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I've posted a list of the Top 20 Most Bizarre Experiments of All Time. The descriptions are all summarized from longer accounts that can be found in my new book, Elephants on Acid. Basically, although the list can stand on its own, it's meant to be one big ad for the book. My hope is that people might be intrigued enough by what they read in the list to want to find out what else can be found in the book. (They'll either be intrigued or horrified. When people hear about some of these experiments those are the two most typical reactions.) There's definitely plenty more material in the book.

My publisher tells me that the book should start shipping in early October, about a month ahead of schedule.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Aug 29, 2007
Comments (8)
Cornell University researcher Brian Wanskin arranged to give diners at a prix-fixe restaurant a complimentary glass of wine. The diners were shown the bottle before the wine was poured into their glass. Some of the diners were shown a wine bottle apparently from a fancy California winery called "Noah's Winery." Others were shown a bottle from a North Dakota winery. But in all cases the wine they were served was actually the same. It was a cheap Charles Shaw Cabernet (familiar to Trader Joes shoppers as "two-buck chuck").

Predictably, the diners seemed to appreciate the wine and their meal more when told that they were drinking a high-class California wine, as measured by how long they lingered at the table and how much food they ate.

I guess no one associates North Dakota with fine wine. Obviously they've never tried North Dakota Pumpkin Wine!

Wanskin concludes that, "Within limits, a food expected to taste good will taste good, and a food expected to taste bad will taste bad."

My theory with wine has always been that while there may be a noticeable difference between a $2 and a $15 bottle of wine, once you get over $15, there's really no appreciable improvement. People just expect very expensive wine to taste better, so they convince themselves that it does taste better. (via New Scientist blog)
Categories: Food, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Aug 08, 2007
Comments (12)
Yes, it's another questionable literary enterprise. You've probably heard of "The Secret," a self-help book/cultural phenomenon. As with any such thing, it's Oprah-approved.

"The Secret" claims to reveal a Secret of the Universe, which is (SPOILER ALERT!) that you can have whatever you want, if you just think about it REALLY HARD. OK, that's a wee bit flip, but that really is the gist of the "secret."

Well, you also have to be a good person and you can't wish for bad stuff, but other than that, if you want it, you can and WILL get it.

It's all based on the "Law of Attraction," which author Laura Byrne says governs the universe. She goes on to explain, "The law of attraction says that like attracts like, and when you think and feel what you want to attract on the inside, the law will use people, circumstances and events to magnetize what you want to you, and magnetize you to it."

Not to be a big Cosmic Party Pooper or anything, but if you're going to propose a Physical Law of the Universe and compare it to magnetism, just for starters you really ought to know that with magnets, OPPOSITES attract. Just sayin'

I could go on and on about why this kind of thing really pisses me off, but I'm more interested in what you all have to say. So, here's a link.

Ok, have at it!
Categories: Literature/Language, Science
Posted by Cranky Media Guy on Tue Jun 26, 2007
Comments (32)
Inspired by the urban legend that if all the people in China jumped at once it would alter the orbit of the Earth, German scientists (working in participation with a German TV show) staged an experiment at a music festival. They arranged for all 50,000 people at the concert to jump at once, and then measured the results. They called it a "gang boing." Here's what happened:
In the end, the hoppers created "a mini-mini-earthquake," according to Ulrich Grünewald, who produced the segment for a science program on German television. The ground moved one-twentieth of a millimeter, with four oscillations per second. Scientists from Germany’s Geological Research Institute measured movement up to a kilometer away...

"We showed that people cannot start a (real) earthquake by hopping," Grünewald told the dpa news service. An actual earthquake would contain billions of times more energy than the jumping Germans produced.

Categories: Science, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Wed Jun 06, 2007
Comments (4)
Writer Lynne McTaggart has been sponsoring a number of "experiments" to promote her book The Intention Experiment, in which she makes the argument (from what I can surmise without actually having read the book) that we can influence the world around us through our intentions. If we want something to happen, we merely intend for it to happen.

