Day 1,006: Sciencey Foods

Yesterday I started off writing an article, then thought I’d next-level the fucker by drinking some egg in an otherwise fine beer. This was an act of creative hubris on my part, somewhat inspired by the weirdness of how I spent my 2020: celebrating every damn National Whatever Day I could track down. That meant trying haggis, making my first mint julep, and even slapping together a Baked Alaska just because I thought I could.

Last year’s adventure taught me one solid lesson: it’s the writing I love. Cooking is fun, eating even more so, but I am only equipped to pour my brain-parts into the written word. It’s a fantastic leap from writing about people foolish enough to chug back eggs in their beverage to actually becoming one of those people.

So today I’ll withhold any brash indulgences and stick to words. Words about food. Words about people who have plunged their vocational hands up to the wrists in food, and developed some of the science that improved on Mother Nature’s tragic shortcomings. These are winners of the Stephen S. Chang Award for lipid science.

We’re going to start with Rex Sims. Actually, I’m going to start by prefacing all of this by reminding everyone that I am not a scientist, and my eyes will gloss over sentences like “When hydrogen is absorbed on the catalyst surface dissociation into H* and H* occurs which allows for both saturation and isomerization to occur.” I’m sure that’s 100% accurate, but I do not know what it means, nor do I plan to learn what it means and explain it in my folksy, lovably Canadian-Jewish fashion. But I will point out that Dr. Sims’ work with General Foods (he was a fat & oil man) paved the way for frozen dairy products.

We would not have Cool Whip if it weren’t for Dr. Sims. He worked on emulsifiers, and also came up with the magic behind Stove-Top Stuffing, Shake ‘n Bake, and Tang.

Damn, this guy’s work went into space. I just scrolled through the other recipients of the Stephen S. Chang Award, and no one else has a resume as bodacious as Dr. Sims. I think we’ll look a little closer at him and ditch those other wannabe food-science celebs.

Dr. Sims may have provided the science, but Ruth Siems (similarity in name purely coincidence) actually invented Stove-Top. The magic of Ruth’s work lay in figuring out how big to make the dehydrated crumbs. Too small and you’ll have a gooey, lumpy slog of spice. Make ‘em too big and you’ll end up with little rocks of unpleasant crunch.

Ruth was not a scientist; she earned her degree in home economics. And once General Foods threw that stuff onto shelves in 1972, households had a new option besides potatoes or rice for an easy side dish.

If this were yesterday, I might have been foolish enough to try eating some Stove Top raw out of the box. Fortunately, I have learned and grown since then.

Next up, good ol’ Shake ‘n Bake.

I have nothing to say about Shake ‘n Bake. It’s a product, it tastes fine, and it’s no substitute for real fried chicken. I’m sure it’s a healthier alternative, and has been since its introduction in 1965, but I’ll take a crispy slab of Crisco-soaked white meat over something that has danced around inside a bag then got tossed in the oven.

Look at that pitiful drumstick up there. That sad little gam that once hoisted up the torso of its host body as it plunked through what was likely a tiny cage. It was eventually hacked off and sent to its destiny, only to be ineptly battered and undercooked, its flavor potential squandered because some lazy bastard couldn’t be bothered to do it right. Then they took a photo and posted it online.

People are weird.

“Tang sucks.”

Those were the words of Buzz Aldrin in 2013, reflecting upon one of the lesser high-points of his career with NASA. I mean, he’s not wrong. Tang may be a palatable form of powdered sugar-water, but it’s no Kool-Aid. Its main claims-to-fame were that astronauts drank it in space, and it inspired a Wu sort of Clan in the hip-hop world of the 1990s. I feel like this article has once again shifted to me crapping all over the fine work Dr. Rex Sims contributed to the world of food science.

Instead we’ll shift the discussion over to Bill Mitchell, the General Foods chemist who took Dr. Sims’ work and turned Cool Whip and Tang into actual products. Bill was an innovator, and if General Foods hasn’t named a wing of their head office after the guy, then they are fools. Actually, they are nothing – General Foods was absorbed into Kraft years ago.

But Bill’s coolest move might have been as he was attempting to create self-carbonating soda.

Packed with delicious and noisy carbon dioxide, Pop Rocks were invented in 1961 but not sold until 1975. This was likely because either the General Foods marketing people found the stuff too terrifying to sell, or maybe because the suits in the boardroom just didn’t have the foresight to know how badly kids want candy that virtually explodes in their mouths. By 1983 they’d yanked them back off the shelves. How could they be so cruel to my generation? It’s no wonder no one my age shed a tear when Kraft took them over.

Maybe Pop Rocks disappeared because of that old urban legend, the one that says that Mikey from the Life cereal commercials perished when he guzzled too much Coke and Pop Rocks one afternoon. It seems the combination made stomachs explode. Or at least it seemed that way until the first episode of Mythbusters demonstrated that not to be true.

The one thing all of these deliciously chem-treated foods has in common is Dr. Rex Sims and his brave forays into making processed food for all of us. Every one of these foodstuffs comes bundled with longevity and popularity, even if they lack any nutritional value.

All things considered, I’d take any of them over another glass of Egg Beer though.

Day 1.002: Sea-Science In Super-Comfort

In this age of crippling wealth disparity and with the zeitgeist-du-jour trending toward treating capitalism with a derisive scoff, dare I devote a day’s typesmanship to exploring superyachts? Yes, the superyacht is a thing, and no, I can’t afford one either. And while my desire to poke my attention into the sparkling crannies of a billionaire’s plaything is pretty close to nil, the Earth 300 has tickled my interest. I mean… just look at that thing.

The first thing you’ll probably notice – after the gargantuan black orb of doom perched upon its back – is the lack of lounging decks, hot tubs and polo fields like you’d normally find aboard a watercraft for the stupid-rich. No, the Earth 300 is a proposed palace of science. If built, this would be the Starship Discovery of research vessels. Working on board would be like performing experiments and studying marine species in the Playboy Mansion, albeit with fewer bikini-clad girls swimming through the grotto.

Maybe. We’re not entirely sure about that. More below.

The largest yacht in the world, pictured above because I like including something to scowl at in all of my articles (see Tom Brady yesterday), is 590 feet long. It’s owned by the royal family of Abu Dhabi (of course), and while I’m sure it has hosted many wild parties akin to what you’d see the bad guy throw in a James Bond film, it really contributes nothing to the world of science. If Earth 300 gets built, it will make this luxury vessel look like a boat for ants. Really, really wealthy ants.

Earth 300 will be 300 meters long, so about 980 feet. It would house 450 passengers working in 22 laboratories on all sorts of ecological and oceanological mysteries. The observation deck will swing out on a cantilever, and that big glass marble on its back will be a 13-story “science sphere”. What happens inside a massive water-bound science sphere? Science!

I imagine it’s going to be a big motorcycle Globe of Death thing… but with science!

This monstrous craft is set to be powered by a molten salt reactor. I was hoping this actually involved really, really hot salt and that its fuel reserves would be measured in shakers. But alas, this is just a fancy way of saying it will run on atomic power. From what I can gather, a molten salt reactor won’t spew out a bunch of radioactive fumes, as these get absorbed by the molten salt. Great idea, though they don’t expect the technology to be ready until the end of this decade or perhaps beyond. In the meantime, the Earth 300 will be built with some other eco-friendly power source with plans to retrofit it once molten salt reactors are all invented and ready to deploy.

