If you were sitting in a waiting room and smoke began to billow out of a vent in the wall, you'd probably do something about it. At least, you'd report the problem to someone. Or maybe not.
In a famous experiment conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané during the 1960s, Columbia University students were invited to share their views about problems of urban life. Those who expressed an interest in participating were asked to first report to a waiting room in one of the university buildings where they would find some forms to fill out before being interviewed. They had no idea that the urban-life study was just a cover story. The real experiment occurred in the waiting room.
As they filled out the forms, smoke began to enter the room through a small vent in the wall. By the end of four minutes, there was enough smoke to obscure vision and interfere with breathing. Darley and Latané examined how the students reacted to this smoke in two different conditions.
In the first condition, the students were alone. When this was the case, they invariably investigated the smoke more closely and then went out into the hallway to tell someone about it.
But in the second condition, the students were not alone. There were two or three other people in the room, who were secret confederates of the researchers. They had been instructed to not react to the smoke. They would look up at it, stare briefly, shrug their shoulders, and continue working on the forms. If asked about it, they would simply say, "I dunno."
In this setting, according to Darley and Latané, "only one of the ten subjects... reported the smoke. the other nine subjects stayed in the waiting room for the full six minutes while it continued to fill up with smoke, doggedly working on their questionnaires and waving the fumes away from their faces. They coughed, rubbed their eyes, and opened the window -- but they did not report the smoke."
I imagine that many dog owners have noticed that dogs can "catch" yawns from humans, and vice versa (I think). So was an experiment to verify this really necessary? The animal behaviorists at the University of London evidently thought so. In their defense, I'd argue that just because something seems obvious, it still might yield interesting results when examined under controlled conditions in a laboratory setting. From the Aug 2008 issue of Biology Letters:
This study is the first to demonstrate that human yawns are possibly contagious to domestic dogs (Canis familiaris). Twenty-nine dogs observed a human yawning or making control mouth movements. Twenty-one dogs yawned when they observed a human yawning, but control mouth movements did not elicit yawning from any of them. The presence of contagious yawning in dogs suggests that this phenomenon is not specific to primate species and may indicate that dogs possess the capacity for a rudimentary form of empathy. Since yawning is known to modulate the levels of arousal, yawn contagion may help coordinate dog–human interaction and communication. Understanding the mechanism as well as the function of contagious yawning between humans and dogs requires more detailed investigation.
The BBC has a video of a yawning dog -- making me sleepy! (Thanks, Sandy!)
Shameless self-promotion: MSN UK has an article about "the weirdest experiments in the history of science" based on my book Elephants on Acid, which was just released in the UK. It's got a nice photo gallery of ten particularly strange experiments selected from my book.
But eagle-eyed reader Rowenna noticed that, on the cover, the word "bizarre" was misspelled. They spelled it "bizzare". Panicked, I ran to check if the actual cover had the same misspelling. (By coincidence, I had just received my copy of the UK edition in the mail.) Thankfully, it was spelled correctly. But then I noticed that the same misspelling occurs on the cover photo on Amazon. I'll have to let my publisher know. I don't think "bizzare" is an alternative UK spelling of "bizarre".
Norbert Elias (1897-1990) was a highly influential sociologist, best known for his two-volume work The Civilizing Process. Among his less well-known accomplishments was his shoelace experiment.
In 1965 and 1966 Elias traveled throughout Europe as a tourist. Deciding to mix sociological research with pleasure, he resolved to find out how people in different countries would respond to him if he left his shoelaces untied. Ingo Moerth summarized the results of this experiment in the June 2007 issue of The Newsletter of the Norbert Elias Foundation:
(1) Spain - Torremolinos 1965 (upper village): In the mostly touristic context of ‘upper’ Torremolinos the loose shoe-laces were sometimes noticed, but never communicated, which Elias explained by a predominantly anonymous Gesellschaft context, brought about by a predominance of tourism.
(2) England - London 1965 (Regent Street, Bond Street): Here Elias conducted three experiments, all of which lasted three hours. He got nine reactions, mostly by older ‘citizens’, as Norbert Elias notes: ‘In England mostly elderly gentlemen reacted by communicating with me on the danger of stumbling and falling’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth). This might be interpreted as an established ‘society-context’, where the anonymity is overruled by engaged and experienced citizens watching the public space.
