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10 Scientists Who Experimented on Themselves

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Would you inject 50 hookworms under your skin for your job? Or steam in a vomit sauna for a few hours? Hopefully we non-scientists will never have to answer questions like these. But for the 11 brave souls on this list, experimenting on themselves was all in a day's work.

1. Jonas Salk

During his research at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Dr. Jonas Salk discovered a potential vaccine for polio. When they needed healthy human test subjects, Salk volunteered himself and his entire family for a vaccine trial. The filial gamble paid off. Everyone tested positive for anti-polio antibodies. He refused to patent the vaccine, and never received financial compensation for his discovery. (When Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent on the vaccine, Salk responded with one of his most famous quotes: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”)

2. David Pritchard

In 2004, after years of research in Papau New Guinea, immunologist-biologist David Pritchard wanted to test his findings, specifically that certain parasites can improve the immune system's defense against allergies, and possibly more serious autoimmune illnesses. Circumnavigating more years of red tape, Pritchard used himself as the first test subject, injecting 50 hookworms under his skin. He was able to deduce that only 10 hookworms were necessary for future test subjects.

3. John Paul Stapp

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Air Force officer and surgeon John Paul Stapp's self-experimentation earned him the nickname "the fastest man on earth." In his research, Stapp repeatedly strapped himself into a rocket sled, nicknamed the "Gee Whiz," and was propelled forward at speeds close to that of sound. He would then brake abruptly to determine the human body's ability to withstand abrupt deceleration. Many broken bones and a temporarily detached retina later, Stapp determined a human body can withstand 45 g of forward motion with an adequate harness.

4. August Bier

At the turn of the 20th century, August Bier discovered spinal anesthesia. His method involved injecting cocaine into the cerebrospinal fluid. To test its effectiveness Bier enlisted himself. During the experiment, a mix-up left Bier with a hole in his spine leaking cerebrospinal fluid. Bier's assistant stepped in. Once the assistant was properly numb, Bier kicked his shins, bludgeoned and burned him, plucked out his pubic hairs, and mashed his genitals. The assistant felt nothing – a success the two celebrated by drinking excessively that evening.

5. Werner Forssmann

Werner Forssmann (left), Getty Images

In 1929 in the basement of the Eberswaled Hospital in Germany, surgical resident Werner Forssmann inserted a ureteral catheter tube into his elbow, feeding it through a vein up to his heart. He used a mirror as his assistant, since he had restrained his nurse to the operating table. He then took an x-ray of his chest (at left) to determine the catheter had indeed made it to the right atrium. Instead of praise, Forssmann was met with condemnation. This rejection led him to abandon cardiology for urology, but he was later rewarded with the Nobel Prize in 1956.

6. Nathaniel Kleitman

In 1938, sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman and his assistant holed up in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. They were attempting to manipulate their sleep cycles to adopt a 28-hour day. With constant temperature and no natural light, the conditions in the cave seemed perfect. After 32 days Kleitman's assistant had successfully adapted, but Kleitman failed. Nonetheless, the experiment's results helped to advance their study of circadian rhythms.

7. Sir Humphry Davy

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While at the Medical Pneumatic Institute of Bristol, Humphry Davy studied gases. Through a series of self-experiments with oxides of nitrous, Davy created what is known today as laughing gas. Though his initial attempts were meant to reproduce the pleasurable effects of opium and alcohol, Davy would ultimately recommend the use of nitrous oxide as an anesthetic. His recommendation would not be heeded until long after his death, but nitrous became an instant hit at fashionable parties.

8. Kevin Warwick

During the late 1990s, Kevin Warwick had his team surgically implant a silicon chip transponder into his forearm for an experiment known as Project Cyborg. Through this implant, Warwick's nervous system was monitored by a computer system. According to his website, the neural interface allowed him to "operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger." In other words, the future is now.

9. Albert Hoffman

Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman was researching the fungus ergot for a pharmaceutical company when he discovered lysergic acid. His initial tests were inconclusive, but Hoffman decided to retest a synthesized version of the acid. In April of 1943, he ingested 25/1000 of a gram of a substance he called LSD-25 in his lab. Legend has it, on his bike ride home his eyes were opened up to a brave new hallucinogenic world. To this day, LSD enthusiasts observe April 19 as "Bicycle Day." Hoffman would continue to experiment with LSD until his death at 102.

10. Stubbins Ffirth

Stubbins Ffirth would have been a shoe-in for the world's wackiest name contest. Instead, he found his own unique path to historical notoriety. After witnessing the devastating 1793 Yellow Fever Epidemic, Ffirth hypothesized the viral hemorrhagic disease was not contagious. To prove his thesis, he tested the disease's characteristic black vomit. On himself. This included, but certainly was not limited to, pouring vomit into his open cuts or onto his eyeballs, drinking infected black vomit by the glassful, and stewing up to his waist in a veritable sauna of vomit. He would later rub blood and urine on his body as well, but ultimately avoided infection. In his 1804 book A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an Attempt to Prove Its Non-Contagious Nature, he declared Yellow Fever not contagious. Turns out, Yellow Fever was contagious, but only through blood transmission via mosquito bite. Whoops.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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