Sunday, June 17, 2012


The Pleasures of Suffering for Science
A one-way trip to Mars? Self-inflicted spider bites? A go as a nuclear test dummy? A weird few answer the call
Last week, a private Dutch company, Mars One, announced that it hopes to send a four-person crew to Mars by 2023. To keep costs down, it will be a one-way mission. Mars will become the astronauts' permanent home. (click below to read more)

It's not clear whether this will be a scientific mission so much as a reality TV show, since the company plans to finance the operation by airing the entire thing live, with commercial sponsors. But the scheme echoes similar plans that bona fide members of the scientific community, including physicists Paul Davies and Lawrence Krauss and astronaut Buzz Aldrin, have been lobbying for since the 1990s. If humans do land on Mars any time soon, it could very well be on such a trip.
Mars offers a barren, inhospitable environment. The temperatures are freezing, and the atmosphere is toxic. The crew of such a mission should expect their experience, and therefore the rest of their lives, to be at least somewhat unpleasant. Given this, who in their right mind would volunteer to go?
Probably quite a few people.
When the Navy conducted its atomic bomb tests at the Bikini Atoll in 1946, more than 90 people volunteered to man the ships stationed in the target area, so that scientists could gather data about the biological effects of the blasts. Navy researchers admitted that human test subjects would be "more satisfactory than animals," but they worried about the public-relations aspect of using people, so all were turned down.
There's also a long history of seemingly rational scientists who were willing to sacrifice their physical comfort, as well as their lives, for the sake of knowledge. Some are remembered as genuine heroes, such as the researchers led by Walter Reed who in 1900 let themselves be bitten by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever, to prove that the insects carried the disease.
Other cases of suffering for science are regarded more as historical curiosities. In 1933, University of Alabama professor Allan Walker Blair induced a female black-widow spider to bite his hand. He allowed its fangs to stay in him for 10 seconds, so that he could get a full dose of venom, and then spent several days writhing in nightmarish pain at the local hospital. The attending physician said he had never seen "more abject pain manifested in any other medical or surgical condition." A fellow entomologist had conducted the same self-experiment 12 years earlier, but Mr. Blair apparently felt the need to experience the sensation himself.
Then there was the Japanese pediatrician Shimesu Koino, who ate 2,000 eggs of an intestinal roundworm in order to study the life cycle of the organism firsthand. His infection became so severe that he began to cough up the worms from his lungs.
Two London-based doctors, Herbert Woollard and Edward Carmichael, earned a dubious place of honor among the ranks of sufferers for science by stacking weights on their testicles in order to examine how the subsequent pain spread throughout their bodies. Even mathematics offers an example of physical self-sacrifice, through repetitive stress injury. University of Georgia professor Pope R. Hill flipped a coin 100,000 times to prove that heads and tails would come up an approximately equal number of times. The experiment lasted a year. He fell sick but completed the count, though he had to enlist the aid of an assistant near the end.
This history suggests that something about suffering and self-sacrifice appeals to the scientific mind. To paraphrase President Kennedy, scientists do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
But one has to wonder, at what point does the sacrifice cease to have any value for the advancement of science and simply become the pursuit of hardship for its own sake?
With respect to a manned, one-way mission to Mars, I suspect such questions will fall on deaf ears. Opponents of manned missions have long argued that everything to be gained by going to Mars can best be done by robots. But if Mars One is televising the whole thing, that would at least be good for ratings, allowing the company to earn enough money to send more teams out there. The suffering could become a self-perpetuating end in itself.

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