After all

E&T looks at the power of experiment - and recalls one unfortunate trial.

Trial & terror

An experiment is always useful, even if it goes wrong. When Albert Michelson and Edward Motley failed to detect any influence of the Earth's motion on the velocity of light, their efforts were used by Albert Einstein as the starting point for his theory of relativity.

However, the power of experiment stretches well beyond engineering and science. Trying new methods and approaches, learning from our errors, all of us - technocrats and humanitarians alike - take part in the unending process of ‘engineering' our own attitudes. Experience is therefore invaluable, for it is life's only commodity that cannot be bought, learned or borrowed, but has to be lived through.

My own most memorable life experiment goes back to the early 1980s and has a lot to do with pineapples. Let me explain.

As a teenager in the old Soviet Union, I had a fascination with the poetry of Igor Severianin, an early 20th century Russian symbolist, whose work was branded "decadent" and "anti-social" by Soviet officialdom. In all the 70 years of Soviet power, only a couple of his books were published. They immediately became bibliographic rarities.

I particularly enjoyed Severianin's collection of poems under the title ‘Pineapples in Champagne', which, to me, did sound "decadent" and therefore irresistible - largely due to the fact that pineapples in the USSR were as rare as snowstorms in the Sahara.

I had my first pineapple at the age of ten at my friend's birthday party. His father had just returned from Moscow where he acquired this exotic fruit from a street vendor after four hours of queuing.

We had never seen a pineapple before, only read about it in the poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, which was compulsory learning in our school curriculum:

"Gobble up pineapples

And munch hazel-hens -

Your final hours are approaching,

You vicious capitalist!"

The magic "capitalist" fruit was cut into a dozen thin, almost transparent, slices - one for each guest. I will never forget the taste. How shall I describe it? Blissful? Divine? I didn't know the word "orgasmic" then...

I had my second, third and fifty-fifth pineapples 20 years later, in 1984, when on a journalistic assignment to the town of Blagoveshchensk in the Soviet Far East, a ten-hour flight from Moscow.

Situated on the bank of the Amur River, Blagoveshchensk was entirely unremarkable, and all the town's food shops were as bare as everywhere else in the USSR. Practically nothing was on sale. "Milk is available only to the sick in possession of a doctor's prescription," ran the handwritten signs in shop-windows. 

However, a couple of weeks before my arrival, a stray foreign freighter had been stranded in the town's port. She was carrying a load of Vietnamese pineapples, which were starting to rot. There was little choice but to unload several hundred tonnes of this cargo in Blagoveshchensk and sell it through local shops.

So it was that this God-forsaken town briefly became the pineapple capital of the Soviet Union, if not of the whole world. Pineapples were sold on every street corner. They were piled in the windows of all the town's stores, even bookshops. The air smelt of rotting pineapples, which became the main (and often the only) component of the locals' diet. Kids were having pineapple sandwiches for their school lunches. Drunks in parks and gateways were munching on pineapples to chase their glasses of vodka - a substitute for herring and pickled cucumbers - not seen in Blagoveshchensk since the 1950s.

Whether I wanted it or not, I suddenly had to eat pineapple three times a day.

After a week of such enforced tropical diet my tongue felt as rough and rigid as sandpaper. I was also suffering from a permanent thirst that was impossible to quench, owing to the breakdown of the town's plumbing system, only boiling water was coming out of both taps in my hotel room.

Experiment in decadence

It was then that I recalled the title of Igor Severianin's collection - ‘Pineapples in Champagne' - and decided to diversify my monotonous pineapple menu by adding a touch of decadence to it.

The immediate problem was champagne - not just unseen, but also unheard of in Blagoveshchensk. Instead, I had to satisfy myself with a bottle of cheap sparkling plonk which I had put into a permanently empty fridge in my hotel room.

The fridge did a good job, and by the time of my ultimate decadent experience, the plonk was frozen stiff, and I had to melt it by leaving the bottle on a hot windowsill for a while.

I chopped the pineapple into chunks and tossed them into the glass. A great bubbling and foaming ensued - you can observe a similar chemical reaction if you drop a piece of chalk into a cup of vinegar. The chemical composition of the plonk was probably close to that of sulphuric acid.

Without waiting for the foaming to subside, I gulped the glass down, choking simultaneously on the icy plonk and on a pineapple chunk.

When I stopped coughing, I felt as if I had just swallowed an ice-cold grater made of stainless steel. Yet, with a truly Soviet stoicism better known as stupidity, I carried on with my decadent experiment until both the plonk and the pineapple were gone. In fact, they didn't disappear completely, but - in accordance with the preservation of matter law - continued their boisterous struggle in my stomach throughout the night. By the following morning, their battle had reached truly revolutionary dimensions. A civil war between two utterly incompatible substances was under way inside me. I had also lost my voice and was suffering from severe flu. Lying on my bed, I was sweating, shivering and moaning silently.

I was saved by the editor of a local rag who popped in unannounced for a courtesy chat. Having appraised the situation with one quick glance at the mess on the table and at my wriggling supine body, he asked briskly: "What have you drunk?"

"Pineapples in champagne," I croaked.

"Don't move!" he barked, and rushed out. Five minutes later, he returned with a bottle of vodka and a huge leaking packet of table salt. He poured vodka into a glass, added a generous handful of salt, stirred it violently with his rough, nicotine-stained index finger (I nearly threw up at the sight) and handed it over to me.

"Drink!"

I tried to protest, but he forced the concoction down my throat.

A flash of lightning pierced my brain. A volcano erupted inside me. I don't remember how I reached the bathroom.

The editor's treatment worked, and two hours later I was cured and felt as fresh as a proverbial Russian cucumber.

But the memories of that near-fatal fruity (if not exactly fruitful) experiment keep pounding in my head (and in my stomach) until now - particularly when I see a fresh pineapple on a London fruit stall.

Readers are invited to share their personal experience of experiments - both successful and disastrous. The best (and funniest) stories will be published - vvitaliev@theiet.org

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