The article I found on molten salt reactors gets into far more detail than I can possibly make interesting. In the list of ‘Disadvantages’ to the technology, they note that a modified molten salt reactor could be used to create weapons-grade nuclear material. So a particularly crafty batch of Somalian pirates could board and conquer the Earth 300 and use its propulsion system to turn themselves into the next global nuclear power. Cool!

All they have to do is modify this thing. Easy!

The Earth 300 will cost around $500-700 million to create, which is why we’re looking at maybe having one of these things, not a fleet of them. Entrepreneur Aaron Olivera has already dropped $5 million just to create the design. Actual construction has yet to begin, but when the news of this massive vessel dropped back in April, Olivera was confident they’d be splashing forth and saving the environment by 2025. Yacht-maker Ivan Salas Jefferson insists they will be “making science sexy” with this superyacht. As if science isn’t sexy enough – have you seen the tuchus on Neil Degrasse-Tyson? Come on.

So what can we compare this to? Is there any other ginormous slab of modernist architecture out there, combing the waves for the secrets of how to save our sad little self-destructive human race? Well… not really on this scale. The closest comparison to Earth 300 also lies in the realm of the theoretical, though as far as conceptual floating labs go, the SeaOrbiter is pretty bad-ass.

Standing 51 meters high (31 of those below sea level), the SeaOrbiter is more of a floating sea-base than a superyacht. Think of it as the Death Star of the sea, but with a massive laboratory instead of a planet-destroying cannon, and staffed with marine biologists instead of stormtroopers. It would also deploy underwater robots to explore the seabed beneath it, so if that doesn’t bump it into the realm of badassery, nothing will.

The estimated cost of this glorious structure was only pinned at about $53 million – a bargain by massive floating science vessel standards. Construction was due to start in 2014 but as of today it’s still only floating around on paper. Except for the “eye” of the station – that’s the pointy thing on the top. That was slapped together in 2015 with the intent of shipping it off to Cherbourg until the rest of the station is put together. Maybe.

It strikes me that a superyacht meant for the decadent kibbitzing of the ultra-wealthy stands a lot more chance of being built than one meant to undertake ecological research. I don’t know how deep Mr. Olivera’s pockets are, but it’s going to take some serious moneybags to get the Earth 300 off the ground and into the sea.

Like, Rich Uncle Pennybags money.

Once it’s out there though, the Earth 300 should be fine. This is because in addition to the scientists and their trusty assistants, the vessel will also be hosting up to 20 VIPs in super-luxurious cabins. This could be Puff Daddy, Guy Fieri or maybe the guy who played Newman on Seinfeld, assuming NBC paid him justly. The cost will be $3 million per luxury trip, and the celebs (or random wealthy folks) will be encouraged to participate in the science. Because what could go wrong with that? This is where we might find a bevy of bikini-clad girls – up on that top deck with the best view of the ‘science sphere’.

Whatever – those are the folks who will keep the Earth 300 afloat and in business, assuming it ever finds its way into the ocean. For now we can dream of superyacht luxury being laid out for scientists looking out for our collective welfare instead of oil-rich princes who live in excess at the expense of our collective welfare. Dreaming’s better than nothing.

Day 1000: How It Ends

originally published September 26, 2014

Inside this cubicle the air is thick as honey, with asphyxiating flecks of the mundane bracing against the irrefutable promise of a golden weekend. Outside these pin-cushion partitions – and indeed inside as well – every tiny molecule in the universe is saying its goodbyes to its neighbors and preparing to splash into the unknown permutations of a distant someday. My fingers hammer at these tiny plastic letters, fully ignorant of what’s to come.

Or are they? The hallowed fingers of esteemed science – no doubt similar in size and shape to my own, only tasked with a far more specific purpose – have combed back the hair of the observable now and picked at the scalp-nits of projection. The fields of astronomy, physics, mathematics, and a cabinet full of –ologies have given us a map of what’s to come. A timeline of time’s last hurrah.

And the best part? If any of these predictions are wrong, every record of them will likely be destroyed before anyone finds out. That’s my kind of science.

Within 10,000 years, human genetic variation will no longer be regionalized. This won’t mean we’ll all look the same – the blonde gene will still speckle crowds and set up offensive jokes, but it will be distributed equally worldwide. This forecasted panmixia is far more optimistic than astrophysicist Brandon Carter’s Doomsday Argument, which places our present at roughly the halfway point of humankind’s civilized journey, and projects a 95% likelihood that we’ll be wholly extinct in 10,000 years.

If global warming hasn’t already soaked us into a Kevin Costner-esque hellscape by then, we may also be facing the melting of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which will raise the sea levels by 3 or 4 meters above wherever it will be once we lose the rest of the polar ice caps, which should happen long before then.

Long term forecast: buy a big-ass boat.

In 36,000 years, the red dwarf star Ross 248 will become our sun’s closest neighbor. In 50,000 years, Niagara Falls will have fully eroded into Lake Erie, which might not matter as we could be facing our next ice age around then, which will render most of our terrestrial tourist attractions rather unpleasant to visit.

It would take about 100,000 years for a full-on terraforming project to turn Mars into Earth Part II, so we’d best get started on that. Especially considering that by then we’ll have likely experienced a supervolcanic eruption that will dramatically tweak the landscape. The proper motion of the stars will have rendered most of our constellations completely unrecognizable. We might as well find a new home.

In about 500,000 years the fascinating terrain of Badlands National Park in South Dakota will probably have eroded into nothing – that is, if it hasn’t yet been smashed by a meteorite about 1km thick. We’ll probably see one of those by then.

In a million years, the red supergiant star Betelgeuse will likely go supernova. On the plus side, its troubles end there. We’ll still have our issues to contend with. For example, every piece of glass in the world today will have decomposed by then. The Great Pyramid of Giza will erode into nothing, and any granite monument will have eroded by one meter. Also, this is roughly when Neil Armstrong’s footprints on the moon will disappear. Neil’s mark on the universe will outlive the rest of ours.

On a happier note, assuming we can keep our grubby mitts off our oceans, in about two million years the coral reefs around the globe will have fully recovered from our polluted meddling. The Grand Canyon, however, will have broadened into a wide valley around the Colorado River, which won’t look nearly as impressive on a postcard.

In 7.2 million years, the faces on Mount Rushmore will have crumbled into unrecognizability without the intervention of some serious geological surgery. Mars has more to worry about though: in 8 million years its moon, Phobos, will be disintegrated by tidal forces on the planet, turning into a ring of orbiting crud that will crash onto the planet’s surface about three million years later and leaving a big mess that nobody will want to clean up.

In about ten million years, the East African Rift valley will be flooded by the Red Sea, splitting apart the continent of Africa. Around this time evolution will have seriously altered the population of our globe, assuming you believe in such crazy science. In 50 million years the California coast will have scooted north along the San Andreas Fault toward Alaska, while the Appalachian Mountains and Canadian Rockies will have eroded to a nub. Also, the larger chunk of what’s left of Africa will be separated from western Europe by a theoretical footstep, as it sweeps north and closes off the western gate to the Mediterranean, forming a new range of mountains in the process.

No more luaus in Hawaii after 80 million years – that’s when the Big Island becomes the last to sink into the Pacific. Things get really interesting around the 250 million year mark though, as our continents may have circled back around by then to once again form a single supercontinent, which we are presently calling Amasia, Novopangea or Pangea Ultima. It doesn’t really matter; by then no one will care what we called it. Another 250 million years down the line, it will have drifted back apart.

