5 Scientist Screw-Ups to Remember Next Time You Bungle Something

When we think of the world of science, we often imagine white lab coats and sterile instruments, where everything is perfectly measured, monitored and executed. After all, scientists are supposed to be the smartest of us all. It's easy to assume they aren't plagued by stupidity and clumsiness like the rest of us. But even scientists make mistakes. Unfortunately for them, their screw-ups tend to have more serious ramifications than ours.

1. Freezer Burn

In a recent example, a malfunctioning freezer at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital ruined 150 stored brains, including one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. Despite the fact that the freezer was protected by two separate alarm systems, and was to be physically monitored by staff members twice a day, the brains somehow sat for roughly three days in temperatures comparable to those you'd find in your own fridge, instead of at the prescribed minus-79 degrees.

"The glass half full side of this disaster at McLean is that it will act as a wake-up call to other brain banks to recheck their security systems," said Suzanne Corkin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

2. Right Brain, Wrong Brain

If you need to determine whether a disease has jumped from the brain of one species to the brain of another, make sure you don't mix up your specimens.

In 2001, a scientific study to determine whether sheep had been infected with mad cow disease after eating contaminated feed was scrapped after five years when researchers realized they had been testing the brains of cows rather than sheep.

"On a scale of laboratory blunders, the error ranks about as high as they come, given that the fate of Britain's 40 million sheep might have rested on its outcome," said Steve Connor at the Independent. The cost of the wasted research was £217,000. Converted and adjusted for inflation, that's roughly $440,000.

3. Busted Skull

Earlier this year, German researchers were snapping photos of an ancient Mayan skull prophesized to protect all of humanity from the looming 2012 apocalypse when the precious artifact somehow fell to the floor. The skull, which is now missing part of its chin, isn't just a 1,000-year-old treasure with magical powers. It also once belonged to SS overlord Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi Party. Reports say no one involved in the incident is sure whether the skull was dropped or fell on its own. If you were the guy who dropped it, you'd probably keep it quiet, too. After all, who wants to take the blame when the world ends in December?

4. Self-Infection

Ebola is a scary virus: It causes fever and body aches, diarrhea and vomiting, as well as internal and external bleeding. Also, it kills up to 90 percent of its victims, which is why a German researcher must consider herself lucky for surviving the virus after she accidentally exposed herself to it in 2009. The unfortunate event occurred while she was studying new tests for the virus and she jabbed herself with an infected syringe. She sought help immediately, was treated with an experimental vaccine (which doctors weren't sure would even work), and was miraculously released from the hospital several weeks later. In 2004, a Russian researcher named Antonina Presnyakova did the same thing, but she did not survive.

5. Where's Waldo?

In 2009, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory lost a $100,000 submarine used to hunt for the algae that produce noxious red tide. The 6-foot-long, bright yellow, winged robotic submarine, ironically named Waldo, mysteriously vanished in Gulf waters off the coast of Florida. The laboratory offered anyone who found the submarine a no-questions-asked $500 reward. Discouraged researchers worried that not finding the drone would mean they would have to go back to sending people out in boats to collect water samples to hunt for the algae, which is just "not a very efficient way to do it."
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Other times, however, these things work out for the best. Here are the stories of 8 Brilliant Scientific Screw-Ups.

Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System

In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

Ocean Waves Are Powerful Enough to Toss Enormous Boulders Onto Land, Study Finds

During the winter of 2013-2014, the UK and Ireland were buffeted by a number of unusually powerful storms, causing widespread floods, landslides, and coastal evacuations. But the impact of the storm season stretched far beyond its effect on urban areas, as a new study in Earth-Science Reviews details. As we spotted on Boing Boing, geoscientists from Williams College in Massachusetts found that the storms had an enormous influence on the remote, uninhabited coast of western Ireland—one that shows the sheer power of ocean waves in a whole new light.

The rugged terrain of Ireland’s western coast includes gigantic ocean boulders located just off a coastline protected by high, steep cliffs. These massive rocks can weigh hundreds of tons, but a strong-enough wave can dislodge them, hurling them out of the ocean entirely. In some cases, these boulders are now located more than 950 feet inland. Though previous research has hypothesized that it often takes tsunami-strength waves to move such heavy rocks onto land, this study finds that the severe storms of the 2013-2014 season were more than capable.

Studying boulder deposits in Ireland’s County Mayo and County Clare, the Williams College team recorded two massive boulders—one weighing around 680 tons and one weighing about 520 tons—moving significantly during that winter, shifting more than 11 and 13 feet, respectively. That may not sound like a significant distance at first glance, but for some perspective, consider that a blue whale weighs about 150 tons. The larger of these two boulders weighs more than four blue whales.

Smaller boulders (relatively speaking) traveled much farther. The biggest boulder movement they observed was more than 310 feet—for a boulder that weighed more than 44 tons.

These boulder deposits "represent the inland transfer of extraordinary wave energies," the researchers write. "[Because they] record the highest energy coastal processes, they are key elements in trying to model and forecast interactions between waves and coasts." Those models are becoming more important as climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms.

[h/t Boing Boing]


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