You’ve no doubt heard of Pavlov, the Russian scientist who did the experiments with dogs. In the popular telling of Pavlov’s work, he supposedly conditioned dogs to drool at the sound of a bell, but that never actually happened. Instead, Pavlov observed that dogs drooled at the sight of the white-coated lab assistants who fed them because they knew food was on the way. From this observation Pavlov spent his entire career studying the differences between conditioned responses – like dogs drooling at the sight of the people they know feed them – and unconditioned responses, such as dogs drooling when they see the actual food. (The Curmudgeon understands the latter very well: put some chocolate in front of him and you’ll see some serious drooling.)
Pavlov actually used dog drool to fund much of his research. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dog saliva was thought to be a treatment for indigestion, so while Pavlov didn’t always work with dogs, he operated what was literally a dog drool factory, keeping an assembly line of dogs busy drooling, capturing the drool, and selling it to pay for his research. (Sorry if you just lost your appetite.)
But that’s not what we’re writing about today; The Curmudgeon just finds it interesting.
Recently The Curmudgeon read a review of a new biography of Pavlov – nearly 900 pages about drooling dogs and other such things, a book The Curmudgeon, if he were on a deserted island, would probably eat before he tried to read it (and congratulations to those of you who know the source of this description). The review did mention one thing that absolutely tickled The Curmudgeon: it reported that when Pavlov enrolled at the University of St. Petersburg in 1869, his inorganic chemistry professor was Dmitri Mendeleev. If the name Mendeleev doesn’t ring a bell, first of all, shame on your junior high school science and high school chemistry teachers, and second of all, see the photo that alongside this paragraph: Mendeleev is the creator of the periodic table of elements. (Still don’t recognize it? Watch The Big Bang Theory: it’s on Sheldon’s and Leonard’s shower curtain.)
And that’s what really grabs The Curmudgeon: a single classroom in which both teacher and student went on to become such towering figures in the world of science. Mendeleev unveiled his table the very year Pavlov enrolled at the university.
Exciting? Maybe not to you, but it certainly is to The Curmudgeon, for whom the only obstacle to being a serious science geek has always been that he has virtually no talent for the study of science.
(By the way, if science tickles your fancy, check out this Facebook page, called – The Curmudgeon’s apologies – “I Fucking Love Science,” which in less than three years has done more to bring science to the masses than anything since Carl Sagan’s overly serious intonations about “billions and billions” of stars. Even more than Sheldon and Leonard.)