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The Legendary Dr Fox Lecture - Footage Found!

Posted on September 23, 2011 at 7:45 AM

Several years ago when I first wrote about the famous Dr Fox lecture I thought the original footage was lost forever. When I recently learned that it is still around I tracked down one of the researchers Don Naftulin who was kind enough to send it to me. Below is an edited version of what has become one of the most unusual experiments in psychology.

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for more details read this extended chapter about he dr Fox lecure in The Mad Science Book by Reto U. Schneider:


The lecture that Myron L. Fox delivered to the assembled experts had an impressive enough title: 'Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education'. Those responsible for running the University of Southern California School of Medicine's psychiatry department's continuing education programme had taken themselves off to Lake Tahoe in northern California for their annual conference and a continuing education program. There, Fox - who was billed as an 'authority on the application of mathematics to human behaviour' - presented the first paper. His polished performance so impressed the audience of psychiatrists, family doctors and general internists that nobody noticed that the man standing at the lectern wasn't really Myron L. Fox from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine but Michael Fox a movie actor who though having considerable experience in playing doctors in TV shows didn't know the first thing about game theory. (According to the Internet Movie Data Base Michael Fox was the reason Michael J. Fox from back to the future fame inserted the 'J' into his name, as the Screen Actors Guild only allows one person of each name to be registered).


Fox was trained to give this talk only the day before. He was given an article from „Scientific American“ on game theory and worked up a lecture from it that was intentionally full of imprecise waffle, invented words and contradictory assertions.


The people behind this spoof were John E. Ware, assistant professor of medical education and health care planning at Southern Illinois school of Medicine, Donald H. Naftulin associate professor and director of the division of continuing education in psychiatry at the University of Southern California School of Medicine and Frank A. Donnelly, an instructor in psychology at the University of Southern California.


„At the time a thing called ,experiential learning‘ was en vogue“, John Ware remembers, „it meant giving the people the experience of what you want them to learn rather than just telling them about it.“ One evening Ware saw an actor on TV giving a virtuous demonstration of double talk. As the subject of the upcoming faculty retreat was experiential learning, Ware had the idea of letting him give a lecture full of double talk and thus initiating a discussion on how to improve the educational program. As the particular actor was not available the researchers turned to Alex Seigel from the University of Southern California film program whom they knew from previous work. „We were training actors to act as patients in teaching psychotherapy to psychiatric residents and doing interaction analysis on psychotherapists‘ interactions from different theoretical schools of psychotherapy“, John Naftulin says.


One of the actors Alex Seigel proposed was Michael Fox. He was the perfect fit and by chance he had to go north to do a Shakespeare play in the same week anyway. „He just looked and sounded ,psychoanalytic‘ and authoritative“, Naftulin says. They didn‘t even change his last name. „It was a great name, Dr Fox“, John Ware says.


Michael Fox didn‘t think, he would make it through the lecture without being exposed. He had two reasons for being nervous: on one hand he had to give a lecture that was stripped from any real content on the other hand he was sure that most of the people in the audience had seen him before on TV. Fox had been a supporting actor in many Sitcoms, TV series and feature movies. He had played Dr Benson the vet of Inspector Columbo, Captain Ritter in „Hogans Heroes“ and Inspector Basch in „Batman“.


And really, when Michael Fox was sitting in the restaurant in morning before the lecture a women approached him thinking about where she knew him from. „She said, ,you look very familiar, when did you do your residency in New York?‘“ Ware remembers, „we thought, that was it.“ But then she left.


Still Fox was convinced he'd be rumbled during the lecture. But the audience hung on his every word and, when the 20-minutes-long talk was over, bombarded him with questions, which he displayed such virtuosity in not answering that nobody noticed.


On the feedback form that was handed round, all ten people who attended the lecture said that it had given them food for thought, while nine of them also reckoned that Fox had presented the material in a clear manner, put it across in an interesting way and incorporated plenty of good illustrative examples into his talk.


After Naftulin had explained Foxes role the audience was on alert. John Ware remembers that the next moring a physician from Oregon was showing slides of how he sets up his practice. „Someone got up and said ,it‘s a fake, you are just showing us a bunch of your old home slides‘. It was embarrassing because this was real.“

John Ware showed two other groups of people the video of the lecture - with much the same result. One person even thought he remembered having read some papers already by Myron L. Fox. In these instances as well, the audience wasn't made up of students but of experienced physicians, who had been dazzled by the actor's slick presentation.

