Top 5 Science Fail: Number 1 – Thomas Midgely Jr and Planet Earth

So here it is, the number 1 fail. I chose the career of one particular scientist for this, and I think you will see why. To see the rest of the top 5 click below:

Number 5

Number 4

Number 3

Number 2

Number 1: Thomas Midgely Jr. and Planet Earth

As we go through our lives most of us as individuals will have minimal net affect on our planetary ecosystem.  Maybe some will rise to high positions in companies where the decisions made might have a more substantial impact. But, none of us are likely to have quite such a big affect as Thomas Midgely Jr.

Thomas Midgley Jr.

Born in the state of Pennsylvania in 1889 he was a Chemist and Mechanical Engineer, who in 1916 joined the General Motors company (GM). At the time Midgely joined the company one of the key problems facing car manufacturers was ‘engine knocking’, which occurs when the petrol auto-ignites in the engine damaging it. Midgely realised that if you put lead related compounds into the petrol then this eradicated the problem. As a result of his discovery adding tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) to petrol become common practice. However, problems began to emerge as workers and researchers including Midgely became ill with lead poisoning. Culminating in Midgely holding a conference to defend his work in 1924. To show how safe TEL was he poured it all over his hands and spent 60 seconds inhaling its fumes. He spent the next year recovering from lead poisoning due to this stunt (which was kept quiet from the media).

Lead poisoning due to TEL was a large global problem and it wasn’t until the 70/80’s that leaded petrol began to be phased out. This discovery alone would probably have been enough to have gotten Midgely on this list. However, Midgely also helped make another discovery which has helped him claim the top stop.

In the 1920’s whilst still working for GM he was asked to find a replacement to the toxic and flammable refrigeration compounds (such as ammonia) which were at the time being used. This could have brought about redemption for Midgely. He and his team focused on the halogens due to their volatility and inertia. The decided to combine fluorine with hydrocarbons, and in 1930 created Freon, the worlds first chloro-flouro-carbon (CFC).

The team were delighted with their discovery. Midgely, echoing his TEL display,  demonstrated its capabilities by inhaling it and then blowing out a candle. Midgely received awards for his discovery and CFCs replaced the existing refrigerants in several usages.

Tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) containing petrol

It wasn’t until the 1980’s that people began to realise that the CFCs were breaking down in the atmosphere and through free-radical action were destroying the O-zone layer. By this time Midgely had long been dead, he contracted polio in 1940 and invested a system of pulleys and ropes to enable him to get out of bed. This invention backfired on him personally as one day he became entangled in the ropes and suffocated.

Midgely’s inventions have been summed up particularly well by JR McNeill an environmental historian who said that Midgely ‘had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth’s history’.

I hope that you have enjoyed my list of Top 5 Science Fails, if you disagree with any of my selections or have any more you think I should know about feel free to comment below.

Top 5 Science Fails 2: Australia and its Toad Problems

The delayed posting of number 2 in my Top 5 Science Fails:

“There was an old woman who swallowed a fly”

The Invasive Species

It is not often that you can say this but, this is an example of a situation where scientists should have read their children’s literature. The story of the “old woman who swallowed a fly” is a fantastic tale of how biological control can get out of hand, as eventually after spiders, birds, cats, dogs and more you could end up having to swallow a Horse!

In June 1935 the Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations decided to introduce the Cane Toad to combat the native Cane Beetle. They released 102 of the young around the Cairns area. After the initial introduction the programme was halted while they tested the potential environmental effects of the toads. They found no cause for concern and in September 1936 resumed the programme.

However, there was a problem, the toads do not eat the adult beetle and the larvae live underground where the toads can not get to them. This would have been a forgotten side note in failed ecological control if that was all that happened. However, despite having minimal effect on the Cane Beetle the toad’s impact on other native species was a lot more pronounced.

From the initial toads introduced there are now estimated to be 200 million toads and are still spreading out and inhabiting new territories. The toads possess a toxic gland between the eyes which releases bufotoxin, which is toxic to many of the indigenous animals of Australia. The effects of the this toxin has been seen in the populations of many different native creatures.

Whilst some predators have worked out ways of getting around the toxin, such as the Black Kite which flips is over and eats its underside, this is still a big problem, and with the annual migration rate estimated at 25 miles per year the problem isn’t getting any smaller. However, the typically resilient Autralians have kept themselves amused during the toad epidemic with toad hunts, occurring alongside toad racing, cane toad cricket and cane toad golf, which can be seen below:

The Bureau of Sugar Experiment Stations deserves its place on this list for not only originally incorrectly introducing the Cane Toad species to Australia, but for then, after concerns about the potential effects of the toads deciding to introduce more!