In 600 million years, tidal acceleration will have nudged the moon so far back it will no longer be possible to view a total solar eclipse from Earth. The sun will be brighter then, water will evaporate and plate tectonics will grind to a halt. By 800 million years from the present, carbon dioxide levels will have plummeted to the point at which photosynthesis is no longer possible. Goodbye ozone, goodbye oxygen and goodbye multicellular life. As far as its residents are concerned, Earth is a goner.

We will have lost the rings of Saturn at around the 100 million year mark. By about 1.5 billion years from now, Mars will start to look moderately more attractive, having achieved a planetary temperature roughly equivalent to Earth’s during our last ice age. So that’s something. Meanwhile, our planet is going to be about as attractive a home in 3.5 billion years as Venus is today. Dress lightly.

In 5 billion years, the sun will exhale its last breath of hydrogen, and evolve into a red giant. By then the Milky Way will have collided with the Andromeda Galaxy, fusing into a single unit known as ‘Milkomeda’, because ‘Androky Way’ sounds stupid.

Chances are we’re looking at about 7.59 billion years before the sun has expanded enough for the Earth and moon to plummet into its surface, snuffing out whatever is left of home. Venus and Mercury don’t stand a chance at this point, however it’s likely that Saturn’s moon Titan will have achieved temperatures that can support life by then, so I suppose we have a backup plan.

Now we’re looking deep into the haze at the heart of our little crystal ball. In one quadrillion years, assuming we haven’t fallen into the surface of the sun, Earth will detach from its orbit, along with the rest of our planetary brethren. The sun will likely scoot out of the galaxy in about 100 quintillion years, that is if it doesn’t slip into the massive black hole in the galaxy’s midsection.

According to the theory of quantum tunneling, in 1065 years every molecule in the universe will have rearranged and all matter will be liquid. Stephen Hawking believes that all objects in the universe will have decayed into subatomic particles by the time we’ve reached 1.7×10106 years into the future. Coincidentally, this is exactly how long I insist on waiting before I’d be willing to sit through a production of Cats.

After that, there isn’t much to write about for our universe. Everything collapses or gets reborn in a fresh Big Bang. Existence gets its final passport stamp and trades itself in, or else it circles back around and once again rolls the opening credits. It’s a humbling notion to one guy in a dusty beige cubicle. It fills my soul with all the passion and destruction of the universe in one mighty surge.

Which is perfect, since nothing sells better than graphic sex and nauseating violence.


Day 993: Sexual Selection In Darwinian Theory, Or Why You Can’t Get Laid

originally published September 19, 2014

Herbert Spencer was the 19th century philosopher, scientist and all-around smart cookie who coined the phrase “Survival of the Fittest” after having read Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. While some may argue each and every tenet of evolutionary theory (much to the exhaustion of everyone who actually knows a little something about science), we have come to realize that Spencer was only half-right in determining which genes get promoted into the next generation. It’s also a matter of Survival of the Sexiest.

Sexual selection extends beyond the boast-worthy ability to fend off predators, gather food and shoot zombies with a crossbow. Mate selection based on these factors certainly occurs, but the truth grabs many more hairs between its gnarled knuckles. So much of who we are plays into our subconscious exigency to be sexually selected.

So if you’re finding your Saturday nights have of late been more occupied by binge marathons of Murder, She Wrote than sweaty, carnal bodyslapping, perhaps you should turn to science to understand why. With a few tiny modifications to your being, you might just find yourself crotch-deep in sexual social butterflydom.

You need to word good. Humans – at least most humans – possess a far greater vocabulary than that which is needed for basic communication. It’s true – most of us know words like ‘dungarees’, ‘mellifluous’ and ‘woebegone’, but how often do we really need to use them? Evolutionary scientists suspect we throw down this excess of verbiage in an effort to show off our intelligence to potential mates. This has been tested; we tend to spew a more flowery and profound lexicon when we’re in a romantic mindset. Then again, some of us do it just to make a living.

You need to laugh more. Laughter is also sewn into the tapestry of sexual selection, and could also be seen as a sign of intelligence that your potential mate might find attractive. Laughing shows that you aren’t threatened by your surroundings (predators and natural dangers and such), so you’re having a chuckle. If you have any doubt as to the biological oomph behind one’s tendency to let loose with the ha-has, check out the story of the ‘Giggle Twins’ as told by researcher Robert Provine. These were two ladies who were separated at birth, both raised by somewhat dour parents, yet reunited 43 years later, both claiming to be the most laugh-happy people they knew. It’s all in the genes.

You need to be more creative. Creativity is an easy link to evolution. The proto-human who could outwit his or her rivals, snare the saber-toothed meat-beast, and concoct a device to keep the slobbering predators out of the cave was more likely to attract a mate. Some experts argue that the next rung on the human evolution stepladder is going to derive from our collective creativity, since we now work together as a society to design and build our new toys (no one human can build an iPhone from scratch). But it’s the colorful cogs of one’s internal machine that bumps our evolutionary groove into motion. Members of the opposite sex (or same sex, whichever you fancy) can pick up on that.

You need to be more artsy. Music, dance, acting, painting, sculpting, design, writing (especially writing, says the writer) are all droplets in the same stream whose source lies in intelligence and creativity. Those who display a proficiency in one or more of these disciplines has a better shot at winning the sexual jackpot and passing their genetic playbook to the next generation. This should be a given: start a band, get more sex.

Check your body hair situation. It should be no surprise that Charles Darwin, pictured above, favored the beard as an indicator of sexual selection. He felt that back in pre-wheel olden times, men had a greater selective power. He points to the evidence of women’s relative hairlessness; clearly men back then selected mates with as little hair as possible. That some men are considerably more hairless than women today is simply a runoff effect, as our cavemen’s hairy genes melded with those of cavewomen with less and less hair.

Somewhere in there lies Darwin’s assertion that a swarthy beard and plenty o’ man-hair makes a dude more worthy of being sexually selected. Go figure.

Look for a mate with a different size. Sure, picking a mate with the physical build to tear a predator (or prey) limb from limb is always an evolutionary checkmark. But it was also beneficial to seek a partner whose physical size is different from yours, whatever that may be. This enables a couple to fully exploit various food resources without competing with one another. Non-competitive foodstuff exploitation is always a great date idea.

Avoid having a long face. Apparently there is an evolutionary trend for men to have short upper faces. This might be because women want men who look masculine, but not aggressive. I’m not certain how this information will help anyone.

Show off your stuff. This is the most obvious. Full, rounded female breasts are a sign of fertility, despite the fact that they are filled with fatty tissue most of the time, and despite the fact that all other primate females are flat-chested when they aren’t in milk-giving mode. And yes, there is an argument that women crave humungo wangs for the benefit of swift sperm delivery. This is actually quite false; sperm competition favors large testicles and a small wand with which to deliver their contents, much like the equipment found on the male chimpanzee.

A large penis is actually more of a natural selection trait than one of sexual selection. A bigger dong means a greater ability to get all up in a woman’s bidness and displace any other male’s sperm from the premises. It is believed that human penis size has tended to evolve toward being larger, even in our post-cave, civilized existence, out of nothing more than female preference.

Then there’s the matter of the bone.

