Mad Science: Nine of the oddest experiments ever

[via newscientist]

1. The 28-hour day

At one time, one of the great unsolved mysteries of sleep research was whether the human sleep–wake rhythm of 24 hours was merely a habit, changeable at any time, or whether people had an internal, hard-wired body clock.

So sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman set out to find a location where there was no difference between day and night.

He found it in a 20-metre wide and 8-metre high rock chamber in the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, where he and his student Bruce Richardson decided to try out a 28-hour day. They would sleep for 9 hours, work for 10 hours and have 9 hours' leisure time.

They spent 32 days in the cave. Richardson adapted to the new cycle after just a week. Kleitman, who was 20 years older, failed to adapt.

Watch some footage from the experiment

2. The psychonaut

To find out what would happen if the brain was cut off from all external stimuli, scientist John Lilly built the first sensory deprivation tank in 1954. Floating in warm water for hours in complete darkness and silence, Lilly began to experience vivid fantasies.

"These are too personal to relate publicly," he reported later. The hallucinations of his test subjects were similarly difficult to categorize scientifically. This was one reason why his research did not take off.

Lilly later gave up scientific research and founded the firm Samadhi Tanks, which manufactured tanks for domestic use. Having became something of a New Age guru, he died in 2001.

One of the few scientific experiments honoured by Hollywood, Lilly's work was the model for the 1980 film Altered States. To no one's surprise, the real experiments were done with much less flashy equipment than that shown in the film. Lilly sometimes had to switch off the light himself and then climb, in complete darkness, into a tank, which was little more than an outsize bathtub.

Watch the title sequence of Altered States, which shows a sophisticated vertical tank that never actually existed

3. Psychology's atom bomb

This is probably the most famous experiment ever not actually done. American market researcher James Vicary claimed that he had exposed the audience in a cinema in Fort Lee, NJ to the secret instructions "Eat Popcorn!" and "Drink Coke!" As a result, the sales of Coca-Cola in the cinema foyer increased by 18.1%, while those of popcorn rose by 57.5%.

Vicary later admitted that the whole story had been fabricated. But it stuck and became an urban myth.

Vicary's experiment had its last major airing to date during the US Presidential elections of 2000, when in a TV advert promoting the Republican candidate George W Bush unseen by viewers, the word "RATS" was flashed up momentarily when a Democrat policy was mentioned. See the ad for yourself: the word appears at 0:25

4. Holidaying in a draught

Being a guinea pig for the British government's Common Cold Unit in 1946 was very popular with students. They saw it as a cheap holiday: getting free accommodation in spacious flats fully equipped with books, games, radio and telephone, and spending your leisure time playing table tennis, badminton, or golf. You even got paid three shillings a day.

The students were instructed to maintain a distance of at least 9 metres from all unprotected persons, other than their flatmates. The unpleasant part of the experiment began when the participants had to spend half an hour in a draughty corridor after taking a hot bath, had to wear wet socks for the rest of the day, and were infected with nasal secretion from a cold sufferer.

To everyone's surprise the experiments demonstrated that the common cold had nothing to do with cold temperatures.

Watch a (hilarious) film about the experiment

5. Remote control bullfight

Spanish neurologist Jose Delgado from Yale University was not only convinced that electrical stimulation of the brain was the key to understanding the biological bases of social behaviour: he was also prepared to prove his case in a rather risky fashion.

On a spring evening in 1964 he came face to face with Lucero, a 250-kilogram fighting bull owned by landowner Ramón Sánchez, who had granted Delgado the use of a small practice ring on his estate of La Almarilla in Córdoba for the experiment.

Lucero lumbered towards him. Delgado pressed a button on the remote control. The radio-controlled electrodes he had placed in the brain a few days before the experiment activated. This instantly dissipated the animal's aggression – Lucero skidded to a halt and trotted off.

Watch a video of Delgado's encounter with the bull

Delgado's experiment was considered newsworthy enough to be published on the front page of the New York Times – ironically only one year after it was actually done.

6. Dogbot meets real Dog

In 2003, researchers from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris tried to find out whether dogs would accept Sony's commercial dogbot AIBO as one of their own. The experiment resulted in a formal scientific publication, "Social behaviour of dogs encountering AIBO, an animal-like robot in a neutral and in a feeding situation", and the insight that the answer is "no".

Watch a video of the experiment

7. A year in bed

It sounds like the ideal job for couch potatoes: in January 1986, 11 men went to bed in Moscow, and didn't get up for the next 370 days. They were washed lying down, and ate, read, watched television and wrote letters in a prone position.

At the time, this was the simplest method to simulate the effects of weightlessness on Earth. But the 370 days this study lasted went way beyond anything that had been done before.

In addition to the medical results, it had unintended consequences. Some marriages did not survive the strain, and one of the men fell in love with a researcher who was working on the project.

Each participant had been promised a car as compensation for his efforts. As former Cosmonaut and director of the study Boris Morukov says, "It was still the Soviet era then, and getting hold of a car wasn't easy." Only one man quit the experiment, after three months – he already owned a car.

8. The Doctor Fox Effect

The lecture that Myron L Fox delivered in 1970 to a crowd of assembled experts had an impressive enough title: "Mathematical game theory as applied to physician education". His polished performance at the annual conference of the University of California School of Medicine's further education program so impressed the audience that nobody noticed that he was an actor, who didn't know the first thing about game theory.

All that Fox had done was to take a scholarly article on game theory and work up a lecture from it that was quite intentionally full of imprecise waffle, invented words and contradictory assertions.

The researchers behind the experiment – John Ware, Donald Naftulin and Frank Donnelly – wanted to find out whether a brilliant delivery technique could so completely bamboozle a group of experts that they overlooked the fact that the content was nonsense. The answer is: yes, it can.

At the beginning of the talk, Fox was nervous because he feared people would see through the ruse and recognise him. After all, he was the actor who played Dr. Benson, the vet who looked after the inspector's dog, in Columbo. But the performance went so well that by the end he was confident enough to take questions from the audience.

A journalist later wrote: "If an actor makes a better teacher, why not a better congressman, or even a better President?" Ten years later Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House.

9. Urine in the web

In 1955, psychiatrists at the Friedmatt Sanatorium and Nursing Home in Basle, Switzerland were trying to find a way to diagnose schizophrenia. They fed urine concentrate from fifteen schizophrenics to spiders and compared the webs that they spun to those constructed by spiders that had been given researchers' urine instead. No systematic differences were found.

However, the researchers found out one thing: concentrated urine "must taste extremely unpleasant, despite all the sugar that was added". The spiders' behaviour left no room for doubt: "After taking just a sip, the spiders exhibited a marked abhorrence for any further contact with this solution.”

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