Undignified Science

Well-intentioned research often takes unseemly turns

There’s an old saying that no good deed goes unpunished. Here’s a related bit of sadomasochistic wisdom: No research finding, good or not, goes public without eventually yielding unforeseen consequences that leave researchers either shaking their heads or spinning in their graves. This investigational-degenerative process has a long, colorful history. Alexander Graham Bell would have rung up his lawyer in 1876 if told that his cherished telephone would morph into a portable device for pestering innocent bystanders with the owner’s private reports on what subway station he or she is entering. As if that’s not enough, consider two hellish words that never occurred to Pa Bell: dinnertime telemarketing.

Dean MacAdam

Dean MacAdam

Dean MacAdam

Or take the sad case of Thomas Edison. After cranking up the first phonograph in 1877, the great inventor must have had goose bumps as he envisioned soul-enriching music wafting through the nation’s parlors and salons. Well, you got conned, Edison. Make way for cars, decorated in painted flames and Playboy mud flaps, that cruise the streets playing Eminem CDs loud enough to drown out passing ambulances.

Then there are poor James Watson and Francis Crick. They identified the structure of the DNA molecule in 1953 but forgot to patent it. These days, any competent scientist would try to corner the market on our genetic heritage. Well, it’s too late. A gaggle of biotech entrepreneurs are grabbing the equivalent of the genome’s Boardwalk and Park Place cards and preparing to collect what’s owed them. Hey, Watson and Crick. Do not pass Go. Do not collect–oh, never mind.

The list of scientific advances later taken down a notch or two is longer than the faces of all those scientists unjustly passed over yet again by the Nobel prize committee. Rather than dwell on past misfortunes, though, let’s look to the future. There’s big fun in speculating about the unexpected affronts that will plague this year’s research findings.

Remember, the following indignities are futuristic fantasies. They probably err on the conservative side.

Finding: Tougher IQ tests are devised every 15 to 20 years to counteract the constant rise in average IQ scores, but in their first few years of use, the new tests pull many children from just above to just below the IQ-point cutoff for mental retardation. This effect wreaks havoc on public schools’ special education programs.

Indignity: Jennifer L. Slocumb, a struggling mother of three and freelance spot welder, sues Mensa in 2010 when the high-IQ society rejects her membership application after she scores only 148 on a revamped IQ test. “There’s people in Mensa right now who’d score below me on the new test,” Slocumb explains to a Court TV reporter. “Those effete brainiacs are gonna pay for their hubris. And hubris doesn’t come cheap.”

Marilyn Vos Savant, possessor of the world’s highest IQ, counsels Slocumb to drop her suit and bide her time. “Mensa has to draw the line somewhere,” Vos Savant remarks. “Jennifer just needs to retake the test in 12 or 13 years, when people of merely above-average intelligence can ace that bad boy.”

Finding: Monkeys learned to control a mechanical arm with their minds, thanks to wires implanted in their brains that transmit electrical signals to a computer. The discovery may lead to brain implants that enable paralyzed people to control artificial limbs.

Indignity: After weathering a bitter baseball players’ strike in 2015, baseball commissioner George Steinbrenner comes up with a marketing plan to reinvigorate the national pastime. Steinbrenner’s scheme: Install robotic umpires at all ballparks and sell official Major League Baseball brain implants to season ticket holders. After each pitch, fans with electrical transmitters lodged in their frontal lobes mentally duke it out to control the umpire’s arms and voice. Was that last pitch a strike? Was the runner out at home? A summation of brain responses from at least 1,000 onlookers yields a final call. Fearing that their home games will grind to a halt, team owners in Detroit and Florida immediately request a system that functions on the brain activity of no more than 500 people.

Finding: Chinese scientists say that they are growing massive fruits and vegetables from seeds sent into space on rockets, retrieved when the rockets return to Earth, and then planted at a research facility. The superproduce includes tomatoes as big as softballs and volleyball-size eggplants. A Chinese company plans to market 280 varieties of space seeds.

Indignity: Chinese food stockpiles grow at an unprecedented rate until, in 2041, giant mutant fruits and veggies block Beijing’s streets and clog paths and rice fields in the countryside. The government decrees that families with fewer than 10 mouths to feed “will suffer the consequences.” The United States and England agree to airlift China’s enormous edibles to deserted parts of Siberia. “It’s not like we’re dumping rubbish in someone’s backyard for perpetuity,” says U.K. Royal Air Force Commander Reginald Skowcroft, director of the airlift. “This oversize space produce is thoroughly biodegradable.”

