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From The Writer’s Desk: Drunk Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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So after months in the making, Drunk Science finally appeared. Let me talk here about how fun it was, and how I or anyone else involved will never, ever do it again.

So what is Drunk Science? The idea is based off the Drunk History video series (now a television show!), wherein history experts get drunk and try, as best as they can, to discuss Ben Franklin or some other matter in history. Every now and again said historian vomits off camera.

Why should the humanities have all the fun? To that end, Maggie Koerth-Baker, columnist at The New York Times Magazine, science editor at BoingBoing, recruited me in what was thought of as the first in a series of Drunk Science videos. I was excited because it was essentially science gonzo journalism in action.

So here’s why there will only be one Drunk Science video from us.

The plan was to get me drunk and then, after I quickly read a recent scientific paper, explain it the best that I could. Due to an Internet malfunction, I was just made drunk and asked to explain whatever scientific topic anyone in the room lobbed at me. (We all met to do this at ScienceOnline2013.)

I ended up having five Irish car bombs, five doubles of Jameson’s, two beers and a good swig from my hip flask. Since Irish car bombs are essentially two drinks in one, made up as they are of a beer and a shot of liquor, and since a double is by definition two shots, I ultimately drank 23 drinks that night. In the span of an hour.

Yeah. That was a lot.

And then I experienced the first blackout of my life.

*

Alcohol apparently impairs memory by disrupting function in the hippocampus. It can break down the transfer of short-term memory into long-term storage and subsequent retrieval.

The experience of a blackout is one I found profoundly both fascinating and upsetting. I know I must sound terribly naive to others who’ve experienced blackouts before, but here’s what sets me apart from most — I actually have video of what I did during my lost time. I can actually see what I lost.

It is an incredibly strange feeling, watching yourself do and say things you have absolutely no memory of, almost as if you’re watching an alternate universe. It’s very disconcerting having others tell you what you did the other night, until you begin to wonder that you might have done anything.

As neuroscientist David Eagleman and others have pointed out, we are all essentially really living about 80 milliseconds in the past, due to the time it takes for the brain to process what the senses tell us. When you think an event occurs, it has already happened; we live in an illusion of the present. Blacking out made me realize quite deeply how fragile an illusion consciousness and the stories we tell ourselves about the world can be.

*

My plan originally was to have “just” five Irish car bombs. I usually get drunk by three. However, after five, I was deeply surprised to not be drunk. That’s when the doubles began, in an effort to get me smashed. Our aim with Drunk Science wasn’t to get me tipsy, which we didn’t think would be as interesting, but to get me trashed.

Looking back, what I think happened was that adrenaline masked the effects of alcohol. I was pumped to finally do Drunk Science after months of waiting, and many fellow science writers in the bar of the conference hotel were cheering me on. I’ve never had a drink while on an adrenaline high before.

However, once the adrenaline wore off, all the alcohol essentially kicked in at once. There’s video of me appearing a bit tipsy, but then startlingly degenerating over the course of about 15 minutes.

I only remember the first 15 minutes of recording Drunk Science. The next thing I remember is waking up with nearly all my clothes off in bed and wondering, “Who took off my clothes? Why am I wrapped up in my bed like a mummy?”

They had wrapped me up tightly and slightly tilted on the bed because they were afraid I might choke to death on my own vomit in my sleep. And you see, that’s why we’re not making another Drunk Science. Because as fun as it was to make, it was also very harrowing.

Maggie was afraid we might have all killed me. She woke up at 6, called my cell (didn’t work; I had silenced it during conference panels at ScienceOnline2013), went down to the hotel front desk to try and reach my room’s phone, and finally did. I can only imagine how she felt before she confirmed that I was alive.

We all agreed to do this, and we’re all fine with the results, and we’re probably all happy that it happened. But yeah, Maggie and I have no desire to ever do it again. I certainly don’t want people to be afraid that I might die — I don’t want to put other people through that. I certainly don’t want to court death. In retrospect, I’m a bit aghast at what the legal liability was.

