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 – 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….


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