Thursday, August 11, 2022

Review: Takis Kettlez Jalapeño Typhoon

It's another Takis-branded snack that isn't tubular tortillas, and just like the Habanero Fury ones, these are potato chips. ...

from Snack Reviews
by August 11, 2022 at 09:54AM

Saturday, August 6, 2022

Review: Savoritz Turtles Baked Extra Cheddar Snack Crackers

These crackers were obviously a Goldfish knockoff — orange crackers with cheddar shaped like an aquatic animal — but they replaced the fish shapes with turtles. ...

from Snack Reviews
by August 06, 2022 at 07:25PM

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Mad Aussie Who Stung Himself and His 9 Year Old Son With a Deadly Creature FOR SCIENCE!!!

Australia is infamous for its abundance of absurdly dangerous wildlife. From highly-venomous brown snakes and funnelweb spiders to giant saltwater crocodiles and great white sharks, nearly everything that slithers, crawls, or swims in the Land Down Under seems perfectly designed to inflict the most horrible death possible. But one Aussie creature stands above the rest, its sting so painful its victims literally beg for death. It is a creature so mysterious and elusive that up until 60 years ago, science didn’t even know it existed.

For thousands of years, the Aborigines of Australia’s northern coasts have known that to swim in the ocean between the months of November and May is to risk an ordeal painful beyond description. At first, the victim feels only a mild burning sensation, no more painful than a bee sting. But ten to fifteen minutes later, they are suddenly struck down with a crippling combination of symptoms. As Australian biologist Lisa Gershwin explains:

“It gives you incredible lower back pain that you would think of as similar to an electric drill drilling into your back. It gives you relentless nausea and vomiting. How does vomiting every minute to two minutes for up to 12 hours sound? Incredible. It gives waves of full body cramps, profuse sweating … the nurses have to wring out the bed sheets every 15 minutes. It gives you very great difficulty in breathing where you just feel like you can’t catch your breath. It gives you this weird muscular restlessness so you can’t stop moving but every time you move it hurts.”

And if that weren’t enough, victims are also often struck with an overwhelming feeling of looming dread:

“Patients believe they’re going to die and they’re so certain of it that they’ll actually beg their doctors to kill them just to get it over with.”

If the victim is lucky, these systems persist for up to 24 hours before gradually fading away. If not, severe hypertension can lead to death from heart failure or cerebral haemorrhage.

As more and more white Australians began living and vacationing in the area around the Great Barrier Reef, reports of this mysterious syndrome began trickling back to the medical community. Among the first to study the phenomenon was Dr. Ronald Southcott, who in the 1940s  dubbed the incidents “Type A Stingings” to distinguish them from the more well-known “Type B Stingings” inflicted by Chironex Fleckeri, the Australian Box Jellyfish. The Box Jellyfish is the bane of every Australian swimmer. Growing up to 30 centimetres wide with 60 tentacles four metres long, their nematocysts are among the fastest objects in the natural world and are powerful enough to penetrate the carapace of a crab. The venom they deliver is so potent that a mere two metres of tentacle can kill a grown man in under two minutes. And if that wasn’t enough, unlike regular jellyfish which are largely blind and drift passively with ocean currents, box jellyfish possess 24 surprisingly sophisticated eyes and can swim at speeds up to 3 knots. These creatures have killed around 100 Australians since record-keeping began and seriously injured countless more, and fear of them regularly shuts down beaches for six months of the year across a 5000-kilometre stretch of Australia’s northern coast. But despite its ubiquity, the venom of the Box Jellyfish did not match the highly-specific symptoms of Type A Stingings – nor did any of the other ‘usual suspects’ like the Portuguese Man ’o War.

Southcott’s research was taken up in the 1950s by Dr. Hugo Flecker, a pioneer of jellyfish research and the namesake of Chironex Fleckeri. While Flecker suspected that Type A Stingings were caused by some sort of jellyfish, he was unable to find any nematocysts – the syringe-like stinging cells jellyfish use to inject their venom – on any victims. Unable to finger a definitive culprit, in 1952 Flecker grouped the symptoms together under the name “Irukandji Syndrome,” after an Aboriginal tribe native to the area of Northern Australia where the phenomenon was most common.

For nearly a decade the cause of Irukandji Syndrome remained a mystery, until in 1958 an eccentric doctor named Jack Barnes arrived in the northern town Cairns. Born on April 2, 1922 on a sheep station outside Charleville, Queensland, in 1942 Jack Handyside Barnes suspended his medical studies to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force and spent the war fighting the Japanese on the island of Timor. After the war he returned to medicine, becoming Medical Superintendent of Thursday Island Hospital before setting up his own practice in Cairns in 1958. That year he was tasked by the local branch of the British Medical Association with finally tracking down the cause of Irukandji Syndrome.

According to his associate Dr. Graham Cossins, Barnes was:

“…irritable and belligerent, … demanding and critical, unsociable and rude…but under that gruff exterior was a kindly and compassionate associate”.

This prickly personality also belied the sharp and analytical mind of a detective, which allowed Barnes to make several key deductions about his prey. First, as nobody had ever seen the creature, Barnes reasoned it must be very small and nearly transparent. Second, as most victims were stung in relatively shallow water, it must stay close to the surface. Third, as stingings tended to occur in clusters, it must occur in large numbers; and finally, the creature must be mobile, as none had ever been found washed up on the beach. Poring through hospital reports, Barnes discovered that 85% of Irukandji cases occurred in only two places: Palm and Ellis Beaches. And after analyzing tidal charts, he quickly discovered why: every winter, sustained northerly winds reversed local tidal flows, bringing in fresh currents from the Timor and Coral Seas – and with them the causative agent of Irukandji Syndrome. It was here that Barnes focused his search for the elusive Irukandji creature.

Over the next three years, Barnes spent hundreds of hours sitting on the seafloor in a weighted diving suit, laying out traps cobbled together from flour sifters and staring upwards in the hopes of spotting the creature’s silhouetted against the sunlight filtering down from the surface. It was tedious, unrewarding work, with Barnes’ traps quickly becoming clogged with assorted marine life. But on December 10, 1961, his patience paid off as he finally found what he was looking for: a tiny, nearly-transparent jellyfish barely more than a centimetre across. On the same day, another specimen was caught by lifeguard Don Ludbey, who noticed a small, nearly invisible creature clinging by one tentacle to an erratically-swimming fish.

But was this tiny creature really the cause of Irukandji Syndrome? While most scientists would have started by analyzing the venom’s chemical composition or testing the creature’s sting on an animal, Barnes had other ideas, skipping straight to human experimentation. As for the test subjects, this included Barnes himself, of course, along with local lifeguard Chilla Ross and, controversially, Barnes’ own 9-year-old son, Nick. Barnes’ description of what happened next, from his 1964 paper Cause and Effect in Irukandju Stinging, is disturbingly clinical and detached, perhaps appropriately for a father who no doubt sentenced his son to a lifetime of crippling trust issues:

“The first Carybdeid was applied to an adult (J.B.), and to a boy, aged nine years (N.B.). A robust young life-saver (C.R.) volunteered to test the second specimen, of similar size to the first. The jellyfish was placed in contact with the inner surface of the upper arm of each volunteer. The effects were not long in coming.

The lad reported mild abdominal pain twelve minutes after being stung, and two minutes later declared he had an ache in both armpits, that abdominal pain was worsening rapidly, and that his back was hurting. Within 20 minutes, the two adults noted aching in both axillae, followed almost immediately by backache and by discomfort around the lower ribs anteriorly. Back pain was maximal in the sacral area, deep and “boring” in nature.

Severe abdominal pain, the most constant feature of the Irukandji syndrome, was well established in all cases within 30 minutes. … Subjects were seized with a remarkable restlessness, and were in constant movement. … As the pains increased, initiative was notably depressed, and cerebration, though accurate, was decidedly sluggish. … Palpation of painful areas, now including arms and legs, showed muscle groups in tonic contraction, little short of spasm. This possibly explains the peculiar postures noted, for extremes of flexion and extension were avoided, and the volunteers adopted a stance, which I can best liken to that of an infant with a full nappy.”

