Spiders and Bycicles

From The Archives
Since everyone is posting about spiders this week, I though I’d republish a sweet old post of mine, which ran on April 19, 2006 under the title “Happy Bicycle Day!” I hope you like this little post as much as I enjoyed writing it:

fish%20on%20a%20bicycle.jpgThis week’s theme for the Tar Heel Tavern is bicycle. I was wondering what to write about. Perhaps about crazy bicycle rides I had as a kid. Or a fun riff on “fish needing a bicycle”. Then, I was saved! Because, today is the Bicycle Day! That’s just great, because I can go on a scientific tangent with a local flavor.
If you do not know what Bicycle Day is, let me tell you: it is commemorating the most famous bycicle ride in history, which was also the very first acid trip in history:

At 4:20 in the afternoon, on April 19th, 1943, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann deliberately ingested 250 micrograms of LSD-25, a substance he had discovered during experiments with alkaloids of the fungus ergot. Despite the vanishingly small dosage, he soon found himself stricken with dizziness, euphoria, and an inescapable compulsion to laugh. Within the hour, he could barely write or speak intelligibly, and fearing he’d poisoned himself, rode his bicycle to his nearby home, called a doctor, asked for a glass of milk and collapsed on a sofa.

If you follow that link above, you’ll see how the story ends, and it is a really compelling story.
[Update: According to Wikipedia:

The discoverer of LSD, Dr. Albert Hofmann, writes in his book “LSD: My Problem Child” that his first self-experiment with the drug occurred at 4:20 in the afternoon on April 16, 1943.

Which may connect 4/19 to 4/20…
(Hat-tip Dave Munger, after I looked up the meaning of 420, prompted by reference by Nicomachus)]
But let me move on to the scientific and local touch on this story. Just five years later, in 1948., zoologist H. M. Peters was studying how spiders spin their webs. He was irritated by the fact that he had to do all his research late at night. So, he asked his friend and colleague, pharmacologist Peter Witt if there is a substance that could be given to spiders that would make them spin their webs during the day. Peter suggested amphetamines. The rest is history:

Unfortunately, the drug did not have the desired effect. “The spiders built at their usual hours. Yet surprisingly the web structure was definitely altered: the radial threads as well as the catching spiral were placed irregularly.”
Then Witt tried mescaline, strychnine, caffeine, and others. Low-dosed caffeinated spiders produced a smaller but wider web with a normal spiral but radii at oversized angles. At higher doses, like with the other drugs, web regularity got distorted. Only with low doses of the hallucinogen LSD-25 did the spiders spin webs of GREATER regularity.

Peter Witt made his name studying effects of various drugs on spiders. You can read about it in his delightful book.
But, where did he do all those experiments? Well, right here in Raleigh, NC.
There was, once upon a time, an exciting behavioral neurobiology group, of which Dr.Witt was the Director, doing research at the Dorothea Dix mental hospital. However, with some changes in legislation, the institute had to be closed and the researchers found jobs in the area universities (e.g., John Vandenbergh in the Department of Zoology at NCSU in Raleigh, Ronald Oppenheim at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, etc.).
Peter Witt was an adjunct at both NCSU and UNC-Chapel Hill. From 1966 till 1988 he lived on a big farm in Knightdale and later moved to Raleigh. For more biographical information, as well as for another wonderful side of Peter Witt’s character you just HAVE to read this article. I said, you HAVE to read that article!
I had the honor of meeting Peter Witt in the summer of 1998, just a couple of weeks before he died. It was at a birthday party which, of course, was a really fun party because there were about a dozen neuroscientists there and neuroscientists are the most fun scientists of all.
A couple of years later, I was a teaching assistant in a course in which students did their own independent research projects. One of my students decided to follow in Peter Witt’s footsteps. She injected the spiders with serotonin (I could not find in the literature if anyone has ever done this).
What she discovered was that the webs looked quite regular, but the spiders were rushing to finish them. Instead of many many many loops of the spiral, they weaved just a few. The results looked something like this:
On the left is the web of a normal untreated spider. On the right is a web spun by a spider on pervitine (a benzedrine stimulant). The serotonin results were quite similar to pervitine, perhaps a little bit more regular. And that web does look a little bit like a wheel on a bicycle, doesn’t it?

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