eventually detached from the rest of its body in an amazing, but nearly bloodless, feat.

Rather than using up all their energy in a single short burst, the gecko tails seemed to modulate their muscle movement to conserve energy and maximize the unpredictability of their behavior.

The tails also changed direction and speed depending on what they bumped into, which suggests that the tails can independently sense and respond to their environment.

Although the researchers understand the benefits of a detachable tail with a mind of its own, they don’t yet know what’s controlling the tail’s complex movement.

According to Russell, figuring out what controls severed gecko tails might help us understand and treat some aspects of human spinal cord injury.

With a spinal cord injury, what tends to happen is skeletal muscles tend to be paralyzed behind that event,” he said.

For instance, if you injure your mid back, your lower limbs are put out of commission.

Scientists know that networks of neurons called central pattern generators, or CPGs, can produce rhythmic movements that aren’t controlled by the brain, but they don’t know exactly how these neural networks function.

To study CPGs, scientists usually have to surgically damage an animal’s spinal cord in a procedure called a “spinal preparation“; geckos provide a unique model system because they naturally sever their own spinal cords.

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China’s Space Station Will Most Likely Plunge To Earth In Next 24 Hours

It sure looks like the abandoned Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will put on its re-entry light show tonight.

The European Space Agency (ESA), which has been tracking the prototype habitat through its final days and hours, now predicts (as of April 1) it will re-enter the atmosphere sometime tonight (April 1) through early Monday morning (April 2) in UTC time, which is 4 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time.

The Aerospace Corporation, which has also been tracking the falling station, more or less concurs, writing that the uncontrolled re-entry should happen around April 2 at 02:00 UTC (10 p.m. EDT), give or take 7 hours.

It remains true that no one knows where the 9.4-ton (8.5 metric tons) station will come down, other than somewhere between 43 degrees latitude north and 43 degrees latitude south.




It also remains true that it is not a danger to you or anyone else, because the Earth is very big and still mostly pretty empty, and the station is very small in the scheme of things.

And the odds of getting hit by a piece of the space lab that manages to survive the fiery re-entry into our atmosphere are incredibly low.

Worth noting: China has still not officially confirmed that it’s not in control of the falling station, but China did lose contact with the uncrewed object on March 21, 2016, and likely has not re-established contact since.

In any event, there’s a non-zero chance that you’ll witness something extraordinary if you look up into the sky this weekend.

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Just How Dangerous Are Winter Olympic Sports?

Pyeongchang has witnessed its fair share of thrills and spills, but which events result in the most injuries?

Dramatic crashes, spectacular spills and high-profile injuries – if anything, a week and a half of action in Pyeongchang has proved Winter Olympics events carry with them a fairly high degree of risk.

Australian snowboarder Jessica Rich competed at the Games just a month after tearing her ACL, and revealed she had previously broken her back, and twice broken her collarbone.

Her team-mate, Cam Bolton competed in the snowboard cross with a suspected broken wrist, while Jarryd Hughes, who won silver, has had five knee operations over the course of his career.




British speed skater Elise Christie was injured in a dramatic crash in the 1500m, and snowboarder Katie Ormerod broke her heel during training.

Australian snowboarder Tess Coady also sustained an injury during training, blaming strong winds. There have been numerous other examples.

So, just how dangerous are the various Winter Olympic sports?

We don’t yet have the final injury statistics from Pyeongchang, but journal articles detailing injury records are available from the 2010 Games in Vancouver, and 2014 in Sochi.

The relatively new events of slopestyle snowboarding and skiing are both in the top five, with snowboarding having a particularly high rate of injuries at 37 per 100 athletes.

The aerials skiing event also results in a high rate of injury, particularly during the Sochi Games, where the injury rate was 48.8 per 100 athletes, a staggeringly high figure.

The reports also looked at how severe injuries were by measuring the rate of injuries resulting in recovery times greater than a week.

The moguls, slopestyle (snowboard) and cross (both ski and snowboard) all had higher rates of more severe injuries at Sochi, with all these events having a severe injury rate of 14 or higher.