During the 20 minutes drive to Cairns, the victims were in considerable distress, heightened, it seemed by the necessity to remain seated. All had abdominal and back pain, pain in the anterior chest wall with some difficulty in breathing, and diffuse aches in muscles and joints. … N.B. felt very cold and was shivering violently.

Forty minutes after the stinging, the abdominal musculature of the three subjects was in unrelenting spasm, so rigid as to warrant fully the term “board-like.” … Undoubtedly, the advent of coughing and retching marked the peak of misery for the two adults. Each spasm increased the gripping pains in the chest and abdomen, and as these eased, the cycle was repeated.” 

This absurdly reckless experiment confirmed Barnes’ suspicion: that this tiny, seemingly innocuous jellyfish was indeed the cause of the mysterious Irukandji Syndrome. Following the publication of Barnes’ groundbreaking paper in 1964, the creature was dubbed Carukia barnesi in his honour. Over the next two decade, Barnes dedicated his life to the study of the Irukandji and other jellyfish, mobilizing a network of medical practitioners to report cases of Irukandji stingings and inform bathers of the dangers. In the course of his research, he discovered that many jellyfish refuse to sting though a synthetic barrier, and took to wearing women’s pantyhose while wading in the ocean to collect samples. This practice was soon widely adopted among lifeguards. Barnes also pioneered the now-common practice of washing a jellyfish sting with alcohol or vinegar to kill any remaining stinging cells. Barnes was appointed a Member of the British Empire in 1970 for his work and died in 1985 of a heart attack. Though he ultimately succeeded in passing on his mad scientist genes, his reckless approach to toxicology won him the title of “At-Risk Survivor” at the 1997 Darwin Awards.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Bonus Facts:

In case snakes, spiders, jellyfish, crocodiles, and sharks aren’t enough to discourage you from visiting Australia, here are a few more lesser-known dangerous animals native to the Land Down Under.

While the Irukandji and Box jellyfish are infamous for their painful stings, if you really want to know what pain is, then simply find the nearest Stonefish and step on it. Comprising 5 species native to the Pacific and Indian oceans, stonefish are so-named for their remarkable resemblance to an algae-covered rock, which allows them to lay perfectly camouflaged among the coral waiting for prey to swim by. If threatened or stepped on, the stonefish raises a set of razor-sharp dorsal fin spines which can easily pierce a sandal or diving boot and inject the most powerful venom of any known fish. The effect of this venom is often described as the worst pain in the world – so much so that death by stonefish is typically due not to the venom itself but rather shock induced by the sheer agony. Thankfully, however, an antivenin is available, and treating the wound with very hot water effectively breaks down and neutralizing the venom, meaning that fatalities are relatively rare.

Back on the surface, perhaps the most well-known Australian bird is the Emu, a giant flightless ratite famous for defeating an army of machine-gun-wielding soldiers in what has come to be known as the Emu War of 1932. But as badass as this feat is, the Emu has nothing on the Cassowary. Standing 2 metres tall and capable of running at speeds of up to  50km/hr,  the Cassowary is armed with a fearsome 12-centimetre claw on its centre toe capable of inflicting a deadly kick when threatened. Its skull is also equipped with a thick bony ridge or “casque” that allows the bird to run full-tilt through dense vegetation. Despite its intimidating appearance, however, the Cassowary is a shy and solitary bird, living mainly on fruits and berries in the dense rainforests of Northwestern Australia. However, in recent years urban and agricultural development has lead to the significant loss of the Cassowary’s preferred habitat, increasingly forcing the birds to wander into urban areas looking for food – and increasing the chances of a deadly encounter with humans.

But if you thought for a moment that you’d find safety in the realm of flying birds, think again. In 2017, an article in the Journal of Ethnobiology by Robert Gosford, Mark Bonta and others presented the first recoded evidence of a phenomenon that had been reported by Australian Aborigines for thousands of years. The team observed birds of prey such as the Black Kite, Whistling Kite, and Brown Falcon lifting burning branches from brushfires and using them to start fires elsewhere. The birds would then pick off mice and other small animals fleeing the blaze or feast on the charred corpses of the ones who didn’t make it. Because of course corpse eating arsonist birds are a thing in Australia.

And finally we come to that most distinctively weird of all Aussie animals- the duck-billed platypus. While this egg-laying, half-duck, half-beaver-looking creature may look adorable and harmless, the male of the species packs a powerful punch in the form of two sharp spurs on its hind legs. These are capable of delivering a peptide-based venom whose effects have been described as excruciating and resistant to most common painkillers such as morphine. The extensive swelling induced by the venom can last for months, while residual pain can persist for years. Interestingly, the fossil record suggests that until relatively recently, venomous spurs were a common feature of many mammals, with the platypus being the sole surviving possessor of this trait. And, of course, the sole survivor of this one would exist in Australia…

Expand for References

What is the Worst a Jellyfish Could Do? Irukandji Syndrome, Gelatinous Sting, April 15, 2020,


Romm, Cari,  Apparently There’s a Jellyfish Whose Sting Causes Feelings of Impending Doom, The Cut, April 28, 2016,


Gussow, Leon, The Amazing and Bizarre Discovery of Irukandji Syndrome, Emergency Medicine News, April 2005,


Fenner, Peter & Hadsk, John, Fatal Envenomation by Jellyfish Causing Irukandji Syndrome, Medical Journal of Australia, October 7, 2002,


Raffaele, Paul, Killers in Paradise, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2005,


Baker, Joe, Barnes, John Handyside (Jack)(1922-1985), Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2007,


Pant, Anupum, Jack Barnes and Irukandji Syndrome, WESCI,


Nickson, Chris, Jack Barnes and the Irukandji Enigma, Life in the Fast Lane, July 1, 2019,


Millward, Adam, Why the Cassowary is the World’s Most Dangerous Bird, Guinness World Records, April 15, 2019,


Maguire, Dannielle, Australian Birds “Firehawks” Deliberately Spread Fires in Incredible Hunting Technique,,

The post The Mad Aussie Who Stung Himself and His 9 Year Old Son With a Deadly Creature FOR SCIENCE!!! appeared first on Today I Found Out.

from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - August 02, 2022 at 02:14AM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!

The Impossibly Badass Story of Mills’ Marauders

South Georgia lies 54 degrees south of the equator in the South Atlantic Ocean, some 1,900 kilometres off the coast of Argentina. A cold and inhospitable place covered in jagged snow-capped mountains, fjords, and glaciers, until its discovery by European sailors in 1675 the island had no permanent native population. For the next three hundred years the island would remain largely uninhabited save for a handful of whalers and sealers harvesting the rich waters of the Antarctic Ocean. But in April of 1982 this frozen little speck of land became the touchpoint for one of the last great conventional wars of the 20th Century, and played host to an extraordinary incident in which a small band of 22 British Royal Marines managed to hold off a vastly superior Argentine force and even disable an entire warship. This is the impossibly badass story of Mills’ Marauders and the Battle of Grytviken.

Along with the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia is administered as a dependency of the Falkland Islands, a British Overseas Territory lying 1,400 kilometres to the east. Though the British have claimed sovereignty over the Falklands since 1833, this claim has long been contested by Argentina, where the islands are known as Las Islas Malvinas. In 1982 Argentina was riven by economic and social turmoil in the wake of its 7-year “Dirty War,” which saw the rise of a brutal military dictatorship or junta [“Hun-tah”] lead by General Leopoldo Galtieri, Air Brigadier Basilo Lami Dozo, and Admiral Jorge [“Hor-hay”] Anaya. Galtieri and Anaya in particular saw the retaking of the Falklands as an ideal means of distracting the Argentine people from their current troubles, settling an old score with Britain and reasserting Argentina’s prestige and dominance in the region. Calculating that the British would not bother to retake such a small archipelago 13,000 kilometres from the Home Isles, Anaya set the invasion for early April 1982.

