Crazy things people do … in the name of science

Mar 17, 2015 /

You might think that strapping yourself to a weather balloon, soaring to a height of 135,000 feet … and then jumping, sounds like a pretty nutty idea. And you would be right. Yet that’s exactly what Google’s Alan Eustace did in 2014. And here’s the thing — this wasn’t just a stunt. Sure, he may have broken both the sound barrier and the previous records for high-altitude jumps, but Eustace was soaring and jumping in the name of science.

“The motivation was really the science and engineering of trying to decouple the aircraft and the life support system,” says Eustace. “To go up in the stratosphere right now, you have to create your own vehicle to do it; it has to have life support and so on. We wanted to learn if you could build a completely self-sufficient system. That suit can then be used in lots of different ways.”

And why jump himself? Simple. “I felt uncomfortable letting other people do it,” he says. “I had a strong belief this was the best, fastest, cheapest, easiest — and, I felt strongly — the safest way to do it. But other people looking at hanging off a balloon from 135,000 feet might not have agreed!”

Of course, Eustace is hardly the first person to have engaged in bizarre feats in the name of science. Here are some others from across the decades:

John Paul Stapp rode a sled faster than a .45 caliber bullet
In 1954, John Paul Stapp took a ride that made him the “Fastest Man on Earth.” As a flight surgeon during World War II, he had become interested in the effects of rapid deceleration on the human body. So he rode a rocket-powered sled that flew faster than a .45 caliber bullet to study the impact of supersonic speeds on the body firsthand. In his 1999 obituary, the New York Times wrote that “Dr. Stapp accelerated in 5 seconds from a standstill to 632 miles an hour. The sled then decelerated to a dead stop in 1.4 seconds, subjecting Dr. Stapp to pressures 40 times the pull of gravity.” His research led to tremendous advances in transportation safety, influencing everything from seat belt design to tests that prepare astronauts for travel.

José Delgado squared off with a raging bull
In 1963, José Delgado, a physiology professor at Yale who studied the neuroanatomy of animals, developed a pacemaker-like implant that sent electrical impulses to certain parts of the brain in order to induce or control particular emotions. To test his device, Delgado implanted the device in the brain of a bull, and then entered a ring when the animal was in an agitated state. Using a remote control device to trigger electrical pulses, he was able to stop the storming animal when it was a few feet away. Delgado’s research has inspired other medical advances, such as a now-FDA-approved method to treat Parkinson’s disease.

Barry Marshall gave himself stomach ulcers
In the summer of 1984, this Australian pathologist wanted to prove that bacteria causes stomach ulcers. But he needed evidence to back up his then unpopular theory. “After failing to infect rats, mice, and pigs, I decided to infect myself,” Marshall remembered later of his decision to drink a batch of H. pylori, a bacteria that can infect the digestive tract. After five days, as he had hoped, he became horribly sick. His suffering helped change medical assumptions about ulcers, established that they could be treated with antibiotics — and won him the Nobel Prize.

Maurizio Montalbini spent 210 days alone in a cave
In 1986, sociologist Maurizio Montalbini spent 210 days alone in a cave under the Italian Apennine Mountains. Surviving on pills and powders, he studied the effects of isolation on the human brain. Hyper-aware of his own body’s natural patterns in isolation underground, his observations helped cement the idea of a human circadian rhythm. “Montalbini showed that, deep in a cave, you still had the effects of the cosmos,” said Franz Halberg, a colleague and professor regarded as the founder of the field of “chronobiology.”

Donald Unger cracked his knuckles every day for 60 years
We’ve all heard the urban legend that knuckle-cracking can lead to arthritis. Well, Dr. Donald Unger decided to embark on a decades-long project to prove otherwise, cracking the knuckles on his left hand every day for 60 years. As a control, he did not crack the knuckles on his right hand. His evidence may have been anecdotal, but Unger published his findings in a 1998 paper, “Does Knuckle-Cracking Lead to Arthritis of the Fingers?

Kevin Warwick connected his nervous system to a computer
Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, was curious about how technology might radicalize healthcare (see his TEDx Talk, Implants and Technology: The Future of Healthcare?). In 1998, he became his own experiment by implanting a device in his left arm that allows him to connect his nervous system to a computer. This let him transmit his own neural signals to an external device such as a robotic hand — and control it.


Regine Gries endured 180,000 bedbug bites
In 2014, Regine Gries, a biologist from British Columbia, Canada, was working on developing new compounds to attract and trap bedbugs. To test which combinations of histamines and pheromones might be most effective, she subjected herself to more than 180,000 bedbug bites. Regine and her husband, Gerhard, also a biologist, are working on a commercial product to help detect potential infestations.

Michael Smith was stung by bees 120 times — on 25 body parts
Inspired by an unfortunate incident in which a bee made its way into his shorts, Michael Smith, a graduate student who studies bee behavior at Cornell University, wanted to see if sting location affects the level of pain experienced. So, in 2012, he forced bee stingers into 25 parts of his body three times each. Adding in internal controls, that’s a total of 120 stings. The result? Confirmation that bee stings are more painful in some locations than others. (The most painful spot? Right inside the nostril. “When you get stung there, your whole body reacts,” said Smith. “I would not recommend it.”)

Fabien Cousteau lived and worked underwater for 31 days
In 2014, Fabien Cousteau (TED Talk, What I learned from spending 31 days underwater) and a team of aquanauts spent a record 31 days in a laboratory 63 feet below sea level in the Florida Keys. There, they studied the impact of humans on ocean life. As a third-generation explorer, Cousteau believes that now, more than ever, is the time to learn as much as we can about what’s going on in our seas. “This is our life support system. Otherwise, we are just a little brown rock in space like all the others,” he told National Geographic.


Featured photo courtesy of StratEx/PSDC.


Thanks to Michael Smith himself for some important clarifications to the data about his experiment.