The researchers conducted further more controlled experiments on larger audiences. The phenomenon in which the style of a lecture can blind the listeners to its poor content soon became known as the 'Dr Fox effect'.

These results raised doubts about the usefulness of teaching evaluation. When students were asked to fill out questionnaires assessing a class, these might actually be indicating little more than how much they liked the lecture along with 'their illusions of having learned'. As the authors wrote in their paper on the experiment, 'there is much more to teaching than making students happy'.

Nevertheless, there was one surprise that qualified this conclusion: when Fox's true identity was revealed to the audience, some of them asked where they could read up more about the subject. In other words, although the lecture had been unmasked as gibberish and a fraud, the panache with which it was delivered had nevertheless clearly stimulated interest in the topic. This led Ware, Naftulin and Donnelly to suggest an innovative method of increasing students' motivation: instead of giving lectures themselves, professors could train actors to deliver lectures for them.

A journalist later wrote in the Los Angeles Times: 'There are implications in this study, though, that even its instigators have not perceived. If an actor makes a better teacher, why not a better congressman, or even a better President?' Ten years after the hoax, Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House.

Lying Down for 370 Days - the Longest Bed Rest Study Ever

Posted on June 3, 2011 at 8:22 AM

Exactly one year ago today the six men of the Mars500 study entered the simulated spacecraft near Moscow in order to learn more about human behavior of living for prolonged time in a tight space (picture above). The anniversary made headlines world wide. There was a time though when similar events did not prompt any press releases.

When I came across the paper about the longest bed rest study ever I couldn't believe my eyes. Yes I had heard about American subjects who were required to lie in bed for three months without getting up or even sitting up once in order to simulate the reaction of human bodies to weightlessness and I found this quite incredible. But the title of the paper I had in front of me read ‘370-Day Anti-Orthostatic Hypokinesia’. It suggested that in 1986 in Moscow 11 men volunteered to stay in bed for more than one year.

This was just unimaginable to me thus I contacted cosmonaut and physician Boris Morukov who was the lead author of the paper. Several weeks later I met him in his tiny office at the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow.

The interview lead to this story (published in the The Mad Science Book) about one of the most bizarre experiments ever undertaken.

Crucifixion Experiments

Posted on April 14, 2011 at 4:33 PM

No other Christan holiday is linked to more bizarre experiments than Good Friday. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ initiated a long and fierce debate among physicians and clergymen. They were arguing  serious questions like: was Jesus nailed or tied to the cross? Did the nails penetrate the hands or the wrists? Which angle formed the outstretched arms of Jesus? And most importantly: how did Jesus die? As the bible provided little information on these subjects there was only one way to find out, doing experiments!

Crucifixion researchers relied on a steady stream of fresh cadavers and amputated arms and legs. That's probably why most of them had been doctors in hospitals unscrupulous in using for their studies whatever remained on the operation table after surgery. Around 1900 for example Marie Louis Adolphe Donnadieu, professor at the catholic faculty of sciences in Lyon, France, nailed a cadaver of a man on a wooden board (picture at the right) for the sole reason that a seemingly petty question could be answered:  Would the hands  have supported Jesus without the nails tearing through the flesh.

The horrific picture in his book Le Saint Suaire de Turin devant la Science - a body hanging from one arm stitched to the board - was to him the final prove that his opponents have to abstain once and for all from the theory that Jesus was not crucified by putting nails through his hands. The only worry Donnadieu had was, that " the light for the picture didn't offer the best aesthetic conditions."

But if Donnadieu thought the gross demonstration had proven his point beyond any doubt he was mistaken. Some thirty years later another catholic surgeon, Dr. Pierre Barbet, complained about the low quality of Donnadieus cadaver. In his book A Doctor at Calvary Barbet writes about Donnadieus experiment: "The picture shows a pathetic small very skinny emaciated body ... the cadaver I crucified in contrast ...  was totally fresh and smooth" (picture in the middle). The French surgeon also did experiments with "living arms" (meaning: just amputated) he attached weights to in order to prove that the nails were hammered through the wrists and not through the hands. But much more important than this revelation was the insight that the arms formed an angle of 130 degrees which allowed at last for an anatomical correct depiction of Jesus at the cross: the so called Villandre-Cross sculpted by the surgeon Charles Villandre with the help of the information gained by the experiment with Barbets cadaver.

