The author of Elephants on Acid (2007) and Hippo Eats Dwarf (2006) returns with another collection of unusual science experiments throughout history.
Science writer Boese loves the bizarre. Here he compiles another science/history book detailing genuine science experiments ranging from the ill-advised (researchers hiding under beds to eavesdrop on a girls’ dorm) to the downright grotesque (doctors drinking the vomit of a patient with yellow fever). Each section opens with a fictionalized retelling of a key scene in the ensuing story, but these depictions are somewhat amateurish and often clichéd—in one, an Italian scientist exclaims, “Mamma mia!” The factual accounts, however, are well written and engrossing, even when the experiment Boese recounts isn’t especially unreasonable. For instance, the author tells the story of a group of researchers in the late 1960s and early ’70s who feigned mental illnesses to gain admittance into mental hospitals. Nearly all were given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Once inside, all the “pseudopatients” dropped their act and waited for doctors to uncover the truth. After an average of 19 days, the fake patients’ schizophrenia was said to be “in remission” and the pseudopatient was discharged. After the results of this experiment were published, the use of schizophrenia as a catchall category of mental illness began to decline. While most of the stories have a broad appeal, a few push the boundaries of good taste. Boese claims he does not want to “offer a pastel version of science,” but a few sections, including one regarding the sexual habits of chimps, are quite graphic and may not appeal to some readers.
Despite a few missteps, a fun read for science and history buffs alike.