When you think of science, it’s probably something that you’d really associate with rock’n’roll or hedonism, right? Memories of scratchy lab coats, Bunsen burners and desperately trying to remember all those tricksy formulae probably come to mind. In fact, science may be something you haven’t given very much thought to since school days… Well, that would be a mistake – and here’s why: science can be a helluva lot of fun. Unconvinced? That’s because you haven’t read Zoe Cormier’s Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science.
Zoe Cormier is an author, journalist, science writer and events producer – and she’s going to make you rethink everything you thought you knew about science. Seriously. With a background in biology, Cormier’s musings on all things scientific have been featured in publications including The Times, New Scientist and The Guardian. And The Science of Hedonism is nothing short of a triumph – and totally succeeds in making science fascinating, fun, and very – ahem – relevant… To whet your appetite, here are four hedonistic reasons – courtesy of Ms Cormier herself – why you should definitely get into science ASAP.
Watching people have sex in the lab
Famed sex scientists William Masters (1915 – 2001) and Virginia Johnson (1925 – 2013) revolutionized the study of sex in the US in the 1950s, being the first credential-carrying scientists to bring people into the lab to observe them shagging. Alfred Kinsey had observed men masturbating (once lining a bunch of men in a line to compare how far each’s ejaculate would travel). And of course artists, writers and plain old voyeurs had observed the act of love countless times in the past.
But Masters and Johnson actually brought the study of sex right into the lab, revolutionizing sexual research by legitimizing the gathering of data in a fashion that previously would once have been deemed perverse. However, the researchers did other things that today would be deemed inappropriate by any ethics council, such as pairing totally random strangers to fornicate in front of them. The title of this work: “Persons Studied in Pairs.”
Observing sexual activity in the lab is not restricted to quirky men and slightly suspect pairs of researchers: modern women do it too, such as Dr Meredith Chivers at Queens University in Canada. She uses specialized tools (essentially, large glass chambers for the boys, glass dildos for the girls) to measure their degree of sexual arousal (using erection and vaginal lubrication as a proxy). What has she found? Men and women both often don’t being turned on by the things the equipment says does. “‘One of the most compelling things about sex is that so much comes from the parts of our nervous system we have no control over,’ she says.
You can make drugs and legally take them
For decades scientists have brought experimentation with drugs right into the lab, from psychiatrists experimenting with LSD on psychiatric patients, artists (and themselves) in the 1950s, to modern studies dosing patients with MDMA, psilocybin and all manner of illicit drugs in lab settings to observe their influence on brain activity, mental health and long term effects. But technically, in most of those cases, self-dosing would not be permitted.
Unless of course, you are Alexander Shulgin (1925–2014), a chemist who set up shop in his shed after leaving Dow Chemicals. Having figured out to synthesize MDMA after a student introduced him to the chemical, he became obsessed with the idea that strange new compounds could alter human experience, and he devoted the rest of his life to this pursuit: he created more than 2,000 chemicals, and through experimenting on himself, discovered that more than 200 were psychoactive, including 2-CB and 2-CE.
But here’s the thing: the authorities could do little about his druggy pursuits because every time he created something and took it, it was entirely legal – because the chemical was brand new. Very clever. Was this experimentation bad for his health. He lived to be 89, so probably not too bad. His life – whom he shared a long and happy marriage with – would agree, as she tried everything with him. (And for the record, Albert Hoffman who invented LSD, took it till he was 96 – and he lived to be 102.)
Developing new contraceptives
Scientists – and most especially female ones – have gone to great efforts in a passionate quest to create safe, reliable forms of contraception to give women control over their destinies. Most notably: women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger (1879–1966) and scientifically educated philanthropist Katherine Dexter McCormick (1875–1967), who together were integral to the creation of the birth control pill. Convinced that women needed a safe prophylactic that lay in their own hands, Sanger searched for a capable chemist who could speed the progress of research, and convinced wealthy McCormick to fund the work of chemists at Syntex in the 1940s. Political mettle and the determination to defy established norms played an integral role in furthering sci- entific understanding and achievement. ‘When the history of our civilisation is written, it will be a biological history and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine,’ correctly predicted H. G. Wells in 1931.
The rest, as we know is history – but the story continues. Today researchers are busy refining hormone implants, for those worried about relying on a daily pill. And researchers are developing new forms of condom using silicon, which will be sturdy enough for sex between men, but also will double as a sex toy (for men who complain of loss of sensation). But best of all: the long-awaited male birth control pill. Now we just have to get them to take it…
Playing music to animals and babies in the lab
Here’s a question: What kind of music do monkeys like? (Jungle?) Former club DJ Josh McDermott sought to answer this question by constructing a maze with different speakers playing different kinds of music to marmosets in different wings of the maze – a sort of monkey multi-room rave. After playing them classical, techno, rock, everything you can imagine, he was startled: the answer is silence.
Why should this be? It appears that humans alone are the only animals that truly experience the strange thing we call music. Other animals might make noise – beautiful noise – and complex calls… but it’s not exactly what we think of as music. What we create is one of a kind in the universe. And in fact, we are hardwired from birth to experience it. Every single baby in the world for example appears to be born with perfect pitch, and also to have an innate sense of rhythm.
Entire laboratories have been set up around the world to study the influence of music on the perception, behavior and responses of babies, even very young ones. You could think of them as labs-cum-nurseries. Playing with babies and good tunes all day? Not exactly as hedonistic as sex or drugs in the lab… but sure does sound like fun.