Monday, August 15, 2011

For the Good of Mankind: Experiments in Alcohol

If you have ever taken part in a research study you will no doubt share the feeling that you are kind of like a monkey being shot into space. You are an intrepid being with a safety helmet snatching the "real" glory from the Yuri Gagarin's and Neil Armstrong's of the world to benefit humanity by boldly going first.

You probably aren't being shot into space, but hopefully you are at least not getting a shot in the arm. I wouldn't be part of a study involving needles (unless maybe they were knitting needles--and even then I would have serious reservations).

I would be a part of a study that involved, say, being paid for free drinks. Much better than the other way 'round, eh? Let me tell you a 100% true story. Step into my shoes for a moment....



In one of the many times something fabulous has come to me via tearing a wee scrap off the bottom of an 8.5x11 piece of paper affixed in a public space, I happen upon a poster promising cash and free drinks in the name of science.

The poster offers the following temptations: free drinks, cash in hand and the prestige of participating in potentially Nobel Prize winning research. I might even get co-author credit. The experiment begins in a nondescript office several turns deep past the elevator. Greetings are exchanged and forms are signed. This is for real. I am weighed and a computer program calculates the exact amount of vodka I need to consume in a very short period of time to hit the legal limit on the breathalyzer.

"Thanks for coming in early. There is supposed to be another guy coming but he's not showing. One last time: you did not drive here or ride your bike?" Cool. I am offered 3 stiff screwdrivers and the experimenter is quite pushy about making me drink them as quickly as possible. I believe a tear formed in my eyes from the fumes emerging through the thin surface of these warm-ish yellow-orange concoctions as a first raised one. Whoever wrote this computer program designed it to act as quick as possible so the researchers didn't have to wait around. It is a triumph of the scientific mind.

After being goaded to the bottom of my glasses in something between 10-15 minutes a lesson has already begun to sink in: simply being asked to blow into the breathalyzer is already a decent sobriety test. The words 'overblowing' and 'underblowing' are raised as I struggle to force wind into a booze scale for science. Steady does it now. By the end of the hour I have mastered the precise pressure that the breathalyzer desires. The magic number is achieved. I am a drunk in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of the researcher.

She has to leave to go find another professor. A minute later that guy who was late shows up. I tell him I'm pretty sure that if he waits a minute she'd be happy to pour a drink for him once she returned. I would hook him up but she locked the bottles in a filing cabinet. I offer him a seat but instead of sitting down he grabs the researcher's purse off the desk and sprints down the hallway.

My the time I am in the hallway the guy is gone but the researcher is there, hand raised, and shouting: "STOP! This is all a part of the experiment!".

A large number of people who have crimes committed against them at night are intoxicated when this occurs. I had to give descriptions and a statement for this engineered crime just like with a real police incident. I looked at several photo lineups. I had to re-write the statements at later times as they measured my BAC dropping. The study is trying to show how reliable witness statements are in these kinds of cases.

They let me chill on a couch and I got to watch several half-decent black and white Sherlock Holmes films while I waited. I wasn't allowed to leave until my levels had dropped. I was sent on my way with $30 and a free taxi ride. I think I took my ride downtown to get pizza. It was a well deserved treat after I donated my time and my body to keeping the streets safe at night.

It was certainly an Adventure in Alcohol, one that will forever live in the annals of science.

Recipe for Scientific Screwdriver-Shots:

Obtain small paper cups. Bigger than those ones you see used for ketchup pumps at a fast food restaurant. Smaller than a full- or half-sized cup though. You (hopefully) don't know what the Dixie cups in my grandma's bathroom look like but I am picturing those.

- Place large ice cube(s) into the cup. Attempt to fill it around halfway with ice.
- Fill in the cracks with your choice of vodka. Maybe a polish vodka like Żubrówka (Zoo-brov-ka)*. Cover the ice, make it float a little.
- There should be room left for some OJ. Go more upmarket with your OJ than the UWO Psych Department did in the early '00s. You should be filling about 1/3 of the glass that remains, largely for colour. Stir with a tongue depressor or similar medical implement.

The whole experience will be more authentic if the ingredients are stored in graduated cylinders.

Self medicate as needed.

* Wanting to confirm if there were really buffalos in Poland (as depicted on the Żubrówka bottle) a Google search for 'Polish Buffalo' lead to, I kid you not, several top results from Buffalo, New York. There are apparently lots of Polish in Buffalo but not many Buffalos in Poland. Only later down the page do we see the Wikipedia Article for Żubrówka, where a further click reveals that there aren't so many Buffalos in Poland. Known as the Wisent, they were classified as an endangered species in 1996 but have bounced back a little since then.

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