Try not to have an actual bone in your penis. Evolutionary biology is wild stuff. Other primates tend to possess a baculum, better known as a penis bone – even our next-door neighbors, the chimps, have ‘em. One thought as to why humans lost this bone is because of our mating habits; we tend to stick with our females in order to ensure the paternity of her children and the continuation of our genetic code, which allows for more frequent and shorter romps in the sack. Other primates don’t encounter members of the opposite sex as often, so the bone exists to ensure their “package” is delivered to its destination.

Richard Dawkins, who was a strong voice in evolutionary science before he became the poster-child for atheism, feels that we lost our schlong-bones in order to advertise our good health to potential mates. Since our ability to stiffen is based solely on blood-flow hydraulics, a limp noodle is a potential sign of poor health.

I should note that a 5-year-old boy received surgery in the early 1960’s for the removal of his baculum. He also possessed other physical abnormalities, like a cleft scrotum, the details of which I will not be researching because I just don’t want to know.

In the end, sexual selection is open to a deluge of interpretation and criticism. Some believe our evolutionary propensity for music and dance is merely an offshoot of our natural selection technique for scaring off predators, or that our creativity all stems from finding inventive ways to find and capture food. I’m siding with Darwin and Dawkins on this one. But let’s face it, if you’re really struggling to get some action, forget about evolutionary beacons and just make yourself a ton of money. And for the love of god, shower every once in a while. Natural pheromone musk is so last epoch.

Day 991: The Subjective Science Of Getting Friendly With Your Water

originally published September 17, 2014

Good morning, water. You look lovely today. The way you have meticulously extracted the energizing essence of those crumbly brown nuggets of Sumatra in my coffee maker really brings out the glimmer in your droplets. Look, I’m a married man, but if I wasn’t, I would totally be gettin’ up in dat aqua, you feel me?

According to Dr. Masaru Emoto, I may have just created a more healthy and vibrant cup of coffee. Dr. Emoto is a revolutionary oracle of scientific knowledge, inasmuch as he has concocted his own definitions of the words “scientific” and “knowledge”. Dr. Emoto has “proven” (and it’s hard to find a source for his work that doesn’t nestle that word between the comforting pillows of quotation marks) that positive energy makes water better.

Not better-tasting, not more nutritious or refreshing… just better. Happier. More wholly fulfilled. Dr. Emoto unearthed that line where metaphysics and alternative medicine cross over into crazed Lynchian fiction, then leaped across it like a doped-up Olympian. He landed among the Technicolor bobbles of the absurd, cultivated his own particular brew of ludicrous reasoning and slapped a price tag on it.

And we bought in. Oh, how we bought in.

Masaru Emoto earned his doctorate at the Open University for Alternative Medicine in India, though I feel “earned” should be yet another resident of Quotes-Marks Manor, as I have unearthed a couple of sources which claim that such a degree can be bought for around $500. But Dr. Emoto’s doctorness is relatively moot, as he immediately set out to sail the vague ocean of alternative medicine, which contains far more fetid flotsam than it does navigable current.

His theories about water, which begin with the concept of water’s very structure being open to alteration by energy and bad vibes, and continue right through telling us that water “is a blueprint for a reality”, have not been embraced by the scientific community. They have, however, resulted in a series of best-selling books, which should serve as a reminder to all of us aspiring writers that the quality of one’s content sometimes takes a distant back seat to one’s adeptness at slinging bullshit. Perhaps you remember him from that infamously ridiculous pseudoscience flick, What The #$*! Do We Know?

Dr. Emoto deduced that by photographing the crystalline structure of water that has recently cooled to ice, we can best diagnose the water’s health. Water from a clear spring would produce symmetrical, aesthetically pleasing crystals. Water from a polluted source would result in jagged, unappealing crystal shapes. Well, no kidding – water with a bunch of crap in it is not going to look as pure and pretty as clean water. But Dr. Emoto plopped this notion on the airborne trolley to crazytown by screaming at one batch of water while praising and blessing another. He then claimed the difference was just as notable.

A few decades ago we were taught to talk to our houseplants in order to further their growth. There actually is a little sliver of truth there; our friends on Mythbusters performed an experiment to test it, and found that plants that were praised and plants that were scolded (using pre-recorded soundtracks) fared better than plants that were left in silence. So they weren’t picking up on intent, only the active presence of sound waves. But water? Water is all about the groove you’re laying down. In fact, the stuff can even read.

That’s right, the water crystals produced the same results, even in jars that were labeled with positive and negative messages. Dr. Emoto concocted another experiment involving rice: he poured water on three jars of rice, offering praise to one, insults to another and ignoring the third completely. After a month of this, the happy-rice fermented, giving off a joyous smell. The yelled-at rice turned black, while the neglected rice began to rot. Science!

Actually, a savvy representative of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry named Carrie Poppy replicated the experiment herself, even adding a fourth jar to which she did nothing but recite quotations from Minnesota Congresswoman and noted insane person Michelle Bachman. The yelled-at rice was the only one to acquire a small patch of mold, though Ms. Poppy admits this was likely due to the jar being open for longer. Presumably yelling at this rice was cathartic for her. The other three jars appeared mostly unchanged.

One of Dr. Emoto’s students is working on a ‘hado’ machine that will beautify the crystals of your water, thus sparing you from having to chat with your bottle of Evian on the subway. He also sells a variety of valuable world-improvers on his website under the ‘EM’ label – that’s ‘effective microorganisms’, which is his way of monetizing this supposed brilliance for the masses. You can get EM mouthwash ($12), EM tooth powder ($12 for 2 oz.), and stickers that will improve whatever you place them on, whether it’s your water jug, your wallet, or if you’re really creative (and suffering from erectile dysfunction), your crotch ($10 for 28 stickers!).

If you’ve shot back all of Dr. Emoto’s Kool-Aid (which is undoubtedly a very contented beverage), you can even drop $3000 to become both an instructor in his methods, as well as $3000 poorer.

Naturally, Dr. Emoto has faced a smidgen of criticism from the scientific community, at least when they could force it out between their laughter. But his resolve is strong – photographing water crystals is, as he puts it, a subjective science. He also believes that the water crystals will change their form based on who is doing the observing, and whether they have appreciation or anger in their heart. So you see? Those cynical scientists can’t replicate his findings, because they don’t believe! It’s subjective science! Which is totally not an oxymoron!

Fortunately for Dr. Emoto, there are enough naïve and malleable people out there to support his insanity so that he never has to worry about his next meal. He delivers his message in strategically-sound new-age rhetoric, linking his water crystals to the pillars of serenity, tranquility and well-being that the magic-hungry are always chasing. He claims that if we were to all collectively pray for the water in the Sea of Galilee, the water that would flow down the River of Jordan would bring peace to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Except for those militaristic bastards on both sides who only drink Coke.

Stepping back a moment to Carrie Poppy’s experiment, I feel it’s important to point out that her affiliation with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is important; one of the folks at the head table for this organization is none other than debunker extraordinaire James Randi. Dr. Emoto was cordially invited to replicate his experiments (any of them) in 2003, under conditions agreed upon by both parties, with the purpose of awarding Randi’s $1 million prize if Dr. Emoto could truly prove that his psychokinetic hypothesis can yield actual results.

So far, Dr. Emoto has not stepped forward.

And why should he? The man is 71, he’s probably earning enough residuals off his books, his speaking engagements and his tooth powder sales to keep him comfortable for the rest of his days. Just like a happy glass of complimented water.

