Watercolor painting of a Mycoplasma mycoides cell, by David S. Goodsell. This cell would be about 250 nanometers in diameter. M. mycoides are parasitic bacteria that live in cattle and goats, causing lung disease. You can see the plasma membrane surrounding the cell, but Mycoplasma, like animal cells and unlike most bacteria, are distinguished by the lack of a cell wall. This means they are immune to antibiotics like penicillin which target cell walls. M. pneumoniae is a species that causes disease in humans.
Mycoplasmas are interesting because they’re the smallest self-replicating organisms that exist. Since mycoplasmas represent nature’s most minimal self-reproductive machinery, their study could help define the essential nature of biological life itself. (Viruses are smaller still, but require their hosts to do the replication for them.)
Observing a solar eclipse on January 1, 1907, in the Tian-Shan mountains, probably in modern-day Uzbekistan. This is a photograph taken by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, a chemist and photographer who invented a new process for color photography and used it to document the Russian empire in the time period 1905-1915. You can view many of the photos on Flickr or at the Library of Congress.
In case you missed it, the New Yorker published a great, but terrifying look into science’s sordid past this last December. Operation Delirium and High Anxiety: LSD in the Cold War detail the US army’s experiments in mind control and chemical warfare during the cold war, centered around Edgewood Arsenal, in Maryland.
The efforts were led by Colonel James S. Ketchum, who wanted to develop a more humane approach to war: the enemy was not to be killed, only incapacitated using various chemical agents. Never mind that those agents might well be nerve gas, and the mechanism of incapacitation extreme mental or physiological stress. His best bet for such an incapacitating agent was BZ, an anticholinergic drug like scopolamine or atropine which causes delirium. (These drugs work by blocking the transmission of the important neurotransmitter acetylcholine.) At one point Ketchum’s team resorted to building “an entire Hollywood-style set in the form of a makeshift communications outpost.” Soldiers were placed on the outpost and dosed with either placebo or varying doses of BZ. Then Ketchum set about trying to fuck with their heads in any way he could think of:
Two hundred phony tactical messages, warnings of chemical attacks, and intelligence were fed to the men in the room. At one point, Ketchum and the others ran out of script. “In an urgent brainstorming session, we put our heads together and came up with an agonizingly improvised scenario,” he recalled in his memoir. “We told the military communicators to start sending new intelligence to the group inside the room—in a simple code. The messages informed the men that enemy forces were planning to move a train loaded with chemical weapons along a certain route.” Eventually, Ketchum and the technicians resorted to gibberish, using poker terms, referring to “the dealer” and a “full house,” as the BZ-addled soldiers struggled to interpret their code.
Ketchum was flanked by Dr. Van Murray Sim, who founded the Edgewood program on psychochemicals in 1956. Sim’s grand idea was the use of LSD-25 to loosen the tongue of what might today be euphemistically called “enemy combatants,” or if that didn’t work, make them so mad that they’d tell any secrets they had just to escape the torture. Maybe it was cruel, but surely, the logic went, the Communists were doing the same, and the US could not afford compassion. Besides, Sim figured, if he was willing to test the chemicals on himself first and he was fine, surely he could test them on others.
One chilling story is that of Private James Thornwell. Throwing informed consent to the wind, Sim theorized that expectations about a drug’s effect would influence the intoxication, and so it was vital that the subjects did not know what they were given, or even that they were given anything. When word got around about the kind of experiments going on at Edgewood, Sim was forced to relocate his experiments to Europe and, eventually, to Asia. James Thornwell was the only African-American working at an American military-communications station in France. After a falling out with his superior, Thornwell was accused of stealing classified documents. After three months of torturous interrogations, Thornwell insisting on his innocence, he was released—not to freedom, but into the hands of Sim’s special investigators, who repeatedly dosed an already half-mad man with LSD without his knowledge. Thornwell never recovered. The experiment was deemed a success.
It wasn’t only the military who were carelessly experimenting on humans. Under the innocuous-sounding title Effect of some Indolealkylines in Man, a 1959 medical paper details some rather cruel experiments. Ostensibly, the scientists set out to study the effects of a psychedelic snuff used across Central and South America. Failing to achieve any effect from the snuff, they isolated two pure chemical compounds for further study. They were n,n-DMT, a powerful psychedelic also found in the traditional brew ayahuasca, and bufotenine, a chemical cousin of the neurotransmitter serotonin. These chemicals were injected intravenously into schizophrenic patients.
Here is a description of one of the experiments:
In several subjects who had more than 10 mg of bufotenine injected quickly, there was intense salivation. The present subject could easily have drowned in her own saliva, and she had to be turned on her side. (…) Responsiveness returned at about 23 minutes, at which time the patient was entirely lucid and, in response to a query related to a preinjection question, spoke of a long-repressed memory from the age of three years, when she came into the bathroom and saw her mother die of a uterine hemorrhage.
But this revelation “had no therapeutic consequence.”
In further experiments, we read, three patients—as if they were patients undergoing treatment, not guinea pigs for mad scientists—were injected bufotenine after receiving reserpine or chlorpromazine (both antipsychotic drugs). “Each of these injections almost proved fatal in small amounts.” After one subject almost died, they repeated the experiment two more times just to make sure. It’s the same absurd logic which prompted Sim’s LSD researchers to respond to adverse reactions by doubling the dose in the next trial.
