A Brief History of Getting Drunk for Science

Everybody in the lab getting tipsy.

There’s a hypothesis about booze that goes something like this: Liquid alcohol is a relatively new consumable, evolutionarily speaking, so more inquisitive minds are more drawn to drink. That may or may not actually be true, but scientists — professionally obligated to kill cats — have picked up the tab for a lot of test subjects.

Here's a brief timeline of experimentat in liquid courage.

1798: Black-Out Flies

In the 1798 treatise “On the revivification of some kinds of insects killed in spirit of wine,” M. Socoloff recounts luring flies in into glasses of wine, then tossing the “perished” bugs into the ash of his wood stove. He observed, “not without astonishment, the flies dart up from the ashes, and, after wiping themselves clean from the dust adhering to their wings, fly away as if nothing had happened to them.” We’re pretty sure that’s because —  Socoloff’s multiple stabs at insecticide to the contrary — these bugs were partied out before catching a second wind.

1864: Hungover Baboo

Here's Darwin in Descent of Man, retelling a tale of German zoologist Alfred Edmund Brehm:

"Brehm asserts that the natives of north-eastern Africa catch the wild baboons by exposing vessels with strong beer, by which they are made drunk. He has seen some of these animals, which he kept in confinement, in this state; and he gives a laughable account of their behaviour and strange grimaces. On the following morning they were very cross and dismal; they held their aching heads with both hands, and wore a most pitiable expression: when beer or wine was offered them, they turned away with disgust, but relished the juice of lemons." Brehm sounds like an enabler. Way to just say no and replenish those electrolytes, baboons!

1900: Emotional Free Association

George E. Partridge, writing in The American Journal of Psychology at the turn of the century, tasked four people with getting progressively more intoxicated. He then asked them to respond to a list of 400 words, a game someone would agree to only if there was free booze involved. “In all cases a stage of exhilaration was followed by a stage of depression and melancholy,” he wrote, “which in turn gave way to the normal condition … In each case there was a very clearly marked moment in which there was a feeling that control was being lost, accompanied by a desire to throw off all restraint and give way to the feelings.”

1942: Frat Science

A scientist named H. B. Peters concludes that alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant after having a student drink 84 ounces of beer, but then says not to draw too many inferences because it was a study of only one person. Poor kid.   

1970: Mixed Drunks

To test which types of alcohol lead to worse hangover, L. F. Chapman had subjects drink bourbon whiskey or vodka, an amount roughly equivalent to a shot for every 65 pounds a subject weighed. Of the 74 people who got drunk in the study — they had a BAC of between 0.1 and 0.15 — more people had bad bourbon hangovers (33 percent, rated between 4 to 6 out of 7) than vodka (3 percent). This seems to hold up with more recent science — whiskey has a higher proportion of molecules called congeners than vodka, which may play a role in making your head feel like it's been hit with a slice of lemon wrapped around a gold brick.

2011: High-Proof Superconductors

Combine cutting-edge research at the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan with a booze-soaked party, you get booze-soaked superconductors. The idea behind superconductors is that at very low temperatures, a metal’s resistance to the flow of electricity drops to nil. The breakthrough was essentiall the product of playing quarters with iron compounds: Researchers heated metals in a variety of alcohols, concluding: “Red wine, white wine, beer, Japanese sake, whisky, shochu are more effective in inducing superconductivity in FeTe0.8S0.2 than water.” Cabernet still plays at a toasty 7.8 Kelvin.

2014: Happy Feet

Doctors over at Hillerød Hospital in Denmark published a report in the British Medical Journal, which puts out jokey studies every December, testing the ancient Danish myth that soaking your feet in alcohol can get you drunk. Spoiler alert: Nope. The test subjects who dunked their feet in 2100 mLs of Karloff vodka showed no signs of transcutaneous alcohol absorption. The skin of their feet, however, emerged “clean and smooth." One gets the sense the test subjects may have remedied their sobriety shortly after pulling their socks back on.

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