In 1962, East German researchers conducted a bizarre medical experiment in an attempt to find out if fear could cure cancer. They inoculated some "mice, rabbits, rats, and cocks" with cancer cells. Then they put these animals into a cage which they lowered "into a zoo-like enclosure where 30 ravenous African polecats paced for food. The polecats would leap upon the little cage, shrieking and clawing at their hoped-for prey." This terror experience was repeated every two hours for several days.
The result: the cancer cells grew more slowly in the terrorized animals.
Of course, this begs the question, what it is about fear that would fight cancer? Was it the elevated adrenalin levels? Or was there some other biochemical change that caused the effect?
Unfortunately, I can’t find any other details about this unusual experiment except for the brief news report below. I'm assuming there was never a human version of the experiment. Though one never knows, given some of the other stuff that researchers got up to behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1979, researcher Sandra Lenington of the University of Santa Clara set out to answer this question. Her curiosity had been sparked by learning that Canon William V. Rauscher had reported that “canna plants given holy water left over from use in religious services grew more than three times higher than canna plants which were not given holy water.” She decided to try to duplicate his observations under more rigorous conditions.
She watered one group of radishes with regular water, and a second group with holy water. After three weeks, she concluded that there was “no significant difference in the growth rates of these radish plants given holy water versus radish plants given tap water.” She published her results in the journal Psychological Reports (1979, 45, 381-382).
However, she noted that Canon Rauscher believed in the power of holy water, whereas she didn’t, and this may have affected the outcome of her study: “There are numerous documented studies showing that positive or negative belief will either benefit or adversely affect plant growth.” She suggested that future studies might try to better control for this variable.
Donald Forsha Jones (1890-1963) was an American genetics researcher at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven. Among biologists, he's remembered for improving corn production through his introduction of double-cross hybridization. In fact, the dominance of corn in world agriculture rests, in many ways, on his scientific contributions. However, he's not remembered for being a particularly colorful or eccentric character. Except for one moment in his career when a hint of weirdness surfaced. That was the time in April 1940 when he warned of the malignant influence of swastika-shaped chromosomes.
Like a lot of people during the great depression, William Bird of Jacksonville, Vermont had fallen on hard times. He was out of work, heavily in debt, and facing eviction. He feared he would soon be unable to feed his wife and three children. So Bird came up with a plan. He would sell himself to science.
Los Angeles Times - Nov 15, 1936
He announced his offer in November 1936 by sending a letter to the local press. It read, in part:
I’m sick and tired of being in debt and without a job. Everything seems to have failed. There’s no work to speak of. I’m in debt $400. Food is running low. The fire in our kitchen stove is going out. My wife and three children need clothes to keep them warm during the winter. I’ve got to keep them together. There seems to be only one hope. I’d like to sell myself for $2500…
If there is some doctor or group of doctors or scientists who’ll advance me $2500, I’ll agree to pay it back in two years. I have to sort of sell or mortgage myself because that’s the only security I can put up.
Now, if I failed to pay back the money when the time was up, I’d let them do anything they want with me. I’d let them try and kind of experiment on me.
Soon he sweetened the offer by specifying that it would be all right with him if he didn't survive the experimentation process. Naturally, his wife was opposed to the whole idea.
The media spread his unusual offer nationwide. Reporters noted that he was a prime physical specimen — six feet tall, 175 pounds, and a sturdy workman of good habits. In other words, excellent guinea pig material.
An anonymous Texan took sympathy on Bird and sent him $10. However, the scientific community wasn't tempted. No doctors took him up on his offer.
Although Bird didn't manage to sell himself as a human guinea pig, his story nevertheless had a happy ending. Within days of making his appeal, Bird was given a job on a construction project. He said, "I don't know who was responsible for giving me work, but I sure appreciate it." But he also noted that, despite now having a job, his offer still stood. He was still willing to sell himself to science, should some doctor ever want to take him up on it.
The Valley of the Eagles golf course in the small town of Haines, Alaska boasts an unusual feature. It’s currently a nine-hole course, but due to the geological phenomenon of isostatic (or post-glacial) rebound, in a few decades it may be an 18-hole course.
Post-glacial rebound is the phenomenon of a land mass rising after the weight of a glacier has been removed from it. This is occurring in Haines, at a rate of about 0.9 inches per year, and because the golf course borders the water, it's steadily growing in size as it rises above sea level, exposing more land. The course has already doubled in size since the 1960s.
Please excuse the self-promotion, though hopefully the subject matter may be of interest to WUvies. For the past two years I've been busy researching and writing another book, and it finally went on sale last week, published by Macmillan. I give you Psychedelic Apes: From parallel universes to atomic dinosaurs – the weirdest theories of science and history.
The book is an exploration of some of the craziest ideas that lurk at the fringes of both science and history. While I don't endorse these ideas, I didn't exactly set out to debunk them either. After all, I have a very high tolerance for, and fascination with, weirdness. Mostly I wanted to understand what the case was for each of them, and why some seemingly intelligent, knowledgeable researchers (quite a few of them leaders in their fields) not only convinced themselves that these ideas could be true, but in many cases passionately defended them — sometimes at great cost to their careers and reputations.
I also wanted to keep an open mind because the history of science is, to a great degree, a history of ideas that were initially dismissed by scholars as being totally nuts (such as heliocentrism, evolution, continental drift, etc.) eventually being accepted as true. But yes, I do explain why the majority of scholars reject the hypotheses I examine in the book.
The chapter list:
What if the Big Bang never happened?
What if our universe is actually a computer simulation?
What if there’s only one electron in the universe?
What if we’re living inside a black hole?
What if we live forever?
What if the Earth is at the centre of the universe?
What if planets can explode?
What if our solar system has two suns?
What if ten million comets hit the Earth every year?
What if the Earth is expanding?
What if everything is conscious?
What if diseases come from space?
What if the Earth contains an inexhaustible supply of oil and gas?
What if alien life exists on Earth?
What if we’ve already found extraterrestrial life?
What if the dinosaurs died in a nuclear war?
What if our ancestors were aquatic apes?
What if we’re descended from a pig–chimp hybrid?
What if hallucinogenic drugs made us human?
What if humanity is getting dumber?
What if ancient humans were directed by hallucinations?
What if Homer was a woman?
What if Jesus was a mushroom?
What if Jesus was Julius Caesar?
What if the Early Middle Ages never happened?
The topics progress from cosmological questions about the origin and nature of the universe, up through the origin of life and our species, and ends with the dawn of the modern era. So in addition to being a catalog of "against-the-mainstream" ideas, the book offers a kind of alternative history of the cosmos. In the following weeks, I'll post fuller descriptions of some of these topics.
Unfortunately, the book is currently only on sale in the UK and (I believe) Australia. For whatever reason, the Brits have been much more receptive to my books than Americans have been. I have no idea if, or when, an American edition will be coming out. But an audio edition should be available soon. Some places it can be purchased online:
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.