The LSD trials were suspended in 1963, but the Edgewood experiments continued into the 1970s.
Bonus lulz: apparently, there is a Taiwanese horror film where a “crippled scientist” uses a Menger sponge to “capture the energy of the spirit of a child”. I don’t even know.
The media are abuzz with news of an experiment that manages to create negative absolute temperature. Phys.org:
In order to bring water to the boil, energy needs to be added to the water. During heating up, the water molecules increase their kinetic energy over time and move faster on average. Yet, the individual molecules possess different kinetic energies – from very slow to very fast. In thermal equilibrium, low-energy states are more likely than high-energy states, i.e. only a few particles move really fast. In physics, this distribution is called Boltzmann distribution. Physicists around Ulrich Schneider and Immanuel Bloch have now realized a gas in which this distribution is exactly inverted: Many particles possess large energies and only a few have small energies. This inversion of the energy distribution means that the particles have assumed a negative absolute temperature.
The Boltzmann distribution can be illustrated with balls that are distributed on a hilly landscape, which provides both a lower and upper bound for the potential energy of the balls. At positive temperatures (left figure), as they are common in everyday life, most balls lie in the valley around minimum potential energy. They barely move and therefore also possess minimum kinetic energy. States with small total energy are therefore more likely than those with large total energy – the usual Boltzmann distribution. At infinite temperature (central figure) the balls spread evenly over low and high energies in an identical landscape. Here, all energy states are equally probable. At negative temperatures (right figure), however, most balls wander on top of the hill, at the upper limit of potential energy. Also their kinetic energy is maximal. Energy states with large total energy are occupied more than those with small total energy – the Boltzmann distribution is inverted.
Some of the more interesting things that passed through these pages in 2012.
The Brocken Spectre is an optical phenomenon in which the observer’s shadow appears to be magnified on clouds or fog below.
Psychedelics are back in science. After decades of little research due to drug hysteria, scientists have started exploring the therapeutic potential of psychedelics and similar drugs again. Here is the New York Times reporting on a promising study of MDMA-assisted therapy for PTSD.
On February 9, 1913, a unique procession of meteors was observed from North America. This meteor shower may have been the breakup of a short-lived, small second moon.
Rare earth metals are important for a number of modern technologies. China has a near-monopoly on the world’s supply, and they’re prepared to use it for political gain.
Synthetically grown bismuth crystals.
How long is the coast of Britain? Depends on the size of your measuring stick, of course. Enter fractal dimensions.
Wolbachia pipensis is an interesting group of bacteria that do funky things to reproduction.
Sometimes, the ways science goes wrong are as interesting as the ways it goes right. Nowadays, it seems uncommon for major discoveries which have been accepted by the scientific establishment for centuries to be proven completely wrong; they are more likely to be incrementally improved upon. Newtonian physics wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t as right as Einstein’s relativity (which is to say, in most everyday situations, the two are indistinguishable, but Newton goes wrong in border cases he had no way to test, or even conceive of). But in the early days of modern science, some theories were put forth and widely accepted which turned out to be not only less than complete, but spectacularly wrong. One of my favorites is the phlogiston theory of combustion, which turned out to be the exact opposite of correct.
Another is the theory of preformationism. It holds that living beings are not assembled from parts, but that their form has actually existed since creation. Human beings come from homunculi, from the Latin for “little man”: in other words, humans grow from tiny versions of themselves which are identical in form to an adult. Even after Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, pioneer in microscopy, in 1677 discovered sperm cells, some scientists continued to hold that there must be tiny humans inside each cell (illustrated above). There was even scientific debate about whether the homunculi resided inside the ovum or the sperm cell. Today, this sounds like a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” type of question.
Of course, one consequence of such a theory would be that humanity has a predetermined lifespan. After all, if humans nest inside each other like Russian dolls, at some point, the chain must end. A single sperm cell cannot contain an infinite amount of tinier humans with even tinier sperm cells with tinier humans.
I’m going to do something I don’t usually do on this blog and recommend some science-minded fiction. Notice that I don’t say “science fiction”. A lot of sci-fi is indistinguishable from fantasy, introducing impossible premises and then ignoring them when convenient, applying them when the plot requires. Science-minded fiction, on the other hand, would be fiction that takes false or impossible premises and then works out, in logical fashion, what the consequences would be.
One of my favorite authors of such fiction is Ted Chiang. He is not a very prolific author, but almost everything he publishes is gold. Every year he publishes a story, he earns at least a nomination for a Hugo or Nebula award. You should check out his collection of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others. In that book, there is a story called Seventy-Two Letters, which imagines a world where Jewish mysticism and the preformation theory are true. Division by Zero is a story about a mathematician who discovers that mathematics is inconsistent. The title story is perhaps the best one in the collection, dealing with the now discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and some other stuff I’m not going to spoil. If this sort of thing interests you, do check it out. Most of the stories in the collection have been available online at one time or another, so you might be able to find them if you’re cheap or impatient.