Here's a description of the first three experiments:
The first experiment was an enormous success when 400 people sat in a hall in London and intended for a leaf in the University of Arizona to 'glow and glow'. The results were highly significant - so much so that the results can be seen on photographs from special imaging systems.

The second experiment that took place was a web-based trial in which 7,000 people participated. The target this time was stringbean seeds, and again the intention was to make them glow. The results were highly significant in terms of 'glow effect', but too few beans were used to achieve a statistical significance.

The third experiment once again involved a leaf, and so was a web version of the successful experiment in the hall with participants intending in the same space. Computer glitches stopped many from participating, and the results were inconclusive.
This makes me realize that I've been going about gardening all wrong. I've been weeding and watering and fertilizing. Instead, all this time I should have just been intending. Better yet, I should get all the readers of the Museum of Hoaxes to intend for me. If everyone intends for the bare patches in my lawn to disappear, I should have a beautiful lawn in no time. And if everyone would intend for my lawn to glow, that would be pretty cool too. Though it might make my neighbors slightly concerned.
Categories: Psychology, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Jun 06, 2007
Comments (22)
The London Times reports that Tony Wright of Cornwall recently stayed awake for 266 hours. He was attempting to break the world record of 264 hours awake set by Randy Gardner of San Diego in 1964. Wright was also attempting to demonstrate that, thanks to his "caveman diet" of raw food, he was able to "train his mind in such a way as to stay awake for 11 days and remain coherent and aware of what was going on around him."

The Times then goes on to report the bad news. Gardner didn't actually hold the world record for staying awake. Gardner's record had long since been surpassed by others. So Wright didn't set a new record.

The Times reports that: "The Guinness previous record was for 11½ days, or 276 hours, and was set by Toimi Soini in Hamina, Finland, between February 5 to 15, 1964." However, Soini's record was removed from the Guinness Book of Records in 1989. "It was deleted on the grounds that it could encourage records harmful to health and was unverifiable because of the claims of insomnia sufferers."

Actually, the question of who holds the world record for staying awake is a little more complicated than that, which I know because Gardner's sleep deprivation experiment is one of the experiments I discuss in Elephants On Acid: and Other Bizarre Experiments. I even interviewed Randy Gardner, who still lives in San Diego.

Gardner set his record on January 8, 1964. Two weeks later newspapers reported that Jim Thomas, a student at Fresno State College, beat Gardner's record by staying awake for 266.5 hours. And a month later Soini set the new record. 1964 was a banner year for sleep-deprivation trials.

However, subsequent issues of the Guinness Book of Records report far longer periods of sleep deprivation. The 1978 edition, for instance, states that:
The longest recorded period for which a person has voluntarily gone without sleep is 449 hr (14 days 13 hours) by Mrs. Maureen Weston of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire in a rocking chair marathon on 14 Apr.-2 May 1977. Though she tended to hallucinate toward the end of this surely ill-advised test, she surprisingly suffered no lasting ill effects.
Ironically, I don't believe Randy Gardner's record ever did make it into Guinness. Gardner reports that "I did not get listed in Guiness as I missed the publication date." However, Gardner's record is the most frequently cited because it was (and probably still is) the most scientifically rigorous long-term human sleep-deprivation study, since Gardner was monitored by Dr. William Dement of Stanford University.

The overall problem with determining the record for the longest a person has stayed awake is that people take "microsleeps" without being aware of it. To really determine if a person has been constantly awake you'd need to record their brainwaves throughout the experiment. As far as I know, such a study has never been done.
Categories: Body Manipulation, Science
Posted by Alex on Sat May 26, 2007
Comments (208)
This YouTube video demonstrates a physics trick right out of high-school science -- how to take a glass of water and a glass of whiskey and swap their contents, without using a third glass. It relies on the principle that whiskey is lighter than water and will float on top of it. The funny part is not the video, which is fairly straightforward, but rather the comments left by YouTube viewers, many of whom seem to think the video must have been faked. I guess they weren't paying attention in high-school science. I had a bottle of cheap whiskey on hand (Rebel Yell), so I tried the experiment myself, and I can attest that it definitely works. You just have to make sure not to allow the whiskey and water to mix too quickly, otherwise they'll combine together and you'll end up with two glasses of watered-down whiskey.