On March 19, the Argentine transport ship ARA Bahía Buen Suceso steamed into Leith Harbour on South Georgia without clearance and unloaded a team of 19 scrap metal workers. Officially, the landing was part of a business deal between Argentine scrap metal dealer Constantino Davidoff and the British company Christian Salvesen to salvage the remains of a defunct whaling station on the island. However, as part of a secret military plan code-named Operation Alpha, the workers had been infiltrated by a squad of Argentine commandos, who proceeded to raise the Argentine flag over the harbour. At the time, the only British presence on the island was a team from the British Antarctic Survey led by Trefor Edwards who, disturbed by the Argentines’ actions, demanded they lower their flag and report to senior Antarctic Survey officer Steve Martin at the island’s capital of Grytviken. The Argentine commander, Captain Briatore, agreed to lower the flag but refused to report to Grytviken. And while he and the rest of the scrap metal workers departed on March 22, Antarctic Survey members soon reported the presence of other Argentine personnel on the island, prompting Trefor Edwards to contact Rex Hunt, Governor of the Falklands. Hunt duly dispatched the Royal Navy Ice Patrol vessel HMS Endurance carrying a small contingent of 22 Royal Marines to monitor the situation.

As the Endurance steamed towards South Georgia, the Argentines dispatched the corvettes ARA Drummond and ARA Granville to intercept her, as well as the ARA Bahía Paraíso to land a contingent of 10 naval commandos on the island. Over the next week the Endurance and the Argentine vessels played a game of cat-and-mouse in the waters around the island while British and Argentine officials worked to find a diplomatic solution. When none could be found, Endurance steamed into Grytviken harbour and offloaded its contingent of Marines, consisting of two detachments of 8 and 12 men under the command of 24-year old Lieutenant George Thomsen and 23-year-old Lieutenant Keith Mills. On the day they landed, April 2, 1982, Argentina launched Operation Rosario, the large-scale invasion of the Falkland Islands. The 650-man invasion force quickly overwhelmed the islands’ tiny garrison, and within hours the British government at the capital of Port Stanley capitulated. On the same day, the Argentine corvette ARA Guerrico, carrying 40 marines and two helicopters, was dispatched to South Georgia to capture the island, but bad weather delayed its arrival by 24 hours.

The 22 Marines at Grytviken, cut off from support and 13,000 kilometres from home, braced themselves for the coming assault. A radio message from London instructed them to“not resist beyond the point where lives might be lost to no avail,” to which Lieutenant Mills infamously replied: “Sod that! I’ll make their eyes water!”

With the invasion force only hours away, the Marines set about fortifying the harbour, lining the beach with barbed wire and antipersonnel mines and building a makeshift bomb packed with nuts, bolts, and harpoon heads which they placed under the jetty. The Marines had barely enough time to snap a group photo before the sound of a helicopter was heard in the distance. The Battle of Grytviken had begun.

Argentine operations began at 11:41 AM as an Aérospatiale Puma helicopter from the Guerrico landed a contingent of 15 Argentine marines across the harbour from the British positions. A second helicopter took off at 11:45 but was struck by heavy small-arms fire from the Royal Marines, causing it to crash land with the loss of two killed and four wounded. The Marines had drawn first blood, raising a cheer of elation among the tiny force. As Lieutenant Thomsen later recalled:

“There wasn’t a single one of us that wasn’t prepared to fight it out to the last man. We weren’t expected to come back. [Shooting down that helicopter] was like a gift. That kicked off the battle, and we were 16-nil up from the start.”

Following the loss of the helicopter, the 15 Argentine Marines already on the island attacked the British positions, but were pinned down by heavy fire. Having accidentally left their mortars behind on the ship, the Argentines called upon the Guerrico for fire support. The corvette, which had only just left dry dock following extensive repairs, sailed into the narrow bay and  at 11:55 opened fire on the British positions with her 20, 40, and 100 millimetre automatic cannons. However, after only a few shots all three guns jammed and became inoperative. Now completely defenceless, the ship had no choice but to complete her turn around the bay, exposing her flanks to the British, who immediately opened fire with rifles, machine guns, and an 84-millimetre Carl Gustav antitank recoilless gun. The Marines landed over 200 hits on the corvette as it sailed past, as Lieutenant Thomsen later recalled:

“It was raking us with its 40mm anti-aircraft gun until we wiped out the gun crew. We then used a [Carl Gustav] but three out of five rounds didn’t go off. If they had we’d have sunk it. But we put it out of action and it was listing at 30 degrees. We whacked out its Exocet launchers with rocket launchers and hit the 4in gun on the front and disabled it. We were putting sniper fire through the bridge so they didn’t-know where they were going…At the same time they were landing troops from two or three other ships and we were outnumbered 50-1, or 100-1 if you count everyone on their ships.”

Seriously crippled, the Guerrico limped out of the harbour until she was at last beyond the range of British fire. It is now thought that the commander of the Argentine forces, Captain Carlos Trombetta, was unaware of the Royal Marines presence on the island, and believed he was only facing members of the British Antarctic Survey team. Otherwise he would likely not have exposed his vessel to such dangerous conditions. Whatever the case, this bizarre engagement remains one of the few occasions where ground troops armed only with light weapons have taken on a warship and come out on top.

Meanwhile, a helicopter from the Bahía Paraíso had been ferrying more Argentine troops ashore out of range of British fire. With the Guerrico safely out of range, the Argentines attacked again, wounding Royal Marines Corporal Nigel Peters in the arm. At the same time, the Guerrico managed to repair her 100-millimetre gun and opened fire on the British positions. Realizing he was outnumbered and outgunned, Lieutenant Mills finally decided to call it quits, and approached the Argentine positions waving a white flag. In a legendary bit of British bluff, Mills announced that he and his men would keep fighting unless the Argentines agreed to his terms – including safe passage for his men off the island. The Argentines agreed, only to discover to their shock that they had been facing a force of only 22 Marines. It was 12:48 PM; ‘Mills’ Marauders’ – as they became known – had managed to hold out against a vastly superior force for more than an hour, inflicting 12 casualties to 1. This action has been likened to a modern-day Rorke’s Drift, the 1879 battle in which 139 British soldiers held out against a force of 5,000 Zulu warriors in Natal, South Africa.

Mills and his men were disarmed and taken aboard the Bahía Paraíso. The Marines were treated well, as Corporal Andrew Lee later recalled:“[The Argentines] bore us no malice. They did understand the job we did. They were Marines, like ourselves.”

Mills’ Marauders were taken back to Argentina and airlifted back to the UK, where they arrived on April 20 to a heroes’ welcome. 15 days earlier, contrary to Admiral Anaya’s calculations, the British government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dispatched a naval task force to the South Atlantic to retake the Falkland Islands. Many of the Marines who had bravely defended South Georgia on the opening day of the conflict would return as part of Operation Paraquet, which succeeded in retaking the island on April 25. The fighting on the Falklands would rage on for another 50 days, finally ending on June 14, 1982 with the surrender of Argentine forces at Port Stanley. The Falklands War lasted a total of 74 days and claimed the claimed the lives of 649 Argentine and 255 British military personnel and 3 Falkland Islanders. It was the last large-scale conventional engagement the United Kingdom would fight entirely on its own, and the last major colonial war in the history of the British Empire. And while the conflict saw its fair share of heroic actions on both sides, few can compare to the sheer badassery of 22 lightly-armed Marines taking on an entire warship – and winning.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References


Hickley, Matthew, Revealed: Untold Story of How 22 Marines Held off Hundreds of Argentinians and Disabled a Warship on Eve of Falklands War, Daily Mail, April 15, 2009,


Oord, Christian, When 22 British Marines Held off a Superior Argentine Invasion Force & a Naval Corvette, War History Online, April 8, 2019,


Schweimler, Daniel, Scrap Dealer Who Accidentally Set off the Falklands War, BBC Radio 4, April 3l, 2010,

The post The Impossibly Badass Story of Mills’ Marauders appeared first on Today I Found Out.

from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - August 02, 2022 at 02:10AM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!

