Pushing the boundaries of science requires conducting experiments, sometimes very unpleasant experiments. Kenneth Catania, a professor at Vanderbilt, has added another lurid chapter to that history of subjecting oneself to pain in the name of science: he shocked himself with an electric eel, to figure out how much of a jolt it delivers, as well as why the eels use the electricity coursing through their body.
And because good science takes more than one attempt, he shocked himself with the eel 10 times. Let me repeat: Catania shocked himself with an electric eel 10 times to get good data for the paper he was writing. He was looking to explore the type of shock the eels deliver above water, as surprising that data isn’t well explored, unlike the damage eels can do to you underwater (akin to what a stun gun may do to you). The last experiment of this type was conducted over 200 years ago, and involved German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt inducing eels to jump out of the water to shock horses which were being used as bait.
Since Catania had been studying the creatures for years, he felt that volunteering to be shocked by them was, “almost seemed like destiny, in a weird way.”
In the water, the charge the eel delivers to its victims dissipates since water carries electricity. Outside of the water though, more of the current flows through the target, as Catania proved in this handy slo-mo video.
After 10 tries, and many experiments using a fake arm trying to get accurate readings, Catania concluded that 40 to 50 milliamperes of electricity went through his arm. It’s four to five times what it takes to make a person jerk away from a shock, which is exactly why Catania had to do the experiment over multiple times. Catania, as a smart scientist, picked a young eel to shock him, rather than an adult, because the size and effect of the zap depends on where you’re zapped and the size of eel.
He figures that if a hypothetical adult were to be shocked by an adult eel in the torso, they’d experience a shock much stronger than that of a taser, which is actually terrifying.
All of Catania’s diligence comes through in the paper found in Current Biology, which you can read on your own time if you’re interested in delving through long, academic scientific research papers. But the book is not yet closed on this case. If Catania needs to do a repeat study, surprisingly he has many volunteers to help him, for reasons we can’t quite figure out.
“I’ve been telling some people about it and they all pretty much say I would love to do that,” he says. “That really surprises me.”
And surprises us too, Ken. We’re not prepared to subject ourselves to electric eel shocks to see what happens, but that’s why we have science. Isn’t the scientific method fun?