Science fiction and fantasy                                            

Electrified Sheep

by Alex Boese


There's insanity in every profession, but crazy scientists have a particular appeal. When they go off the rails it's often in possession of experimental tools ordinary people don't have access to, or in pursuit of lines of inquiry no-one else would dream of following. And once in a while their far-out theories turn out to be the right ones after all. This is the follow-up to Elephants on Acid, and like that book it contains lots of examples of bizarre experiments from the history of science.

In the introduction Alex Boese explains that he wasn't looking for anything too frivolous: "anyone trying to be weird wasn't weird enough for this book." Nor did he aim to include anything too monstrous. "I wasn't willing to explore the darkest depths of barbaric acts done in the name of science." However the author's definition of what counts as too vile is quite narrow, and it doesn't rule out an awful lot from this collection. The first chapter on electrical experiments is a catalogue of cruelty to all kinds of creatures, from birds to elephants, which will have animal rights proponents fuming at what people did. Then there's the scientist who "married" his battery and ended up spiralling into squalor and madness, electrocuting himself to find out how it felt. And the father who kept his daughter in an electrified cage because he was convinced it could stimulate her growth. It's strong stuff. With the benefit of hindsight it's easy for us to mock and condemn these people, of course.

The stakes are higher when it comes to nuclear research, which includes tests in living in bunkers as well as the inevitable bomb blast tests. For a while a surprising number of scientists were fixated in nuking the moon, and the author examines why that was and why, thankfully, the idea was abandoned.

The most fascinating section for me was the one on deceptive psychology. The researchers here aren't so much mad as sly. The kind of experiments featured here reveal a lot about conformity, memory, and our perceptions of others. Although lying tends to be considered unethical this isn't exactly fringe science.

The same can't be said for the anecdotes about primate research, with scientists who went to live in the wild in the hope of uncovering facts about primates and language, or who tried to bring up a chimp as a human. But that pales in comparison to the chapter on self-experimenters, which is truly disgusting in several places. If the thought of a surgeon operating on his own appendix makes you queasy be warned that there's far worse in this chapter. It's quite sensationalist, and often the people involved are leaning more towards the mad end of the mad scientist spectrum.

The author presents a dramatisation of how things might have happened before he explains each anecdote in more detail. This gives the stories a more human touch, even though he's taking minor liberties with the truth because we don't always know exactly what was said at the time. The subject matter is far from dry and Boese writes with a clear, engaging style, so this is the kind of book you could easily read in one gulp. Although there's a list of further reading at the end there are no notes: this isn't aimed at academics. However I found it full of surprises and it made me want to learn more about mankind's quirky and perilous quest for scientific knowledge.

20th February 2012

Book Details

Year: 2011

Categories: Books

  Not For The Squeamish  

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4 star rating

Review © Ros Jackson