MySci Round-Up August 6: Old Sparky


blog post photo
On this day in 1890, the electric chair was used for the first time ever as a means of execution, at Auburn Prison in New York state. A few years before, New York had formed a committee to search for a more humane method—or perhaps less grisly—method of dispatching murderers than hanging. A member of the committee, a dentist named Alfred P. Southwick, heard the story of an accidentally electrocuted man whose death supposedly was quick and painless. He approached Thomas Edison, who liked the idea of electrocuting prisoners with alternating current (AC), because he was promoting a rival technology, direct current (DC), and he hoped the public would get the impression that AC was too lethally dangerous to have in their homes. After two of his employees built the first working electric chair, the initial subject was an illiterate, dull-witted ax murderer named William Kemmler. The New York Herald touted the new method as an efficient “machinery of death” that could “in an instant rend soul from body.” But things didn’t go so smoothly, according to a Milwaukee Journal retrospective published in 1982. After the condemned man wished his executioners good luck, the switch was thrown, and his body lurched forward in a convulsive spasms, with a look of anguish on his face. After 17 seconds, officials cut the current and unhooked the electrodes, only to discover that he apparently was still breathing. They rewired the prisoner and gave it another try, this time shocking him for somewhere between a minute and a half and four minutes—long enough for his hair and flesh to begin to burn, to witnesses’ horror. Similar mishaps would occur over the next century, and the electric chair eventually would be replaced in most states by lethal injection. But it is still occasionally used—most recently, in Virginia this past march, when convicted rapist-murderer Paul Warner Powell actually chose it over the needle, for reasons that only a depraved mind like his could come up with. And with that, here are the MySci stories of the day.


Sikorsky X-2 breaks world helicopter speed record.  We’re talking 259 miles per hour here. Wow.


Despite “Death Grip,” most iPhone 4 users say they like their new gadget.  93 percent are at least somewhat satisfied, and an impressive 72 percent are very satisfied. After that onslaught of negative hype, Steve Jobs must be breathing a sigh of relief.

Earth’s iron core may recycle itself every 100 million years.  It apparently melts on one side and solidifies on the other. Scientists think this explains why the core transmits seismic waves at differing speeds in the western and eastern hemispheres.

For first time ever, scientists watch an atom’s electrons moving in real time.  A process called attosecond absorption spectroscopy made it possible for them to get a closeup look at the oscillations of a krypton atom.

Scientists discover ancient blob-like creature of the deep.  It’s called the drakozoon, it lived 425 million years ago, and it kind of looked like a tiny stuffed pepper with tentacles. Gross.

Manufacturers agree to make home appliances vastly more energy efficient.  The new standards, the product of negotiations between companies and environmental activist groups, reportedly would be the energy-saving equivalent of taking 100 million automobiles off the road.