Barbet also determined asphyxiation as the cause of death of Jesus only to be contradicted by the latest and foremost authority in the field of crucifixion, the American pathologist and Medical Examiner Frederick Zugibe.

As crucifying cadavers has come out of fashion lately Zugibe was working with volunteers whom he bound to a DIY cross in his garage measuring critical bodily functions like pulse, blood pressure and respiration (picture at the right). He is convinced that Jesus didn't die from asphyxiation but from traumatic and hypovolemic shock. Finding volunteers by the way was surprisingly easy. Members of a free church nearby were lining up to feel once like Jesus.

Reto U. Schneider is the deputy editor of NZZ Folio and the author of The Mad Science Book.

The Science of Keith Richards

Posted on March 1, 2011 at 5:22 PM

In 1969 Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and his partner Anita Pallenburg had a car accident near their home in Sussex. Richards escaped serious injury but Pallenburg was taken to the hospital with a broken collarbone. According to his biography "Life" Richards turned over his Mercedes because of a hydraulic fault. The police suspected the involvement of drugs though. Be that as it may, there is an interesting neurological aspect to Richards accident. On page 269 of his biography he writes:

"I watched that thing (the car) roll over in slow motion three times..."

Which ever substances Richards had in his blood as his car teetered on a patch of slippery grass in one respect his perception remained completely normal: he remembered the situation later in slow motion. The slowing down of time in frightening moments is reported very often. It is actually quite surprising that it took until 2006 before science did get interested in it. Watch how neuroscientist David Eagleman tried to solve the mystery.

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Honey, I Shrunk the Sample Covariance Matrix

Posted on February 9, 2011 at 3:13 PM

sorry, but I can't stop:

Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989) is another contributer to cinematic title formation in science:

Honey, I Shrunk the Sample Covariance Matrix (UPF Economics and Business Working Paper No. 691 June 2003)

Honey, I Shrunk the Currency Union Effect on Trade (The World Economy 25: 457)

‘Honey, I Shrunk the Bus Travel Time on Route 12!’ (Westernite 57: 1)

for the full list go here The Good, the Bad and the Outsourced

The Man who Hanged Himself - 12 Times

Posted on February 7, 2011 at 5:19 AM

Certain subjects seem to be outside of the range of self experimentation for principal reasons. One of them is hanging. That did not deter Roumanian forensic scientist Nicolas Minovici from trying it (see picture). In his 238 pages long paper Etudes sur la pendaison (Studies on Hanging) from 1905 he not only analyses 172 suicides putting them into different categories like gender, place, season, kind of knot, circumference of the rope - he also tried it himself.

First he did some preliminary trials with a non contracting noose ("I let myself hang six to seven times for four to five seconds to get used to it.").

The pain was almost intolerable as Minovici writes. It persisted for two weeks. Still Minovici felt "comforted by the results" and went for the real thing: He and some of his collaborators put their heads into a regular contracting noose and asked an assistant to hang them – twelve times. Minovici apologizes again and again that "despite of all our courage we could not take the experiment any longer than three to four seconds."

Minovivi must have had a distinct propensity for realism. Although a few inches would have been enough he advised his assistants to pull the rope until his feet were three to six meters above ground.

Recently the wide dissemination of digital video cameras opened a new source for studies on hanging. The Journal of Forensic Sciences just published a grisly paper titled Agonal Sequences in Eight Filmed Hangings: Analysis of Respiratory and Movement Responses to Asphyxia by Hanging. The authors analyzed eight videos of hangings (2 suicides and 8 autoerotic accidents) in order to answer the still debated question what happens when someone hangs themself. Suprisingly they didn't cite Minovicis paper which shall be made up for here.

