March 25, 2013
Looking for a science book to read? Something with eccentric characters, irrational obsessions, and extreme experiments? Try Alex Boese’s book Electrified Sheep: Glass-eating Scientists, Nuking the Moon, and More Bizarre Experiments (Thomas Dunne Books, 2012).
Boese notes that when Pierre and Marie Curie first isolated radium in their lab in 1902, the mysterious metal appeared to produce a limitless amount of energy: “And where there is energy, medical entrepreneurs noted, there must be health! Physicians swung into action, promoting the beneficial effects of ‘radiumizing’ the body to an eager public. Retailers sold radium-treated water, describing the faintly glowing solution as ‘liquid sunshine.’ ” The radium craze persisted well into the 1930s; even Marie Curie insisted on the metal’s health benefits, maintaining this belief right up until 1934, when she died of radiation exposure. Boese writes:
A curious descendant of the invisible energy enthusiasm can even be found in a rather unlikely place—the Chinese space programme. Chinese scientists, from the very start of their space programme, have expressed great interest in the effect of cosmic rays on plants, hoping that such rays might produce Super Veggies to feed their growing population. At first they used high-altitude balloons to fly seeds up to the edge of space. Now seeds are taken aboard the Shenzhou spacecraft. The resulting crops, grown back on earth, are occasionally served in Shanghai restaurants. Space spuds, it’s reported, taste more “glutinous” than terrestrial varieties.
On 12 October 2005 the Shenzhou VI spacecraft blasted off carrying a particularly special cargo—40 grams of pig sperm to be exposed to cosmic rays. Whether or not the experiment generated positive results is unknown, because, after the initial announcement, a shroud of official state secrecy descended upon the mission. But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud.