Drinking steel

by Possible Modernist

In a recent post Feast of Assumption quite correctly points out that we should not unduly conflate scientific showmanship and self-experimentation, with the latter activity being an important avenue for advancing knowledge, and in some cases the only avenue for ethical experimentation.

I mostly agree, and yet, I can’t quite help shake the feeling that there is something else going on with a lot of the actual self-experimentation that takes place under the name of science.

Later in the book which I quoted in my original post, the author returns to Boyle, and discusses his extensive attempts to treat his various ailments and protect himself against the onset of gout and the stone”.

In Hooke’s view, the treatments provided by contemporary physicians were as likely to kill as to cure…. On the other hand, Hooke was entirely committed himself to a therapeutic regime of drug taking. … Hook was prepared to swallow any number of potentially dangerous substances, producing violent and disagreeable reactions in the body, with alarming frequency. On 1 September 1672, for example, he drank steel’ (a mixture prepared by quenching hot steel in wine or, alternately, steeping a piece of steel in wine for several days). On 2 September, he tasted tincture of wormwood, eat raw milk, wrapt head warm and slept well after’. On the third, he took three ounces of infusion of crocus metallicus and vomited. (He also had an orgasm, which he regarded as part of his therapeutic regime, and slept pretty well’.) On the fourth, he purged seven times and reported feeling disordered somewhat by physic’. … On the eighth and fifteenth respectively, he drank three pints of Dulwich water (a proprietary medicine laced with metallic compounds), which refreshed him. … The entry for 22 September 1672 runs: Read Serlio’s Treatise on Architecture, took syrum of popys [opium], slept little with sweat and wild firghtfull dreams.’ He took opium again on 29 September.”

It’s fascinating to read about one of the founders of the scientific revolution so rampantly experimenting with injecting various substances. The willingness to experiment clearly exhibits an impressive degree of courage, curiosity, and belief in discovery, and yet the lack of systematicity seems to limit the potential for producing useful knowledge. Indeed, despite his varied intake, Boyle seems to have never discovered that drinking metal is not great for you, as a general rule.

As a contrast to Boyle, consider this description of by Joseph Heinrich of the process used by indigenous peoples for removing cyanide from manioc (quoted in Scott Alexander’s review):

In the Americas, where manioc was first domesticated, societies who have relied on bitter varieties for thousands of years show no evidence of chronic cyanide poisoning. In the Colombian Amazon, for example, indigenous Tukanoans use a multistep, multiday processing technique that involves scraping, grating, and finally washing the roots in order to separate the fiber, starch, and liquid. Once separated, the liquid is boiled into a beverage, but the fiber and starch must then sit for two more days, when they can then be baked and eaten. Figure 7.1 shows the percentage of cyanogenic content in the liquid, fiber, and starch remaining through each major step in this processing.”

Surely, one would think, not every step of this is required, and we could find a better way. But the author’s point is partly that deviation from what is known to work is risky, especially when you’re talking about the potential for poisoning yourself. Manioc is an especially pernicious case, as the ill effects of not properly removing cyanide might not be observable for decades.

Clearly the willingness to experiment (even on oneself) has been an important part of the engine which has transformed the world, and those who were willing to experiment on themselves have contributed to our understanding, sometimes at great personal risk or cost. And yet there is something about Boyle’s compulsive self-experimentation which makes me think first and foremost of a kind of Hunter S. Thompson-like obsession with sampling everything, which can’t be entirely separated from a kind of bravado.

With respect to those who developed and self-administered early vaccines for covid, I do tend to agree with Feast of Assumption that they were likely motivated more by their ability to (hopefully) protect themselves and their loved ones in an overly-restrictive regulatory environment, more than they were by any performative impulse.

There is an interesting question, however, as to whether there was any path by which their work could have plausible led to a widely distributed vaccine. Presumably they knew that such an outcome would almost certainly be reserved for those following the traditional government-approved channels, with limited prospect of approval for something only tested in unauthorized trials.

There was certainly some value in their self-experimentation (we at least know that they weren’t immediately killed by the nasal spray), but it’s unclear how much has been learned from their work, and it doesn’t seem to have had much benefit beyond the original recipients. Motives were no doubt mixed, as they almost always are, but the path they chose, combined with the publicity, leads me to think that at least part of that mix was a bit of the old look what we can do” machismo, rather than just a pure quest for knowledge.