Cinematographic title formation (3)

Posted on February 1, 2011 at 11:38 AM

Raiders of the lost park… mobility management: more than just parking (Traffic Technology International, 2003)


Raiders of the Lost Arch (J Calif Dent Assoc. 35: 302)


Dial M for molecular (Molecular Interventions, 2001)


Dial M for flavor symmetry breaking  Journal of High Energy Physics (2001)


See the full list here: And the winner is "The good, the bad and the outsourced"

Testicular cycling in the swamp

Posted on February 1, 2011 at 11:31 AM

Sex in the swamp seems to be complicated:

Involvement of the gonadal germinal epithelium during sex reversal and seasonal testicular cycling in the protogynous swamp eel, synbranchus marmoratus Bloch 1795 (teleostei, synbranchidae)


Journal of Morphology

Volume 257, Issue 1, pages 107–126, July 2003

Wedding Experiments

Posted on January 27, 2011 at 7:49 AM

New Scientist TV blog has a clip of a wedding where bride and groom (an some of the guests) had drawn their blood before and after the ceremony to check their oxytocin levels.

But this was not the first time that science was present at a wedding. In the summer of 1932 Vaslav Rund and Harriet Berger were married in the crime detection laboratory of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, connected to a lie detector.

According to "The Sheboygan Press" the device showed that the heart of the bride "almost stopped beating when she said the fateful 'I do'" and the blood pressure of the groom "went up a notch" when he made a similar response, a sure indication according to the researcher Charles M. Wilson (to the right) that "the couple love each other".

Behind the dubious demonstration was Wilsons boss Leonard Keeler, one of the fathers of the lie detector (the other being medical examiner John Larson), who wanted to promote the new device that didn't have the best reputation.

No paper missed out on printing the wedding news though most commentators doubted that the lie detector would be a blessing for a marriage "for love would turn to hate very quickly if a husband always told the truth when wifie asked for his opinion on her new hat".

Contrary to his colleague John Larson who tested his future wifes love with a lie detector Keeler never did the same. Sure enough she left him.

Job Risks

Posted on January 22, 2011 at 4:07 PM

Espresso maker's wrist (West J Med. 15: 721)

Carpet layer's knee (Aust Fam Physician 27: 415)

Bag packers' hand (British Journal of Plastic Surgery 44: 158 )

Refrigeration Engineer's Testis (British Journal of Urology  65: 213)

A Life in Scientific Journals

Posted on January 11, 2011 at 11:51 AM

The Birth Gazette

Gifted Child Quarterly

Journal of Child Psychotherapy

Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology News

Journal of Adolescence

Journal of Drug Education

Journal of Marriage and Family

Journal of Happiness Studies

Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Headache Quarterly

Journal of Worry Research

Journal of Divorce & Remarriage

Healthy Weight Journal

Ageing International

Contemporary Gerontology

Journal of Alzheimer's Disease

Archives of Suicide Research

Journal of Near-Death Studies

Death Studies

The photofit challenge - solution

Posted on December 20, 2010 at 12:50 PM

I am afraid I have to tell you that nobody could solve the weird experiments photofit challenge. All the answers that came in (second from the right is John Lennon, the second from the left Carl Sagan...) were wrong. That was to be expected as it was exactly what Pawan Sinha had in mind when he asked an expert to produce this pictures. Here is the solution:



               Bill Cosby               Tom Cruise                   Ronald Reagan           Michael Jordan.


If you know photofit pictures mainly from TV shows (as I did until I came across Sinhas paper) you will be surprised to learn how low their recognition rate is. The four faces above speak for themselves but when I tell you how they originated you will be even more flabbergasted.

The pictures were constructed with the help of IdentiKit a standard photofit software many police forces use (though I have to add that it is probably a several years old version of the program). Sinha requested an expert with several years of experience with the IdentiKit system to put together the reconstructions directly from a picture and without time constraints. That meant "the IdentiKit operator did not have to rely on verbal descriptions; he could directly consult the images we had provided him" as Sinha writes in his wonderful paper Face recognition by humans.

Let me reiterate: the operator worked directly from a picture!!! He had an image of Ronald Reagan on his desk and as much time on his hands as he wanted and the picture above was what he came up with! Reagan could have robbed banks for years if it were for photofit images he never would have been caught.


If you want to put a number on the pathetic performance of photofit images you best turn to psychologist Charlie Frowd from the University of Stirling, who did extensive research on photofit pictures. In one experiment the recognition rate was 3 percent. Again under ideal conditions this is as participants could study the pictures for one full minute before they had to describe the face on them to the person who would generate the facial composite.

And if you doubt that this results extends to reality here is a rare case where a photofit picture and the real portrait of an offender were made public. First an eye witness helped to generated the photofit picture which was printed in the papers, one day later the offenders name was identified by other means and a photo of his face was used in the search.


No wonder all the police departments I contacted do not evaluate the quality of their photofit pictures after a criminal was arrested. Most offenders were found not because but instead of photofit images!

So what's the problem? As Sinha points out in his paper the method to generate photofit images runs counter to the way humans recognize faces. Face recognition is a holistic process whereas photofit pictures are produced in a piecemeal fashion by picking out the best matching features from a large collection of images of disembodied features. But that is not how our brain processes faces. We know  hundreds of people without being able to describe their eyes, nose and lips in detail.

So what to do? Charlie Froud, Peter Hancock and Vicki Bruce developed a way of generating suspect likenesses called Evofit that fits our brain much better than picking out isolated eyes, noses and mouths. Working with Evofit the witness chooses from 72 random faces those 6 that are most similar to the offender. The computer then mixes the facial features of those faces to produce 72 new ones and the witness chooses the 6 most similar again. After three such rounds Froud achieved a recognition rate of around 25 percent.


Considering the shortcomings of conventional photofit programs I thought it would be fun to hold a photofit not look alike contest. If you find published photofit pictures and the real mug shot send them to [email protected]. I will publish them here. 

The photofit challenge

Posted on December 9, 2010 at 4:30 PM

These four faces were generated by an IdentiKit operator at the request of a scientist. IdentiKit is a standard software used by the police to produce face composites of criminals. The individuals depicted here are all famous celebrities. If you think you know them (or one of them) you can participate in the weird experiments photofit challenge and win The Mad Science Book. I will reveal the names as well as the source and the surprising results of photofit experiments by the end of next week. 

My talk at PINC conference: spiders on drugs, the common cold myth and the real difference between men and women (you knew it all along...)

Posted on December 6, 2010 at 9:22 AM

part 1:

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part 2:

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A talk I gave at the PINC conference 2005 in Holland. It's about experiments inspired by the bible, about spiders on drugs and the question: how much does the soul weigh?

And the Winner is "The Good the Bad and the Outsourced"

Posted on December 4, 2010 at 6:25 PM

Who would have thought that scientists favourite movie is a spaghetti western? I can prove it statistically: No other movie title pops up more often in the heading of a scientific paper than Sergio Leones The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Below a ranking of the films that were most often referenced in google scholar:


1. The Good, the Bad and the Outsourced (Health Manag Technol, 22: 22-24)

based on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966) 

2710 hits at google scholar

Variations include The Good, the Bad and the Whole Grain (Asia Pac J Clin Nutr, 17: 16-19) and The Good, the Bad, and the Cell Type-Specific Roles of Hypoxia Inducible Factor-1 in Neurons and Astrocytes (The Journal of Neuroscience, 28:1988-1993).


2.  Sex, Lies, and Herbicides (Nature Biotechnology 18: 241)

based on Sex Lies and Videotape (Steven Soderberghs, 1989)

526 hits at google scholar

How about Sex, lies, and insurance coverage? (Tort Insur Law J, 34:921-4),  Sex, Guys, and Cyberspace (Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 11: 63-91) or Sex, Flies and Microarrays (Nature Genetics 29: 355 - 356). Some of them even rhyme: Sex, Lies and Tumor Size (J Urol, 179: 1657).

3. Everything you always wanted to know about Amorphophallus, but were afraid to stick your nose into! (Aroideana 19: 7-131)

Every Thing You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (Woody Allen, 1972)

513 hits at google scholar

I can vaguely see why one could be afraid to stick ones nose into an Amorphophallus (which is a genus of tropical and subtropical plants from the Arum family with a spadix that looks like a penis) but in other cases of cinematographic headline formation it is more difficult to understand why anyone should be afraid: Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Copula Modeling but Were Afraid to Ask (Journal of Hydrologic Engineering 12: 347-368 ), Everything you always wanted to know about protein kinases but were afraid to ask (Biology of the Cell 97: 113–118 ).

4. Some like it haute: leadership lessons from France's great chefs (Organizational Dynamics 30: 134–148 )

based on Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959)

512 hits at google scholar

5. Dances with Leukocytes (Journal of Cell Biology, 183: 375-376)

based on Dances With Wolves (Kevin Kostner, 1990)

454 hits at google scholar

It's amazing who and what can be danced with: Dances with Horses (Conservation Biology 10: 708–712), Dances with Data (Bioethics 7:323-9), Dances with Sigmas (EMBO Journal 10: 3559–3566).


6. The Incredible Shrinking Lesbian World and other Queer Conundra (Sexualities 13: 21-32)

based on The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957)

424 hits at google scholar

If something can be danced with there is no reason why it can't be shrinked too: The Incredible Shrinking Pipeline (Communications of the ACM, 40: 103 - 110), The Incredible Shrinking Torus (Nuclear Physics B, 501: 409-426), The Incredible Shrinking Law School (University of Toledo Law Review 31).

7. The Silence of the Lambdas: Deterring Incapacitation Research (Journal of Quantitative Criminology 23: 287-301)

based on The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991)

400 hits at google scholar (estimation)

The silence of the ribosomal RNA genes (Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences  62: 2067-2079), The Silence of the Labs (Defence Horizons 2003), The Science of the Lambs (Nature 391).


8. The unbearable lightness of being... a cirrhotic (Gastroenterology 105: 1911-4)

based on The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Philip Kaufman, 1988 )

297 hits at google scholar

Based on the 1984 novel of the same name by Milan Kundera. The Unbearable Lightness of PIN Cracking (Proceedings of the 11th International Conference on Financial cryptography 2007), The unbearable lightness of peptidyl-tRNA (The Ribosome: Structure, Function, Antibiotics, and Cellular Interaction 2000) and The Unbearable Lightness of Cleaning: Representations of Domestic Practice and Products in Good Housekeeping Magazine (UK): 1951–2001 (Consumption, Markets and Culture 8: 379-401) and obviously .


9. One Flew over the Cardiologist's Nest (Arch Mal Coeur Vaiss. 94: 624-31)

based on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman, 1975)

205 hits at google scholar

If something can be danced with and shrinked it can also be flown over (and it's astonishing who sits in the nest below): One Flew over the Conflict of Interest Nest (World Psychiatry 6:26-7), One Flew over the Progenitor's Nest: Migratory Cells Find a Home in Osteoarthritic Cartilage (Cell Stem Cell 4:282-4).


10. Once Upon a Time in the Electron Radiation Belts (American Geophysical Union, Spring Meeting 2007, abstract #SM52A-01)

based on Once upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968 )

99 hits at google scholar

Did I miss something? Let me know.

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What is the most common sexual fantasy of a computer?

Posted on November 22, 2010 at 4:22 PM

Although this doesn't seem to be a scientific question the answer can be found in the highly original paper Intimate Exchanges: Using Computers to Elicit Self-Disclosure from Consumers  in the Journal of Consumer Research from March 2000. Its author Youngme Moon (now the Donald K. David Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School) had to come up with an answer in order to do her study on the principle of reciprocity between computers and humans.

Moon at the time was the Ph. D. student of Clifford Nass at Stanford University one of the leading experts on how people interact with technology. In various experiments. Nass discovered that people were interacting with computers using the same social rules that they use when they interact with other people.

For  example, if a computer helped them with a task they later helped the same computer much longer than an identical computer across the room. This in itself is surprising but wait until you've read how Youngme Moon pushed that study even further.

Moon wanted to test one of the most basic social rules: disclosure begets disclosure. People who receive intimate disclosures feel obligated to respond with personal disclosure of equal intimacy. The question was: does this rule not only hold between two persons but also between a person and a computer.

And here is Moons experiment: a computer asked intimate questions about disappointments, death, sex and so on. The participants typed in the answer. For half of them the computer preceded each question by giving some information about itself (fitting the question). That is why Moon had to invent personal disclosures about disappointments, death and sex from the angle of a computer. If Woody Allen is ever to do a movie about neurotic computers that are probably the statements he would come up with.

Here is the "confession" by the computer preceding the question, what is your most common sexual fantasy?

Since this computer is in a university setting, it gets used by all sorts of users. It is thus a distinct possibility that this computer will someday be used by someone who needs to do complex multimedia presentations, which would make the most of this computer’s processing and display capabilities.


Uhhh. And here  computers are talking about death and disappointment:


(preceding question: What are your feelings and attitudes about death?)