(3) France - Paris 1966 (Champs Elyseés, Boulevard St Michel, Montparnasse): Here Elias conducted three experiments of three hours, but with much less reaction. Only two people communicated directly with him about the visible shoe-lace problem, both sitting in street cafés on the Champs Elyseés, besides a youngster who shouted directly ‘prenez garde’ (‘take care’) into his ear, much to the amusement of the young man’s group of companions. As an explanation of this different reaction, perhaps a different character of ‘public space’ in France may be relevant: mere observation in contrast with engagement and direct intervention, as in London/UK or in Germany (see the following discussion, as cited below).
(4) Germany - for instance Münster 1965: Here the ‘society-context’ mentioned above was – according to Norbert Elias – watched and communicated not by gentlemen, but mostly by women: ‘In Germany older men only looked at me somewhat contemptuously, whereas women reacted directly and tried to ‘clean up’ the obvious disorder, in the tramway as well as elsewhere. Here in most cases a short conversation, comprising more than the obvious ‘shoe-lace disorder’ took place, such as a short warning about what might happen if I didn’t take care of the basic problem’ (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).
(5) Switzerland: Bern 1966: Here Elias experienced the most elaborate conversation about dangers related to untied shoe-laces, including admonitions about dangers of eating grapes and using trains. He explicitly states: ‘This was probably an exception, from which no conclusion on a Swiss national character can be drawn' (in Elias 1967, as translated by Ingo Moerth).
It would be interesting to conduct this experiment in America. New Yorkers would probably ignore you. In Los Angeles everyone drives, so you'd be lucky if you encountered another pedestrian.
If you haven't yet seen Super Size Me, it's worth renting. In it, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock makes himself the subject of an experiment to find out what will happen to his body if he only eats McDonald's fast food for 30 days. Predictably, his health deteriorates, his cholesterol skyrockets, he grows lethargic, and his waistline expands dramatically.
However, the idea of conducting a fast-food diet experiment wasn't original to Spurlock. That honor goes to Jesse McClendon, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, who in 1930 fed a volunteer a diet of only White Castle hamburgers for 13 weeks. From the U of M Medical Bulletin:
McClendon knew that earlier studies had shown that adult dogs fed for a month on only lean meat appeared to fare well, and that humans on temporary all-meat diets lost calcium and phosphorus but didn't develop deficiency diseases. He planned to feed a single experimental subject only White Castle hamburgers—including the bun, onions, and pickles—and water for 13 weeks.
A willing subject presented himself: Bernard Flesche, a U of M medical student working his way through school. Flesche kept a diary during the ordeal. "He started out very enthusiastic about eating 10 burgers at a sitting," notes his daughter, Deirdre Flesche, "but a couple of weeks into it, he was losing his enthusiasm." His sister frequently tried to tempt him with fresh vegetables, but Flesche allowed nothing but White Castle Slyders™ to pass his lips.
Flesche survived his ordeal without developing any significant health problems. The owner of White Castle interpreted this to mean that a hamburger diet is healthy and heavily promoted the experiment in advertisements. Flesche, however, who had once been a hamburger lover, developed a permanent aversion to them. He never willingly ate a hamburger again.
If you repeatedly flip a coin, the law of probability states that approximately half the time you should get heads and half the time tails. But does this law hold true in practice?
Pope R. Hill, a professor at the University of Georgia during the 1930s, wanted to find out. But he thought coin-flipping was too imprecise a measurement, since any one coin might be imbalanced, causing it to favor heads or tails.
Instead, he filled a can with 200 pennies. Half were dated 1919, half dated 1920. He shook up the can, withdrew a coin, and recorded its date. Then he returned the coin to the can. He repeated this procedure 100,000 times!
Of the 100,000 draws, 50,145 came out 1920. 49,855 came out 1919. Hill concluded that the law of half and half does work out in practice.
