• You are an experiment of one
• You need to take responsibility over your own health
• Be a little “unrealistic”
Let me tell you a little story about scientific progress. As you probably know (perhaps through first-hand experience), stomach ulcers are an extremely common and irritating condition. This was a matter that top researchers and doctors had investigated thoroughly, and the accepted conclusion was that ulcers were caused by spicy foods, stress, and excess stomach acid. This answer didn’t satisfy a scientist named Barry Marshall.
Barry was a doctor from Australia who devoted years to researching microbiology. He believed that ulcers had an external cause separate from diet, stress, and acidity. He strongly suspected that bacterial infection (specifically infection by the bacterium Helicobactor pylori) was the root cause of most ulcers. There was only one problem with Marshall’s theory — he and his research partner were the only people who considered it at all credible.
Marshall spent a lot of time attempting to verify the link between infections and ulcers by experimenting on pigs. Years passed without success. Marshall’s financial resources grew slim and there was no definitive proof in sight. Ulcers were still irritating millions of people around the world, and worse yet, they were sometimes developing into stomach cancer.
Marshall Turns To Mad Science
At the end of his rope, Barry Marshall was willing to take extraordinary measures to prove the hypothesis he believed in. He decided on a risky, personal experiment to verify his theories in an impossible-to-miss way. On a fateful day in July, 1984, Marshall prepared a beaker that was positively brimming with Helicobacter pylori. Throwing his courage to the sticking place, Marshall swallowed a mouthful of the liquid and retired to fast for the remainder of the day.
Reviewing the situation in hindsight, Siddharthat Mukherjee would describe Marshall’s action (very accurately!) as swallowing a suspected carcinogen in order to put his body at risk of cancer.
Marshall began to experience feelings of nausea within three days. The fifth day brought a wave of non-stop vomiting that continued for roughly 72 hours. Marshall’s faithful partner took regular samples of the bacterial flora in his stomach and kept meticulous records. Marshall suffered from severe gastritis. He pushed the experiment to a full two weeks before he was satisfied with his first-hand experience and started taking antibiotics.
Barry Marshall made a full recovery, and he and his team formally submitted the results of his experiment to the Medical Journal of Australia within a month. The work was impeccable, and a link between Helicobacter pylori, stomach ulcers, and stomach cancer was clear for all to see. Robin Warren, Marshall’s partner, shared in the honor of the discovery; the two researchers took home the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2005.
Why Science Has Power When It’s Personal
Barry Marshall’s brush with mad science is a matter of scientific record. He put his own body on the line in order to uncover the truth about stomach ulcers. His is just one of the remarkable stories of brave medical research detailed in the book “The Emperor of All Maladies.” His story is a sterling example of what Josh Kaufman likes to call “personal science.”
This is the idea of taking science into your own hands to solve problems, educate yourself, and de-mystify the world around you. Most scientific studies involve enormous groups of subjects and are subjected to rigorous peer reviews and academic analysis. In contrast, personal science is a highly individual pursuit, where experimenting on one subject — yourself — reveals very relevant, useful information.
Marshall’s experience with personal science was intimately related with his life-long career. Being a professional researcher isn’t a prerequisite for using personal science, though! You or I can easily put personal personal science to work in a variety of ways to learn and grow as people. I’m an avid neuroscience researcher myself and consider personal science to be an extremely important and valid method of individual experimentation.
Going Mad Without Going Mad
Although taking science into your own hands and learning through experience is a terrific process, it’s not an excuse to flout common sense. I would never suggest you do something as risky as down a flask of bacteria you suspected could cause cancer. If you find a workable way to experiment on yourself without undue risk, though, I strongly believe the experience will be rewarding to you.
What Makes Personal Science Great
Careful planning is an important part of any proper scientific experiment, but when you make yourself your own test subject you have to go past the planning stage. You’ll get first-hand experience that may be quite impossible to find in any other way. Many problems can be solved by doing ordinary research, and many questions can be answered through self-education. There are some issues that demand the hands-on approach, though. Isn’t it better to test the effectiveness of the theory you have rather than spend all of your time developing alternative theories?
The vast majority of personal science experiments are extremely low-risk. Marshall’s white-knuckle case of self-inflicted bacterial infection stands out precisely because the dangers he exposed himself to were so exceptional. Most experiments you or I would conduct would pose far less danger. Conducting a personal experiment is usually just a matter of summoning the fortitude to overcome inconvenience, discomfort, and uncertainty. It’s this last point that is especially important in personal science. Making yourself a test subject forces you to confront limitations in your thoughts and push past them.
Hypothetical Personal Science Experiments
Are you an aspiring writer who can’t seem to get any words down on paper? Look at your daily schedule and experiment with carving out time expressly devoted to writing. Your risk here is absolutely minimal. Maybe you miss out on a new TV show — is that so tragic in the long run?
Do you struggle to keep your diet balanced? Try setting up a bright-line rule — a simple guideline to follow without exception. Commit to eating one vegetable every day. Yes, it’s true you might find yourself steaming green beans at ten in the evening. Sticking to your rule will expand your dietary horizons, though!
Are you jealous of people who can get up on time and make the most of their mornings? Set up an experiment that forces you to get up at five in the morning for a week. A little tiredness is an easy burden to bear.
Personal science can be a powerful problem-solving tool. Learning is a powerful talent, but it risks becoming a passive one when we wait for someone to hand us the answers. Getting comfortable with experimentation is a great way to expand your problem-solving skills and take matters into your own hands.
All The World’s A Laboratory
Every one of us lives out our life in a different petri dish. The environment around you, the people you live and work with, your genes, your ideas — you can be certain your own life experience is not quite the same as anyone else’s. Although some broad principles should have the same impact on every experiment, you’ll never know what your own results are going to be unless you try experimenting on your own. Release the mad scientist inside you and try taking an active role in learning about your world and your place in it.
Get after it,
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