When Science Goes Wrong
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Brilliant scientific successes have helped shape our world, and are always celebrated. However, for every victory, there are no doubt numerous little-known blunders. Neuroscientist Simon LeVay brings together a collection of fascinating, yet shocking, stories of failure from recent scientific history in When Science Goes Wrong.
From the fields of forensics and microbiology to nuclear physics and meteorology, in When Science Goes Wrong LeVay shares twelve true essays illustrating a variety of ways in which the scientific process can go awry. Failures, disasters and other negative outcomes of science can result not only from bad luck, but from causes including failure to follow appropriate procedures and heed warnings, ethical breaches, quick pressure to obtain results, and even fraud. Often, as LeVay notes, the greatest opportunity for notable mishaps occurs when science serves human ends. LeVay shares these examples:
- To counteract the onslaught of Parkinson’s disease, a patient undergoes cutting-edge brain surgery using fetal transplants, and is later found to have hair and cartilage growing inside his brain.
- In 1999, NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter spacecraft is lost due to an error in calculation, only months after the agency adopts a policy of “Faster, Better, Cheaper.”
- Britain’s Bracknell weather forecasting team predicts two possible outcomes for a potentially violent system, but is pressured into releasing a ‘milder’ forecast. The BBC’s top weatherman reports there is “no hurricane”, while later the storm hits, devastating southeast England.
- Ignoring signals of an imminent eruption, scientists decide to lead a party to hike into the crater of a dormant volcano in Columbia, causing injury and death.
When Science Goes Wrong provides a compelling glimpse into human ambition in scientific pursuit.
Ecstasy tablets of about 150 mg each in the course of a single night’s partying—an amount that is within the range of what some rave attendees might consume, though probably higher than the typical user’s consumption. Because dosing monkeys orally is inconvenient—monkeys often reject food that has been spiked with drugs—Ricaurte gave the animals their MDMA doses by subcutaneous injection. Two of the animals—one squirrel monkey and one baboon—developed uncontrollable hyperthermia soon after their
sample of Jesse’s liver by means of a needle stuck through the front of his abdomen. This biopsy sample would be studied to test whether the vector had been taken up by the liver cells, whether the new gene was working, and whether the vector had caused any damage to the liver. Raper emphasized that although the infusion might cause some brief improvement in Jesse’s ability to excrete ammonia, it would not offer him any long-term benefit. The benefit might come eventually to others, especially to
Legg, who had been found impaled into the ceiling of the reactor room, his body had suffered devastating damage. The top off his head had been sliced off, exposing his brain, and his face was collapsed inward. The upper half of his body had been twisted by 180 degrees with respect to the lower half, and his internal organs had been destroyed or displaced by the control rod as it blasted through his pelvis and abdomen. His left leg was cut almost in two. With the clumsy tools available to them,
months later when workers were able to inspect the reactor core. The cadmium blade of the central control rod was trapped by the partially melted and deformed fuel plates, but it was twenty inches above its lowermost position. Thus the entire control rod assembly had been withdrawn by that distance at the time of the accident. Why had the control rod been raised so far beyond the safe level— especially at a phase of the operation when it needed to be raised by only a fraction of an inch? The
shaded their findings to support the prosecution, often by failing to report findings that contradicted the prosecution’s case. In one serology case, for example, a bloodstain found at the scene of a double murder failed to match either the victims or the accused—a finding that was clearly exculpatory—but the DNA lab chief, James Bolding, concealed the mismatch by marking the stain’s blood type as “inconclusive,” according to Bromwich’s report. Years later, a second person was accused in the