Overuse injuries were also quite common in bobsledding and cross-country skiing, while contact with the ground was the most common cause of injury for slopestyle, halfpipe and cross events.

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Why It Is So Hard To Predict Where And When Earthquakes Will Strike?

Can earthquakes ever be predicted? This question is timely after the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck Nepal recently. If authorities had more warning that the earthquake was coming, they may have been able to save more lives.

While Nepal is a documented area of previous seismic activity, at the moment there is no technique that provides predictions of sufficient clarity to allow for evacuations at short notice.

So if we cannot predict these events now, are there avenues of research to provide useful predictions in the future?

The key word here is “useful”. It is possible to make long-term forecasts about future earthquake activity, partly by using the past record of earthquakes as a guide.

There is no reason to believe that a region of the Earth is going to behave differently in the next few thousands of years from its pattern over the same range back in time.




In the short term, seismologists can draw on data from recording stations, with records going back roughly 40 years on a global scale.

Within hours of a major earthquake there are estimates of its epicentre, magnitude (the amount of energy released), the depth at which it originated, the orientation of the geological fault that caused it and the direction in which it moved.

The event in Nepal was a thrust fault, meaning that the upper part of the Earth was shortened by a few metres, with the rock lying above the fault plane moving southwards over the rock lying beneath it.

Gathering the data

Information about past earthquakes comes from a number of sources, not least historical records. But such records are incomplete, even in earthquake-prone countries with long traditions of documenting natural disasters, such as China and Iran.

Other lines of evidence are available, including measuring and dating the offsets of man-made or natural features that can be accurately dated, such as the walls of a castle or a city. Faults cutting the Great Wall of China have been documented in this way.

Seismologists also dig trenches across faults known or suspected to be active, and can recover rocks and sediments affected by earthquakes.

These events can dated, for example by radiocarbon analysis of plant remains disturbed by the faulting.

By combining the earthquake ages with the size of the damaged areas, it is possible to understand earthquake patterns over hundreds or even thousands of years.

Scientists use this information as a guideline for future behaviour, but it is clear that the faults do not slip after the same period of time between earthquakes.

Nor does a fault necessarily rupture in the same place in successive earthquakes.

An earthquake releasing stress along one fault segment may place more stress on an adjacent region, thereby increasing the earthquake likelihood in that area.

This may occur soon after the original event, which explains the phenomenon of aftershocks. Nepal has already seen aftershocks of a magnitude greater than six, and is likely to see more.

Global hotspots

Instrumental and historical records combine to make a global picture of earthquake activity. There are, unfortunately, many danger areas.

Eurasia bears the brunt, because of the collision of the Indian and Arabian plates with the rest of Eurasia. Therefore China, Iran, Pakistan and India all share Nepal’s susceptibility to large earthquakes.

Other danger areas lie along the margins of the Pacific and Indian oceans, where one plate slides under another in a process called subduction. Earthquakes at such plate boundaries can cause devastating tsunamis, like in Japan in 2011.

Newer lines of research include precise measurements of the movement of a fault during earthquakes and the motion of the Earth’s surface between earthquakes.

Across the Himalayas there is around 20mm of convergence (shortening) every year, roughly half of the overall convergence between the Indian and Eurasian plates.

The remainder is accommodated further north, in ranges such as the Tian Shan and the Tibetan Plateau.

In other words, every year a person in Siberia becomes roughly 40 mm closer to a person in central India, as the Earth’s crust deforms across the broad region between them.

This strain builds up over time and is released in an earthquake like the snapping of an elastic band.

Faster strain, longer faults and greater strength in the upper part of the Earth in a particular region can all lead to larger earthquakes.

The Himalayas feature a deadly combination of these factors, leading to very large events of the kind experienced on April 25.

It is not sensible to be naively optimistic about improvements in earthquake prediction, but all research on the past and present behaviour of active faults is to be welcomed.

It is timely that the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council has just announced funding for research into earthquakes and resilience to earthquakes.

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