A scientific motivation

I’m reading “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum. During a chapter on carbon monoxide, she explains an experiment Alexander Gettler designed to test if humans can somehow absorb carbon monoxide after death (keep in mind that this was in 1924-25).

To do the experiment, Gettler had a larger metal box built…The tightly fitted lid had a rubber gasket set in place where a tube could be inserted to pipe in carbon monoxide. Each end of the box was fitted with a stopcock. Each time “the body was placed in the box and the lid was fastened tightly,” Gettler wrote, “illuminating gas was passed through the box for thirty minutes and the stopcocks then closed.”
He left the first two dead men in the box for twenty-four hours, the third for forty-two hours.

A toilet made of Lego

I want to try flushing this down now.

This description of the experiment set up really called my attention. It reminded me of what I love about the scientific process: coming up with experiments to test out a hypothesis. It’s a shout out to my inner child trying to figure out if a Lego piece can be flushed down a toilet. The set up is easy.

(1) Grab a Lego piece and drop it down a toilet
(2) Flush the toilet
(3) Repeat with another brand/size of building block

For those of you wondering, the outcome is inconclusive. I was too scared to keep trying after I clogged the toilet and was yelled at by my parents.

However, the description of Gettler’s experiment did put a thought in my mind. Even though his results were negative , was his material publishable? Otherwise, how would other people know for sure that you can’t absorb carbon monoxide after you die?

I think this is something important to keep in mind when I begin my PhD work. If I develop an experiment that absolutely disproves my hypothesis, I should consider if the results are reliable and if they are worth reporting to the wider audience. Although not many people may have the same question in mind at the time, another scientist may appreciate that I can save their time and resources to check their hypothesis in the future.

Of course, I hope this doesn’t mean that I’ll stop my children (or other scientists) from exploring their curiosity, but at least I’ll be able to tell them that the toilet will clog when they try to flush down a bigger toy*.

*It would actually make me very proud if they kept trying to flush things down, refining their procedure with every iteration. They will still get some kind of punishment for clogging up the toilet, though.

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