I STARTED collecting examples of bizarre experiments years ago while in graduate school studying the history of science. I confess I had no profound intellectual motive; I simply found them fascinating. They filled me with disbelief, astonishment, disgust and - best of all - laughter. With hindsight, perhaps there is a deeper message. These experiments are not the work of cranks.
All were performed by honest, hard-working scientists who were not prepared to accept common-sense explanations of how the world works. Sometimes such single-mindedness leads to brilliant discoveries. At other times it can end up closer to madness. Unfortunately, there's no way of knowing in advance where the journey will lead. Here are 10 of the bizarrest experiments of all time - which, it must be said, mostly fall closer to madness than to genius.
What happens if you give an elephant LSD? Researchers solved this mystery on Friday 3 August 1962, when Warren Thomas, director of Lincoln Park Zoo in Oklahoma City, fired a cartridge-syringe containing 297 milligrams of LSD into the rump of Tusko the elephant. With Thomas were two colleagues from the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, Louis Jolyon West and Chester M. Pierce.
The dose was about 3000 times what a human would typically take. Thomas, West and Pierce figured that if they were going to give an elephant LSD they'd better not give it too little. They later explained that the experiment was designed to find out if LSD would induce musth in an elephant - musth being a kind of temporary madness male elephants sometimes experience during which they become highly aggressive and secrete a sticky fluid from their temporal glands. One may also suspect a small element of ghoulish curiosity was involved.
Whatever the reason for the experiment, it almost immediately went awry. Tusko reacted as if he had been shot by a gun. He trumpeted around his pen for a few minutes and then keeled over. Horrified, the researchers tried to revive him with a variety of antipsychotics, but about an hour later he was dead. In an article published four months after the event (Science, vol 138, p 1100), the three scientists sheepishly concluded: "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD."
The experiment instantly made headlines. Faced with a public relations disaster, the scientists protested their innocence. They had not anticipated the elephant would die, they insisted. In their experience, LSD was a powerful hallucinogen but rarely fatal. West and Pierce helpfully noted that they themselves had previously taken the drug.
Thomas tried to find a silver lining. They had learned that LSD can be lethal to elephants. So perhaps, he mused, the drug could be used to destroy herds in countries where they are a problem. For some reason, his suggestion has never found any takers.
One day in the early 1960s, 10 soldiers boarded a plane at Fort Hunter Liggett military base in California on what they thought was a routine training mission. The plane climbed into the clear blue sky, levelled out at around 5000 feet and cruised for a few minutes before suddenly lurching to one side as a propeller failed.
The pilot struggled with the controls and yelled frantically into his headset. Finally, he made an announcement over the intercom: "We have an emergency. An engine has stalled and the landing gear is not functioning. I'm going to attempt to ditch in the ocean. Please prepare yourself."
In such a situation, it would have been natural for the soldiers to feel fear or even terror. But there was no need. Though they didn't know it, they were in no danger. They were unwitting subjects in a study designed by the United States Army Leadership Human Research Unit near Monterey, California. Its purpose was to examine behavioural degradation under psychological stress - specifically, the stress of imminent death.
Having created a fear-arousing situation, the researchers next introduced a task to measure the soldiers' performance under pressure. The task was something most people find difficult under normal circumstances: filling out insurance forms. A steward distributed the paperwork, explaining it as a bureaucratic necessity. If they were all going to die, the army wanted to make sure it was covered for the loss.
Obediently, the soldiers leaned forward in their seats, pencils in hand, and set to work. They found the forms unexpectedly difficult to decipher, and quite likely they attributed this to the distraction of approaching death. In fact, the forms had deliberately been written in a confusing manner. They were, as the researchers put it, "an example of deliberately bad human engineering".
Eventually the last soldier completed his form, and they all steeled themselves for the crash. At that point the pilot turned the plane around - "Just kidding about that emergency, folks!" - and landed safely at the airfield.
Not surprisingly, anticipating a crash landing did interfere with the ability to accurately complete an insurance form. The soldiers in the plane made a significantly larger number of mistakes than did a control group on the ground who filled out the same paperwork (Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, vol 76, p 1).
Quite what the soldiers thought about their ordeal we don't know, but one of them did find a way to get even. When the plane next took off carrying a new group of subjects to terrify, the researchers discovered their experiment had been ruined. One of the earlier group had blown their cover by writing a warning message on his airsick bag.
In 1933 Clarence Leuba, a professor of psychology at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, made his home the setting for an ambitious experiment. He planned to find out whether laughter is a learned response to being tickled or an innate one.
To achieve this goal, he determined never to allow his newborn son to associate laughter with tickling. This meant that no one - in particular, his wife - was allowed to laugh in the presence of the child while tickling or being tickled. Leuba planned to observe whether his son eventually laughed when tickled, or grew up dismissing wiggling fingers in his armpits with a stony silence.
Somehow Leuba got his wife to promise to cooperate, and so the Leuba household became a tickle-free zone, except during experimental sessions in which Leuba subjected R. L. Male, as he referred to his son in his research notes, to laughter-free tickling.
During these sessions, Leuba followed a strict procedure. First he donned a 30-centimetre by 40-centimetre cardboard mask, while as a further precaution maintaining a "smileless, sober expression" behind it. Then he tickled his son in a predetermined pattern - first light, then vigorous - in order of armpits, ribs, chin, neck, knees, then feet.
Everything went well until 23 April 1933, when Leuba recorded that his wife had made a confession. On one occasion, after her son's bath, she had "jounced him up and down while laughing and saying, 'Bouncy, Bouncy'." It is not clear if this was enough to ruin the experiment. What is clear is that by month 7, R. L. Male was happily screaming with laughter when tickled.
Undeterred, Leuba repeated the experiment after his daughter, E. L. Female, was born in February 1936. He obtained the same result. By the age of 7 months, his daughter was laughing when tickled (Journal of Genetic Psychology, vol 58, p 201).
Leuba concluded that laughter must be an innate response to being tickled. However, one senses a hesitation in his conclusion, as if he felt that it all might have been different if only his wife had followed his rules more carefully.
Leuba's tickle study does at least offer an object lesson to other researchers. In any experiment it is all but impossible to control all the variables, especially when one of the variables is your spouse.
Do emotions evoke characteristic facial expressions? Is there one expression everyone uses to convey shock, another for disgust, and so on? In 1924, Carney Landis, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Minnesota, designed an experiment to find out.
Landis brought subjects into his lab and drew lines on their faces with a burnt cork so that he could more easily see the movement of their muscles. He then exposed them to a variety of stimuli designed to provoke a strong emotional reaction. For instance, he made them smell ammonia, listen to jazz, look at pornographic pictures and put their hand into a bucket of frogs. As they reacted to each stimulus, he snapped pictures of their faces.
The climax of the experiment arrived when Landis carried in a live white rat on a tray and asked them to decapitate it. Most people initially resisted his request. They questioned whether he was serious. Landis assured them he was. The subjects would then hesitantly pick the knife up and put it back down. Many of the men swore. Some of the women started to cry. Nevertheless, Landis urged them on. In the pictures Landis took, we see them hovering over the rat with their painted faces, knife in hand. They look like members of some strange cult preparing to offer a sacrifice to the Great God of the Experiment.
Two-thirds of the subjects eventually did as they'd been told. Landis noted that most of them performed the task clumsily: "The effort and attempt to hurry usually resulted in a rather awkward and prolonged job of decapitation." Even when the subject refused, the rat did not get a reprieve. Landis simply picked up the knife and decapitated the rodent himself (Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol 4, p 447).
With hindsight, Landis's experiment presented a stunning display of the willingness of people to obey orders, no matter how unpalatable. It anticipated the results of Stanley Milgram's more famous obedience experiment at Yale University by almost 40 years (video at www.tinyurl.com/2hjyxq). Landis himself never realised that the compliance of his subjects was more interesting than their facial expressions. He remained single-mindedly focused on his research topic. And no, he was never able to find a single, characteristic facial expression that people adopt while decapitating a rat.
Robert E. Cornish, a researcher at the Berkeley campus of the University of California during the 1930s, believed he had found a way to restore life to the dead - at least in cases where major organ damage was not involved. His technique involved seesawing corpses up and down to circulate the blood while injecting a mixture of adrenalin and anticoagulants. He tested his method on a series of fox terriers, all of whom he named Lazarus after the biblical character brought back to life by Jesus.
First Cornish asphyxiated the dogs and let them be dead for 10 minutes. Then he attempted to revive them. His first two trials failed, but numbers 3 and 4 were a success. With a whine and a feeble bark, the dogs stirred back to life. Though blind and severely brain damaged, they lived on for months as pets in his home, reportedly inspiring terror in other dogs.
Cornish's research provoked such controversy that the University of California eventually ordered him off the campus. He continued his work in a tin shack attached to his house, despite complaints from neighbours that mystery fumes from his experiments were causing the paint on their homes to peel.
Many years later, in 1947, Cornish announced he was ready to experiment on a human being. He now had a new tool in his arsenal: a home-made heart-lung machine built out of a vacuum cleaner blower, radiator tubing, an iron wheel, rollers and 60,000 shoelace eyes. Thomas McMonigle, a prisoner awaiting execution on death row, volunteered to be his guinea pig, and Cornish asked the state of California for permission to proceed with his experiment. After some deliberation, the state turned him down. Apparently officials were worried that, should McMonigle come back to life, they might have to free him.
Disheartened, Cornish retreated to his home, where he eked out a living selling a toothpaste of his own invention.
In the summer of 1942, Lawrence LeShan of The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, stood in the darkness of a cabin in an upstate New York camp where a row of young boys lay sleeping. He intoned a single phrase, over and over: "My fingernails taste terribly bitter. My fingernails taste terribly bitter..." Anyone happening upon the scene might have thought LeShan had gone mad, but he had not. The professor was conducting a sleep-learning experiment.
All the boys had been diagnosed as chronic nail biters, and LeShan wanted to find out if nocturnal exposure to a negative suggestion could cure them. Initially he used a phonograph to faithfully repeat the phrase 300 times a night as the boys lay sleeping. One month into the experiment, a nurse discreetly checked their nails during a routine medical examination. One boy seemed to have kicked the habit. LeShan remarked that skin of a healthy texture had replaced the "coarse wrinkled skin of the habitual biter".
Then, five weeks into the investigation, disaster struck. The phonograph broke. Faced with having to abandon the experiment, LeShan began standing in the darkness and delivering the suggestion himself. Surprisingly, direct delivery had greater effect. Within two weeks, seven more boys had healthy nails. LeShan speculated that this was because his voice was clearer than the phonograph. Another possibility would be that his midnight confessions thoroughly spooked the children. "If I stop biting my nails," they probably thought, "the strange man will go away."
By the end of the summer, Leshan found that 40 per cent of the boys had kicked the habit, and concluded that the sleep-learning effect seemed to be real (Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, vol 37, p 406). Other researchers later disputed this. In a 1956 experiment at Santa Monica College in California, William Emmons and Charles Simon used an electroencephalograph to measure the brain activity of subjects, making sure they were fully asleep before playing a message. Under these conditions, the sleep-learning effect disappeared. (The American Journal of Psychology, vol 69, p 76).
While researching the sexual behaviour of turkeys, Martin Schein and Edgar Hale of Pennsylvania State University discovered that male members of that species truly are not fussy. When placed in a room with a lifelike model of a female turkey, the birds mated with it as eagerly as they would the real thing.
Intrigued by this observation, Schein and Hale embarked on a series of experiments to determine the minimum stimulus it takes to excite a male turkey. This involved removing parts from the turkey model one by one until the male bird eventually lost interest.
Tail, feet and wings - Schein and Hale removed them all, but still the clueless bird waddled up to the model, let out an amorous gobble, and tried to do his thing. Finally, only a head on a stick remained. The male turkey was still keen. In fact, it preferred a head on a stick to a headless body.
The researchers speculated that the males' head fixation stemmed from the mechanics of turkey mating. When a male turkey mounts a female, he is so much larger than her that he covers her completely, except for her head. Therefore, they suggested, it is her head that serves as his focus of erotic attention.
Schein and Hale then went on to investigate how minimal they could make the head before it failed to excite the turkey. They discovered that a freshly severed head on a stick worked best. Next in order of preference was a dried-out male head, followed by a two-year-old "discolored, withered, and hard" female head. Last place went to a plain balsa wood head, but even that elicited a sexual response. They published their results in 1965 in a book called Sex and Behavior.
Before we humans snicker at the sexual predelictions of turkeys, we should remember that our species stands at the summit of the bestial pyramid of the perverse. Humans will attempt to mate with almost anything. A case in point is Thomas Granger, the teenage boy who in 1642 became one of the first people to be executed in Puritan New England. His crime? He had sex with a turkey.
In 1954 Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov shocked the world by unveiling a surgically created monstrosity - a two-headed dog. He created the creature in a lab at the Moscow Institute of Surgery by grafting the head, shoulders and front legs of a puppy onto the neck of a mature German shepherd.
Demikhov invited reporters from around the world to witness his creation. Journalists gasped as the two heads simultaneously lapped at bowls of milk, and then cringed as the milk from the puppy's head dribbled out the disconnected stump of its oesophageal tube. Of course, the puppy did not need to eat or drink; it received all its nourishment from the circulatory system of the older dog. But it liked to drink because its mouth became dry. It also enjoyed licking candy.
Of particular interest was the extent to which the two heads shared a common set of sensory experiences. Reporters observed that when one head wanted to eat, so did the other. When it was hot, both panted. If one yawned, so did the other. Not all their emotions were identical, though. The older dog, annoyed at having the foreign head attached to his neck, occasionally tried to shake it off. This prompted the puppy to retaliate by biting his larger companion on the ear.
Demikhov's two-headed dog lived for only six days, but over the course of the next 15 years he constructed 19 more. None of these lived very long either - the record was a month - as they inevitably succumbed to tissue rejection. Demikhov seemed strangely naive about this, and frequently commented that the dogs died only because of imperfections in his surgical technique, which would soon be overcome. This attitude puzzled his western counterparts.
The Soviet Union proudly paraded the dogs as proof of the nation's medical pre-eminence, but most doctors in the west, while conceding Demikhov's skill as a surgeon, dismissed them as a publicity stunt. The western press eventually began referring to them as Russia's "surgical Sputnik". Demikhov justified his activities as part of a continuing series of experiments in surgical techniques, directed ultimately at learning how to perform a human heart transplant. Christiaan Barnard of the University of Cape Town in South Africa beat him to this goal in December 1967, but Demikhov is widely credited with paving the way.
How far would you go to prove your point? Stubbins Ffirth, a doctor-in-training living in Philadelphia during the early 19th century, went further than most. Way further.
Having observed that yellow fever ran riot during the summer, but disappeared over the winter, Ffirth hypothesised it was not a contagious disease. He reckoned it was caused by an excess of stimulants such as heat, food and noise. To prove his hunch, Ffirth set out to demonstrate that no matter how much he exposed himself to yellow fever, he wouldn't catch it.
He started by making a small incision in his arm and pouring "fresh black vomit" obtained from a yellow-fever patient into the cut. He didn't get sick.
But he didn't stop there. His experiments grew progressively bolder. He made deeper incisions in his arms into which he poured black vomit. He dribbled the stuff in his eyes. He filled a room with heated "regurgitation vapours" - a vomit sauna - and remained there for 2 hours, breathing in the air. He experienced a "great pain in my head, some nausea, and perspired very freely", but was otherwise OK.
Next Ffirth began ingesting the vomit. He fashioned some of the black matter into pills and swallowed them down. He mixed half an ounce of fresh vomit with water and drank it. "The taste was very slightly acid," he wrote. "It is probable that if I had not, previous to the two last experiments, accustomed myself to tasting and smelling it, that emesis would have been the consequence." Finally, he gathered his courage and quaffed pure, undiluted black vomit fresh from a patient's mouth. Still he didn't get sick.
Ffirth rounded out his experiment by liberally smearing himself with other yellow-fever tainted fluids: blood, saliva, perspiration and urine. Healthy as ever, he declared his hypothesis proven in his 1804 thesis.
He was wrong. Yellow fever, as we now know, is very contagious, but it requires direct transmission into the bloodstream, usually by a mosquito, to cause infection.
Considering the strenuous efforts Ffirth took to infect himself, it must be considered something of a miracle he remained alive. The bright spot for him was that, after all he put himself through, the University of Pennsylvania did award him the degree of Doctor of Medicine. What his patients made of him unfortunately remains unrecorded.
Some people can sleep through anything. Earthquakes, gunshots, bright lights - nothing rouses them. But these are people who are already asleep. In 1960, Ian Oswald of the University of Edinburgh, UK, wondered how much stimulus someone could be exposed to while awake and still drop off. Would it even be possible to fall asleep with your eyes open?
Oswald first asked his volunteers to lie down on a couch. Then he taped their eyes open. Directly in front of them, about 50 centimetres away, he placed a bank of flashing lights. No matter how much they rolled their eyes, they could not avoid looking at the lights. Electrodes attached to their legs delivered a series of painful shocks. As a finishing touch, Oswald blasted "very loud" blues music into their ears.
Three young men volunteered to be Oswald's guinea pigs. In his write-up, Oswald praised them for their fortitude. One of the men was severely sleep-deprived but the other two were fully rested. Remarkably, it didn't make any difference. Despite the shocks, lights, music and open eyes, an EEG showed all three men to be asleep within 12 minutes (British Medical Journal, 14 May 1960, p 1450).
Oswald worded his findings cautiously: "There was a considerable fall of cerebral vigilance, and a large decline in the presumptive ascending facilitation from the brain-stem reticular formation to the cerebral cortex." The men themselves were more straightforward. They said it felt like they had dozed off.
Oswald speculated that the key lay in the monotonous nature of the stimuli. Faced with such monotony, he suggested, the brain goes into a kind of trance. That may explain why it's easy to doze off, even in the middle of the day, while you are driving along an empty road.
How much this will help when sleep eludes you while you're stuck on a red-eye flight is another question. Asking the baby in the row behind you to scream more rhythmically is unlikely to do the trick.
Alex Boese is a writer based in San Diego, California. His new book Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments is published by Harcourt