Categories: Photos/Videos, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu May 17, 2007
Comments (8)
image One of the stranger rumors I encountered in the course of writing Elephants on Acid was the suggestion that Hillary Clinton participated in a menstrual synchrony study while she was a student at Wellesley College during the 1960s. Stranger still, I haven't been able to disprove this.

Here are the facts. In 1968, Martha McClintock, while a senior at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, convinced all 135 of her dormmates to participate in a study of the phenomenon of synchronous menstruation. She recorded the date of onset of their menstrual cycles three times during the academic year. Her hypothesis was that their cycles would synchronize as the year progressed, and this is what her data showed. She published an article about her study in a 1971 issue of Nature (1971, 229: 244-245). It remains a highly regarded study.

Hillary Clinton (then Hillary Rodham) was also a senior at Wellesley in 1968. This raises the possibility that she participated in McClintock's study. There were about 400 students in the senior class, which make the odds pretty good that Hillary participated in the study. (A third of the class participated.) The question is: Did the two women (Rodham and McClintock) live in the same dorm?

In her autobiography, Clinton writes, "During my junior and senior years, Johanna Branson and I lived in a large suite overlooking Lake Waban, on the third floor of Davis." McClintock, however, has never revealed what dorm she conducted her study in. I emailed her and asked, thinking that maybe she could say that she didn't conduct the study in Davis, even if she couldn't reveal where she did conduct it. She simply replied, "I cannot answer this question due to privacy regulations."

This leaves open the possibility that Hillary did participate in McClintock's study. I emailed the Clinton campaign, but they never responded to me. My hunch, however, is that she didn't participate in it. It seems like the kind of thing that would be more widely publicized if it were true.

Of course, it doesn't really matter whether she did participate in the study or not. Although if she did, it would be interesting as a piece of biographical trivia. Hillary Clinton herself would seem to be the only person who can confirm or deny the rumor.
Categories: Birth/Babies, Celebrities, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed May 09, 2007
Comments (7)
image Back in the early 1960s Stanley Milgram conducted a famous experiment at Yale University. Volunteers were told that it was designed to test the effect of punishment on learning. Would a person learn a list of word pairs better if they were punished every time they got an answer wrong? The volunteer was instructed to deliver an electric shock to the learner every time one of his answers was wrong. The shocks increased in intensity for every wrong answer. Of course, the experiment wasn't actually about the effect of punishment on learning at all. It was really designed to see how long the volunteers would obey the authority of the researcher. Would they continue to give electric shocks to the learner even when it appeared that doing so would kill the learner? Over sixty percent of them went ahead and gave the shock. They were led to believe that they had killed or seriously injured the learner (who was actually just an actor).

Milgram's experiment is one of the most famous experiments of all time. But it provoked a lot of controversy about whether it was ethical. Often the volunteers were reduced to nervous wrecks as they struggled over whether to continue obeying the researcher, or to refuse to do so. No review board would ever approve such an experiment today.

