The World's Scariest Science: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Bold innovation or terrible idea? Your guide to the experiments that only sound scary—and the lab work you truly should lose sleep over

In labs around the world, scientists are working to expand our understanding of the weird, the unexpected, and the potentially dangerous. Their aim is true, yet, many of these boundary-pushing projects carry serious potential for things to go wrong. Horribly wrong.

Suitcase Nukes
Scientists are trying to develop pure-fusion reactions—bursts that don't require uranium or plutonium to ignite—for clean energy. But they could also usher in so-called low-yield nuclear weapons that emit very little radiation and could be both small and difficult to detect. WHY, GOD, WHY? The civilian rationale is that pure-fusion nuclear power could supplement, if not replace, fossil fuels and conventional reactors. And the era of widespread nuclear weapons development is largely over. A 2008 report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Physical Society and the Center for Strategic and International Studies recommended extending the life of old nukes with upgraded warheads and onboard microsensors for quality control (rather than building anything new). But if scientists happen upon pure fusion, who knows what they might do with it? FEAR FACTOR Nuclear weapons are scary. The U.S. has already created small "bunker-buster" nukes that can penetrate underground targets. But weaponized pure fusion would require miniaturizing lasers or other trigger technologies that currently involve building-sized equipment. Of course, pure fusion may also be impossible. According to several reports, including declassified information from the Department of Energy, weapons scientists have tried and failed to pull it off since the 1950s, and funding for the research was banned in 1993. But Jeremy Tamsett, editor of the Journal of Strategic Security, says the 2004 Defense Authorization Act repealed the restrictions. And this year, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will attempt to create pure-fusion reactions with lasers at its National Ignition Facility. WORRY METER MediumJon Proctor
Mars Attacks
Rovers and probes have provided some info on Martian soil and climate, but scientists want to bring a chunk of the Red Planet down to Earth on what's called a sample-return mission. Uh, remember The Andromeda Strain? What happens if some freaky virus comes back on NASA's planned 2018 sample return? WHY, GOD, WHY? Martian probes can't carry the full spectrum of scientific gear and monitors to the dirt, but they can bring the dirt back to instruments on Earth, buying time and flexibility for testing. And when it comes to Mars rocks, scientists love time and flexibility. Researchers spent more than a decade studying the Martian rock known as the Allen Hills meteorite (and found possible fossil evidence of life). If and when we bring back a coffee-cup-size sample from Mars in 2018, it will also need Earth-bound scrutiny. FEAR FACTOR NASA's Planetary Protection division ("Our mission is to prevent biological cross-contamination") plans to house everything in a special receiving facility on Earth similar to a level-4 biohazard-containment lab, the most secure kind. "The only thing that would be of concern is something that can replicate," says Margaret Race, a principal investigator with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute who focuses on contaminants and planetary protection. "If it's radiation or toxins, we can deal with that." She believes the Mars sample could be just as vulnerable to Earthly microbes as people might be to any Martian germs. "We've gotten very good at biocontainment," Race says. "If something goes wrong, we could just autoclave"—sterilize—"everything." WORRY METER LowJon Proctor
Bugs of War
Last January, at a conference in Sorrento, Italy, researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan shocked the crowd with a living, remote-control fruit beetle, part of a Pentagon-funded HI-MEMS ("hybrid insects microelectromechanical system") program to develop cyborg creepy-crawlies. Recently the Berkeley team created a remote-control fig beetle that they can launch and land and direct to the left and right. WHY, GOD, WHY? For years, Darpa, the Pentagon's experimental-research branch, has attempted to build true nano air vehicles, tiny aircraft that can act as miniature drones in war zones. Adapting real insects turns out to be simpler—their bodies accept implants easily, and they're hardy, fast and nimble. They also blend in outdoors. FEAR FACTOR As sinister as they seem, the tiny cyborgs aren't yet a threat to Al Qaeda or your privacy. Even the fruit beetle isn't strong enough to carry much besides the electrodes and radio antennas that steer it. But researchers are working to breed stronger payload-bearing beetles and to develop components that could be powered by the insect's movement rather than by burdensome batteries. And here's something scary: The Berkeley scientists can now implant the MEMS equipment during the pupal stage so that the beetles emerge embedded with electrodes, ready to be wired up. Still, bugs may never join troops on the front lines. For one thing, their short life span makes all the expense of cyborging them difficult to justify. WORRY METER Medium-LowJon Proctor
Drug Thy Enemy
In 2005, researchers in Switzerland gave 29 test subjects a sniff of the neuropeptide oxytocin, a.k.a. the "love drug," known to play a role in developing trust and social attachment in mammals, before having them play a financial investment game. The result? Almost half of the trust-primed oxy sniffers handed all their francs to an anonymous partner. Now insiders say the military may be in the process of weaponizing oxytocin and similar compounds. WHY, GOD, WHY? Lead researcher Michael Kosfeld, who conducted the study at the University of Zurich, says the true value of oxytocin may be in treating people with social-anxiety disorder or to help relieve some symptoms of autism and Asperger's syndrome. But Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book Mind Wars: Brain Research and National Defense, believes such a drug could find a place in facilitating interrogations and negotiations, or in ending armed conflicts. FEAR FACTOR You don't have to worry about a used-car dealer spraying you with oxytocin—according to Kosfeld, it's almost impossible to aerosolize a dose. But squirted up the nose, the drug might induce cooperation during interrogations. The field is just getting started. Last year, bioethicist Malcolm Dando warned that calmatives are part of a paradigm shift in the biochemical-weapons world and that we shouldn't weaponize drugs, especially if we don't fully understand them. Recent Israeli research on human subjects, for instance, suggests that oxytocin might also increase antisocial behavior. WORRY METER Medium-HighJon Proctor
Smile Police
Last year, 500 or so employees of the Keihin Electric Express Railway in Tokyo lined up in front of a camera to be judged by the Japanese company Omron's Smile Scan software, which measures facial movement and rates smiles from 1 to 100. And smile enforcement is just the beginning; a whole slate of behavior-recognition software will someday pick people out of a crowd for insufficient perkiness. WHY, GOD, WHY? It's not Orwell—it's Omron's OKAO Vision facial-recognition software suite, developed to help machines understand facial expressions and now used to monitor fatigue in truck drivers. Smile Scan does its creepy evaluative thing in more than 100 Japanese businesses and organizations. FEAR FACTOR Behavior-recognition software has already infiltrated our lives. A system called NICE helps call centers determine when a phone customer is becoming angry, and surveillance systems like Perceptrak can detect suspicious behavior via camera. Researchers across the globe are refining what the technology can do. The next iterations, such as software by the British company OmniPerception, will identify—and perhaps someday decode—an individual's gait or smile. Soon even your living room will evaluate you: Last year, Sony applied for a patent on a mood-detecting device for its PlayStation 3. WORRY METER Medium-HighJon Proctor