British Rail’s Train Safety Experiment

Jan 1993: In order to find out how close workers could safely stand by the tracks while the new high-speed trains were going by, British Rail announced it would conduct an unusual experiment. It would tether employees to wooden posts located around six feet from the tracks and then measure the force of the slipstream on them as the trains went by at 140 mph.

Although members of the public weren't invited to participate in the experiment, about 50 of them volunteered to be guinea pigs anyway.

Sunday London Telegraph - Jan 31, 1993

It was difficult to find out the results of the experiment, but after some digging I located a postscript printed in the Magazine of the Pennine Railway Society. The test never took place. Faced with widespread criticism, British Rail's Health and Safety Executive cancelled it.

Loco Notion
Barmy BR proposed to tether workers to trackside posts as high-speed trains thundered past at 140mph. Bosses wanted human guinea pigs to stand as close as 6ft 6in to the expresses to test the effect of their slipstream. Rail
union chief Jimmy Knapp branded the idea barmy and suggested BR use Transport Secretary John MacGregor instead.
The workers would have been attached to posts by special harnesses that would allow them to move to the side but not forward. They would have been asked for their reaction after the trains had roared past. The tests would have helped to determine the distances from trains at which staff could work in safety. They would have taken place between York and Darlington.
However the Health and Safety Executive banned the scheme. The tests have been postponed pending further discussions to see how BR could get the information another way.
One disgruntled railwayman described the scheme as harebrained and said he joined BR to drive a flipping engine, not to play flipping bondage games. However a number of civilians have volunteered to take part in the scheme, preferably dressed in leather and chained from head to toe.
The effect when someone stands in the slipstream of a high-speed train is likely to be they'd get sucked under it. If tied to a post perhaps it would suck their boots off, or maybe they'd go blue in the face.
The idea is on a par to that of abolishing the timetable to stop the trains running late.

Posted By: Alex - Mon Jul 03, 2023 - Comments (2)
Category: Experiments, Trains and Other Vehicles on Rails, Transportation, 1990s

The Tumpline Hypothesis

The great houses of Chaco Canyon (New Mexico) were built around 1000 years ago, using the wood of over 200,000 trees. However, the trees were about 70 miles away from the houses. So how did the Chacoans get the wood to the construction site? There's no archaeological evidence the wood was dragged, and the Chacoans had no draft animals or wheels.

According to the Tumpline Hypothesis, the Chacoans used tumplines, which are straps that go over the head and can be used to carry heavy weights. From Ars Technica:

To test that hypothesis, co-authors Rodger Kram and James Wilson spent the summer of 2020 training until they could haul a heavy log some 15 miles using tumplines. "Some people baked sourdough bread during COVID," said Kram, an emeritus professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "Instead, we carried sand and heavy logs around using our heads."

Posted By: Alex - Tue Apr 25, 2023 - Comments (1)
Category: Science, Anthropology, Experiments

The influence of odors on creative thinking

There have been a variety of studies examining how psychoactive drugs affect behavior and creative output. But could smells also have a psychoactive effect? That was the question posed in a 1958 experiment conducted by scientist Leo H. Narodny — published in an obscure trade journal, The Perfumery & Essential Oil Record. Narodny wrote: "It may be possible, by inhaling certain odours, to influence creative imagination without endangering the whole brain by an excessive dosage of drugs."

He used a textile designer as his test subject. Every day, for two weeks, he had her draw a design while breathing unscented air. Then, after breathing in air saturated with an odorous essential oil (such as bergamot, vanilla, peppermint, or cedarwood), she drew a second design. Some of the results are below.

It was hard to draw conclusions based on such a small sample size, but Narodny felt that the designer tended to draw more abstract patterns when exposed to the essential oils.

Nadia Berenstein offers more details about the experiment on her "Flavor Added" blog.

Posted By: Alex - Sat Mar 25, 2023 - Comments (2)
Category: Art, Experiments, Psychology, Smells and Odors


Jalaproctitis is the medical term for the rectal burning sensation often experienced by people when they defecate after having eaten jalapenos. It was given this name by researchers at the University of Texas who conducted an experiment to study the effects of jalapenos (whether it acted as an expectorant, caused painful urination, and burning defecation). From the New England Journal of Medicine (Nov 16, 1978):

To investigate these issues, we prospectively studied participants in a jalapeno-pepper eating contest. Subjects included three women and two men ranging in age from 22 to 42. None had a history of lacrimation, rhinorrhea, dysuria or discomfort on defecation before the contest. One was a smoker, and one had cough and scanty sputum production before the contest.

After giving informed consent, subjects consumed as many large jalapenos as could be tolerated in a three-minute period. The number of peppers consumed ranged from three to 13, with a median of five. Three of the participants noted lacrimation and rhinorrhea immediately after the contest. In none did cough or sputum production develop. One male subject complained of dysuria, and four of five noted a burning discomfort on defecation within 24 hours of the contest.

The limited information obtained from this study does not indicate clinical usefulness of jalapeno as an expectorant. We believe that jalapenos may well be the cause of transient dysuria and, in addition, may result in a syndrome of burning defecation that might appropriately be termed "jalaproctitis."

Posted By: Alex - Sat Mar 18, 2023 - Comments (3)
Category: Food, Experiments, Body Fluids, Excrement, Pain, Self-inflicted and Otherwise

The Great Starvation Experiment, 1944-1945

I wrote this brief article a number of years ago. It used to be posted on another site, which no longer exists. So I'm relocating it here. . .

One of the greatest killers of World War II wasn't bombs or bullets, but hunger. As the conflict raged on, destroying crops and disrupting supply lines, millions starved. During the Siege of Leningrad alone, over a thousand people a day died from lack of food. But starvation also occurred in a more unlikely place: Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was here that, in 1945, thirty-six men participated in a starvation experiment conducted by Dr. Ancel Keys.

Group photo of the participants

The Purpose of the Experiment
starvation subject

Dr. Ancel Keys

Keys ran the Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene at the University of Minnesota. He had already achieved some fame as the designer of the army's K-rations — the portable combat food rations carried by American troops. (Rumors persist to this day that the "K" in K-rations stands for Keys, though the army has never confirmed this.)

The starvation experiment developed out of Keys' interest in nutrition. He realized that although millions of people in Europe were suffering from famine, there was little doctors could do to help them once the war was over, because almost no scientific information existed about the physiological effects of starvation. Keys convinced the military that a study of starvation could yield information that would have both humanitarian and practical benefits — because knowing the best rehabilitation methods could ensure the health of the population and thereby help democracy grow in Europe after the war. Having secured his funding, Keys set out on his novel experiment.

More in extended >>

Posted By: Alex - Tue Mar 07, 2023 - Comments (5)
Category: Experiments, Nutrition, 1940s, Dieting and Weight Loss

The taste of food in dark isolation

Beatrice Finkelstein, a nutrition researcher at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, conducted a series of "dark-isolation studies" during the 1950s. Subjects were placed for periods of 6 to 72 hours in a totally dark, sound proof chamber furnished with a bed, chair, refrigerator, and chemical toilet.

The purpose of this was to find out how astronauts might react to being confined in a small, dark space for a prolonged period of time. And in particular how their responses to food might change.

Some of her results:

Food has had varying degrees of significance. Some subjects have spent excessive amounts of time eating, nibbling, or counting food; others have become very angry with the food or very fond of it. Here again, evidence is strong that food in a situation of stress may be used as a tool to obtain personal satisfactions.

But the stranger result was how the lack of visual input completely changed the flavor of the food:

Palatability and acceptability of food in many instances are contrary to that on the ground or in the air; e.g., brownies have enjoyed only a fair degree of acceptability whereas ordinarily they are highly acceptable; canned orange juice usually rates low in acceptability; in isolation it has moderate to high acceptability. Data also indicate that the ability to discriminate one food from another within the same food group is impaired. All meats taste alike. Subjects are unable to distinguish one canned fruit from another. White, whole wheat, and rye breads used in sandwiches are similar in taste. Thus it is quite apparent that removal of the visual cues ordinarily associated with eating interferes with the taste and enjoyment of food and therefore the acceptability of food.

More info: "Feeding crews in air vehicles of the future"

Beatrice Finkelstein (source)

Posted By: Alex - Mon Jan 30, 2023 - Comments (4)
Category: Food, Spaceflight, Astronautics, and Astronomy, Experiments, Psychology

How much do you need to chew your food?

British dentist John H. Farrell spent much of his career studying the relationship between chewing and digestion. This involved repeated experiments in which he put bits of food in small, cotton-mesh bags, had subjects chew the food (or not), and then swallow it. The next step was more unpleasant:

On recovery from the faeces the bags were washed gently and the contents, if any, were examined and weighed.

The years he spent doing this convinced him that "very little chewing is required for maximum digestion."

More info: "The effect on digestibility of methods commonly used to increase the tenderness of lean meat"

Bedford Times-Mail - Apr 17, 1964

Posted By: Alex - Mon Nov 21, 2022 - Comments (3)
Category: Food, Experiments, Stomach, Teeth

The Acoustics of Miniskirts

October 1969: UCLA Professor Vern O. Knudsen assembled ten young women wearing miniskirts in a reverberation chamber and fired a blank cartridge from a pistol. He did this to prove his hypothesis that bare legs revealed by a miniskirt will reflect more sound than legs covered by a long skirt.

His hypothesis confirmed, he warned that miniskirt wearers might disturb the carefully engineered balance of sound in concert halls by reflecting more sound. He noted: "We must be acoustically thankful that they don't wear bikinis."

Rock Island Argus - Oct 29, 1969

Orangeburg Times and Democrat - Oct 29, 1969

Oddly enough, this wasn't the first time a scientist had warned of the acoustic danger of short skirts. Back in 1929, Colgate University Professor Donald A. Laird had issued a very similar warning: "He quoted scientific reports to prove that shortening of women's skirts has added to noise by removing some sound deadening surface."

San Bernardino County Sun - July 4, 1929

Related posts: Miniskirts for road safety, Nun in a miniskirt

Posted By: Alex - Thu Nov 03, 2022 - Comments (3)
Category: Fashion, Science, Experiments, 1960s, Cacophony, Dissonance, White Noise and Other Sonic Assaults

The Palatibility of Tadpoles

In 1970, biologist Richard Wassersug conducted a study to determine what different kinds of tadpoles taste like. More specifically, whether some taste worse than others. He convinced 11 grad students to be his tadpole tasters.

The standardized tasting procedure included several steps. A tadpole was rinsed in fresh water. The taster placed the tadpole into his or her mouth and held it for 10-20 sec without biting into it. Then the taster bit into the tail, breaking the skin and chewed lightly for 10-20 sec. For the last 10-20 sec the taster bit firmly and fully into the body of the tadpole. The participants were directed not to swallow the tadpoles but to spit them out and to rinse their mouths out at least twice with fresh water before proceeding to the next tadpole.

The most distasteful tadpole was Bufo marinus, while the most palatable ones were Smilisca sordida and Colostethus nubicola.

This confirmed his hypothesis that the most visible tadpoles were the least palatable. Their bad taste deterred predators from eating them, whereas the better tasting tadpoles relied on concealment to avoid being eaten.

Thirty years later, Wassersug was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for this research.

More info: "On the Comparative Palatibility of Some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica"

Richard Wassersug poses with a frog
image source: University of Chicago

Posted By: Alex - Thu Sep 29, 2022 - Comments (2)
Category: Food, Science, Experiments

Bulletproof Ointment

1915: Inventor Percy Terry of Los Angeles believed that he had perfected an ointment that would toughen the skin so much that it would become bulletproof. He envisioned "an army of bulletproof men who could advance with immunity against anything less than cannon."

He decided to test the ointment on himself. After rubbing it into his skin for several weeks, he shot himself in the face. Turned out, he wasn't bulletproof. He died at the County Hospital.

Los Angeles Times - Aug 30, 1915

Posted By: Alex - Sat Aug 20, 2022 - Comments (5)
Category: Death, Experiments, 1910s, Weapons

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Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction, science-themed books such as Elephants on Acid and Psychedelic Apes.

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