Throughout history, “Trial and Error” has been a productive strategy for advancing scientific understanding.
I long ago wrote about the intrepid prehistoric experimenter who, after sampling the various local wild mushrooms, left behind a hastily scribbled note:
“Some mushrooms are okay to eat; others will kill you. I ate the second kind, so goodbye.”
Or, as I heard an English murder mystery character who’d been mortally stabbed understatedly announce,
“Well, that’s me, then.”
Later, when an indigenous monkey was observed eating a poisonous mushroom and keeling over, it was determined it would be safer and healthier to experiment on animals. (Although not safer and healthier for the animals.)
Still, there are times when “First Person” reporting is necessitated. Since animals are incapable of saying, “7:22 – The symptoms, previously a “2” on the ‘Pain Tolerance Scale’ have suddenly escalated to a ‘7’.” – even in sign language – human beings remain essential to scientific experimentation. (In such cases, it is important – not to mention illegal to do otherwise – to inform people they are actually “test subjects.” Harmless Example: My grandmother gave me Ex-Lax and told me it was chocolate.)
History reveals – not any history I’ve read personally, but I know it’s in there – scientists who courageously inoculated themselves – sometimes accidentally but usually it’s deliberate – to spare others the possible negative consequences. (Or maybe they were unable to find any takers. “Try a new drug that might kill me? Yeah, I’d like to, but I’ve got an appointment for a massage and Sonia hates it when you cancel.”)
I thought about this process recently, considering a certain longstanding proscription that at some point – I am unable to pinpoint when it happened, the media missed this milestone entirely – was finally debunked.
It came to mind that somebody had to volunteer for an experiment, proving that “debunking” is exactly what that longstanding proscription deserved. They did it anonymously –which to me rates them even higher on the “Respect” continuum (if continua – the Latin plural for continuum – went up and down and not sideways.) I feel it is past time they receive the acknowledgement they justifiably merit.
What exactly, you may wonder, am I talking about?
When I was a kid, it was a hard-and-fast rule that you were forbidden to go swimming until at least an hour after you finished eating. (My research indicates that the rule was “a half-hour after eating” in the U.S., demonstrating that the “One-Hour Rule” was never universally “hard and fast” and that Americans are inherently bolder – some might say more recklessly foolhardy – than Canadians.)
Longer or shorter, everybody believed this: If you went swimming too soon after eating you’d develop a terrible stomach cramp and you’d drown.
Wishing wisely to avoid such a perilous outcome, parents insisted their children remain on the sidelines after eating, enduring, for their adamant scrupulosity, endless repetitions of “Is it time yet?”
Today, medical websites unilaterally assure us, as one of them wrote:
“Swimming after a big meal might be uncomfortable but it won’t cause you to drown.”
Check me on this, but when I read that, it sounded facetious to me, like the idea was always ridiculous and thank goodness it’s history.
But think about it. This wasn’t “sadistic scientists, torturing children eager to swim.” It was a ways back, but these are smart people, we’re talking about. Those white lab coats say, “We went to college.”
There must, in their higher-educationally-trained minds, have been a legitimate rationale for their beliefs, though, as it turns out, the scientifically certified “drowning immediately after eating” connection may, in retrospect, have been less causational than coincidental.
And then, at some point, I don’t know if there was a groundswell of pressure saying, “Would you check that again?” or what, but it was determined that they should. Although I doubt every every scientist was happy about it.
“What’s next? Re-checking ‘Gravity’?”
There was a risk involved – akin in type if not magnitude to the “the sun revolves around the earth” reassessment – and you know what a commotion that started – but they put “scientific certitude” in the balance and they did it. They conducted a new experiment. And, inevitably, somebody had to take the plunge.
Less than a half-an-hour after eating.
Leading me – as the transcripts of the actual experiment are unavailable to me – to imagine the following:
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“What’s the worst that can happen? A bad stomach cramp.”
“And perhaps drowning.”
“You can back out if you want to.”
“You’ll jump in save me, right?”
“We’ll try. But there are no guarantees.”
A BEAT, TO CONTEMPLATE POSSIBLY DYING.
“You experimented with a monkey?”
“There were news cameras around and “Bonomo” refused to put on the bathing suit.”
“Okay, then. I guess it’s up to me.”
“You had a nourishing repast?”
“A bacon cheeseburger with fries, a slice of blueberry cobbler and a glass of lemonade.”
“And you finished eating…?”
“Exactly (CONSULTING HIS WATCH)... two minutes ago.”
“Okay, then. In you go.”
THE “TEST SUBJECT” STARTS FOR THE WATER. THEN, STOPS.
“You know, I was just thinking. Shouldn’t we wait like twenty-nine minutes, so it’s closer to the “Dividing Line” but not ‘crazy early’?”
“Am I sensing ‘cold feet’ here?”
“I’m just saying…”
“This experiment is not to determine whether they mistook the precise ‘cutoff point.’ It’s to find out whether there is any validity to the proscription at all.”
“You’re right. Sorry, I’m just naturally incremental. You know, if we’re right about this, children around the world will be splashing in the water as much as an hour longer than they would have previously been able to, their parents assured they are not accessories to their premature drowning. You know what? I’m pumped! Let’s do this thing! ”
An “Historic Moment”, Kitty Hawk with swimwear. The enveloping bathrobe comes off. The “Test Subject” slips into the water, they swim around for a few minutes…
… and nothing happens.
Not on a par with “One giant leap for mankind”, perhaps. But it changed casual swimming practices forever.
There is sadly no name attached to this heroic effort expanding the boundaries of scientific accomplishment.
But somebody did it.
And even anonymously – this may be oxymoronic –
They deserve recognition.