April 25 is DNA Day

DNA DayToday is DNA Day. On April 25, 1953, the journal Nature published three papers submitted by James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Raymond Gosling, Maurice Wilkins, Alexander Stokes and Herbert Wilson about the structure of DNA.

Swiss biochemist Frederich Miescher observed DNA in 1869, but its importance didn’t emerge until 84 years later. Watson and Crick are the scientists most often associated with the discovery of DNA. They used data from X-ray diffraction research done by Rosalind Franklin to unravel the molecule and learn its essential role in creating life as we know it.

In 2003, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives declared April Human Genome Month and April 25th DNA Day. Serendipitously, on April 14, 2003, the Human Genome Project, a publicly funded program begun in 1990, announced it had achieved its goal of sequencing nearly all of the euchromatic genome.

But the U.S. proclamation covered a one-time-only celebration, not an annual holiday. Since 2003, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has organized DNA Day festivities every year. Countries including Lithuania and Nepal have designated April 25th as International DNA Day.

Happy DNA Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays


April 19 is Bicycle Day

Today is Bicycle Day, a holiday originated in 1985 by Northern Illinois University professor Thomas Roberts to commemorate the first LSD trip, taken on April 19, 1943.

bicycle day

Albert Hofmann

Chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on November 16, 1938, at the Sandoz laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, while experimenting with ergot fungus to find medicinal treatments for circulatory and respiratory depression.

When animal testing showed no effects other than restlessness, research was discontinued and the substance destroyed. Hofmann still believed it was an important discovery. Almost five years later, he decided to take another look. While synthesizing it, he began to experience strange sensations.

Later, Hofmann reported the incident to his supervisor:

Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Hofmann believed the LSD had caused the experience after he had accidentally absorbed a small amount through his fingers. To test his theory, he waited until the next working day, Monday, April 19, 1943, and purposely swallowed 250 micrograms, the amount he incorrectly estimated as the minimum dose required to have any effect. (It’s actually 20 micrograms.)

Here are his lab notes from April 19th:

4/19/43 16:20: 0.5 cc of Vi promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.

17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.

At that point, Hofmann lost his ability to write. In his autobiography, LSD: My Problem Child, he described the struggle to speak intelligibly when asking his assistant to escort him home. Due to wartime restrictions on the use of motor vehicles, they had to make the journey on a bicycle. He wrote of the ride:

On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had travelled very rapidly.

At home, Hofmann’s condition rapidly worsened as he experienced anxiety, feared he was going mad and became convinced the LSD had poisoned him. He had moments of clarity, telling his assistant to call a doctor and ask a neighbor for milk, which he believed might work as an antidote.

When his neighbor arrived, he barely recognized her, seeing instead a malevolent witch wearing a lurid mask. He drank two liters of the milk she brought. By the time the doctor showed up, Hofmann felt the worst had passed but was still unable to speak. His heart rate and blood pressure were normal. He had no physical symptoms other than extremely dilated pupils.

Reassured that he wasn’t dying, Hofmann’s fear gradually gave way to a sense of wellbeing.

Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.

After six hours of brutal highs and lows, the effects subsided. Hofmann awoke the next morning feeling physically tired but mentally refreshed and happy, experiencing heightened senses of taste and sight that lasted throughout the day.

His experiment showed that LSD could evoke profound psychoactive effects at very low doses. Sandoz named the new drug Delysid and began sending samples to psychiatric researchers.  Due to the intensity of focus and introspection it caused, Hofmann couldn’t imagine that anyone would use it recreationally. (Much to his chagrin, proponents like Timothy Leary proved him wrong about that.)

In 1953, The CIA began to investigate its possible use in mind control through its now notorious Project MKUltra. The program’s charter was to find drugs that could induce confessions or wipe an enemy’s mind clean so it could be reprogrammed.

LSD was administered to mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts and prostitutes. Other experiments involved employees, college students and military personnel, many of whom were provided with little to no information about the nature of the tests.

The CIA conducted 149 separate mind-control experiments; up to 25 of those used unwitting subjects. This violated the Nuremberg Code, enacted after World War II to punish Nazi doctors who experimented on concentration camp prisoners.

In 1973, the CIA shuttered MKUltra and ordered all records destroyed. First-hand testimony, court transcripts and the few surviving government documents show that at least one test subject died. (Frank Olson, an army scientist, committed suicide one week after his drink was mistakenly spiked with the drug.) Many others suffered psychological damage or insanity as a result of the project.

By the end of the 1970s, Sandoz discontinued manufacture of the drug that had once shown such promise. Hofmann’s ride was largely forgotten until Professor Roberts resurrected it in 1985 as “Bicycle Day.” Since 1985, it has been celebrated on April 19th, the anniversary of the first intentional LSD trip.

Have a safe and happy Bicycle Day!

P.S.: If you truly want to have your mind blown, scroll to Chapter 7, page 319 of Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments: Final Report – October 1995 to read about “Non-therapeutic research on children,” which entailed feeding radioactive substances to disabled kids.

The craziest thing we encountered while researching this holiday was Human Drug Testing by the CIA, 1977: Hearing before U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources. The entire text is fascinating but skip to page 183 to read Dr. Sidney Gottlieb try to evade Senator Ted Kennedy’s questions about Operation Midnight Climax, in which agents hired prostitutes to work in rooms they outfitted with full surveillance. They could then dose the johns and/or prostitutes and observe their behavior.

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays


March 23 is Near Miss Day

near miss day

Today is Near Miss Day. On March 23, 1989, an asteroid passed uncomfortably close to Earth.

