I decided that I needed a three day weekend. I spent my day off going to the Lexington Co-Op, making bread, and watching a show about all the nastier little experiments that propelled modern science to where it is today.
That may be a weird thing to say about it, because while there were very few experiments that I wasn’t already familiar with on the show (I wasn’t familiar with the Keckburg Incident or Starfish Prime), most of these are experiments that are only mentioned in passing in popular culture. Most of these are things that a trip into scientific history (or in some cases, military history) will teach you without a lot of work but I’m not sure many of them are listed in the big name ‘don’t do this’ experiment lists the way that Milgram and the Stanford Prison Experiment are.
As someone with at least a layperson’s interest in science, I found the experiments interesting. However, one of the things that I found most interesting about the show are the social implications of the experiments and theories. Dark Matter looks at taboo science, centering on the science itself. One of the things that I kept going back to though were small details that were scattered throughout each segment. Starfish Prime was a giant nuclear weapon detonated in space in the early 1960s…and a good sized chunk of the reason that we went through the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thomas Edison tried to get execution by electric chair named ‘Westinghousing’-what would have been the impact of such a humanizing move be on the public psyche towards the death sentence?
And just where do we stand in relation to scientists who want to engage in experiments such as full body transplants? One commentator (rightfully) suggested that such an experiment would never have been allowed today. That’s probably a good thing. However, out of taboo science can come understanding that wouldn’t have been discovered otherwise. In other words, the ethics of an experiment don’t always imply the quality of the results.
This is part of the tension that comes out of my own discipline (Sociology) in relation to experimentation. Stanford and Milgram both shed a lot of light on the nature of social control and social authority. It’s a very uncomfortable, begruding situation. Sociologists Don’t Do Experimentation. Experimentation in and of itself is taboo for the discipline. I do wonder if the constant drive into taboo experimentation suggests that the drive towards further knowledge is so ingrained into our social structure that scientists will be doing it as long as there are scientists to be working on the fringes.