The Heart of a Nuclear Bomb and “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail”

At the heart of every nuclear weapon lies the core or pit, a sphere of plutonium the size of a baseball and weighing around 6 kilograms. When a nuclear weapon is triggered, a shell of conventional high-explosive “lenses” wrapped around the core detonates, creating a spherical shock wave that squeezes the core to criticality and sets off the nuclear chain reaction. Outside of a bomb, however, a nuclear core is relatively harmless. Though plutonium is one of the most toxic substances known to man, in this solid, monolithic form it cannot be absorbed into the human body. Even the radiation it emits can easily be blocked by a plastic sandwich bag. The only indication of the tremendous destructive power contained within the core is the mild, constant heat given off by its radioactive decay. But under very specific circumstances, a plutonium core can become very unstable and inflict a truly horrifying death, as two scientists would tragically discover in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War.

Haroutune Krikor Daghlian, known professionally as “Harry,” was born to Armenian immigrant parents in Waterbury, Connecticut, on May 4, 1921. A gifted student, he enrolled at MIT in 1938 at the age of only 17. After two years studying mathematics, he switched to particle physics and transferred to Purdue University, obtaining his Bachelor of Science in 1942. He then began his doctoral studies under physicist Marshall Holloway, working on the design and construction of a cyclotron particle accelerator. J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific head of the Manhattan Project, invited Holloway and his students to join physicist Otto Frisch’s Critical Assembly Group in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Daghlian remained at Purdue for another year to finish his dissertation before joining the project in 1944.

At Los Alamos, Daghlian became involved in experiments to determine the criticality of atomic bomb cores. Criticality is the state in which a mass of nuclear material is capable of sustaining a chain reaction, and is dependent on both the total amount of material present – known as the critical mass – as well as the shape of that mass. For example, a mass that is critical when formed into a sphere may be rendered sub-critical by forming it into a ring or hollow cylinder, since these shapes allow more neutrons to escape into the outside environment and prevent a chain reaction from starting. Determining the criticality of a plutonium core is essential to efficient bomb design, as too little plutonium and the bomb will not work, while too much plutonium and the extra material will simply be vaporized and scattered without contributing to the chain reaction.

The procedure for measuring the criticality of a core involved stacking bricks of tungsten carbide around the plutonium sphere, forming a reflector that bounced neutrons back into the core. Bricks were progressively added until a neutron detector indicated that the core was near-critical. This procedure, considered highly dangerous, soon earned the nickname “tickling the dragon’s tail.”

Around 9:55 PM on August 21, 1945 – barely a week after the end of the Second World War – Daghlian was performing a criticality experiment at the Omega Site Laboratory at Los Alamos. He was alone, the only other person in the building being a security guard, Private Robert Hemmerly, seated at a desk four metres away. This was strictly against regulations, as dangerous experiments were not supposed to be performed alone or after hours. The core Daghlian was working on, nicknamed “Rufus,” was the third ever manufactured. The first had been used in “The Gadget,” the world’s first atomic bomb detonated on July 16, 1945 near Alamogordo, New Mexico; while the second had been used in “Fat Man,” the bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Daghlian’s core had been prepared for a potential third bombing scheduled for August 24, but the Japanese surrendered before it could be used and the core was retained at Los Alamos for experiments.

Daghlian had stacked the tungsten carbide bricks four layers high and was starting on the fifth when his neutron detector indicated that the core was near-critical. But when Daghlian pulled the brick away, it slipped from his hand and fell into the middle of the assembly, causing the core to go prompt critical and blasting Daghlian with neutron and gamma radiation. Thinking fast, Daghlian pulled out the brick and disassembled the reflector with his bare hands to halt the reaction. But it was too late: Daghlian had received a fatal radiation dose of around 510 rem. He was immediately hospitalized, but despite intensive treatment including multiple blood transfusions his condition quickly deteriorated. His hands, which had received the highest dose, swelled up, blistered and turned black, while the rest of his body displayed what doctors likened to a “three-dimensional sunburn”. As days passed, the symptoms of acute radiation poisoning piled up, including uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea, hair loss, intestinal paralysis, widespread burns and blisters, and delirium. His mother and his sister were flown in at Army expense to tend to him, while Army doctors performed countless tests in order to better understand radiation exposure. After 25 days of agony Harry Daghlian slipped into a coma and died on September 15, 1945 at the age of 24 – the first recorded victim of a nuclear criticality accident. Due to the secrecy surrounding the atomic bomb project, his cause of death was officially given as “chemical burns.” The only other witness to the accident, Private Hemmerly, received only a 5 rem dose and died of leukaemia in 1978 at the age of 62.

Daghlian’s accident should have alerted the scientists at Los Alamos to the dangers of performing criticality experiments, but such was the freewheeling approach to nuclear physics in those days that the incident had little impact on official policy, and many scientists were more than willing to flaunt the rules in the name of expedience. So it was that exactly eight months later the same core that killed Daghlian would claim another victim, this time a brash young Canadian named Louis Slotin (“sloh-tin”).

Louis Slotin was born on December 1, 1910 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the son of Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Showing an early interest in chemistry, he obtained his Masters in Geology at the University of Manitoba in 1933 before attending King’s College in England, where he obtained his doctorate in physical chemistry in 1936. Something of a braggart and prone to telling tall tales, he claimed to have fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side as an aircraft tail gunner, though there is no evidence that this is true. After unsuccessfully applying to work at the Canadian National Research Council, Slotin accepted a research associate position at the University of Chicago and began working on cyclotron designs. On December 2, 1942, he was present at the first demonstration of Chicago Pile 1, the world’s first nuclear reactor built in a disused squash court beneath the University. Shortly thereafter he joined the Manhattan Project proper, working first on Plutonium production at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Here he displayed his trademark bravado and disregard for safety by crawling under a running nuclear reactor to repair a broken instrument rather than waiting an extra day for the reactor to power down, receiving an estimated dose of 87 rad.

Slotin then transferred to Los Alamos, where he quickly became a leading expert in the design and assembly of Plutonium bomb cores, earning the unofficial title “chief armorer of the United States.” Indeed, it was he who assembled and inserted the core into the “Gadget,” the world’s first atomic bomb, prior to its historic test on July 16, 1945.

After the war, Slotin turned his attention to criticality testing of bomb cores. Since Harry Daghlian’s accident, the experimental procedure had changed significantly. The core was now placed in a depression in a large hemispherical Beryllium reflector while another hollow Beryllium sphere was lowered over it. The official procedure called for the two hemispheres to be held apart by a stack of shims, which would gradually be removed to bring the halves closer together and nudge the core towards criticality. But Slotin, with characteristic bravado, discarded this method in favour of  holding the top hemisphere with his left hand while keeping the two hemispheres separated with the blade of a flat-headed screwdriver. His colleagues were aghast at his recklessness, with famous physicist Enrico Fermi warning him that he would be “dead in a year” if he continued performing the experiment in this manner. But Slotin carried on regardless, and by May 1946 had “tickled the dragon’s tail” nearly 40 times – often while wearing his trademark blue jeans and cowboy boots.

But by this time Slotin had become weary of his involvement in the Manhattan Project, bemoaning the fact that he was:

“…one of the few people left here who are experienced bomb putter-togetherers.”

Thus, on May 21, 1946, Slotin decided to demonstrate his criticality technique to Alvin C. Graves, who was slated to replace him once he left Los Alamos. Also in the room were fellow scientists Samuel Kline, Marion Cieslicki, Swight Young, Raemer Schreiber, and Theodore Perlman – all working on their own experiments – as well as security guard Private Patrick Cleary. While Slotin had performed this experiment dozens of times, on this day his luck finally ran out. At around 3:20 PM, the screwdriver blade slipped and the two hemispheres slammed together. The neutron detector jumped off the scale as the core went critical, and observers reported seeing a flash of blue light and feeling a surge of heat wash over them. By instinct Slotin flipped his wrist, flinging the upper hemisphere to the ground and halting the reaction.

