Science villains

Villains of science: Ted Kaczynski and Henry Murray

By | Science villains

This story is by Dr Carleton Coffrin and was part of the Villains of Science show in 2013. You can hear him tell the story here.

It is a brisk spring evening on May 22, 1942. At this time, the TV is a cutting-edge technology and the world is knee-deep in World War II. But today two Polish-American immigrants are very happy as their second son was born, Theodore Kaczynski. Or Ted, for short.

By todays standards, Ted was a classic geek. One part brilliant academic and one part socially awkward, he could have been a guest star on The Big Bang Theory. With an IQ of 167, he was smart. So smart that he skipped several grades, and completed high school at 15, that’s two to three years ahead of schedule, by American standards.

Being a child prodigy, Ted was *invited* to apply to Harvard. And was of course happy to attend, starting his studies in 1958.

Ted graduated from Harvard University at the age of 20, and subsequently enrolled at the University of Michigan, where he earned a PhD in mathematics.

Ted’s work was astounding. Regarding his PhD, Maxwell Reade said, “I would guess that maybe 10 or 12 men in the country understood it or even appreciated it.”

Ted had all the makings of one of America’s academic elite. Childhood prodigy. Brilliant PhD thesis. The works.

So it is no surprise that directly out of graduate school, at the age of 24, he became an assistant professor of mathematics at Berkeley.  At that time, he was the youngest professor ever hired by the university.

Unfortunately, things don’t always work out in academia. Just two years into his professorship, Ted resigned, without any explanation.

So what did he do? He did what every 26-year-old does after quitting their job: he went back home to live with his parents. Ted was ahead of his time in so many ways.

After two years of planning (at his parents’ house), he moved to Lincoln, Montana. Just to give you an idea of what this means, Montana is 50% larger than Victoria and has ¼ of the population of Melbourne.  It is the boondocks. In Montana Ted lived a simple life.  He had very little money, lived in a remote cabin he built himself with no electricity or running water (so basically, Ted was a hipster … in 1971).

However, his dream of a simple life was slowly crushed as new housing developments and industry surrounded his hand-made abode. Ted was deeply worried that the industrial revolution had brought about a change in human society that could not be reversed.  He once wrote:

“I don’t think it can be un-done. In part because of the human tendency to take the path of least resistance. People take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system.”

Oh, Ted, only if you knew what the hipster revolution would have to offer!

Over the 70s, 80s, and 90s Ted’s passion for returning to a simpler existence intensified. This ultimately lead to his most high read publication, Industrial society and its future, which is a 35,000 word essay that was published in the New York Times AND the Washington Post on September 19th 1995.

In this manifesto Ted put forward his bold philosophy including statements such as “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” “Eventually it will permanently reduce human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine,” “I think that the only way we will get rid of it, is if it breaks down and collapses …”

At this point, you may be thinking:

  1. Wow, that’s some pretty revolutionary stuff!  Good on you Ted.
  2. Or, isn’t this meant to be science villains night?  This Ted guy sounds great to me.
  3. Or maybe, HOW DID HE MANAGE TO GET a 35,000 word soap-box rant into the New York Times!?!?

Wellllllll … there is a little tid-bit about Ted I have failed to tell you. He is most widely-known by another name: the Unabomber. He acquired this alias by distributing 16 home-made bombs to people randomly in the United States over the course of 17 years. These disturbing acts resulted in three deaths and 23 injuries.

During these 17 years, the FBI set-up a hotline for tips relating to Ted’s case.  The hotline received about a thousand calls a day (that may have had something to do with the $1 million reward).

No matter the sincerity of his goals, what Ted did is deplorable. There is no doubt, Ted is a villain. However, with only a handful of peer reviewed publications to his name, he just doesn’t have the chops to cut it as MY villain of science. For that, I need to make a costume change …

I am now, Henry Murray. The year is 1947, World War II is over and America is indulging in the post-war peace and prosperity. After a wartime stint in the Office of Strategic Services (which is now known as the CIA), I have just returned to Harvard to resume my teaching and research initiatives in a relatively new field, called psychology. Using my World War II government connections, I have become one of the fortunate few to be part of a research project called MK-Ultra. But Shhhhh don’t tell anyone. MK-Ulta is a covert human research operation, experimenting in the behavioural engineering of humans (ya know, mind control). It is even secretly funded through the CIA’s Scientific Intelligence Division.

In retrospect, people may tell you that integrating subjects under the influence of LSD, or using psychological torture in experiments, is “disturbing” or “ethically indefensible”.  But this was essential to our national security. There is a war on.  A cold war.

I will be using the students of my undergraduate class as subjects in my first experiment. (However, this project is so top-secret, I can’t even tell my human test subjects that they are part of the experiment.)

Ok, let me tell you about the experiment:

  1. I will ask the students to make a personal diary, a very personal diary. Everything from their greatest aspirations to their darkest sexual fantasies.
  2. I will tell the students that they will be sharing these diaries with their fellow students and “debating” the topics within.
  3. However, this is just a smoke screen. When they arrive for the debate, I will take them to an interrogation room, ya know an overhead light/one way mirror, the whole thing. And strap them down in a chair with EKG monitoring. We need data, this is science after all.
  4. Then my professional interrogator will use the personal essays to try and anger and humiliate the student.  Meanwhile I will be taping their response from behind the one-way mirror.
  5. I will have the students come back again-and-again, to re-watch themselves being humiliated on the video.
  6. Observe the results.

Over the course of the experiment, one student has been particularly outstanding. We call him, “Lawful”. So honest, so innocent, and only 16. He is my prime subject and the most responsive to the experiment.

Now let me break character and reflect.

The year is 1958, Lawful is a 16 year-old Harvard undergrad. How many could there be? You may have guessed it, this star subject was none-other-than Ted Kazinsky. The same person who later went on to become the Unabomber!

There is no excuse for what Ted did. And we will never know how much Henry Murray’s unethical experiments influenced Ted’s life. But for taking a socially-fragile 16 year-old child-prodigy, and using him as a test subject in a brainwashing psychological-torture experiment … Henry Murray is my science villain.

Thank you.