Top 5 Science Fails – 4: Donald R. Currey, the US Forestry Service and the Prometheus Tree

So continuing on from yesterdays post, today we get to number 4:

4: Donald R. Currey, The US Forestry Service and the Prometheus Tree

In the process of recording nature there will always be some casualties, samples need to be collected and theories tested, this is unavoidable. However, there is one particular unfortunate incident where the collection process claimed an unintended victim.

Bristlecone Pines in Wheeler Woods

In 1964 a graduate geography student Donald R. Currey was carrying out an investigation into the climate dynamics of the Little Ice Age by looking at the Great Basin Bristlecone Pine Trees in Wheeler Park, Nevada. Currey found several of these trees and set about using a borer to sample the trees allowing him to count the rings and estimate their age. He found several trees aged over 3000 years old. However, there was one in particular which interested him. It has previously been given the nick-name the Prometheus tree. Currey tried on four occasions to use a borer to work out the age of the tree, however after several attempts (breaking two borers), he still couldn’t obtain the continuous series of overlapping cores needed. As a result he applied to the US Forrest to cut the tree down so he could more accurately gain samples. They deemed the request scientifically sound and decided that the tree was not a notable landmark.

It was only later when analysing the samples that they discovered the truth. The tree wasn’t just old, it was and remains the oldest ever recorded non-clonal organism. Estimates date it having been approximately 4862 years old before its demise on August 6th 1964.

Currey went on to have a successful career in science. However, he is still best known as the man who cut down the oldest tree on record.



The tree stump showing all that is left of Prometheus

Tomorrow I will post number 3….


Various websites (including

Global Warming Under Investigation

This was originally published in ‘The Nerve’ the Southampton Biological Society Paper:


Photo by Ella Barnett

Predicting the affects of global warming is a complicated process with many disagreements over the severity and possible effects of estimated rises in atmospheric CO2 and temperature. One test currently underway in British Columbia seeks to ascertain experimentally the effects that predicted temperatures will have on tree life.

This experiment has been termed the Assisted Migration Adaptation Trial (AMAT). It involves taking seedlings of a multitude of species from their natural habitat and moving them into regions with a similar environment to what their natural habitat is expected to be like in the years 2025, 2055 and 2085.  This test is being hailed as a progressive pro-active approach to the global warming issue by some, yet others consider it to be both dangerous and disruptive to their ecosystems.


The relevance of this study to the region is highlighted by the effects that global warming already seems to be having. An average temperature rise of 0.7oC in the decade to 2006 has seen a vast rise in the destruction by the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae). The beetles population is normally kept low by prolonged cold winters, however, as the winters have become warmer with less prolonged cold spells, the beetles are able increase their glycogen blood concentration which acts as an anti-freeze. As a result the natural temperature is becoming an increasingly less effective control and in recent years 145,000 square kilometres of trees) has been adversely affected, an area 70% bigger than the UK.

The result of these tests will not be known for several years until the trees have developed but a preliminary study started 5 years ago on spruce trees gives an indication of what might be observed. The health of these trees was wide, ranging from some growing normally but others showing an increased susceptibility to diseases, presented in the form of stunted growth or premature death.

The unknown future of the planet is an important issue and these kinds of experiments could prove vital in the both the anticipation and preparation for the adverse effects of climate change which are looming on the horizon.

Global Warming puts Clownfish in Hot Water

This was originally published in ‘The Nerve’ the Southampton Biological Society Paper:

Global warming has had wide ranging affects on the environment and life on this planet. From the shrinking of the icecaps to the death of forests due to acid rain, very few places have not felt some sort of impact. One of the lesser known effects is increasing  ocean acidity. The first sign that the rise in ocean acidity could affect animal behaviour has just been documented by the National Academy of Science in the US.

This study looked at the effects ocean acidity has on the ability of orange Clownfish larvae (Amphiprion percula) to find a suitable habitat. The habitat chosen by Clownfish larvae is thought to be closely linked to the smell organisms in that habitat give off. The larvae are attracted to scents of tropical tree plants and are repelled by the smell of swamp tree plants, as well as the smell of their parents. This results in Clownfish larvae selecting a habitat which gives adequate predator protection, a good supply of food and also prevents inbreeding.

This ability to pick out the most suitable habitat was put to the test in studies involving sea water containing the current levels of acidity and the predicted levels of ocean acidity in 2100. The results showed that although  the larvae were still attracted to the tropical tree plant odours in water exhibiting the 2100 levels of ocean acidity, they were no long repelled by the swamp plant odours or the odours of their parents. If this trend were to become commonplace, the number of larvae making it to adulthood would drop significantly due to larvae perishing in the swampy environments.

It remains unknown why increasing ocean acidity accounts for this loss of appropriate habitat selection, but these results suggest that life may become far less amusing for the Clownfish in the future.