Slotin, ashen-faced, turned to Graves and said:

“I’m sorry I got you into this. I’m afraid I have less than a 50 percent chance of living. I hope you have

better than that.”

He then walked out of the room and promptly vomited.

Meanwhile, all the others in the room began feeling a strange sour taste in their mouths – a classic symptom of acute radiation exposure. All were taken to the laboratory hospital and closely monitored. There, it was determined that Slotin had absorbed nearly 5000 rem of radiation – nearly eight times the lethal dose and the equivalent of being exposed to an atomic bomb blast at a distance of 1500 metres. Alvin Graves, who was standing next to Slotin, received 830 rem, while the other scientists in the room received between 45 and 255 rem. Slotin’s body had blocked most of the radiation, while his quick reflexes had saved the others from a more severe exposure. But this was likely small comfort for Slotin, whose condition, like Daghlian’s, rapidly deteriorated as the massive radiation dose caused his body to shut down and disintegrate. Louis Slotin died at 11 A.M. on May 30, 1946 at the age of 36 with his family at his bedside. His body was taken back to Winnipeg and buried on June 2.

At first Slotin was hailed as a hero for saving his fellow scientists, with one report stating:

“Dr. Slotin’s quick reaction at the immediate risk of his own life prevented a more serious development of the experiment which would certainly have resulted in the death of the seven men working with him, as well as serious injury to others in the general vicinity.”

However, many such as General Leslie Groves, military director of the Manhattan Project, saw Slotin as unnecessarily reckless and the incident as symptomatic of Los Alamos’ lax attitude towards safety. Following the accident, hands-on criticality experiments were banned and all further tests were conducted using remote-control machines operated from bunkers a quarter-mile away. The “demon core,” as the deadly plutonium sphere became known, as slated to be used in the “Charlie” shot of Operation Crossroads, the first post-war nuclear test conducted at Bikini Atoll in the south Pacific. However, after the July 24 “Baker” detonation produced more radioactive fallout than anticipated, the “Charlie” test was cancelled at the demon core was quietly melted down for reuse in other weapons.

Meanwhile, four days after the accident, Alvin Graves’s beard stopped growing on the left side of his face and his hair began to fall out. However, he eventually recovered and suffered few lasting effects except for a mild radiation-induced cataract in his left eye. The other scientists in the room also suffered mild symptoms and died decades later, though their deaths were likely accelerated by their radiation exposure, with two of the seven dying from leukaemia. Security guard Patrick Cleary died in Korea in September 1950.

Harry Daghlian and Louis Slotin were the first peacetime victims of the atomic age, and they would not be the last. In the intervening 80 years dozens of workers have been injured and killed building the weapons that were meant to keep America – and the rest of the world – safe. These casualties serve as a constant reminder of the tremendous power of nuclear energy – a power that must never be taken for granted, for it can turn on the unwary any second.

But Daghlian and Slotin’s deaths also speak to the heroic, freewheeling spirit of the pioneering days of nuclear technology, a spirit perhaps best captured by a poem written by Thomas Ashlock, associate editor of the Los Alamos Times, two weeks after Louis Slotin’s death:

May God receive you, great-souled scientist!

While you were with us, even strangers knew

The breadth and lofty stature of your mind

Twas only in the crucible of death

We saw at last your noble heart revealed.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References

 Harry K. Daghlian, NNDB,


Atomic Physicist Was Killed by Radiation, The Day, August 6, 1985,,1066749


Harry Daghlian, Atomic Heritage Foundation,


Alex Wellerstein, The Third Core’s Revenge, Restricted Data, August 16, 2013,


A Review of Criticality Accidents, Los Alamos National Laboratory, 2000,



Zeilig, Martin, Louis Slotin and ‘The Invisible Killer’, The Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association,


Martin, Brigitt, The Secret Life of Louis Slotin 1910-1946, Alumni Journal of the University of Manitoba, December 1999,


Acute Radiation Sickness,


Alsop, Stewart & Lapp, Ralph, The Strange Death of Louis Slotin,

The post The Heart of a Nuclear Bomb and “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail” appeared first on Today I Found Out.

from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - August 02, 2022 at 02:04AM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!

Monday, August 1, 2022

The Immortal Woman Whose Death Changed the World

Over the past 70 years one woman has contributed to countless major medical and biological breakthroughs, advancing our understanding of cancer, haemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; unlocking the secrets of human ageing; and helping to develop vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, and HPV. She has travelled the globe, rocketed into space, and stood in the path of nuclear bombs – and all this despite being dead for more than half a century. For while the real Henrietta Lacks died in 1951, a part of her still survives to this day: a line of rather interesting cells, cut from the tumour that killed her, which have continued to divide unabated for decades, outgrowing Henrietta’s original body by a factor of millions. This is the strange and fascinating story of HeLa, the world’s first immortal human cell line.

Henrietta Lacks was born Loretta Pleasant on August 1, 1920 in Roanoke, Virginia, the daughter of tobacco sharecroppers Johnny Pleasant and Eliza Lacks. When Eliza died in childbirth in 1924 Johnny moved the family to the town of Clover, where they lived in a former plantation slave cabin known as the “home-house.” Life for the Lackses was typical of black sharecroppers in the area, Henrietta only completing the sixth grade before working full-time at the family’s tobacco farm. During the week every family member worked sunrise to sunset picking and drying tobacco leaves, while on the weekends they trucked their harvest to the auction house in town to sell it to buyers from the large tobacco companies. Yet despite this hard life her children remember Henrietta as energetic and upbeat, the loving nucleus of a tight-knit clan. She loved to dress up in her best clothes, to dance, and to cook, always keeping her door open in case passing friends and family stopped by for dinner.

In 1934, the 14-year-old Henrietta became pregnant by her cousin Daniel or “Day” Lacks, with whom she shared a bedroom, and gave birth to her first child, Lawrence. Lawrence was followed four years later by a daughter, Elsie. Unknown to Henrietta, Day suffered from syphilis which had passed on to their daughter, causing developmental delays and epilepsy. Elsie Lacks would eventually be diagnosed with “idiocy” and committed to the Crownsville Hospital for the Negro Insane, where she died in 1963 at the age of 15. As for Henrietta and Day, they were married on April 10, 1941, shortly before America entered the Second World War.

The War should have been a boon for the Lackses, as the US Government began sending millions of cigarettes to its soldiers overseas to keep up morale. But in the end this policy only served to benefit large industrial farms, leaving small family operations like the Lackses’ in the dust. At the suggestion of a cousin, Henrietta and Day moved to Turner Station, Maryland so Day could work at the Bethlehem Steel plant at Sparrows Point. The work at Sparrows Point was steady and paid well, but exposed workers to dangerous toxins like asbestos, leading to high rates of lung cancer in the post-war years. While living in Maryland Henrietta would give birth to three more children: David or “Sonny” in 1947, Deborah in 1949, and Joseph in 1950.

But sometime in early 1950, Henrietta began to realize something was seriously wrong inside her body. She complained to her family of feeling a “knot” in her womb, and began suffering frequent and heavy bouts vaginal bleeding. Afraid that doctors would order a hysterectomy and prevent her from having more children, Henrietta waited over a year to seek medical help. At first her doctor suspected syphilis, but when the tests came back negative he sent her to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the only major medical centre in the area that accepted black patients. Henrietta travelled to Johns Hopkins on September 19, 1950, where she was examined by gynaecologist Howard Jones. What he found was unlike anything he had ever seen: the tumour clinging to Henrietta’s cervix, around two centimetres in diameter, was shiny and dark purple in colour – like “grape jello” as Jones put it – and bled at the slightest touch. Following standard procedure, Jones and research assistant Mary Kubicek collected biopsy samples of the tumour and sent them to the lab for analysis. He then scheduled Henrietta for a follow-up appointment in six months’ time.

