5 Scientists Who Brought Unimaginable Horrors Upon Themselves
If you’re a scientist or researcher who is trying to decipher the unknown, the fact is, you’re going to be out of your depth. After all, if something’s fully understood, there wouldn’t be much reason to experiment on it. Obviously, the upside is, if you can crack the case, you’re likely to have your name etched into the history books. The downside is, depending on your particular area of expertise, that same mysterious field of research might be destroying your body in ways you haven’t even learned about yet.
To that end, here are five scientists who brought unimaginable horrors upon themselves…
Louis Slotin was one of the world’s top experts on nuclear weapons and the associated risks, having been a contributor to the Manhattan Project. One would think that being a member of that critical and somewhat cursed team would have firmly cemented the dangers of radiation into all participants’ brains, what with the mass murder they’d just unleashed with it. Yet, maybe familiarity breeding dangerous levels of contempt for the deathly material in question led to Slotin being one of two people to die from radiation exposure during their work there.
Slotin was working with a 14-pound hunk of plutonium that’s since earned the nickname “the demon core” due to its death count. It had been manufactured to serve as the critical piece of a third atom bomb, should it be needed after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As it turned out, two nukes was plenty. Even so, it managed to claim one more life when Slotin was attempting to demonstrate how to make the core, then known as “Rufus,” close to a critical point. Already, it sounds like something you’d make sure to have the proper equipment for. Instead, when Slotin lowered a beryllium tamper over the core, he elected to prop it up with a flathead screwdriver. Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it slipped and the tamper fully enveloped the core, letting out a massive blast of radiation. Over the next nine days, Slotin died a slow and horrendous death from acute radiation poisoning, including radiation burns covering his internal organs.
The Fluorine Martyrs
Nobody would be surprised that people messing around with plutonium might have ended up six feet under. But in this case, we’re talking about an element that, in some form, is added to most drinking water and toothpaste: fluorine. Its applications in preventing tooth decay have been a public-health success, or have all been part of a great Jewish plan to control the minds of thirsty humans, depending on how your brain is set up. In its isolated form, however, it’s the most reactive element on the periodic table, and a highly poisonous gas.
Henri Moisson successfully isolated fluorine in 1886, and the payoff was significant: He picked up a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Even he, though, was poisoned several times before finally managing to wrangle it into a pure form. Many chemists before him, however, had attempted the same, and paid the ultimate price for experimenting with such a finicky and frightful element. Pure fluorine is a yellowish gas that causes severe chemical burns, and it also has a chance to explode when coming into contact with pretty much anything outside of oxygen, helium, neon or argon. Hydrofluoric acid was a common product of these chemists’ attempts as well, which can kill a human with only a small amount of skin contact.
Thus, the nickname for those who were poisoned, blinded or killed by their work with fluorine: the “fluorine martyrs.”
Carl Scheele was a brilliant chemist with some seriously impressive discoveries to his name. For example, he discovered a little element you may be familiar with known as oxygen. He even postulated in the “well, that’s sorta right” way that old scientists were so good at, that our air was made up of a mixture of oxygen, which he called “fire air” due to its combustive properties, and “foul air,” other non-breathable elements. Barium, chlorine, molybdenum, manganese, nitrogen and tungsten are also elements Scheele can claim dibs on.
So what’s the unfortunate bit? Well, Scheele famously had a particular penchant for a certain test on any substance that came his way. A procedure that you’ve probably performed on a carton of milk before: the sniff and taste test. Scheele treated his chemistry lab like a Baskin Robbins, and though the exact effect of his forbidden treats isn’t recorded, he likely had a less than stellar bill of health while cycling heavy metals through his stomach. He would eventually die at 43 from mercury poisoning, which, given how he got it, should have just been called “mercury doing what it does when you drink it.”
Galileo is well known for his proposal of a heliocentric model of our solar system. Most people know, as well, that the Church was not a big fan of his. This suggestion immediately saddled him with an accusation of heresy, an accusation that’s hard to beat when it’s basically the Church deciding if you pissed off the Church or not. Figuring out that we’re simply a speck spinning constantly through space, inspiring I assume one of the world’s first existential crises, then getting tagged with heresy makes for a pretty unpleasant month.
The punishment Galileo received is what was particularly cruel and slightly ironic, and definitely enough to wish he’d never bothered looking up. Once the accusation was upheld, Galileo, for discovering an entirely new way to view the vast expanse of our world and beyond, was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. That’s like discovering hot sauce and being sentenced to eat nothing but unflavored oatmeal for the rest of your life. It’s also a pretty backwards punishment for someone that you’re worried is thinking too much: “Your ideas are too crazy and threatening! Go home and do nothing but think for the rest of your life!”
This one is less pitiable and more infuriating, as the person in question didn’t experience any of the horrors he’d discovered. He died in 1944, probably with a smile on his face, thinking about how much everybody loved his excellent inventions. Unfortunately, two of the inventions Midgley was responsible for were leaded gasoline, which poisoned a generation of children, and chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs, which had a huge hand in that thing we’re dealing with known as global warming.
Thanks for that, Midge.