6 hidden (and often outrageous) dangers of being a scientist

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Evan Hoovler
Dec 14, 2012

The pursuit of scientific discovery is a dangerous endeavor. Your whole job is, basically, telling people that what they've learned is wrong. And universally, people can get kinda mad when you shoot them down.

We like to think we live in an enlightened age, far removed from Copernicus getting whacked just for suggesting that perhaps the Earth doesn't rotate around the queen. But the truth is, many scientists still live lives fraught with peril and persecution.

Here are 6 unusual job hazards that many scientists face on a daily basis.

Death Threats

Global warming is a hot topic. If you need further proof, be sure to check out the global warming flame war that will inevitably occur in the comments section of any article about the issue. Believe it or not, a lot of people think this is a valid argument:

Scientist: Global warming exists, here's a study in a peer-reviewed journal.
Person: No, global warming doesn't exist.
Scientist: Could you show me a study in a peer-reviewed journal?

[This person thinks the scientific method is an alien conspiracy]

Many climate scientists have had to take extreme, well-documented measures to ensure their own safety. Panic buttons in their offices that connect directly to police and security guards are frequent measures scientists use to guard themselves.

[And, we assume, bulletproof pocket protectors]

Last month, things got so out of hand for climate scientists in Australia that they had to move to a high-security building anonymously. Next thing you know, scientists are going to start thinking it's a good idea to start carrying guns. We don't need nerds fumbling with guns.

Getting Punished for Doing Their Jobs

In 2009, an earthquake struck Italy, killing hundreds. It seems that buildings had not been up to code. The fire chief even speculated that some foundations had been made with sand. A criminal investigation was conducted, and eventually the government concluded that it was the fault of scientists for not predicting the earthquake.

No, seriously, last May seven scientists were arrested for manslaughter. Keep in mind that no major tectonic earthquake has been accurately predicted in the history of the planet. Still, those seven are currently standing trial, being forced to explain why they didn't warn everyone that there would be an earthquake and that they should de-sand their foundations. Because scientists being paid to study earthquakes would just let everyone die out of pure callousness, laughing maniacally as their lab crumbled around them.

[How the government sees scientists]

We don't want to focus too much on climate scientists. But it's hard not to when their job is more dangerous than working at the defective returns department for a land mine company. The Bush administration was notorious for not wanting to discuss the issue. In 2007, this reached the height of ridiculousness when Alaskan climate scientists were ordered not to talk about climate change, polar bears or sea ice when overseas. Because there are sooooo many ways to subjectively interpret hard data about ice. It may be almost 400 years since Galileo was put under house arrest for speculating about where the sun is, but governments and scientists still can't see eye to eye.

[How dare the climate not revolve around where we want to drill!]


When you're a modern-day pirate, you can spend a lot of time just floating aimlessly among shipping lanes. A good place to grab a bunch of expensive equipment is from poorly armed scientists, who also spend a lot of time floating about the ocean while studying stuff.

[Way better than the old science stuff pirates looted. Who wants a sextant?]

Plus it's a double whammy for scientists that pirates come from impoverished countries that, frankly, have better things to do than assist in the betterment of world science. As scientists found in 2010, the South African navy isn't too interested in keeping them safe from pirates. Finally, scientists were able to gain assistance from the Seychelles Coast Guard.

[Their motto is "Hey, we're not bothering anyone here!"]

Pirates are indeed one of the many bizarre circumstances hazarded by climate scientists. There's a lot that can be learned from floating in the ocean in the middle of nowhere, which makes scientists sitting ducks for pirate attacks. Recently, Australian climate researchers requested U.S. and Aussie naval assistance. They needed to sail the Indian ocean and deploy a bunch of expensive scientist equipment, but that ocean is fraught with pirates. We feel that the only solution is for scientists to deploy boats filled with pirate robots, but nobody ever listens to us.

Getting Killed by Their Own Inventions

When you think about it, this is the opposite of ironic. If we invent a flying toaster, that means we probably spent more time working with flying toasters than anyone else. So if someone's going to get killed by a flying toaster, it will probably be us.

