Charles Dalziel, a UC Berkeley professor who studied electricity’s effect on animals and humans and reputedly did a fair amount of testing on himself, realized that most accidental electrocutions happened because of a ground fault in home electrical circuits. So he set out to develop the Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter (GFCI), which monitors the current and instantly trips it when detecting an imbalance of as little as 5mA, a level his tests determined to be harmless. Dalziel patented the device in 1965, and the GFCI was later incorporated into the National Electrical Code, requiring GFCI outlets in all homes. Within 25 years, his invention was responsible for reducing by half the number of such accidental deaths in the U.S.
I won’t look at a GFCI again without imagining Prof. Dalziel administering a small shock to himself and then writing a note.
History is full of quirky tales of scientists who were first in line to try their own experiments. So are comic books, although super villains are more likely than superheroes to be self-experimenters. When the subject of scientific research becomes the researcher herself, that’s self-experimentation, a gray area in academic science that continues to find strong interest among amateurs.
David Ewing Duncan, author of Experimental Man, set out to be the subject of every test a human can take. He was determined to uncover the secrets of his DNA and identify all the toxins that call his body home. One morning, he tested the mercury level in his blood, and then ate local fish for lunch and dinner. The next day, he tested again and the results showed a threefold increase. I thought of Duncan when I saw a picture of a chef using a radiation detector in a fish market following the Fukushima incident in Japan.
Anne Wright had a dream job working on the Mars Rover until she became too sick to work. Doctors were unable to figure out what ailed her, so she began monitoring her body and the environment where she lived. She got to the bottom of her allergies by systematically photographing and detailing everything she consumed. With new sources of data, she started debugging her own system.
Anne now runs an open source project called BodyTrack (bodytrack.org) to promote the development of new tools for aggregating data. One Body-Track study discovered that, after frying food in the kitchen, the air in the house contains high levels of particulates for hours after the meal is over. Turns out, you breathe what you cook.
Self-trackers were first applauded by Kevin Kelly and Gary Wolf and organized under the name Quantified Self (QS). A combination of QS apps and gadgets are used to generate data to track performance, say for fitness, health, or mental acuity. (Is your memory better in the morning or evening? You can set up an experiment and test yourself.) Most surprising is how seriously the self-trackers take themselves and their results. They are the cutting edge of self-improvement, and the health industry is watching with amazement.
If devices provide a constant feedback loop, are we more likely to change harmful behaviors or realize new strengths?
In this biotech issue of Make, we feature projects that help you explore the promise of self-experimentation. It’s like getting new eyes or ears or arms. This is about as personal as technology can get. It’s like The Six Million Dollar Man, but on a DIY budget. The results could shock you.