While most of Henrietta’s biopsy samples were used for diagnostic purposes, a few made their way to the basement laboratory of biologist George Gey. For the past decade, Gey and his wife and assistant Margaret had been tirelessly searching for one of the holy grails of medical research: a human cell culture that could be easily and consistently grown in the laboratory. Such a culture would revolutionize medicine, freeing researchers from the expense, labour, and ethical pitfalls of using animals or live human subjects, as well as providing a single cell line with which experiments could be repeated anywhere with. To this end, Gey voraciously snapped up every tissue sample he could get his hands on, one colleague to describing him as:

“…the world’s foremost vulture, feeding on human specimens almost constantly.”

 But despite his efforts Gey’s quest stubbornly refused to bear fruit. Most of the human cell cultures he incubated died immediately; some held on for a few days or weeks, but inevitably all of them stopped dividing and wasted away. Thus, when Henrietta Lacks’ tumour biopsies arrived in the lab, little was expected of them. As with the dozens of other candidate cells that arrived daily, the samples were divided up, placed in vials of nutrient-rich growth medium, and placed in an incubator – where Gey fully expected then to die off just like the others.

Six months later, on February 5, 1951, Henrietta Lacks returned to Johns Hopkins, where she received the diagnosis she had been dreading: Epidermoid Carcinoma of the Cervix, Stage 1. She was sent to surgeon Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr, who immediately began treatment via brachytherapy. This involved sewing tiny metal capsules of Radium into Henrietta’s cervix, allowing the powerful radiation to directly bombard the tumour. Henrietta’s cancer appeared to respond well to the treatment; when she returned for a follow-up several months later the strange “grape jello” tumour had all but disappeared.

Meanwhile, down in George Gey’s laboratory, something extraordinary was happening. Against all odds, Henrietta’s cells were not only surviving; they were thriving. While other human cell cultures had barely limped along, managing fewer than 50 cell divisions before dying off, Henrietta’s cells were doubling every 24 hours and showed no signs of stopping. And whereas other cells could only grow on the top surface of the culture medium, Henrietta’s cells had no such limitations, growing unstoppably until they filled the culture vials top-to-bottom. They were, in the words of Margaret Gey, “spreading like crabgrass.” After a decade of dogged work, the Geys had finally achieved a major breakthrough: the first immortal human cell culture capable of being grown in vitro. Using the first two letters of their donor’s first and last name, they dubbed their new discovery HeLa.

But while the HeLa cells multiplied vigorously in their incubator, their namesake took a turn for the worse. Despite her tumour having apparently disappeared, within months of completing her Radium treatment Henrietta began suffering from intense pain all over her body. On August 8 she returned to Johns Hopkins, where she soon received the devastating news: her original cervical cancer had metastasized, scattering hundreds of tumours all over her body. So widespread was these tumours that the pathologist who performed her autopsy would describe her body as being filled with white pearls. Doctors immediately began intensive treatment using X-rays, but it was already too late. Half-conscious and delirious, Henrietta Lacks died at Johns Hopkins at 12:15 AM on October 4, 1951. She was buried in an unmarked grave near the “Home-House” back in Clover.

But just like HeLa itself, the demand for the remarkable cells kept growing – and growing. In 1952, in order to share his breakthrough with the scientific community, George Gey established a HeLa factory at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Within a year, the factory’s 35 staff were churning out 20,000 vials or around 6 trillion cells every week. For a mere $10 plus freight costs any researcher in the country could order a vial of HeLa and have it shipped to them within 24 hours. Gey ran the Tuskegee factory as a non-profit for the benefit of medical science, but as he never patented the cells others were free to exploit HeLa for commercial gain. In 1953, Samuel Reader and Monroe Vincent of the biotech firm Microbiological Associates established a rival for-profit HeLa plant in an abandoned Fritos potato chip factory in Bethesda Maryland, and soon began filling orders from large institutions like the National Institutes of Health. The factory’s production soon outstripped Tuskegee’s, eventually putting them out of business.

Researchers had every reason to be excited about HeLa, which quickly proved itself an invaluable scientific tool. HeLa’s first major success was the development of the Salk Polio vaccine. Previously Polio had been studied using monkeys, a slow and labour-intensive process, but the ability to directly infect human cells in vitro allowed for the rapid development of a safe, effective vaccine which first entered use in 1955. HeLa would later be used to develop vaccines for dozens of other human viruses including herpes, measles, mumps, and the livestock diseases fowl pox and equine encephalitis. They were also sent into space aboard satellites and exposed to nuclear blasts to study the effects of radiation on human cells.

In 1953, geneticists at the University of Texas used HeLa to determine that human cells have 46 chromosomes, while in the 1960s HeLa cells allowed American geneticist Leonard Hayflick to unlock the secrets of their own extraordinary immortality. Hayflick discovered that the ends of chromosomes are capped by lengths of DNA known as telomeres. Every time a cell divides the telomeres get shorter and shorter, until eventually they disappear altogether, causing the chromosomes to unravel and the cell to die. Consequently, normal cells are only able to divide a finite number of times before dying – a number now known as the Hayflick Limit. However, HeLa cells produce an enzyme known as telomerase which continuously rebuilds the telomeres, allowing the cells to continue dividing indefinitely. This insight not only shed light on the mystery of HeLa, but kicked off a new era of research into the process of carcinogenesis and the mechanisms of human ageing.

But as HeLa cells took the biomedical community by storm, the woman they had come from quietly slipped into obscurity, with even her name being all but forgotten. A November 2, 1953 article in the Minneapolis Star referred to her as “Henrietta Lakes,” while a May 14, 1954 Colliers article further distorted this to “Helen Lane” – the name that would be associated with the story for the next 20 years. And while biotech companies like Microbiological Associates made millions every year from Henrietta’s cells, her family never received a dime of the profits and continued to live in poverty. It was yet another chapter in the long and tragic history of African-Americans being exploited by the medical establishment – a history that includes the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment of 1932, in which African-American men were unknowingly infected with syphilis and left untreated for nearly four decades to study the progression of the disease. Following the 1946 Nuremberg Trials which exposed the shocking human medical experiments performed by Nazi, the medical community in most Western nations adopted the Nuremberg Code, which forbids human experimentation without obtaining informed consent from the participants. But as the Code was only a guideline and not law, unethical experiments still continued, and one of the worst directly involved HeLa.

Starting in 1954, immunologist Dr. Chester Southam of the Sloan-Kettering Institute at Cornell began injecting research subjects with HeLa cells to determine whether cancer was contagious and whether the immune system could fight off the infection. The some 600 subjects he injected included terminal cancer patients under his care and inmates from the Ohio State Penitentiary – none of whom were able give informed consent. In the majority of cases the injections produced only small benign tumours which were safely removed, but in 4 patients the cancer metastasized, with one dying after it spread to her lymph nodes.

In any event, Southam’s experiments continued until 1963, when Emmanuel Mendel of the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital in Brooklyn finally blew the whistle. The affair caused a public uproar, with lawyer William Hyman denouncing Southam’s experiments as Illegal, immoral, and deplorable.” Yet despite the New York Board of Regents finding Southam guilty of fraud, deceit, and unprofessional conduct, they only suspended his medical license for a year – a sentence later reduced to one year’s probation. It would not be until the 1970s that Informed Consent became legally enforceable in the United States.

Not that these laws would have helped the Lacks family. In the 1950s biopsy samples, extracted organs and other tissues were considered medical waste and not the patient’s property, and thus free for hospitals to experiment with as they pleased without informing the patient. This was especially true at hospitals like Johns Hopkins which provided free medical care to the poor, the free use of patients’ tissues being considered fair payment for medical services rendered. The issue of patients’ ownership over their own tissues finally came to a head in the 1990 Supreme Court of California case Moore v Regents of the University of California, in which leukaemia patient John Moore sued physician David Golde of the UCLA Medical Centre for developing and commercializing an immortal cell line based on his own cancer cells. In a landmark decision, the court ruled that discarded tissues were not in fact a patient’s property and could be freely commercialized. The decision was made out of fear that granting patients ownership over discarded tissue would interfere with medical research, as medical laboratories could not reasonably be expected to verify the source and ownership of every piece of tissue. However, the ruling also included a caveat requiring doctors and researchers to  first obtain consent from patients and explain how their extracted tissues will be used. But given that Henrietta’s tissues were collected long before this ruling, the issue of ownership has yet to be resolved and the Lacks family has still received no compensation for the use and commercialization of HeLa.

