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Funny, bad and ugly

Book>> Elephants on Acid and other bizarre experiments by Alex Boese Pan Mcmillan, London 2008

Published: Wednesday 15 October 2008

Tusko: killed by LSD overdose<

In 1962, the director of a zoo in Oklahama, usa injected Tusko, a 14-year old elephant, with around 300 milligrammes of lsd--about 3,000 times the typical human dose. He wanted to find out if the hallucinogenic drug could induce musth--the state of temporary madness in which male elephants become aggressive. Tusko died. The experiment attracted enormous media attention and three decades after his demise, the tusker's role in the history of science was recognized with first place in a list of the ten most bizarre experiments of all time, compiled for New Scientist.

The experiment has also inspired the historian of science, Alex Boese, to assemble more weird studies in Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments.Boese is well-qualified for the subject. As the curator of the on-line museum of hoaxes--www.museumofhoaxes.com.--he has received much critical acclaim. "To move from deliberate fakery to science gone awry, deliberately or not, is, but a small step," he argues.

Boese's collection delves into the interface between the hoaxes and experiments. But there is a critical difference between the two. Working at the laboratory bestows a ring of authority a scientist will not easily be dismissed as a charlatan. This sense of gravity is what lends bizarre experiments their particularly surreal quality.

Boese is aware of this distinction between vaudeville and experiment. But sometimes, he gets carried away. Consider this, for example in 1943 the behaviourist Burrhus Skinner invented a "comfortable, labour-saving" crib for his baby daughter, only to be pilloried for imprisoning her in an "experimental cage". This is a tale of irony and injustice. But it is shoehorned somewhat awkwardly in a collection of bizarre science experiments.

Down to Earth This reviewer is not sure if inconsistencies such as this are behind Boese stating that Elephants on Acid is a book "you dip into in the bathroom". There's even an entire chapter, 'Toilet Reading', dedicated to this very idea. But make no mistake Elephants on Acid is a significant work. Boese's menagerie of curiosities is simultaneously disturbing and funny. Most disturbing are those celebrated and familiar behavioural experiments that, while harming no one, reveal human frailties.

Philip Zimbardo's prison-psychology experiment at Stanford University had to be terminated, so brutally did his volunteers get at each other. While experiments such as these have a ring of scientific authority to them, they also share the methods of stage magic and even shamanistic routines.

The more entertaining of Boese's tales involve ingenious, self-aware acts of scientific folly. For example, in 1924 Carney Landis of the University of Minnesota set out to investigate facial expressions of disgust. To exaggerate expressions, he drew lines on volunteers' faces with burnt cork, before asking them to smell ammonia, listen to jazz, look at pornography or place their hands in a bucket of frogs. He then asked each volunteer to decapitate a white rat. While all hesitated, and some swore or cried, most agreed to do so--showing the ease with which most people bow to authority. The pictures, however, look quite bizarre. "They look like members of a strange cult preparing to offer a sacrifice to the Great God of the Experiment," Boese writes.

There is much in this book that will outrage animal rights activists. Besides the experiment on Tusko, there is the experiment to create a two headed dog. In the 1950s, Vladimir Demikhov, a top Russian surgeon, grafted the head, shoulders and front legs of a puppy onto the neck of a mature German shepherd. Both animals died within days but that did not prevent Demikhov from conducting more such experiments. The idea was to prove to the world the prowess of Soviet surgical techniques, with the ultimate goal being organ transplants. Boese's observation that the Cold War had its surgical and psychological aspects is not staggeringly original but it is good that historians continue to remind us of the grotesque forebears of our laboratories.

Somewhat disappointingly, however, Boese does not take issues with historians of science. At times, the book seems quite akin to a guided tour through a museum. It arouses the reader's curiosity but somehow does not satisfy it. Perhaps there is another book in the offing.

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