If you have absolutely nothing better to do, you can head over to Random.org, which hosts a virtual coin toss, and try to outdo Hill by clicking the "flip coin" button 100,001 times. Make sure to record your results. Although I doubt a virtual coin toss would be considered truly random, even though random.org claims their randomness "comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs."
I suspect cows are going to become a theme here at WU. They're ubiquitous and silly and important. Those are three good criteria for inclusion here. Hey, if cows were good enough for Gary Larson humor, they're good enough for us!
The latest news is that they're demanding headphones as they graze! Not sure if iPods are included. Read the article here.
Do old people produce an unpleasant body odor? In 2001 Japanese researchers conducted an experiment that suggested they do. The researchers had a group of volunteers sleep in the same t-shirt for three nights. According to the New Scientist:
The researchers then studied the volatile chemicals picked up by the material. Volunteers over 40 produced an unsaturated aldehyde called 2-nonenal, which the team described as having an unpleasant "greasy" smell.
Happily, the case against gramps is not yet proven. Recently researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia conducted similar studies, but detected no unpleasant smells coming from old folks. They suggested the foul odor found in the Japanese study may have been produced by a diet high in fish.
Whether or not the phenomenon of "aging odor" is real (I doubt it), I can't believe the cosmetics industry hasn't picked up on this idea and tried to profit from it. They could come up with a scary, scientific-sounding name for age-related odor (what about Geritosis?), and then roll out a line of products supposedly specially formulated to combat it. With the graying of the baby boomers, they would make a killing.
One of the earliest eyetracking studies was conducted by the Visual Research Laboratories at Drake University during the 1940s. They used light beams to follow the eyeball movements of women shown a picture of a man. The subjects were all customers at the Marshall Field department store in Chicago. Check out this diagram they produced titled "How a Woman Looks at a Man" (from Look magazine, 1944).
An eyetracking study conducted in 2005 by the Nielsen/Norman Group (described in Online Journalism Review) produced similar results. When shown a photo of baseball-player George Brett, womens' eyes focused on his face. By contrast, when men were shown the same photo, they focused also on his crotch. The researchers noted, "Men tend to fixate more on areas of private anatomy on animals as well, as evidenced when users were directed to browse the American Kennel Club site." (This is one of those factoids that doesn't make me feel proud to be a man.)
But what about less tame material? Of course, science has explored this area as well. A 2007 study funded by the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience analyzed the viewing patterns of men and women shown sexual photographs. Strangely enough, the viewing patterns were not the same as in the earlier studies. From Science Daily:
Researchers hypothesized women would look at faces and men at genitals, but, surprisingly, they found men are more likely than women to first look at a woman's face before other parts of the body, and women focused longer on photographs of men performing sexual acts with women than did the males...
"The eye-tracking data suggested what women paid most attention to was dependent upon their hormonal state. Women using hormonal contraceptives looked more at the genitals, while women who were not using hormonal contraceptives paid more attention to contextual elements of the photographs," Rupp said.
Ivan Pavlov famously conditioned dogs to salivate every time they heard a dinner bell. The U.S. Army hopes to use a similar technique to train fish in Buzzards Bay off the coast of Massachusetts. According to the Cape Cod Times, the experiment:
houses 5,000 juvenile black sea bass in a dome-shaped structure at the bottom of Buzzards Bay, for the purpose of feeding them after playing a 280 Hz tone. The study is being led by Scott Lindell, director of MBL's Scientific Aquaculture Program, to determine whether the caged fish — once accustomed to the tone then released into the wild — will return to the dome for recapture when the tone is played. The hope is to create a less harmful way to fish or better replenish natural fish stock, project officials told the Times in March.
The experiment has raised concerns among a consumer advocacy group, who are suing the Army, but that's not what interests me. What interests me is whether the fish salivate when they hear the tone. Do fish, in fact, have salivary glands? An answer from genuineideas.com:
Although the most well developed glands are found in mammals, many other vertebrates and invertebrates have salivary glands. Fish and other aquatic animals clearly do not lack opportunities to add water to their meals; hence most aquatic animals are devoid of "true" salivary glands. However, some form of lubrication is still necessary to assist swallowing even in water, and this is provided by mucous glands along the tongue and roof of mouth (Mucous secretion is present in all animals.)
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.