Meanwhile, another crisis was brewing in the medical community, one that threatened to bring the flood of new discoveries unleashed by HeLa to a grinding halt. By the mid-1960s dozens of immortal cell lines had joined HeLa in the arsenal of medical research, bearing donor-derived names such as A-Fi and Di-Re. These lines had opened an unprecedented window into carcinogenesis, allowing researchers to pinpoint the exact moment a cell changed from normal to cancerous, a process dubbed spontaneous transformation. Researchers in Russia even claimed to have discovered a virus that caused cancer, bringing the possibility of a universal cure tantalizingly within reach. Then, in September 1966, molecular biologist Stanley Gartler of the American Type Culture Collection Committee stood  before the Second Decennial Review Conference on Cell Tissue and Organ Culture in Bedford Pennsylvania and dropped a massive bombshell. While conducting an audit of immortal cell lines, Gartler discovered that despite being of supposedly separate origins, all 18 lines he examined contained the same mutation of a gene called G6PD found almost exclusively in people of African-American descent. To his shock, Gartler realized these weren’t new cell lines at all; they were all HeLa. Alarmed, Gartler tested more and more cell lines, but in every case he found only HeLa. The conclusion was disturbing but inescapable: there were no other immortal cell lines. There was only HeLa. So vigorous were Henrietta Lacks’s cells that if even one made its way into a cell culture it would out-divide and replace the original cells overnight. Like a virus HeLa had hopped from laboratory to laboratory and culture to culture, invading and conquering until there was nothing else left.

Every jaw in the conference hall must have dropped at once, for at a stroke Gartler had shattered over a decade of scientific progress – and with it countless hopes, dreams, and careers. All other commercial human cell lines were now worthless. There was no spontaneous transformation or cancer virus; the cultures had simply been contaminated with HeLa. Hopes of understanding carcinogenesis and developing a universal cure quickly faded away. Eventually new authentic human cell lines would be discovered, including A549 in 1972 and HEK 293 in 1973, but never gain at the same feverish pace as the “golden years” of 1951-1966.

The 1970s brought a further positive development as, after laying buried and forgotten for nearly two decades, the true story of Henrietta Lacks finally resurfaced. On March 25, 1976, Rolling Stone published The Double-Edged Helix by reporter Michael Rogers, the first accurate account of the origins of HeLa and the first to reveal Henrietta’s actual name. This was followed by A Conspiracy of Cells by Michael Gold in a 1985 issue of Science, which was based on Henrietta’s actual medical records obtained from Johns Hopkins. But with this newfound publicity came renewed interest from the medical community, and researchers from Johns Hopkins soon began tracking down members of the Lacks family and collecting blood samples, never once explaining what the tests were for. Little changed for the Lacks family until 2013, when researchers succeeded in sequencing the genome of HeLa cells. Science writer Rebecca Skloot, who had worked closely with the Lackses while writing her bestselling 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, informed the family of this development, raising concerns over their medical privacy should the sequence be made publicly available. Later that year, the National Institutes of Health signed an agreement with the Lacks family granting them control over public disclosure of the sequence and ensuring they receive credit in any scientific paper published about the genome. In 2010 Skloot also established the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide assistance to marginalized individuals and families impacted by unethical medical research. The foundation has received millions in donations from private individuals and institutions – including an undisclosed six-figure gift from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in October of that year.

70 years on Henrietta’s remarkable cells are still one of the most popular human cell lines in medical research, with an estimated 50 million tons stored in laboratory freezers around the world. If laid end-to-end, they would circle the globe three times. And so long as they are kept properly fed and incubated they will continue to divide and thrive for decades to come, outliving their original host by a century or more. While the story of Henrietta Lacks is one of arguably questionable ethics, it is also one of hope and discovery, with the breakthroughs made using HeLa cells helping to save countless lives every year – a fact, her family says, that would have made Henrietta smile.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References

Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Broadway Paperbacks, NY, 2010


Brown, Emma, Monroe M. ‘Monty’ Vincent, Early Leader in Cell-Production Industry, Dies at 98, The Washington Post, March 7, 2011,


Witze, Alexandra, Wealthy Funder Pays Reparations for Use of HeLa Cells, Nature, October 29, 2020,


Rogers, Michael, The Double-Edged Helix, Rolling Stone, March 25, 1976,


Informed Consent,, November 2020,


The Henrietta Lacks Foundation,


Henrietta Lacks: Science Must Right a Historical Wrong, Nature, September 1, 2020,


Rina Shah, Chester Southam Secretly Injected People with Cancer Cells, Shortform, July 29, 2020,


Caplan, Art, NIH Finally Makes Good With Henrietta Lacks’ Family – and It’s About Time, Ethicist Says, NBC News, August 7, 2013,


Marcus, Amy, Henrietta Lacks and Her Remarkable Cells Will Finally See Some Payback, The Wall Street Journal, August 1, 2020,


Witze, Alexandra, Wealthy Funder Pays Reparations for Use of HeLa Cells, Nature, October 29, 2020,

The post The Immortal Woman Whose Death Changed the World appeared first on Today I Found Out.

from Today I Found Out
by Gilles Messier - August 01, 2022 at 12:09AM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!

Is Ockham’s Razor Actually Valid or Just Something People Say to Sound Smart?

If you’ve ever spent any time arguing on the internet, you’ve likely come across a philosophical principle known as ‘Ockham’s Razor.’ Along with ad hominem attacks and comparing people you don’t like to Hitler, Ockham’s Razor is a favourite argument of keyboard warriors everywhere, most often understood as meaning “the simplest argument is most often the correct one.” But where did this strangely-named principle come from, and does it hold as much rhetorical weight as many seem to think it does? Or is it just something people use in order to sound smarter and win arguments?

To begin with a brief back story. Ockham’s Razor is named after Willam of Ockham, an English Franciscan friar and theologian who lived during the 13th and 14th Centuries. Born in the town of Ockham in Surrey in 1258, little is known about Ockham’s early life prior to his joining the Franciscan Order at age 14. As we shall soon see, his choice of monastic order would have a profound impact on his philosophical views and the theological controversies in which he would later become embroiled. Ockham began his education at the London Convent for the Franciscan Order, studying the usual scholastic topics such as logic, natural philosophy, and theology. From 1310 to 1317 he studied theology at Oxford University and began lecturing on bishop Peter of Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, the standard handbook for theologians at the time.

It was Ockham’s lectures and commentary on the Sentences which first landed him in hot water with the Catholic Church on philosophical and theological grounds. As a Franciscan, Ockham was theologically at odds with the dominant Dominican Order, whose views at the time were epitomized by the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Among the many issues over which the Franciscans and Dominicans disagreed was whether Jesus and his followers owned property. Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order, had concluded that Jesus did not own property and modelled his own monastic order on his example, requiring his monks to take a vow of poverty and rely on the charity of others for food, shelter, and other necessities. He even went so far as to tear down a brand-new home specially built for his Order. Ockham passionately upheld these views, and in 1324 a rival at Oxford reported him to Pope John XXII, who summoned Ockham to the Papal Court – at that time based in Avignon, France – for a hearing. Ockham saw the Catholic Church’s vast accumulation of wealth and power as antithetical to Jesus’s teachings and even went so far as to declare the Pope a heretic and call for his abdication. For the next four years Ockham lived in Avignon as the hearings dragged on and the conflict between the Dominicans and Franciscans grew ever more heated, until finally making his escape in 1328. He travelled around Italy and Germany for a while before settling in Munich, where he lived out the rest of his life before dying in 1347.

