Party starters 

Where would we be without these scientists?

23rd June 2018

Science has the capacity to inspire wonder and allow us to perform miracles. It has helped us to prolong life, walk among the stars and create new, virtual realms for our entertainment and education. It’s also helped us to get our groove on.

By design or happy accident, scientists have contributed to some of our craziest nights out. They may all be super white, very male and completely dead, but here are just a few party starters that you should raise a glass to next time you’re getting lit.

Jell-O shots — Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer is probably the most famous individual on this list. He was a doctor of mathematics who graduated from the little known Harvard University and taught classes at MIT, Wellesley and the University of Santa Cruz. Despite that, you’d still want him rocking up at your party.

Lehrer, realising there’s more to life than complicated equations, also had a career as a comedy songwriter. You might remember him best for writing The Elements aka The Period Table, a song played around the English speaking world by “cool” chemistry teachers desperate to excite otherwise catatonic students.

You can play The Elements at your party if you want, but that’s not why he makes the list. Lehrer invented Jell-O shots, which translates to British English as vodka jellies.

Lehrer replaced the water for vodka and added some orange Jell-O, arguing that technically jelly isn’t a beverage

Lehrer was drafted into the US Army in 1955 and assigned to a naval base. As Christmas rolled around a party began to take shape but the uptight jerks who were worried that young men with access to guns shouldn’t be wasted banned alcoholic beverages. Lehrer — who would not stand for this reckless level of responsibility — replaced the water for vodka and added some orange Jell-O, arguing that technically jelly, even ridiculously alcoholic jelly, isn’t a beverage.

There is no pictorial evidence of how messy that party was or how smug Lehrer was to have gotten wasted thanks to a technicality but he is quoted as saying, “It was a very nice party,” which is an understated way of saying, “We’re drunk af.”

UV paint — Robert and Joseph Switzer

Just being drunk does not necessarily make a party. If you’re doing things properly — and why wouldn’t you be? — you need a cool venue. If you can’t find a cool venue, you can always chuck luminous paint over the wall and your fellow partygoers to make the venue seem cool. Enter Robert and Joseph Switzer.

Back in 1933, Bob was working for the Heinz Company out in California. Working at a lab, Bob took on the chump job of shifting an industrial amount of tomatoes — a task, it turns out, Bob was not wholly suited to.

The brothers began to investigate fluorescent compounds to help Bob navigate his surroundings

The resulting accident was catastrophic. Dozens of tomatoes were bruised and even crushed. Bob got it even worse; in addition to getting tomato juice all over his favourite lab coat, he also suffered a fractured skull and a severed optic nerve.

uv light
Sick party bro: the Switzers invented UV paint 📸 Audio Luci

Bob was under doctors orders to stay in a darkened room while his eyes recovered but luckily for him, that meant more time to spend with his brother Joseph. Joe was a chemistry major and amateur magician. In-between guessing Bob’s card correctly — a trick far less impressive if your eyes are covered and you’re in a dark room — the brothers began to investigate fluorescent compounds to help Bob navigate his surroundings and to give Joe’s stage show the panache it needed to make him the next Houdini.

Joe is not remembered as the next Houdini but as the co-inventor of black light fluorescent paints. The brothers would go on to found the Day-Glo Company and sell luminous and fluorescent paints worldwide.

Aside from not having to ferry tomatoes about all day, nothing would make the brothers happier than knowing their invention would feature on faces of teenagers at festivals worldwide, wearing it in the midday sun rendering its miraculous effects utterly useless.

Music streaming — Thaddeus Cahill

Thaddeus Cahill — or Thaddy Ca-hool to his friends — was a visionary. He imagined a world not only of electronic music and prototype synthesisers but of music streaming, and unlike Jay-Z, he had the idea before Spotify made it popular. Take that, Mr Carter!

In the mid-1890s Cahill submitted the patent for his telharmonium, which was also known by its far cooler name, the dynamophone.

An 1897 image of the telharmonium

The telharmonium had a console the dynamophonist would sit at and play keys that would accurately recreate various orchestral instruments, as well as producing harmonies. In addition to its audio quality, putting Dr Dre’s Beats to shame, it could also be broadcast through telephones wires. It was Cahill’s dream that performances would be heard in hotels, theatres and houses posh enough to have a telephone in 1896. Thaddy was streaming, baby.

The instrument itself featured elements that would become common in future electronic instruments, including speakers, electromagnetic diaphragms and a weight of seven tonnes.

Despite the colossal weight of the Mark I, Cahill still dreamed big. His vastly improved Mark II and the more-superior-still but unimaginatively named Mark III weighed 200 tonnes apiece. The instrument would take up entire theatre during performances, with its mass of electronic gubbins hidden underneath the stage. The Dynamophone was very much the late 19th century equivalent of a live stream of a full Daft Punk stage show.

Alas, despite its vision and legacy, the telharmonium never caught on; it was just obscenely big and expensive, costing the equivalent of $5m. On top of which, it needed a terrifying amount of electricity to function, at a time when electricity was easily confused with sorcery.

People’s phone conversations would occasionally be interrupted by unwanted electronic music

Added to that, as telephones became more commonplace, the dynamophone suffered technical issues — namely cross-chat. People’s phone conversations would occasionally be interrupted by unwanted electronic music. Tinny electro music played on phones is not just a modern irritant, it turns out.

LSD — Albert Hoffman

If vodka jellies aren’t your thing and you fancy something a little stronger and more likely to induce hallucinations, maybe — and we aren’t here to judge — you would likely partake of some illegal drugs. Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman would  approve and highly recommend his discovery, lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, to anyone who doesn’t speak like a total dork.

In 1938, a future counter-culture all-star Hoffman was researching plant and mushroom extracts. This guy was off the chain. He synthesised the first ever batch of LSD but thought nothing of it and went to go do something else. For five years.

Hoffman took more than ten times the amount of LSD needed to induce an effect and had to go home

The year 1943 rolled around and Hoffman stumbled across the LSD again, presumably in the back of the fridge, behind some milk that was on the turn. Absorbing a small amount through his fingertips created the first ever LSD trip and Hoffman went home to have a lie down and really enjoy the massive visual hallucinations that would have made working in a laboratory reckless and terrifying.

After a great time, Hoffman decided that LSD was probably a good thing and decided to take a controlled scientific dose. He took more than ten times the amount needed to induce an effect and had to go home, again.

LSD ended up being sold as a therapeutic drug, under the brand name Delysid

With the war raging, his lab only had access to a bicycle and Hoffman had to be cycled home by a lab assistant. Let us spare a moment for this poor man, who had to take home on the back of a bike his superior, who was tripping balls, convinced his neighbour was a witch and that he had poisoned himself by taking way too much of an unproven drug.

When they got to his home, Hoffman started to feel much better. In fact, he started to feel fantastic, which must have annoyed the sweating and already-irritated lab assistant to no end.

Hoffman loved LSD, calling it “medicine for the soul” and praised its use in therapy and positive effects on the psyche all round. Hoffman practised what he preached and was micro-dosing throughout his life — he lived for 102 years — and would fully endorse you tripping the light fantastic at your next dinner party, fancy soiree or weekend-long mega-rave.

So, there we have it. Next time you are at a party, you can really turn things up to 11 by letting your friends know about some crusty old nerds who made it all possible. Here’s to sweet Lady Science, may she continue to extend our lives, expand our minds and enhance partying for future generations to come.

23rd June 2018