Day 989: The Medicinal Repast Of History’s Maddest Mad-Man

originally published September 15, 2014

There’s a tiny voice inside my head, that interminable squawk of the ever-shrinking crimson-lensed optimist, who wants to believe that Dr. Theodor Morell was doing his best to assassinate Adolph Hitler from the inside out. Morell was the Fuhrer’s personal physician, and as the world began to warp around the consequences of his patient’s actions, his freewheeling approach to the prescription pen increased. Was he doing his ill-informed best to keep Germany’s leader in good health? Or was he subversively hoping to kill him?

Okay, that’s an easy one; Dr. Morell was an incompetent putz who appeared to have forged his medical path through a garbled jungle of whim and outlandish guess-work. Had he truly been looking to snuff out Hitler’s flame he would have been just a bit more thorough in his boobery. Also, he would have likely been facing a swift execution by the other Third Reich brass.

The truth behind Hitler’s health is a curious stew of horrors and weirdness. The man deserves none of our pity of course, but in looking over what we have learned about his bizarre journey through Germany’s medical industry, I have to wonder if some of his unmitigated evil might have been a result of the strange goings-on within his innards.

In November 2008 a curious story wormed its way into the news cycle. The story can be traced through Polish priest and amateur historian Franciszek Pawlar, who claims to have once spoken with a man named Johan Jambor (pictured above). Jambor had been a medic for Germany during the first World War, and it was he who treated a wounded Adolf Hitler at the Battle of the Somme in France in 1916. Hitler had received a wound to the “groin” – a more specific account I’m afraid I can’t offer.

According to Blassius Hanczuch, an old friend of Johan Jambor who confirmed the story when it leaked in 2008, the medics referred to the future Fuhrer as Schreihals, or “Screamer”. As they were hauling him to safety, the group fell under French fire, and the wounded had to be abandoned as the others leapt for cover. Hitler shrieked threats of court martials if the medics didn’t return to pick him up at once.

I know – they should have just let the prick die. But how could they know? One thing was most certainly evident from this story however, and it was the savory morsel that sold the item to the press: Hitler did, in actual fact, only have one testicle.

The rumor of Hitler’s monoballism first appeared in the hit song, “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball,” which Brits used to chant with a gleeful fervor throughout the grisly days of WWII. A 1970 Soviet Autopsy report appeared to back the rumor with evidence, though the veracity of such claims has been called into question; most of Hitler’s remains were ashes by the time the Allies got hold of his body, as per his final wishes. Whether this half-scrotectomy psychologically affected the man is certainly a ripe plum for juicy debate, but something or other eventually led Adolph into contact with Dr. Theodor Morell in 1936.

Morell had been a card-carrying Nazi since 1933, and had sufficient connections to land him at a party at the Berghof – Hitler’s mountain party pad – so he could meet the man. He assured Hitler he could “cure” him within a year, though what he promised to cure remains somewhat vague. It has been said by historians that Hitler suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, skin lesions, coronary sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and syphilis. So take your pick.

Dr. Morell began treating Hitler with his own special brew of vitamins and hydrolyzed E. coli bacteria, a little cocktail he called Mutaflor. I should point out that most E. coli bacteria is harmless; Hitler wasn’t receiving doses of the stuff that caused people to become seriously ill from eating at Jack-In-The-Box; this was a more benign type of critter. The Mutaflor successfully cured whatever had been ailing Hitler, which ensured Dr. Morell a permanent seat at the table of Reich insiders. He had made it inside.

Naturally when your country’s all-powerful dictator insists you’ve just got to see his guy for your medical needs, people are going to go. And Hitler recommended Morell to all his evil buddies. But most of them – in particular Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler – found Morell to be a quack. Albert Speer (Hitler’s chief architect) was recommended to Morell for a stomach ailment, which another doctor had told him was nothing more than work-related stress. Speer eased up on work and found it went away on its own. Still, he told Hitler that he’d gotten better because of Morell’s advice. You don’t want to piss off the big guy.

When Hitler would feel groggy, Morell would shoot him up with a mixture of water and something called Vitamulin, which he carried around in unmarked gold packets. A member of the SS tested the stuff and found that it contained a noteworthy amount of methamphetamine. Before long, the Fuhrer was addicted.

So here we have a one-balled meth-head, fuelled by fears of syphilis (which was, of course, a disease of the Jews, according to Hitler) and willing to listen to a quack physician who cared more about scooping up the deutschmarks than dispensing quality care. This man is leading a nation of economically depressed yet fully obedient, loyal, and nationalist fighters into a world war. It’s really no wonder the world was in such bat-shit condition; as much as Hitler may have been a strategist, an orator and a motivator of the desperate, he was also tweaked to the nuts on crank.

Sorry… to the nut.

As the clock was ticking toward Hitler’s eventual demise, his health began to worsen. Newsreel footage exists of tremors in his hand and a strained, shuffling walk that might suggest that Parkinson’s disease was throttling his system. But we should also note the generous diet of medications that Morell was feeding into Hitler, which included at least 28 pills per day, a stream of amphetamines for his energy, numerous injections (including several of glucose) and intravenous injections of methamphetamine. Hitler was likely getting as worn-down from the inside as his army was by the Allies’ continued advances in 1945.

Hitler dismissed Morell about a week before his suicide by gunshot on April 30, 1945. Morell left behind a supply of medications, but because Hitler’s final wishes involved the immolation of his and Eva Braun’s bodies after their deaths, a true and accurate autopsy was probably never done – in spite of the 1970 claims by the Soviet press. British historian Ian Kershaw insists that only Hitler’s lower jaw (which provided dental remains for identification) could be recovered.

So we’ll never know the truth about Hitler’s one testicle (apart from Johan Jambor’s account), and we’ll never know the extent to which the medications prescribed by Morell were ravaging his body and mind. Morell himself died of a stroke in 1948 before his side of the story could be fully explored.

Perhaps we should simply accept the moral of this story being that world leaders with large armies at their disposal should stay the hell away from meth. Or maybe we should simply find solace in the hope that Hitler spent most of his adult life in some level of suffering.

Day 988: That’s No Moon…

originally published September 14, 2014

With only a dozen days remaining of my self-imposed sentence in this asylum of perpetual prose, I am scootching toward the realization that there are some topics I will never get to. The hidden subtext within the dialogue of each Misfits of Science episode will remain unexplored, and I’m afraid the sacred ghost notes that elevate the percussive harrumph of Led Zeppelin’s “Fool In The Rain” and Toto’s “Rosanna” will fail to make the kilograph cut.

Instead I must devote these dog-yawn final days to loftier, more resonant subjects – yesterday’s investigation into Mozart’s poop jokes notwithstanding. And so I look to the moon – that luminous gob of celestial spittle, that pearlesque voyeur who knows all of our funkiest sins, the swiveling muse of the incurable drunkard. The moon pours elbow grease on our tides and provides an alibi when we need one for our meandering sanity. And before we had the cognitive wherewithal to stack our chips on science, the moon provided the palette for some of our strangest superstitions.

The moon puts on a nightly spectacle; what earth-bound broadcast can compare to the thrill of a clump of rock bigger than our entire continent dangling in the air over our heads? And even with Neil Armstrong’s size 9½ prints on her cheeks, she still retains an exotic air of mystery.

Before Georges Méliès stabbed it with a wayward rocket ship, the man in the moon had a starring role in olde-timey mythology. In the biblical Book of Numbers, one of the more cynical stories tells of a man who was sentenced by God to death by stoning for the heinous crime of gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Early Christian lore suggested that the man in the moon was that very man. Another tradition claims the man is Abel’s blood-bro Cain, forever doomed to circle the Earth.