Mel Slater, a Computer Science researcher at University College London, has announced a possible way around these ethical concerns. He replicated Milgram's experiment using a virtual learner. LiveScience reports:
When the virtual woman gave an incorrect answer, the participants were told to give a virtual 'electric shock' that buzzed to her, increasing the voltage each time she gave an incorrect answer... Over time, she responded with increasing discomfort and protests, eventually demanding the experiment stop. Near the end, her head would slump forward and she became unresponsive... 17 gave all 20 shocks and three gave 19 shocks, 18, 16 and 9 shocks were given by one person each. When volunteers were asked whether they had considered aborting the experiment, nearly half of those who could see and hear the virtual woman indicated they had because of their troubled feelings about what was happening. In addition, their heart rates indicated that participants reacted as though the situation was real.
I don't know. I'm having a hard time buying that a virtual learner could ever substitute for a real, living, breathing learner. However you parse it, thinking you've killed a virtual character is not the same as thinking you've killed a real person. It's like saying Milgram could have used mannequins instead of real people. It just wouldn't have been the same.
Categories: Psychology, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Dec 21, 2006
Comments (28)
The stardust spacecraft spent seven years collecting outer-space dust in large sheets of aerogel. Now it's back on Earth and researchers have enlisted the help of internet users to find microscopic specks of dust in the aerogel. They taken 1.6 million images of the gel with a scanning microscope and are distributing these to volunteers. Already some people have found signs of life. Unfortunately it's not extraterrestrial life:
On its first day, the website shut down due to heavy traffic. And a few hours after re-opening, it had a stranger problem. In among the speckled grey aerogel pictures appeared photos of weddings, bike riders, sunbathers and more. As the Stardust team put it: "Random images of unknown origin appear in the focus movies. We do not yet understand their origin, but they are not images of the Stardust Interstellar Dust Collector." Amused volunteers speculated about hackers, mischievous team members or problems with the server.
And things get worse, because a lot of the internet volunteers are cheating:
The system randomly checks volunteers' efforts by occasionally throwing in a 'test' photo, where the Stardust team already knows there is or isn't a sign of a dust particle. The volunteer's performance on these gives them a skill rating, which determines how seriously a claim to find a real dust particle is taken. As was quickly documented on the website's forums, however, it is easy to cheat by simply looking carefully at the URL associated with each picture in order to distinguish 'test' pictures from the real ones that have yet to be analysed. Some users have cracked the trick admirably, boosting their skill ratings astronomically in a short period of time.
Categories: Extraterrestrial Life, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Aug 15, 2006
Comments (11)
Bonsai Contortionist
Hugo Zamoratte is known as 'The Bottle Man' and has the ability to dislocate almost every bone in his body.

Playing Astronauts
The Haughton Mars Project's research and development of ways to survive in space seem like a dream come true for big kids.

Cardboard Office
Mike, a keen prankster, pushed his co-workers too far. It was probably a mistake to then take a few days away from the office.

Lobster Pinches Wallet
A man who lost his wallet during a late-night swim was surprised when it turned up in the claws of a lobster caught by a diver.
Categories: Animals, Entertainment, Pranks, Science, Technology
Posted by Flora on Mon Aug 14, 2006
Comments (12)
I attended an episcopalian high school, which meant that I had to sit through a chapel service every day. Thankfully the services were never fire-and-brimstone stuff. These were Episcopalians, after all. Instead, they were most often like general-interest lectures. But one service in particular has stuck in my mind, during which whoever was giving the service described an unusual experiment involving the relationship between rats and God. I think the experiment might be an interesting addition to my next book, so I'm trying to track down details about it. But so far I've been unsuccessful. So I'm hoping that one of the Museum of Hoaxes readers might know something about it.

The experimenters, so it was said, wanted to test empirically if the universe tends more towards benevolence (good) or malevolence (evil). So they attached two sets of wires to some rats. One wire delivered a painful shock. The other wire triggered a pleasure-center in the rat's brain and made them feel good. The researchers then programmed a computer to randomly activate these wires over a period of time. The activation of the wires was supposed to be totally random, but when the researchers measured which wire got turned on more often, they discovered that it was the pleasure wire. From this they concluded that there must be a benevolent force in the universe (i.e. God) that favors pleasure over pain.

Now, I can see many flaws in the design and conclusions of this experiment. Not least of which is that a benevolent God would never have made the rats suffer by making them endure the experiment in the first place. But that's not the point. The point is that it's a very odd experiment... if it ever really did occur. Or is it just one of those urban legends that circulate through the church community. Anyone know any details?
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Sat Aug 05, 2006
Comments (17)
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