Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Soviet Archive

If you want outright crazy engineering, there's no better place to look than the early Soviet period of Russia. Cut off from the world in not only trade and communication, but also surrounded by hostile powers, the Soviet authorities backed all kinds of whack-jobs to try and get an elusive leg-up over the capitalist world. Worse for them, the Russia they had just conquered was a comedicly backward backwater and riddled with poverty, ignorance, shoddy infrastructure and nasty polar weather. Did I mention alcoholism?
So they funded quite a few whackjob "scientists" such as Dr. Ivanov's genetically ignorant attempts at created humanzees, or Dr. Bryukhonenko,and his attempt to revive the heads of decapitated dogs. Dr. Bryukhonenko did record a video of his project, made somewhat more dubious by the fact that he used photographic tricks to record that video and exaggerated the lifespan of his decapitated canines. Wikipedia's research claimed that decapitated dogs lived for only a few minutes, and the "Killed and revived" dogs lasted a few days. The mad doctor claimed that his decapitated dogs lasted for "days," and the killed and revived dogs lasted for "years."
If Dr. Byukhonenko's work had any use whatsoever, it would be that his "Autojektor" machine inspired later cardiopulmonary bypass machines, useful for open-heart surgery. As for Dr. Ivanov, his researched produced... um... well, nothing whatsoever.
As one last warning to history's parallels, which we must learn from or suffer their repetition, I'd like to bring up the case of Trofim Lysenko, a man with a kooky theory that plants were influenced by their surroundings and that genes weren't real. His "proof" for this theory was to plant a field of wheat and note that some rye plants grew as well. According to his theory, the high concentration of wheat made some of the wheat turn into rye. When people pointed out that he hadn't actually checked to make sure his wheat seeds were actually wheat seeds, and that he hadn't accidentally grabbed a few rye seeds in the process, he promptly used his connections to the communist party to have them arrested.
See, the communist party liked the part of his theory that proclaimed that any plant could be turned into any other plant just by changing the growing conditions. They also liked his theory that plants could be grown just as well without fertilizer somehow. Lastly, they liked the way that he was an uneducated peasant, thus "proving" the superiority of the working class.
So because Lysenko's theory fit communist orthodoxy, the competing theory, genetics, was suppressed in the Soviet Union. Which led directly to a number of crop failures as Soviet agriculture attempted to grow plants in places that couldn't possibly support them, like wheat in the polar regions during the winter.
I see direct parallels between Lysenkoism and the current pseudoscience fad gripping my own nation, Creationism. Creationism teaches that Christian claims of the world's origins, as described in the book of Genesis, are literally true, down to the word, and that evolution is fundamentally impossible. If it catches on, American biology, geology, and medicine will be terminally crippled, just as Lysenkoism crippled Soviet biology and agriculture.

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