Halloween is here again, a time of year to focus on death and terror. I just love it. You know who else focuses on death and terror? Scientists. As we’ve done a few times before, including last Halloween, let’s take time to appreciate the scientists who made great contributions towards scaring the hell out of people.
Grad Student Air BNBs for a Flea
The sand flea, of jigger, is a pain-in-the-ass bug that hangs out in the sands of the Caribbean, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa, being gross the entire time. Female sand fleas burrow into the skin of warm-blooded animals where, grossly enough, they lay eggs and die. Such is the majestic life of the sand flea.
To reiterate, they’re gross
Enter Marlene Thielecke, an enterprising grad student from Germany, was sent off to record sand flea developmental stages in the feet of local villagers in Madagascar, because when you have grad students, it’s your scientific responsibility to make their lives as miserable as possible.
“Beats marking undergrad papers”
One day, she noticed that a sand flea had burrowed into her own foot, which is not that uncommon. What is uncommon, however, was her decision to let the flea just live there to see what happened. To quote Marlene: “I thought it might be interesting”. It’s worth noting that grad students often have more curiosity than common sense.
“I knew sand fleas could be extremely painful. I figured it would be good practice for the academic job market.”
Marlene let the flea live there for two months, while the flea excreted liquid from its body into hers. Two months. The spot became painful, and she couldn’t walk normally anymore, but she let it stay, taking pictures every day. She got a paper out of it, though, so it was all worth it.
Grad students have done far worse to get their name on a paper. Even a second authorship.
What did Marlene learn from this? Surprisingly, the answer isn’t “German universities have no Board of Health and Safety”, or “grad students don’t get paid nearly enough”, or even “don’t let fleas live in you”. Rather, because her flea didn’t produce eggs, she learned that female fleas don’t burrow into skin while pregnant – they get pregnant while under the skin. In other words, sand fleas use human feet as a no-tell motel. They have sex inside your body, is what I’m saying.
Which is only slightly cleaner than a Motel 8
Soviet Scientist Attempts to Breed Apemen
Plus, the Russians used technology to train Drago while Rocky used nature, so you know they’re evil
Scary Russian science goes back farther than that though. In fact, it goes all the way back to the 1920s, when renowned scientist Ilya Ivanov got to thinking about how to cross-breed animals. And he did a pretty good job of it, too. In fact he was able to cross a donkey with a zebra (hilariously called the zonkey, or zedonk), and bison and a cow. He had a special knack for creating affronts to God.
Here’s a zonkey. Hahaha, what a cute little thing-that-should-not-be you are!
Things got dark from there, though. In the mid-1920s, Ivanov submitted proposal to create a humanzee – a human-chimp hybrid. The new Bolshevik government, fresh off killing Anastasia and her whole family, gave a collective “what the hell, go ahead”, and off went Ivanov.
Meanwhile, when I was a grad student, I couldn’t get one measly grant so I could afford the brand-name mac and cheese over the generic
So Ivanov went off and got himself three female chimps, and through some means I’m not going to delve into, inseminated them with human male sperm. Seriously. Disappointingly for Ilya/thankfully for society, none of the chimps conceived.
Sadly, Stalin would have to wait for his army of half-human-half-chimps
This setback was not enough time for Ivanov to think “wait, what the hell am I doing?” In fact, he doubled down. Seeing as though his female chimps wouldn’t conceive with human sperm, he figured he would try it the other way, seeing if female humans might conceive with…you know what, I can’t finish that sentence. You get the idea.
Yes, you get the idea
Ivanov reportedly had at least five human women lined up for the job. Sadly for Ivanov, his group of male apes died before they could be…properly used. Even more sadly for Ivanov, the changing Soviet political environment of the day saw him exiled to Kazakhstan, and his dreams with creating his own Island of Dr. Moreau died with him shortly thereafter. Which is why Russia uses cyber disinformation today, instead of just rolling out their humanzee armies.
“Yes, that’s right, just the cyber attacks now. We are no longer trying to breed humans with apes now. Yes.”
Antoine Lavoisier Stops While He’s A Head
Antoine Lavoisier was a very prominent scientist in the 1700s. He discovered and named both oxygen and hydrogen, predicted the existence of silicon, wrote the first list of elements, and helped construct the metric system. All of which you’re not going to remember once you hear this next story.
Antoine Lavoisier, Father of Modern Chemistry, seen here very much in one piece
See, Lavoisier was part of the French aristocratic elite when the French Revolution happened, which Les Mis taught me was a period of much song and dance. It was also not a great period for the French aristocratic elite, and Lavoisier soon found himself facing the guillotine. Between him and Ivanov’s exile to Kazakhstan, seems like it’s not great being a scientist during a radically anti-science government.
“Yeah, no shit” – American scientists, 2017
Always the scientist, it’s said that Lavoisier wanted to know how long he would retain consciousness after being beheaded, and told a buddy of his to count how long he kept blinking after the blade came down. Antoine Lavoisier kept on sciencing literally until the moment he died.
“Except for my head, my head will be lost.”
Some sources say he blinked for 15 seconds. Some say 30. All say it was pretty rad to see a severed head on the ground, just blinking over and over. One source, me, says he was blowing air through his mouth to make his head roll.
“And speaking of air, remember kids, I discovered and named oxygen and hydrogen!”
Now, to be honest, there’s not a lot of evidence that this whole blinking story actually ever happened, it may very well be apocryphal. But he’s not the only French person of science to test the longevity of a severed head. One Dr. Beaurieux attended the execution of a prisoner named Henri Languille in 1905 t see how long the prisoner’s head would stay alive, as reported in a real medical journal. Here’s part of what he had to say:
“[After shouting at Languille’s lopped-off head for a while]… Next Languille’s eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me… The whole thing had lasted twenty-five to thirty seconds.”
“That’s when I told him: ‘It’s rude to stare, Henri’”
More controlled experiments with animals show that a decapitated head can remain conscious for an average of 3.7 seconds. Which I can imagine feels like a lot longer when a severed head is staring at you.