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Mad science

Reto U. Schneider is a former science journalist who came across a number of weird and wonderful experiments in the history of science that he was not allowed to write about in his magazine. He never forgot those and, in 2004, compiled them into Mad Science; a tongue-in-cheek romp through 700 years of the ingenious, the misguided and the downright odd.

There are some really famous experiments in here, such as Pavlov’s conditioning with dogs; whilst others are infamous for their human cruelty, including Zimbardo’s shocking Stamford Prison study. There are also more obscure stories, such as tales of extraordinary self-sacrifice in the name of discovery. Stubbins Ffirth proved that yellow fever is not passed between humans by exposing himself subcutaneously, orally, nasally and ocullarly to patients' blood, vomit, sweat, spittle and urine. Sex is a popular subject in Mad Science; in the Netherlands (of course it would be) couples were brought in to have sex in an MRI scanner but were hindered somewhat by the lack of space and the subjects' inability to perform under pressure. Some psychological experiments in the book jump out at you for their sublime simplicity, such as leaving ‘lost’ letters around a town with names of different organisations on, and seeing how many get posted; thus trying to determine people’s attitudes to those companies.

Mad Science is set out as a series of individual stories, each with a witty subtitle. One result of this is that the subjects of the stories are in an essentially random order. You find yourself both gasping and chuckling as you turn from the effects of drugs on spiders’ webs, to the abject horror of students exposed to biological weapons. Many of the anecdotes form a brief series, such as between 1966 and 1974 four experiments showing that the most successful hitch-hikers are pairs of women with large breasts and some form of injury.

Mad Science is certainly entertaining, but it is also food for thought, maintaining the right mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. If you read this book, I guarantee you’ll find yourself quoting it for weeks afterwards.

Emily Pritchard is a PhD student in the MRC Human Genetics Unit

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