Finding: U.S. researchers determined that Vincent Van Gogh’s painting titled “Moonrise” shows a lunar ascent in Provence, France. at 9:08 p.m. local time on July 13, 1889. Several clues led to this discovery: an analysis of Van Gogh’s letters to his brother, computer calculations of when a full or nearly full moon would have appeared in this part of France, and in-person inspections of the locale depicted in the painting.

Indignity: French researchers report in 2005 that U.S. artist C.M. Coolidge’s “A Friend in Need”–better known as “Dogs Playing Poker”–portrays an incident of canine card cheating that took place at 1:10 a.m. on July 5, 1921.

The researchers first noted the time shown on the grandfather clock in the classic barroom-wall painting. Considering the bags under the eyes of the smiling collie, the scene undoubtedly occurred after midnight, say René Bonchien and his colleagues. In letters to his wife, Coolidge noted that the idea for the painting came to him on a summer day, the scientists point out. In another telling clue, the St. Bernards drink bottled beer, while the two bull terriers share a glass of whiskey as well as a card under the table. “Dogs mix beer with hard liquor only on special occasions, even when playing cards,” Bonchien states. “I’m thinking Fourth of July.” The terriers’ thick, studded collars were popular around 1921, shortly before ruffled collars for small dogs became a national fad during the Roaring Twenties, he adds.

“We couldn’t track down the room shown in Coolidge’s painting,” Bonchien acknowledged. “To get a better feel for what this American master was up to, my associates and I frequently played five-card stud while inebriated.”

Finding: Nanotechnology continued to take tiny strides of great magnitude. In perhaps the biggest development, investigators discussed the possibility of using nanotubes to build an elevator capable of ascending 60,000 miles into space.

Indignity: Scientists actually construct a space elevator out of nanotubes in 2030. In a related and at first seemingly minor development, this research yields a nanotube space escalator that hangs in the extraterrestrial ether, gliding steps up and down spans of as many as 3,000 miles. With these key nanoconveyors in place, a research team joins forces with Fortune-500 company SpaceTime Developments Inc. to assemble the universe’s first space mall for interstellar travelers. Major retailers jump at the opportunity to set up shop in the ultimate duty-free zone. NanoPrada and BananaNanoRepublic report record first-year sales from their space divisions.

A major problem remains, however. We can put a mall in space, but we don’t have enough shuttle parking spaces.

Finding: The muscle-building supplement creatine, popular among competitive athletes and bodybuilders, was found to increase volunteers’ performance on memory and analytical-thinking tasks.

Indignity: In 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger realizes that decades of massive creatine consumption have made him smarter than everybody except Sylvester Stallone and Lou Ferrigno. After using his pumped-up intellect to spearhead a recall of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on foreign-born presidents, Arnold hits the campaign trail and gets elected commander-in-chief in 2008.

He chooses his cabinet on the basis of creatine-enhanced brainpower alone: Secretary of Defense, the Rock; Secretary of State, Vin Diesel; Secretary of Labor, Jose Canseco; Secretary of the Interior, Superman; Secretary of Agriculture, the Jolly Green Giant; and Attorney General, Janet Reno.

In his first presidential news conference, Schwarzenegger announces that he has deported Jean-Claude Van Damme to France for championing the benefits of steroid injections over creatine pills. “Van Damme pleaded with me to stay,” the president tells the reporters. “You know what I told him? ‘Talk to the hand.'”

Finding: Scientists who have developed prototypes of electronic paper say that the day is fast approaching when newspapers will carry full-color video clips of news and sports events.

Indignity: By 2045, all newspapers and magazines communicate solely through electronic videos narrated by attractive announcers. As a result, people stop reading altogether. Print journalism goes the way of the dodo, as newsstand and subscription publications become broadcasting ventures.

In a sign of these tumultuous times, marked changes occur among Science News staff writers. Mild-mannered folk formerly obsessed with word counts and copping the lead position for their story in the week’s News section exhibit a newfound interest in voice lessons and begin price shopping for blow-dryers and hair stylists. Some of the men even start to shave and bathe every once in awhile and to wear collared shirts.

All right, the scenarios are starting to get scary and perhaps a tad cynical. Let’s bear in mind that sometimes science reaps wonderful payoffs. When 19th-century mathematician and inventor Charles Babbage worked on his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine, he probably didn’t envisage his work as a precursor of 21st-century computer systems that would transform how families, businesses, and governments work.

Of course, Babbage probably also failed to realize that a few people whom he could have calculated rings around would gain a virtual monopoly on computer software and become unfathomably rich.

Hey, Babbage: Do not pass Go. Do not collect–oh, never mind.


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Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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