Though it’s not explicitly scribed in the Torah, there exists a Jewish tale that Mr. Moon is Jacob, the third patriarch of the Hebrew folk, who glares at us from the lunar surface. In the mythology of the Pacific Northwest indigenous Haida tribe, the man in the moon is in fact a boy who mocked the moon to get out of the chore of gathering sticks. The boy was subsequently banished up there, leaving us to wonder why so many lunar myths involve stick-gathering.

If you tickle the fringes of your imagination, you can actually discern a legitimate face in the bulbous full moon, its features chiseled by the geography of the lunar seas. These ‘seas’ are the lunar maria – wide basaltic plains made up of chilled lava from ancient volcanic eruptions, but to the untrained eyes of old they looked like gigantic bodies of moon-water, which subsequently looked like face parts. The Sea of Showers (Mare Imbrium) and Sea of Serenity (Mare Serenitatis) make up the eyes, the Bay of Billows (Sinus Aestuum) is the nose, while the Sea of Clouds (Mare Nubium) and the Sea That Has Become Known (Mare Cognitum) create the mouth.

As you can no doubt deduce from the above photograph, plucking these lunar features into a facial context fails to deliver a thunderous boom of eureka. The moon-man’s face is as vague and unimpressive as anyone’s interpretations of cloud clusters or toast-borne Jesus faces. But it’s precisely this wispy bag of squint-induced reasoning that earned the moon the title of God of Drunkards throughout the English Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Then there’s the Moon Rabbit. If we’re locking our gaze upon the charcoal craters and chalky pockmarks of the moon’s surface, we’ve got to pay some attention to the Moon Rabbit.

Pareidolia is the catch-all word for the phenomenon of deducing shapes and patterns that aren’t there, whether you’re looking at inkblots, wall stains or the lunar surface. In East Asian folklore, as well as in Aztec mythology, pareidolia has invited forth the perception of a lunar rabbit. In Japan and Korea, the moon-bunny is pounding the ingredients to a rice cake, using a mortar and pestle. The Chinese believed the rabbit to be formulating the elixir of life.

Mexican legend explains the space-bunny as a result of the god Quetzalcoatl, who was wandering about all hungry and tired when a kindly rabbit offered itself as a meal to keep the god rolling onward. Quetzalcoatl was so grateful, he raised the rabbit to the moon then lowered it back to earth, leaving the rabbit image for all to see. Then, presumably, he ate the thing, because dammit, a dude’s gotta eat.

Of course we all know the moon’s surface is just a series of rock formations and crater footprints. It’s what’s inside that counts.

The moon, as I’m sure you are aware, is not hollow. Actually, I’m not sure you are aware of this. The concept of a hollow moon is not based upon an antiquated adherence to some obvious piece of campfire folklore, but an actual belief that some people still cling to. The moon’s density is a paltry 3.34 g/cm3, compared to the robust 5.5 of Earth. Also, some of those craters are too shallow to make sense – the wide ones should be considerably deeper. Or so say the true believers.

It may make for a great prelude to a sci-fi spectacular, but the truth is that the moon is most definitely not hollow. We have taken seismic readings of the thing, and we know with a fair amount of scientific chest-thumpery that the moon is a thin crust, a big-ass mantle, with a tiny molten core keeping it toasty on the inside. It’s highly unlikely that any mass of space-rock would develop naturally hollow innards, like some cheap drug store chocolate Easter bunny. Unless…

Two members of the Soviet Academy of Sciences demonstrated just how far behind the USSR really fell in the Space Race by 1970. Michael Vasin and Alexander Shcherbakov legitimately proposed that a race of hyper-advanced aliens concocted this planetoid device, then plopped it into an orbit around our little planet. They also point to the relatively shallow craters, insisting it could be a strong hull preventing them from being any deeper. They estimate the hull to be about 20 miles thick, with a hollowed out living quarters inside.

Of all the crappy assignments in the universe, I think a post on the Lunar Observ-o-Station would be the most mundane for these poor aliens, at least until humans started planting our boot-heels upon its surface. The Soviet authors have also brought forward the ‘evidence’ that the moon’s surface is composed of different chemicals than Earth’s, and that some of the moon rocks are older than the oldest rocks on our planet.

It’s a funny little theory, but once again we are pricking the goofiness with the big ol’ pin of science. In addition to the seismic evidence, we have proven the moon is solid through moment of inertia parameters (way too sciencey for me to figure out right now) and by studying the moon’s gravitational field. There are no little green dudes and dudettes hiding inside our little celestial companion.

That’s okay – it’s fun to speculate about the moon. “If you want to write a song about the moon,” Paul Simon once told us, “you want to write a spiritual tune.” Why not? If there is magic in the universe, why not believe its inertia can be kicked into motion by the humble glory of the moon?

Day 978: Doc Brinkley’s Magical Goat Balls

originally published September 4, 2014

It makes perfect sense. If a man is having a hard time encouraging his noble groin-soldier onto the battlefield, perhaps his problem is a lack of testicular fortitude. If only he could harness the power of nature’s potential through his impetuous manhood. If only he could possess the unflinching might of goat balls.

That’s right: goat balls. These testicular orbs of revered bleat-meat might cure all your ills, male or female in nature. Such was the reasoning behind Dr. John R. Brinkley’s infamous medical gifts, and such was the foundation of his fortune. If you skim past the wrongful death suits, the federal investigations and the sheer audacity of his backhanded disregard for ethics and common sense, Dr. Brinkley could be seen as the medical luminary of his day.

But we aren’t going to skip those parts. For his lifelong devotion to greed, fraud, and the scrotal strength of the capra aegagrus hircus, we’re going to tell the whole of Dr. Brinkley’s story.

Shortly after the birth of his daughter in 1907, John Brinkley enrolled at Bennett Medical College in Chicago, a school of questionable repute due to its focus on ‘Eclectic medicine’, which is somewhat like modern herbal / homeopathic medicine, except with less Far Eastern wisdom and a lot more guesswork. He never finished, and he failed to pay his back tuition, which prevented him from transferring to another school. Eventually he did what any enterprising young would-be healer would do: he bought a diploma from a diploma mill in Kansas City.

At 28 years old, Doc Brinkley was in jail for practicing medicine without a license and writing bad checks, he was married to two women (though only living with one), and only barely surviving. Then, like a hero he completed his (Eclectic) medical training, divorced his first wife, served a couple months in the US Army Reserves, and even helped to treat the afflicted during the 1918 flu pandemic. But Doc Brinkley wasn’t looking to be a hero. He was looking to be a wealthy hero.

A patient showed up and asked Doc Brinkley if he could help out his “friend” who was “sexually weak”. Brinkley, who had studied animal physiology in his travels, joked that if the guy’s “friend” had a pair of goat gonads down below, he’d have no troubles. Apparently the goat is known for its strong health. The patient didn’t blink; he asked Doc Brinkley to perform the operation.

The strange thing is, it worked. The man who first had the procedure done wound up fathering a son not long afterward. This launched Doc Brinkley down the golden path of success – he was offering goat gland transplantation for men and women, to improve fertility and virility. In reality, the goat-nards would simply absorb into the body as foreign matter; there was no surgical attachment being performed. Doc Brinkley simply plunked the goat-ball into the scrotum or beside the ovaries and let the power of magic (and positive thinking) take its course.

