Alex Boese,
Elephants on Acid: & Other Bizarre Experiments
(Mariner, 2007)

Historian Alex Boese was enamored with bizarre experiments in college. During his graduate studies, Boese spent his free time tracking down the more obscure mad scientist experiments that were mentioned in his texts. He amassed a library of notes on bizarre experiments, went on to found the Museum of Hoaxes and publish two books on hoaxes, and now returns with a title about all those bizarre experiments that once intrigued and delighted him. Boese includes only research which was undertaken with genuine scientific curiosity and methodology -- that which was published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Elephants on Acid contains overview and author commentary on experiments from the 1800s through the 2000s, in 10 different categories -- surgery, senses, memory, sleep, animal behavior, mating behavior, babies, bathroom research, human nature and death. For each experiment, the author sets up the broader social and scientific context, describes the experimental design and results, and includes any follow-up work. Bibliographic details for each scientific publication are included. (But good luck tracking down European journals circa 1803!)

The opening chapter on Dr. Frankenstein-like research is a bit unsettling. Can a head live without its body? Can asphyxiated dogs be brought back to life? Not surprisingly, few of the Frankenstein experiments took place in modern times. The remaining chapters are enchanting glimpses at scientific fact and fiction over the ages. Boese demonstrates that waitresses who touch customers statistically receive higher tips ("Touching Strangers"), repeats the real Pepsi Challenge ("Coke vs. Pepsi"), exposes the myth of the "Mozart effect" on IQ ("Mozart Effect") and provides scientific proof of the synchronous menstrual cycles of cohabitating women ("Scent of a Woman"). Studies of human behavior discuss the power of suggestion in creating false childhood memories ("Lost in the Mall"), the effect of a crowd of roaches on an athlete roach navigating a course ("Racing Roaches") and the role of fear in sexual arousal in humans ("Arousal on a Creaky Bridge").

Two of the most famous studies of good vs. evil are presented in this text. In the infamous 1970s Stanford Prison Experiment, college students playing the role of guards became drunk on their power and humiliated and dehumanized their mock prisoners. In another experiment, researcher Stanley Milgram proved that otherwise "good" individuals could be coerced into delivering painful or deadly electric shocks to other volunteers under pressure from a scientific researcher.

Ranging from the trivial to the socially far-reaching, Boese's compendium has something for everyone.

review by
Jessica Lux-Baumann

17 July 2010

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