5 Scientist Screw-Ups to Remember Next Time You Bungle Something


When we think of the world of science, we often imagine white lab coats and sterile instruments, where everything is perfectly measured, monitored and executed. After all, scientists are supposed to be the smartest of us all. It's easy to assume they aren't plagued by stupidity and clumsiness like the rest of us. But even scientists make mistakes. Unfortunately for them, their screw-ups tend to have more serious ramifications than ours.

1. Freezer Burn

In a recent example, a malfunctioning freezer at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital ruined 150 stored brains, including one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. Despite the fact that the freezer was protected by two separate alarm systems, and was to be physically monitored by staff members twice a day, the brains somehow sat for roughly three days in temperatures comparable to those you'd find in your own fridge, instead of at the prescribed minus-79 degrees.

"The glass half full side of this disaster at McLean is that it will act as a wake-up call to other brain banks to recheck their security systems," said Suzanne Corkin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

2. Right Brain, Wrong Brain

If you need to determine whether a disease has jumped from the brain of one species to the brain of another, make sure you don't mix up your specimens.

In 2001, a scientific study to determine whether sheep had been infected with mad cow disease after eating contaminated feed was scrapped after five years when researchers realized they had been testing the brains of cows rather than sheep.

"On a scale of laboratory blunders, the error ranks about as high as they come, given that the fate of Britain's 40 million sheep might have rested on its outcome," said Steve Connor at the Independent. The cost of the wasted research was £217,000. Converted and adjusted for inflation, that's roughly $440,000.

3. Busted Skull

Earlier this year, German researchers were snapping photos of an ancient Mayan skull prophesized to protect all of humanity from the looming 2012 apocalypse when the precious artifact somehow fell to the floor. The skull, which is now missing part of its chin, isn't just a 1,000-year-old treasure with magical powers. It also once belonged to SS overlord Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi Party. Reports say no one involved in the incident is sure whether the skull was dropped or fell on its own. If you were the guy who dropped it, you'd probably keep it quiet, too. After all, who wants to take the blame when the world ends in December?

4. Self-Infection

Ebola is a scary virus: It causes fever and body aches, diarrhea and vomiting, as well as internal and external bleeding. Also, it kills up to 90 percent of its victims, which is why a German researcher must consider herself lucky for surviving the virus after she accidentally exposed herself to it in 2009. The unfortunate event occurred while she was studying new tests for the virus and she jabbed herself with an infected syringe. She sought help immediately, was treated with an experimental vaccine (which doctors weren't sure would even work), and was miraculously released from the hospital several weeks later. In 2004, a Russian researcher named Antonina Presnyakova did the same thing, but she did not survive.

5. Where's Waldo?

In 2009, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory lost a $100,000 submarine used to hunt for the algae that produce noxious red tide. The 6-foot-long, bright yellow, winged robotic submarine, ironically named Waldo, mysteriously vanished in Gulf waters off the coast of Florida. The laboratory offered anyone who found the submarine a no-questions-asked $500 reward. Discouraged researchers worried that not finding the drone would mean they would have to go back to sending people out in boats to collect water samples to hunt for the algae, which is just "not a very efficient way to do it."
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Other times, however, these things work out for the best. Here are the stories of 8 Brilliant Scientific Screw-Ups.