The publicity explosion in the wake of Doc Brinkley’s footsteps was massive enough to attract the attention of the American Medical Association and a man named Morris Fishbein, who made a living exposing frauds. But they couldn’t keep up with the swarm of positive press. Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, invited Brinkley to plop a pair of goat klackers into one of his editors in 1922. If the operation was a success, he promised to make Doc Brinkley the most famous surgeon in the nation. If it flopped, he’d go after Brinkley with both barrels and every font on the shelf.

By some unknown measure, the procedure was deemed a win. Doc Brinkley found himself treating movie stars, music stars and an international clientele. He wasn’t licensed to practice medicine in California, but people had no problem heading out to Kansas to be treated with this wonderful spud implantation.

Around this time, Doc Brinkley started a radio station. Advertising was discouraged on the air at this point, but the good doctor found a way to inject hours of pro-goat-gonad talk between his music and talk shows. He hosted a show called ‘Medical Question Box’, in which he answered listeners’ medical queries, conveniently always pointing them to one of his snake-oil pharmaceutical cures.

Not surprisingly, Doc Brinkley was in a perpetual battle to keep his medical license – Morris Fishbein saw to that. There is no definitive tally of the deaths that arose from Doc Brinkley’s procedures, but the Kansas Medical Board noted that Brinkley had etched his signature onto 42 death certificates at his clinic, many of those for people who were not at all sick when they’d walked through the door. His license was yanked, as was his license to run a radio station. Morris Fishbein was extremely active behind the scenes for the former, and probably just a little bit giddy about the latter.

At this point, Doc Brinkley turned his attention to his next great scam: politics. He ran twice as a write-in independent candidate for Governor of Kansas, promising a vague platform of platitudes, but with the real intention of getting elected so that he could appoint some friends to the Medical Board and get his license back. He lost, but earned around 30% of the vote each time. It was close.

With that, Doc Brinkley moved to Del Rio, Texas, where he bought a mansion and set about practicing medicine once more. Kansas had yanked his license – he was good to go in Texas.

From Del Rio, Doc Brinkley set up another radio station in Mexico. Free from American regulations, he had the station cranked up to blast at 150,000 watts, which meant that on a clear night his broadcasts could be heard as far away as Canada. His advertisers were a motley lot, pitching “Crazy Water Crystals”, “genuine simulated diamonds”, as well as autographed photos of Jesus Christ. Thanks to Doc Brinkley, Del Rio became known as “Hillbilly Hollywood”, helping to launch the careers of Gene Autry, Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family among others.

But as high as Doc Brinkley climbed, he fell even further.

At his peak, Brinkley had a dozen Cadillacs, a boastful garden of over 8000 plants around his estate, as well as wildlife imported from the Galapagos Islands. But Morris Fishbein, still in pursuit of Brinkley’s reputation over a decade later, finally won. Over 30 wrongful death lawsuits were launched. The IRS started investigating Brinkley for tax fraud. The US Post Office went after him for mail fraud. Fishbein published a lengthy tome exposing Doc Brinkley as a charlatan; when Brinkley sued for libel, he lost. The old quack declared bankruptcy and died of heart failure in 1942, penniless and facing potential prison time for his various frauds.

One wonders what went through the minds of Doc Brinkley’s patients as the truth about him flittered into the public eye. “My god,” they must have thought, “I let this man stick a goat-nut into me. What the hell was I thinking?”

Day 976: The Non-Medicinal Medicine

originally published September 2, 2014

Along with the oil industry, the communications industry and the elevator ‘Close Door’ button industry, the pharmaceutical industry is one of the least trusted clubhouses in the great corporate tree. “They want to keep us sick.” “They’d rather treat us than cure us.” “I don’t speak English.” These are all impassioned criticisms I heard whilst skulking around my local pharmacy, asking strangers how they felt.

The problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that its sheer size has led to corruption and sophisticated flim-flammery, all in search of a quick profit off the desperation and ignorance of the common folk. Also, the industry has pretty much always been corrupt and full of flim-flammery. Only now the bullshit fits neatly into a pill instead of a good ol’ fashioned Wonder-Balm.

We have regulation now – oversight from way on high, which insists that someone actually prove that goat-scrotum extract cures eczema before they can advertise it on a product label. This is why the really fun claims of outlandish hooey can be found in the ‘supplement’ aisle these days. But even our modern snake oil derivatives can’t compare to the creative mangling of truth from the patent medicine days.

Back in the 1600’s, if you could make friends with someone in the royal camp you might be lucky enough to be issued ‘letters patent’. These were legal papers which allowed you to use the official royal endorsement in any of your advertising. For purveyors of bottled cures, this was a huge deal; it added a legitimacy to whatever freakish claims they might be making for their product. This led to the term ‘patent medicine’, which is misleading in that it’s not likely that any of these products were actually patented.

Besides, patenting these medicines would have been counterproductive. It would have meant disclosing the actual ingredients, and these manufacturers did not want that. This isn’t to say that every brewer of tonic and healing salve was out to screw over the public with placebo pastes and arbitrary guesswork (though many were); the fact is, people simply didn’t know much about how the body worked. Sometimes it came down to the application of sympathetic magic to the young field of pharmacology, or the belief that elements of nature that sort of looked like parts of the body could be used to heal those parts of the body. Got a skull fracture? Try out this cream made from shaved walnut shells.

Patent medicines launched the advertising industry. From the very beginning of the newspaper trade we can find pushers of panaceas, eager to cash in on the collective ignorance of the populace about how our innards function. When the official thumbs-up from the royals failed to carry as much weight, nostrum-makers turned to other tactics: fancy and glorious branding, travelling medicine shows, and incorporating Native American-sounding legitimacy into their claims were all effective ploys.

Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills were said to have been the brainchild of a mysterious American doctor who had lived among the natives for three years, learning all about the healing properties of roots and plants, none of which were specifically listed, yet which were all combined into this magical capsule that could “cleanse” the impurities in your blood. The true identity of Dr. Morse was never revealed, though we do know the pills were thrown on the market by a very non-medical businessman/politician from Brockville, Ontario named William Henry Comstock.

If you didn’t want to take advantage of pretend-Native-Americanism, you could always toss in some exotic ingredient (the fruit of the baobab tree was a big one). Alternately, you could point to a mysterious locale for the guts of your healing juice (Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root was promoted as a ‘mild laxative’, in that it probably sent your internal organs on a desperate sprint to get the hell out of your body). Or you could get a little funky with technology.

When electricity and radio appeared on the scene, they quickly became tools of the hokum trade, again capitalizing on the fact that the average schmuck knew nothing about them. Italian physician Luigi Galvani had proven that electricity can make a dead frog’s legs twitch. Naturally, it made sense that humans should want to harness as much electricity as possible into their natural body humors. Violet ray machines like the one above were meant to be rejuvenation devices. Nostrums of herbs and liquid bullshittery were concocted to make the body more conductive. Going bald? Try an electric fez!

Then there was Albert Abrams.

Albert Abrams believed his machines could diagnose and cure almost anything. He was a legitimate doctor, suspicious of numerous modern medical procedures (we’re talking about early 20th-century “modern”), and he appears to have truly wanted to help people. At first, anyhow. Then along came his theory that electrons were the basic element of all life, and that properly-configured machinery could fix anything. Doc Abrams believed he could use his machines to conduct his medical practice over the telephone.

