Science is full of surprises, but what's the strangest experiment ever done...
I always had a knack for noticing the weird in scientific research. When I first read about Pavlov's Dogs it didn’t take me long to find out that Ivan Petrovic Pavlov holds an unusual record: no other scientific experiment has had more bands named after it than his conditioning study. To name a few: "Pavlov’s Dog," "Pavlov’s Dawgs," "Pavlov’s Cat", "Conditioned Response", Ivan Pavlov and the Salivation Army", "Pavlov’s Dog and the Condition Reflex Soul Revue and Concert Choir". I also did an informal study about the use of film titles in scientific papers coming up with such specimens as “Sex, Lies and herbicides”, “One flew over the conflict of interest nest” or “The unbearable lightness of being a cirrhotic”. But my real expertise lies in the realm of weird experiments.
For almost ten years I’ve been collecting papers about all kinds of attempts trying to answer some of the really big questions in science by the means of ingenious experiments: does staring into the eyes of an on-coming driver increase your luck as a hitch hiker? (Yes it does.) Are theology students who are about to give a talk on the biblical story of the good Samaritan likely to help a needy passer-by? (No they aren’t.) Will a chimp imitate humans when it is raised with a child of the same age? (No it doesn’t, rather the child will start imitating the chimp.) I do have a regular column (in German) about such stories from the fringes of science in the magazine NZZ Folio and my book about weird experiments has just been published in the UK (“The Mad Science Book”, Quercus).
What makes collecting accounts of weird experiments especially attractive is that experiments are different from every other scientific activity. Unlike theorizing, experimenting has an inborn drama: if you want to test a hypothesis you have to get up from your armchair and deal with the messy aspects of reality. And as theory and the real world collide unexpected things happen all the time which makes for exciting stories.
Some time ago I began to wonder which experiment would qualify as the weirdest of them all. I compiled a list of my personal ten finalists and put it on the web. For several months people have been voting for their favourite. Here are the interim results of this ongoing poll:
The current leader is a Swiss study from 1955: psychiatrists at the Friedmatt Sanatorium and Nursing Home in Basel were trying to diagnose schizophrenia by looking at webs spun by spiders who were administered urine of schizophrenics. They found out the obvious: Spiders don’t like urine.
Runner up is the so called Dr-Fox-Study: In the 1970s an actor was trained to deliver a brilliant talk but saying basically nothing. The experts in the audience didn't notice it.
Third is the Romanian forensic scientist Nicolas Minovici who hung himself and some of his collaborators 12 times in order to find out what happens when someone is hanged. In his 200-plus page article he always apologises that he couldn’t take being hanged longer than several seconds. His conclusions ended a controversy in the field: a person who is hanged passes out from disrupting the blood supply to brain not from suffocation.
Fourth: The three Christs of Ypsilanti. American psychologist Milton Rokeach tried to find out what happens if you bring three men together who all think they are Jesus? His subjects were unimpressed. Each of them found a perfect reason why the other two were impostors. One of the explanations was disarmingly logical: the two others couldn’t be Jesus because they were self-evidently patients in a psychiatric institution.
Fifth: On Good Friday 1962 researcher Walter Pahnke administered to ten theology students mind-altering drugs before the church service - with surprising consequences. Even 25 years after the experiment the test subjects - a lot of them became priests - described the Good Friday service of 1962 as one of the – literally - high points in their spiritual lives.
Further back one finds a dog meeting a robot dog, another forensic doctor crucifying volunteers, 11 men lying in bed for one full year without getting up once, a Spanish neurologist using a remote control to telecommand a bull during a bull fight, and students walking around on campus and asking everybody: would you go to bed with me tonight?
If you would like to participate in the poll go to madsciencebook.com. There you’ll find a lot of strange video clips too and the weird experiments quiz.
Final results will be announced in due course.