[If you don't move the mouse every fifteen minutes, they'll kill you!]

Throughout history, numerous scientists have been killed by their own inventions. Marie Curie's groundbreaking experiments with radiation eventually made her more toxic than Swamp Thing. So it's often quite noble that an inventor succumbs to their own life's work. Keep that in mind while you read this list of scientists who were done in by their own designs in really weird ways:

Henry Winstanley: Made a lighthouse. Wanting to test the strength, he insisted upon staying in the lighthouse during a storm. It collapsed on him.

Karel Soucek: Invented a barrel that let him ride down Niagara Falls. Making a similar stunt from the Houston Astrodome (which had a specially built waterfall), he wasn't so lucky.

Thomas Midgley Jr.: The inventor of leaded gasoline, he eventually got lead poisoning and was bedridden. Always resourceful, he invented a system of pulleys to get him out of bed. The two inventions combined to end him when he was strangled by one of the pulleys.

The list of important discoveries that have taken the lives of their owners is hefty. Blood transfusions, the submarine, liquid-fueled rocket engines, the printing press and the Titanic all took the lives of their designers. That's the problem with experimenting with new things: it's hard to predict the new dangers they may present.

[It's smiling because it got away with making Steve Jobs sick]

Getting Iced Under Extremely Suspicious Circumstances

Journalists have been noting that scientists are dying in bizarre ways. Recently, two scientists were found dead in a swimming pool in Branson (motto: "Like Disneyland, but cornier"). Police claimed that they didn't know what had happened but that there was no sign of foul play. Frankly, we think two floaters is always a sign of foul play. Then again, being a policeman is probably just something Branson employees do when it's not their turn to run the "Hills of Dolly Parton" roller coaster.

["We asked if they were murdered, and they didn't say nothin'!"]

A key advocate against the use of biological weapons, Jack Wheeler, was found in a landfill in 2010. The problem is caused by the fact that science is objective and unwavering, whereas political lobbying is the exact opposite. So when science presents evidence that will cause significant losses for an organization, the problem usually can't be solved with a lot of backscratching. Scientists have been dying due to the results of their experiments since the beginning of the scientific method itself, and that still hasn't changed.

Being Suspected of Terrorism

In 2004, Dr. Robert Ferrell called 911 to report the death of his wife. Naturally, police took this critical time in his life to point out that he had a lot of bacteria cultures in his house and was probably a bioterrorist. Ferrell, already in poor health with grieving to boot, was arrested.

In fact, Ferrell was mailing small samples of bacteria to an artist friend. The weird artist used these bacteria in pieces criticizing genetic food modification. Authorities went and arrested the artist, Steven Kurtz, as well.

[Granted, we might ask this guy to stay away from public schools, but a terrorist he is not.]

Although they were eventually exonerated after a conviction for mail fraud was overturned, both elderly doctors were in and out of the court system for many months. No doubt prison cells provided enough bacteria samples for the artist to make a mural.

Thomas C. Butler is a noted researcher of bubonic plague. In 2003, at the age of 69, he notified authorities that 30 vials of plague had gone missing from his lab. Sixty police officials converged on the scene, and feds eventually decided to interrogate Butler under bioterrorism laws.

[Bubonic Plague terror plots are always foiled by the fact that we no longer use live rats as pillows.]

It soon came out that Butler had been doing some unauthorized deals to obtain the plague to further his research. Fine, he's cheating. But instead of letting a certified board deal with the situation, prosecutors decided to throw him in jail for two years. We've reached the point where a scientist trying too hard to stop bioterrorism is removed from the lab because of procedures designed to stop bioterrorism.

And you know what they all say: "When bubonic plague cultures are outlawed, only outlaws will have swollen lymph glands."

It's important to take a moment to recognize the severe issues scientists face simply for choosing a career focused on making things better. So next time you see a scientist walking down the street (look for a lab coat and a hunchback assistant), give them a pat on the back. On second thought, maybe they'd appreciate it more if you didn't make any sudden movements.

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