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.

'Lime Disease' Could Give You a Nasty Rash This Summer

A cold Corona or virgin margarita is best enjoyed by the pool, but watch where you’re squeezing those limes. As Slate illustrates in a new video, there’s a lesser-known “lime disease,” and it can give you a nasty skin rash if you’re not careful.

When lime juice comes into contact with your skin and is then exposed to UV rays, it can cause a chemical reaction that results in phytophotodermatitis. It looks a little like a poison ivy reaction or sun poisoning, and some of the symptoms include redness, blistering, and inflammation. It’s the same reaction caused by a corrosive sap on the giant hogweed, an invasive weed that’s spreading throughout the U.S.

"Lime disease" may sound random, but it’s a lot more common than you might think. Dermatologist Barry D. Goldman tells Slate he sees cases of the skin condition almost daily in the summer. Some people have even reported receiving second-degree burns as a result of the citric acid from lime juice. According to the Mayo Clinic, the chemical that causes phytophotodermatitis can also be found in wild parsnip, wild dill, wild parsley, buttercups, and other citrus fruits.

To play it safe, keep your limes confined to the great indoors or wash your hands with soap after handling the fruit. You can learn more about phytophotodermatitis by checking out Slate’s video below.

[h/t Slate]

Why Eating From a Smaller Plate Might Not Be an Effective Dieting Trick 

It might be time to rewrite the diet books. Israeli psychologists have cast doubt on the widespread belief that eating from smaller plates helps you control food portions and feel fuller, Scientific American reports.

Past studies have shown that this mind trick, called the Delboeuf illusion, influences the amount of food that people eat. In one 2012 study, participants who were given larger bowls ended up eating more soup overall than those given smaller bowls.

However, researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Negev, Israel, concluded in a study published in the journal Appetite that the effectiveness of the illusion depends on how empty your stomach is. The team of scientists studied two groups of participants: one that ate three hours before the experiment, and another that ate one hour prior. When participants were shown images of pizzas on serving trays of varying sizes, the group that hadn’t eaten in several hours was more accurate in assessing the size of pizzas. In other words, the hungrier they were, the less likely they were to be fooled by the different trays.

However, both groups were equally tricked by the illusion when they were asked to estimate the size of non-food objects, such as black circles inside of white circles and hubcaps within tires. Researchers say this demonstrates that motivational factors, like appetite, affects how we perceive food. The findings also dovetail with the results of an earlier study, which concluded that overweight people are less likely to fall for the illusion than people of a normal weight.

So go ahead and get a large plate every now and then. At the very least, it may save you a second trip to the buffet table.

[h/t Scientific American]


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