Much of Ockham’s philosophical career was devoted to metaphysics and logic, and it is from this work that we get his famous Razor. The school of Medieval philosophy in which Ockham worked, also known as Scholasticism, was quite different from our modern conceptions of philosophy and logic, being heavily centred on theology and the writings of Aristotle. The focus on theology in particular can make Scholasticism seem very alien to modern philosophy students and has given the discipline something of a bad reputation. The reality, however, is rather more complicated, and the work of William of Ockham serves as a good case study for how Scholasticism helped lay the groundwork for modern-day Empiricism and Analytical Philosophy.

Much of Ockham’s scholarship dealt with the problem of Universals, entities which exist in relation to other entities and which unite similar entities as general properties. For example, according to this framework, chairs owe their existence to the property of “chairness,” which informs what in the physical world can and cannot be a chair. Competing schools of philosophy differ on whether Universals are independent of the objects they signify, or a fundamental property of the objects themselves. Ockham, as a Nominalist, did not believe that Universals actually existed. For him, a chair was just a chair – not part of a universal metaphysical property but rather simply a mental concept used to describe a group of related objects. Although a chair shares features with other individual chairs, the similarities are in the mind of the observer, not a fundamental property of the physical world. While all this may seem like esoteric navel-gazing, Ockham’s rejection of the more metaphysically extraneous aspects of older Aristotelian philosophy – including the concept of Universals – led to the development of a simpler, more stripped-down metaphysical worldview that would later evolve into Empiricism and the Scientific Method. It also directly informed the principle known today as “Ockham’s Razor.”

Ockham’s Razor is typically stated as “Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity.” In other words, when comparing two arguments, all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one. While this principle is today widely associated with William of Ockham, Ockham himself never stated his famous Razor in its modern form in any of his known writings. Indeed, the basic idea of Ockham’s Razor, known as the principle of parsimony, actually predates Ockham by centuries, first appearing in the works of Aristotle:

Nature does nothing in vain, but always does what is best from among the possibilities, for the substantial being of each kind of animal.”

The principle of parsimony also appears in the works of dozens of Hellenic, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian European philosophers prior to the Fourteenth Century. So why is it most commonly associated with William of Ockham? The most commonly held theory is that the principle was attributed to him by later scholars like theologian and astronomer Libert Froidmont’s, who in his 1649 book On Christian Philosophy of the Soul wrote:

I call this axiom Ockhams and the Nominalistsrazor because they used [it] to trim and shave off all distinct entities, leaving a plurality only of names.”

Whatever its origin or specific historical formulation, the basic principle of Ockham’s razor remains the same: as theories are intended to explain natural phenomena, the fewer assumptions and convolutions a theory has, the stronger it is likely to be – or, as doctors are often advised when making diagnoses: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. This principle became especially important as Western philosophy moved into the Enlightenment and old ideas about the universe began to be challenged. For example, for thousands of years philosophers believed that the Earth was at the centre of the universe and that the cosmos revolved around it. However, this theory was fundamentally flawed, for certain celestial objects, known as planets, appeared to periodically stop in their tracks and reverse direction, a phenomenon known as retrograde motion. Indeed, the word “planet” is derived from the Greek word planetai, meaning “wanderers.” In order to resolve this apparent contradiction, in the 3rd and 2nd Centuries B.C.E. Greek philosophers Hipparchus and Ptolemy devised a model of the universe in which the planets not only revolved around the earth but also around smaller orbits known as “epicycles,” the combination of which accounted neatly for retrograde motion. However, as astronomers discovered ever  more apparently contradictory celestial phenomena, the Ptolemaic model grew into a cumbersome, convoluted mess of “circles within circles.” By contrast, the Geocentric model championed by Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, which placed the sun and not the earth at the centre of the universe, provided a far more elegant explanation for retrograde motion. According to this model, the phenomenon was the result of planets orbiting the sun at different speeds, causing certain planets to periodically overtake each other and create the illusion of reversing motion. In the absence of other evidence, the Copernican model was eventually accepted as more likely to be accurate as it explained the same natural phenomena with fewer assumptions and convolutions.

But while Ockham’s Razor is a useful tool when comparing competing theories, it is not the end-all-be-all rule it is so often made out to be. After all, the simplest explanation is not always the correct one – especially in science. For example, Aristotle believed that all objects have a natural tendency to fall towards the centre of the universe. As the Earth was believed to be at the centre of the universe, this philosophy neatly explained the phenomenon of gravity. Later, however, Isaac Newton demonstrated that gravity is, in fact, an attractive force produced by all objects with mass; while later still Albert Einstein revealed that gravity is the result of the mass of objects distorting the fabric of spacetime. In each case the explanation for the force of gravity grew ever more complicated, while simultaneously allowing natural phenomena to be modelled and predicted to an ever-increasing degree of accuracy. Indeed, the simplicity of a scientific theory has little bearing on the likelihood of it being true; all that matters is whether said theory can accurately predict the outcome of an experiment. This demonstrates the vital importance of the caveat “all things being equal” in the traditional formulation of Ockham’s Razor. In the vast majority of cases, competing theories do not stand on equal ground; one will always have a larger body of empirical evidence backing it up, rendering the application of Ockham’s Razor moot.

However, Ockham’s Razor does have its applications in science, particularly in relation to a principle known as falsifiability. First introduced by Austrian philosopher Karl Popper in his 1935 work The Logic of Scientific Discovery, the falsifiability principle was inspired by what Popper saw as a fundamental difference between the physical sciences and other scientific fields – specifically, between Einstein’s theories of Relativity and Freud’s theories of Psychoanalysis. Popper instinctively viewed the former as inherently more scientific than that latter, but initially could not articulate exactly why. He later realized that the difference lay in the ability of each theory to be disproven through experimental evidence. Psychoanalytic theory, he observed, was incapable of being disproven; if an observed behaviour was found to contradict one of Freud’s theories, then another was immediately offered up to explain the discrepancy – a practice known in science as an ad hoc hypothesis. Even though it was impossible for every theory to be correct at the same time, there was no mechanism to determine which theory was, in fact, the correct one. Einstein’s theories, by contrast, were inherently “riskier” in that it was possible to disprove them through experiment. For example, General Relativity predicted that the gravity of the sun would deflect the light of distant stars by a certain amount – an amount which differed from that predicted by Newtonian mechanics. Thus, if this deflection were to be measured – as it was by physicist Arthur Eddington in 1919 – there would be two possible outcomes: one which supported Einstein’s theories and one which falsified it. The upshot of all this is that, counter-intuitively, a theory which explains everything and cannot be disproven is, in fact, an inherently weak theory and belongs in the realm of pseudoscience. Thus, applying a form of Ockham’s Razor, a strong theory is one which includes the smallest number of assumptions and ad hoc hypotheses and is fundamentally testable and -most importantly – falsifiable.

On a more basic level, many philosophers have argued that the over-use of Ockham’s Razor can stifle creativity and lead to overly narrow-minded thinking. Walter Chatton, a contemporary of William of Ockham, even put forward his own “anti-razor”, also known as the principle of plenitude:

Wherever an affirmative proposition is apt to be verified of actually existing things, if two things… are not able to suffice without another thing, one has to posit another thing.”

Similarly, German philosopher Immanuel Kant stated:

The variety of entities should not be rashly diminished”

Surprisingly, the Razor and Anti-Razor do not actually contradict each other but rather act as safeguards against extremes in thought when formulating theories, with the Razor opposing the unnecessary addition of complexity and the Anti-Razor opposing the unnecessary elimination of complexity. In philosophy and science, as in all things, moderation, rationality, and careful thought are the key to uncovering the truth.

Thus, Ockham’s Razor is much like its physical counterpart: you can get a nice close shave, just be careful you don’t cut too close.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

Expand for References

Sober, Elliott (2015). Ockham’s Razors – A User’s Manual. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Spade, Paul (1999). The Cambridge Companion to Ockham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Karl Popper, Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 15, 2021,

The post Is Ockham’s Razor Actually Valid or Just Something People Say to Sound Smart? appeared first on Today I Found Out.

from Today I Found Out
by Yehia Amin - July 31, 2022 at 11:58PM
Article provided by the producers of one of our Favorite YouTube Channels!