For every high-tech backpack or deep-sea exploring robot dreamt up by a scientist, there’s a new virus or weapon. In fact, many of the most successful scientific creations of the last century have proved to be the most regrettable.
The poster child for scientific regret is, of course, Alfred Nobel, who initially theorized that his dynamite factories would cause so much chaos, men would realize the futility of war then become obsessed by the pursuit of piece. But the creators of many other dangerous or potentially harmful products have also had to live with their regrets. Here are five amazing products of science created by people who ended up wishing they’d called in sick.
Russian general and inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov created the AK-47 rifle, which was introduced into Soviet military service in 1947 and rapidly spread throughout the world. It was such an integral part of the rebel uprising in Mozambique, in fact, that it’s image is on the nation’s national flag.
For years, Kalashnikov denied any culpability with his invention. He created the weapon to protect his family and his co-patriots — once it entered the hands of others, he was responsible for their actions. But, as he approached death, Kalashnikov was filled with regret.
“I keep having the same unsolved question: If my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I … a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?” he wrote in a letter to bishop of the Russian Orthodox church. “The longer I live, the more this questions drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed, and aggression.”
Ultimately the Church was OK with it — the weapon helped protect Russia, and that’s what ultimately mattered to them.
Albert Einstein spent a fair amount of time in his later years correcting people that he never worked directly on the atomic bomb. Because of his German nationality and his left-leaning politics, he was actually denied the security clearance necessary to work on the Manhattan Project. Still, he was involved indirectly: E=mc2 explains how energy is released in an atomic bomb even if it doesn’t exactly provide a blueprint. Einstein’s greater connection was that he wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, encouraging him to harness the technology before the Germans — he had learned that the Nazis were pursuing the technology. When he saw what happened after the bomb was dropped in Hiroshima, however, he was anguished.
“I think I have made one mistake in my life, to have sighted that letter,” he is reported to have said years later. “But perhaps I may be excused because we were all afraid the Germans would be getting the atom bomb.”
Now a faculty member at the University of Maryland, Kamran Loghman invented and developed weapons-grade pepper spray technology for the FBI in the 1980s. At the time, he collaborated with police departments to develop guidelines for the use of pepper spray but now he’s aghast at how it’s misused.
Speaking to Democracy Now! after UC Davis campus police used pepper spray against protesters in 2011, he said, “I saw it, and the first thing that came to my mind wasn’t police or students, was my own children sitting down, having an opinion, and their being shot and forced by chemical agents.”
“The use was just absolutely out of the ordinary, and it was not in accordance with any training or policy of any department that I know of,” Loghman continued. “That’s why I’ve come up, and I feel it’s my civic duty to explain to the public that this is not what pepper spray was developed for.”
While Alexander Shulgin, the godfather of ecstasy, doesn’t regret creating the drug, per se, he is disappointed in how it’s been misused. When he re-synthesized the drug in 1976, he wrote an academic paper praising its ability to “open up a person, both to other people and inner thoughts” and recommended it as a psychotherapy drug. He told The Guardian that he estimates that he’s tripped about 4,000 times.
But he’s frustrated that people don’t talk about the therapeutic value of ecstasy and that it’s become a weapon of self-destruction for some.
“I have regrets about the way MDMA is used, because it has caused a great deal of negative publicity and been made illegal in a lot of countries,” Shulgin told The Guardian. “I still believe it will be a really important aid in psychotherapy, but MDMA has caused a lot of trouble for a lot of people in the way it was misused.”
In 1988, dog breeding expert Wally Conron was tasked with creating the perfect, hypoallergenic dog for a blind woman in need of a service animal. What he essentially invented was the Labradoodle — a mix of Labrador and Standard Poodle.
He now sees the labradoodle business, booming because of the animal’s popularity as a “designer” pet, as an unethical mess.
“Now, people are breeding these dogs and selling them as non-allergenic, and they’re not even testing them,” Conron told The Guardian. “All these backyard breeders have jumped on the bandwagon, and they’re crossing any kind of dog with a poodle. … There are a few ethical breeders, but very very few.”
These unstandardized, unregulated breedings can result in epileptic dogs with bad eyes and unstable bodies. Conron believes he created a “Frankenstein” with the creation of the Labradoodle, and gives the impression that he doesn’t think the risk was worth it.