I apparently veered into some very dark places of my soul while I was drunk, by the way. Everyone else in the room agreed to delete those moments. I’ve never seen them. (As I repeatedly said that night, “Alcohol is a chemical depressant, Mmmmmmmmmaaaaaggie.”)

*

I do have to say that everyone who was there in the room with me really stepped up and took care of me. As Maggie has said, it took nine other people, and even then that was barely enough. Those people have been supportive to an extremely touching degree, and I can’t thank them enough. I can’t imagine what the experience would be like for either the drunk or the interviewers were less supportive.

It is a very odd feeling to be a bonding moment for others and not remember why. It is very strange seeing a distinct warmth in people’s eyes because they’ve seen into your dark places and apparently care for you more because of it, and not truly understand because you’ve lost that moment.

Those are the kind of moments you wish you don’t lose in blackouts.

I was apologizing all the next day for my pukey behavior — apparently, I vomited three times that night. Perhaps wisely, the decision was that night to actually have me drink a little more booze, knowing that I’d vomit it out and purge as much alcohol out of my system as possible before filling me up with water. (The vomiting is why I had my clothing removed, by the way.) The next day, barring the need for a morning nap, I was surprisingly fine, enough that multiple people openly expressed surprise I was still standing, much less walking and talking.

So it was fun, really. But it was a lot more intense than we all expected, physically and emotionally. I cannot imagine how Drunk History does it. I dearly hope they have emergency medical personnel nearby during filming, and perhaps a counselor or at least a couple of good friends.

All in all, this is one of those fabulous things we will never, ever do again.

Charles Q. Choi About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. M Tucker 6:05 pm 07/25/2013

    History experts! Seriously, you thought they were history ‘experts’ or even actual professional historians? How did you ever come up with that? Look the show is fine, even entertaining, mostly. But it is all in the scripting; with a drunken actor trying to remember the script; lots of retakes; a good cast of actors, whose voices we never hear, acting out the drunk actors story; and vomit. It’s the vomit I can do without. Sometimes the drunken actor is shown crawling on the floor trying to deal with the alcohol; I can do without that too.

    But this is for kids and people who think drunken actors vomiting are hilarious. I have a hard time watching when the drunken puke begins. I just don’t find it entertaining watching people puke. That said maybe some young folks might learn a little history while they watch. Maybe they might be inspired to pick up a book and learn a little more. Since the History Channel has given up on history Drunk History is about all we got…maybe the occasional show on PBS.

    It’s all in the story and the story teller. The best part of Drunk History is how the story is told and having an actor do the telling, I think, makes it work. For me it isn’t about the overt drunk behavior. Drunk History could do a science story. Some of the best science stories are now part of history.

    Sorry you had such a tough time Charles. Blackouts can be disturbing. Actually if you are not disturbed by the blackout, and you continue to drink and blackout, you might have a problem in the making.

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  2. 2. Janthro 3:52 pm 07/26/2013

    23 drinks in an hour? Give me a break. I’m starting to detect James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Just too, too cool to actually be real. Why is this in Scientific American? What’s next, Punked Science, where we all can see if a scientist can be fooled by Uri Geller or something? Mr. Choi is very lucky to have survived this media hazing incident. I bear witness to the deaths of kids who did the same stupid thing and died from alcohol poisoning. One of the most stupidly irresponsible blogs I’ve read in SA. It was once about science, not wondering whether some educated idiot is going to drown in his own vomit. God, the times are a changing and the saddest part is that SA would be the first to lament the dumbing down of Americans. Absolutely pathetic.

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  3. 3. pezdispens3r 11:52 am 07/27/2013

    I’m glad you threw up. I’m glad you had people around to look after you. What you did was so, so dangerous. Maybe experiment with Stoned Science next time? It won’t do so much damage to your liver.

    Link to this

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