The Dynomizer (no, seriously) could diagnose any disease from either a drop of the patient’s blood or a sample of their handwriting. The Oscilloclast and Radioclast would produce frequencies that could attack diseases. The Dynomizer would often diagnose complex cocktails of cancer, diabetes, syphilis and something called bovine syphilis. Fortunately, the Oscilloclast could usually cure these maladies. A member of the American Medical Association sent one doctor a blood sample that the Dynomizer claimed to be heavy with malaria, diabetes, cancer and (naturally) syphilis. Turns out it was a drop of rooster blood.

Lawsuits and fraud charges galore poured into the inboxes of doctors who were using Doc Abrams’ machines o’ malarkey. Abrams himself might have testified at one malpractice trial, but he had the smarts to die of pneumonia before the court date, thus ensuring his reputation as a scam artist would only be revealed posthumously.

Eventually, journalism and government investigation triumphed, and most of the patent medicine deception racket began to disappear. A number of these so-called miracle tonics contained narcotic substances, which were great for providing actual apparent medical results – in particular those which contained opium derivatives, which actually did take care of coughs, diarrhea and pain (albeit with the icky side effect of addiction). Alcohol was a big ingredient, as was cocaine and cannabis. Beginning with Samuel Hopkins Adams’ 1905 article “The Great American Fraud” in Collier’s Weekly, the veil of medical hoax-pills began to lift.

The first Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, which didn’t prohibit medical products from containing alcohol and narcotics, but did insist that such ingredients be listed on the label. Most of these wonky products simply packed up and split, but some simply altered their formulas and remained on the market, including Bayer Aspirin, Doan’s Pills, Vicks VapoRub and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia. Other products tweaked their innards and/or stopped marketing themselves as medical cures. These would include tonic water, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Dr Pepper and 7-Up.

Nowadays you can trust that the stuff you purchase for medical purposes probably does have some modicum of actual testing behind it – even if you believe the end result of its use may cause more harm than good, or that some grand pharmaceutical conspiracy is gunning to keep you sick and buying meds. But at least that stuff does something. That non-medicinal Ohio Buckeye sap you bought online to make your penis larger? That ain’t nothin’ but a big ol’ tube of snake oil.

Day 955: Conquering The Energy Problem, Wang-Style

originally published August 12, 2014

What if I told you that I’d recently unlocked a treasure of scientific magic so potent and transformative it would affect the way everyone on the planet conducted their everyday lives. “But wait,” you might say, “haven’t you been spending the past 955 days writing a bunch of hastily-researched yet irrepressibly delightful articles?” “Okay,” I’d probably admit, “you have a point.”

But if the year was 1983, and “you” were the Chinese government and “I” was Wang Hongcheng, an uneducated bus driver from Harbin, you might actually listen. This was supposed to be the game-changer that would propel China from a communist non-player into the driver’s seat of the global economic Hummer. China would win the energy game; the Middle East would need to find something besides bubblin’ crude to keep their gazillions rolling in; the entirety of everything would be flipped.

All because of Wang’s magic liquid. The stuff that dreams are made of – the stuff that could build an empire whilst crumbling several others.

Also, if someone ends up making a movie out of this story, I hope they call it Wang’s Magic Liquid. But they probably won’t.

Wang Hongcheng made it through ninth grade, served some time as a soldier, then became a bus driver – just another faceless cog among the Harbin masses, toiling at a day job and doing his obligatory service for the collective, in accordance with Maoist principles. But clearly Wang wanted more. Wang wanted to be known for something extraordinary. Despite his complete lack of scientific training, Wang claimed he had invented a liquid that could transform a bland liter of water into a spectacular fuel, simply by adding a few precious drops of his secret serum.

The fuel created would be as combustible as gasoline, and could serve to transform the very foundations of the energy industry. He called it the “fifth greatest invention of China”, referring to the famous Four Great Inventions of ancient China: the compass, gunpowder, printing, and duck sauce. He presented his claim to the Chinese government, who responded with a cautious and analytical reaction.

The Hongcheng Magic Liquid company was formed around 1992, meaning Wang kept pushing his charade as far as he could. Despite having provided no functional evidence (or even, to my knowledge, a legitimate explanation) of his glorious fluid, Wang received somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million yuan in the form of government support, which translates to about 37 million American bucks. A small price for China to pay for reimagining the future.

Albeit a huge price to pay for taking Wang’s word for it.

In 1994 the Chinese government began to notice that its people were putting more faith in pseudoscience and superstition than they used to. Fraudsters were roaming the rural swath of Chinese countryside, claiming to be masters of Qigong – pure life energy. They claimed they could project their inner Qi out of their bodies and heal people. One man was criminally charged when his alleged healing power led to the deaths of several people. It wasn’t a huge leap for China’s governing skeptics to link the people’s blind faith in mystic healers with the government’s own blind faith in Wang Hongcheng’s alchemy juice.

Song Jian, who at the time was running the National Science Committee (and joined in the government’s concern that science education among the masses was a few steps beneath pitiful), heard a rumor. Apparently there was an article by a man named He Zuoxiu, which effectively debunked Wang’s secret formula. The article had been sent to three national newspapers and a scientific journal and had been rejected everywhere – and it utterly refuted any and all of Wang’s claims.

Zuoxiu had been invited by Wang’s fan-base up to the northwest part of the country to see the wizardry-broth in action. Not wanting to walk into the trap of Wang’s rigged-up sanctuary, he instead invited Wang to Beijing for a proper appraisal by others in the field. Wang refused.

Perhaps he was hoping to forestall the revelation of his duplicity until he’d milked some more money from the government. But the cat wasted no time in leaping out of the bag; Wang’s refusal to test a simple liquid (which would involve nothing more on his part than travelling on a train with a vial of the stuff in his pocket) was enough to out him.

In 1998, Wang Hongcheng was found guilty of fraud and deceit and was handed a decade behind bars. In the process, the man became a legendary figure in Chinese popular culture. Not only did he pull off a spectacular swindle, but he had achieved a cult-type following of believers who were so thickly mired in the sludge of delusion that they built an alleged conspiracy around Wang’s conviction.

What if his enchanted elixir actually worked? What if the Chinese government was part of an elaborate cover-up, paid for by the oil industry to ensure nothing usurped them at the top rung of the energy ladder? The free energy suppression conspiracy theory is a multi-layered mosaic of maybes, all of which point to governments fuelling our persistent addiction to oil-related products. Maybe Wang is a victim: in prison, not for defrauding the government but for refusing to hand over his liquid sorcery to the cold, dead hands of the people in charge.

The government of China made it their official mission to right the ship of science education within their borders, and to try to quash the public’s tenacious grip to the pseudoscience that had been praying upon the collective ignorance of rural folk since China’s feudal age. When it was found that a government official had actually intervened and yanked another article critical of Wang Hongcheng from a newspaper, fixing the corruption problem was added to the list.

I have been unsuccessful at tracking down any further information on Wang Hongcheng. Six years have passed since his prison term should have ended, and there appears to be no resurgence in his illusory gas-juice. Perhaps he hung his head and reclaimed his position driving a bus around Harbin. Maybe he’d squirreled away some of that massive payday and he’s living like a prince somewhere in the South Pacific – though given the tight ship of the Chinese banking system that isn’t likely.

The truth is, Wang was probably happy drifting back into being one of the faceless cogs, his adventure in the public eye – first as hero, then as asshole – long behind him.

Or maybe he knew too much, and Big Oil had him ‘erased’ while he was serving time. I’m pretty certain we will never know.