Asteroids fly by Earth fairly often, with no deleterious effects. If NASA notified us of every space rock in our general vicinity, we’d spend all our time:

  • watching Discovery channel disaster porn about the killer rock that’s probably on its way right now to snuff us like the dinosaurs,
  • sharing dash cam footage of the 2013 meteor explosion over Russia, or
  • searching Armageddon for clues about how to survive.
    (Bruce Willis + Ben Affleck x Aerosmith = a fate worse than death)

The asteroid known as 4581 Asclepius passed us at a distance of 684,000 km (425,000 mi) and briefly occupied the exact spot where Earth had been only six hours earlier. It might have caused concern if anyone had noticed it at the time. Amateur astronomer Dr. Henry Holt discovered it a week later.

After the fact, NASA breathlessly reported a made-for-Hollywood doomsday scenario, stating that the asteroid was at least half a mile (over 800 meters) in diameter. But studies of its brightness, likely composition and other factors have created scientific consensus that 4581 Asclepius is most likely 300 meters in diameter.

Why is this important? An asteroid would have to be at least 1 kilometer in diameter to precipitate an extinction-level event. But a comparatively small asteroid, while not a planet killer, would still devastate a large area, whether it hit the ocean, cratered on land or exploded in the atmosphere.

The best spin we can put on it is this: If you’re reading this, nothing has happened yet. The scientists watching the skies can’t stop an asteroid strike, but they will be able to let us know we’re doomed so we can make our last moments count. (Hint: Delete Deep Impact from your Netlix queue.) Until then, have a happy Near Miss Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

March 16 is Goddard Day

Goddard Day

Goddard and his rocket – March 1926

Today is Goddard Day. On March 16, 1926, scientist Robert Goddard successfully launched the first liquid-fueled rocket.

In 1915, he had challenged accepted beliefs about propulsion when he theorized that a rocket could produce thrust in the vacuum of space, where there was no air to push against. He was widely ignored and paid for the supplies he needed to build his prototypes from his salary as a part-time teacher at Clark University in his hometown of Worcester, MA.

By 1916, the costs of his research exceeded his ability to pay and he applied to several places for financial support. Only the Smithsonian Institution granted Goddard $5,000 after he sent them a paper he’d written, “A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes.”

In 1920, the Smithsonian published the article, which included a thought experiment about sending a rocket carrying flash powder to the surface of the moon, where it would ignite and be visible through telescopes on Earth. Although it amounted to eight lines on the next to last of 69 pages, the press pounced upon it, ridiculing Goddard as a fool.

The most notable mockery came from the New York Times, which ran an editorial the day after the paper’s release, which read, in part:

…after the rocket quits our air and and really starts on its longer journey, its flight would be neither accelerated nor maintained by the explosion of the charges it then might have left. To claim that it would be is to deny a fundamental law of dynamics, and only Dr. Einstein and his chosen dozen, so few and fit, are licensed to do that.

That Professor Goddard, with his “chair” in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution, does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react–to say that would be absurd. Of course he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

The author and, by extension, the Times, showed a failure of imagination and fact-checking. Goddard, a physics professor, had read Newton’s Principia Mathematica in high school and recognized that his Third Law could allow for the navigation of objects through space. A rocket ejecting fuel while traveling at high speed creates its own action and equal, opposite reaction, enabling thrust in a vacuum.

Goddard’s response to the ridicule heaped upon him was simple and straightforward:

Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it. Once realized, it becomes commonplace.

Six years later, Goddard launched the first rocket fueled by gasoline and liquid oxygen from his Aunt Effie’s farm in Auburn, MA. His log entry the next day described the scene:

Even though the release was pulled, the rocket did not rise at first, but the flame came out, and there was a steady roar. After a number of seconds it rose, slowly until it cleared the frame, and then at express train speed, curving over to the left, and striking the ice and snow, still going at a rapid rate.

The rocket, later named “Nell,” rose just 41 feet during a 2.5-second flight that ended 184 feet away in a cabbage patch but it was an important demonstration that liquid propellants were possible. Goddard paved the way for a generation of scientists to make space exploration a reality.

In 1930, Goddard received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation and relocated to Roswell, NM, with his wife and a small team to continue his research in seclusion. Within a few years, his rockets had broken the sound barrier, reaching speeds up to 741 miles per hour and heights of up to 1.7 miles. (The speed of sound isn’t static. It’s influenced by altitude and temperature. So even though 741 mph is too slow to break the sound barrier at sea level, it’s more than enough when you launch from an elevation high above sea level—like New Mexico—and climb upward from there.)

Goddard paved the way for the Space Age but died in 1945 at age 62, before he could witness its fruition. Now known as the father of modern rocketry, he is recognized for his research and its role as a precursor to the field of rocket propulsion.

In 1951, Goddard’s widow and the Guggenheim Foundation jointly filed a patent infringement claim against the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense. In June of 1960, the U.S. government paid the estate $1 million to acquire the rights to more than 200 patents covering “basic inventions in the field of rockets, guided missiles, and space exploration.” NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, is named in his honor.

The original launch site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 with a stone marker on what is now the Pakachoag Golf Course in Auburn, MA.

On July 17, 1969, the day after Apollo 11 launched on its way to the moon, the New York Times issued a correction to its 1920 editorial:

Further investigation and experimentation have confirmed the findings of Isaac Newton in the 17th Century and it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.

It made no mention of Robert Goddard.

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays