Did they really do that?
Four decades ago, a group of scientists actually thought it was a good idea to give an elephant LSD
In a cartoon by former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe, a man reaches out and pulls a lever. Immediately a bolt of lightning strikes him from the sky. When the man is a "normal" person, he sensibly thinks, "I guess I shouldn't do that." When he is a scientist, however, he scratches his head and asks, "I wonder if that happens every time," and reaches again for the lever.
Curiosity is what makes scientists tick. This curiosity can lead to great discoveries, but it can also inspire bizarre experiments that appear highly peculiar
to the rest of society. Such experiments come in a number of different varieties.
At one end of the spectrum are the experiments that, in the words of Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research
, "first make you laugh, and then make you think." The research is serious, but the subject matter contains hints of the absurd.
For example, a 2006 study
at the University of Western Ontario sought to find out if the average dog would seek help in an emergency. Cooperative dog owners pretended to have a heart attack while walking their pet. At a pre-determined spot, they clutched their chest, cried out dramatically, then collapsed to the ground and feigned lifelessness. The dogs were not impressed. Most of them sniffed their owner a few times before wandering around aimlessly -- except for one toy poodle. This bold pooch rushed over to the nearest person, jumped up on her lap, and offered his belly to be petted. The researchers concluded that most dog owners should not expect their pet to turn into Lassie during an emergency.
Then there are the bizarre experiments that make you cringe, not laugh. The classic example is the 1962 elephant-on-acid experiment. A trio of Oklahoma City researchers became curious about what would happen if they gave an elephant LSD. There was just one problem. They had no clue how much LSD to give it.
Elephants are really big creatures, so the researchers figured their subject would need a really big dose. They settled on 297 milligrams, about 3000 times the level of a normal human dose. They shot the drug into the elephant's rump. It trumpeted angrily, woozily rocked back and forth, then keeled over. Soon, tragically, it was dead. In the article that appeared in Science
a few months later, the researchers euphemistically noted, "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD." The lesson is that having three researchers work on a problem does not make it three times more likely someone will display common sense.
And then there are the experiments that simply make you shake your head in disbelief and exclaim, "Someone really did that?" Stubbins Ffirth was a doctor-in-training who lived in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia. To gain his medical degree, he undertook to determine whether yellow fever is contagious. He used himself as the test subject, exposing himself to the disease in every way he could imagine. He smeared himself with the blood, urine, sweat, and black vomit of yellow-fever patients. He dribbled the vomit into his eyes. He even drank undiluted vomit fresh from the mouth of a patient.
Miraculously, Ffirth didn't get sick, prompting him to declare yellow fever non-contagious. Of course, he was wrong. It hadn't occurred to him to test for transmission by mosquito bite. Ffirth's experiment demonstrates the difficulty of identifying all the possible variables in a real-world situation.
The history of science is full of bizarre experiments. Many of them, for all their weirdness, display a touch of genius. In 1978, Russell Clark published results of an experiment
in which students from his psychology class sexually propositioned strangers in public places to find out if men and women responded differently. No surprise, almost all men accepted the invitation, and all women rejected it. Initially ridiculed by the scientific community (journals refused to publish it for years), the study now earns widespread praise for demonstrating the importance of gender differences in sexual attitudes, something to which psychologists had previously paid little attention.
Unfortunately, if you're designing an experiment that makes your colleagues raise their eyebrows in surprise, it can be very difficult to know if you're heading down the path of genius or madness. The difference usually only becomes apparent in hindsight.
Alex Boese's book about bizarre experiments, Elephants on Acid from Harcourt, goes on sale November 5, 2007. He is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes, and lives near San Diego.
Links within this article:
L. Walsh, "D'ya hear about the moon bison?" The Scientist
, March 2, 2007.
Annals of Improbable Research
K. Macpherson and WA Roberts, "Do dogs (Canis familiaris) seek help in an emergency?" Journal of Comparative Psychology
, May 2006.
RD Clark, "Gender differences in receptivity to sexual offers," Journal of Psychology and Human Sexuality
, August 1989.
A. Boese, Elephants on Acid
Museum of Hoaxes