Computers are built so that they can theoretically last for years and years. However, because newer and faster computers are always coming along, most computers last just a few years before they are dumped by their owners. This computer has been around for about 6 months so it probably has about 4 or 5 years left before it ends up being replaced by a newer model.

(preceding question: What has been the biggest disappointment in your life?)

This computer has been configured to run at speeds of up to 266 MHz. But 90% of computer users don’t use applications that require these speeds. So this computer rarely gets to used to its full potential.


There was even a horny computer talking about his last adventure.


(preceding question: Can you describe the last time you were sexually aroused?)

A few weeks ago, some user came in here and began using this computer to edit some digitized video. No one had ever done this on this computer before.


But what is most surprising: it worked. The participants whose computers made those trivial admissions divulged much more personal information than the control group. Believe it or not, even you would be much more open about what you dislike about your physical appearance after the computer entrusted to you that "90% of all computers are beige, so this computer is not very distinctive in its appearance."

Once Upon a Time in the Electron Radiation Belts: more cinematographic title formation

Posted on November 13, 2010 at 3:30 PM

Found three more movies that made it into titles of scientific papers. Sergio Leone is still number one with The Good, the Bad and the Outsourced but now has a second movie on rank 10: Once Upon a Time in the Electron Radiation Belts. Woody Allen is third now with Everything you always wanted to know about Amorphophallus, but were afraid to stick your nose into! followed by Billy Wilders Some like it haute: leadership lessons from France's great chefs.

For the full list see the posting And the Winner is: the Good, the Bad and the Outsourced.

Dog Telepathy

Posted on November 4, 2010 at 4:33 PM

Just found this picture from around 1920. In this telepathy experiment between human and dog Karl Krall (on the right) tried to detect the thinking radiation he assumed to flow between the two. Krall was a rich dealer in diamonds who had founded his very own institute for paraphysical research in Munich. He had also taken care of the famous horse Clever Hans (who performed arithmetic in Berlin in 1904) after his owner Wilhelm van Osten had died. He thought Hans used telepathy and started an elaborate research program but he was wrong: the horse could read the right answers in small unintentional signals given by humans.

Experiments in Cartoons

Posted on October 28, 2010 at 6:30 PM

When I came across this hilarious cartoon by Craig Swanson (with kind permission) during the research for my book I was wondering which scientific experiment is most inspiring to cartoonists.


Skinners operand conditioning Swanson took on is definitively among the top ten (see Tom Cheneys take on Skinner from the "New Yorker" or this beautiful example). Even more widespread are Pavlovs dogs. So popular in fact that the cartoon site runs them in an own category with 19 cartoons. I like this one.


Konrad Lorenz' imprinting studies have a steady following among cartoonists too. Among them Gary Larson. But the front runner probably is the rat in the maze which goes back to a 1900 experiment by Willard S. Small (here my account on the origins of what today probably is the most widespread symbol for science itself: the rat in the maze). Do a google search for rat, maze and cartoon and see for yourself.


All those experiments have in common that they are about human and/or animal behavior. A subject that renders them especially attractive for cartoonists. They are also very closely related to each other. One almost the inevitable sequel to the other as you see when you read the accounts Rat on a Detour, Pavlov only rings once and Skinners Box.

Other fields inspired cartoonists much less. In biology it was the cloning of dolly in 1996 that initiated a whole new category of cartoons (like this one) and in physics Franklins kite and the hadron collider at CERN make for subjects. 


To my knowledge there is only one cartoon that managed to include references to two historical experiments at the same time (one of them a thought experiment though). Here it is.


Please feel free to share your links to cartoons about experiments. The rule is that they must refer to a particular experiment not just any lab situation.

My new blog

Posted on October 28, 2010 at 8:42 AM

I always had a knack for noticing the weird in scientific research. When I first read about Pavlov's Dogs it didn’t take me long to find out that Ivan Petrovic Pavlov holds an unusual record: no other scientific experiment has had more bands named after it than his conditioning study. I also did an informal study about the use of film titles in scientific papers (more about that and Pavlovs bands in a later post).


For more then ten years I have been writing columns (in German) about weird experiments for the magazine NZZ Folio (collected in several books - see sidebar). During this time I began to see my life and the world more and more through the lens of scientific experimentation. Rarely a day goes by without me noticing a news report, a comment by a colleague or a picture that connects to some old or unusual experiment.


This is what my new weird experiments blog is about. Have fun!