The CR4 Book Club Blog

The CR4 Book Club

The CR4 Book Club is a forum to discuss fiction and non-fiction books that have science, engineering or technology thematic elements. The club will read and discuss several books a year. All CR4 users are invited to participate. Look out for book announcements and the ensuing discussions that follow, but beware of potential spoilers!

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Book Review: Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments

Posted March 25, 2008 5:01 PM by Chris Leonard

Can a head live without a body? Can a body live with two heads? Is there such a thing as "beneficial" brainwashing? Can a monkey raised with a child learn as much and as quickly as the human infant? How do cats see? What happens if a person stays awake for eleven days? What happens if you give an elephant a massive dose of LSD?

Some of these questions may be worth answering, others…probably not. What do these questions have in common? Well, each one was the subject of at least one real experiment and is chronicled by Alex Boese in his book Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments.

Elephants on Acid covers a litany of unusual experiments that have been undertaken in the name of science. Some are disturbing, some amusing, amazing, educating and/or titillating. And while some are just bizarre in scope and follow-through, others, such as "The Stanford Prison Experiment" are landmark cases of scientific, sociological and/or psychological experimentation.

Boese's coverage is, in general, a mix of camp and snark when dealing with "pseudoscience", although he does know when to focus when dealing with some very significant experiments. There is no flowing narrative within the book, just generally short profiles (2-4 pages) of the experiments in question. Boese breaks the experiments down into ten chapters, each with a topical focus:

Frankenstein's Lab – Gruesome experiments involving human and animal bodies.
Sensorama – Experiments designed to test the human senses – taste, sight, smell, hearing and touch.
Total Recall – Memory tests on human and non-human subjects.
Bedtime Stories – Experiments focusing on sleep learning, sleep deprivation, sleep walking and the like.
Animal Tales – Strange experiments on animals.
Mating Behavior – What is the cause of love, fetishes and arousal? Few answers were found, but some of the tests are funny.
Oh, Baby! – Tests involving training, scaring and isolating infants and toddlers.
Bathroom Reading – Scatological tests.
Making Mr. Hyde – Testing the good and bad in individuals and groups.
The End – Experimenting with subjects close to or at the time of their deaths.

I enjoyed the book, although it's tough to read page after page. It's best handled as a "bathroom book" – read an experiment or two, then put it down and go back to it later for another experiment or two. There's a lot of thought provoking material within, although most of what I learned was useless trivia. However, I was happy to see that I have been involved in recreations of at least two of the experiments covered: "The Mock Tickle Machine" and "The Invisible Gorilla."

One important note: This book does include some very gruesome photos of decapitations, exposed brains, unnatural graftings and the like. Additionally, some of the experiments are of a sadistic nature towards both people and animals, so if you are squeamish or offend easily, you may want to pass it by.

Thanks for reading along, and here's our upcoming schedule. As always, if there's a book you'd like to discuss, let me know and I'll be happy to turn the blog over to you for a day.

April 1: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion by Henry Darger

April 8: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

April 22: To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski

May 6: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel

Already Reviewed:

Feb 26: Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick

March 11 & 12: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen

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