Hulton Archive / getty images
Hulton Archive / getty images

6 Crazy Science Experiments That "Worked"

Hulton Archive / getty images
Hulton Archive / getty images

From Dr. Frank-N-Furter to Dr. Doofenschmirtz, we've all grown up hearing about our fair share of mad scientists and their crazy experiments. A trip through history teaches us that these insane geniuses aren't just works of fiction. Let's look back at six scientists and their experiments that spawned from both dedicated wills and disturbed minds.

1. Nikola Tesla's Death Ray

Shrink rays, heat rays, and ray-guns have long been the rage in science fiction, but that doesn't mean they can't work in the real world. In 1931, Nikola Tesla claimed to have built a working "death ray." He wasn't the first to try to perfect this kind of invention, but Tesla's death ray stood out from the competitors' because it might have actually worked. His death ray employed charged particles shot from a vacuum chamber rather than rays, which he believed would not be able to cause any harm. 

"There are a few details to be finished—my calculation might be perhaps 10 per cent off at present," he said in 1934. But, had it been perfected, he insisted that "a country's whole frontier can be protected by one of the plants producing these beams every 200 miles."

2. Vladimir Demikhov and the Two-Headed Dog

WARNING: THIS FOOTAGE IS DISTURBING.

Vladimir Demikhov experimented with vital-organ transplants, starting off with animal-to-animal heart and lung transplants before he moved on to the tough stuff: Heads. In 1954, Demikhov successfully transplanted the head, shoulders, and front legs of a puppy onto the side of an adult dog's neck. Both heads remained conscious and active, eating and drinking until the creature died a few days after the operation. Demikhov repeated this frightening experiment several times, with the longest-surviving subject living for one month.

3. Gabriel Beaurieux's Decapitated Head Obsession

Gabriel Beaurieux's work is sure to bring back fond memories of learning about Henry VIII and his many, many, wives. In 1905, Beaurieux attended the execution of a prisoner by the name of Henri Languille. The scientist made note that, after his decapitation, the head still possessed consciousness and movement for several seconds, and even opened its eyes twice when his name was called. From Beaurieux himself:

The head fell on the severed surface of the neck and I did not therefor have to take it up in my hands, as all the newspapers have vied with each other in repeating; I was not obliged even to touch it in order to set it upright. Chance served me well for the observation, which I wished to make.
...
the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds.
...
I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. The face relaxed, the lids half closed on the eyeballs, leaving only the white of the conjunctiva visible, exactly as in the dying whom we have occasion to see every day in the exercise of our profession, or as in those just dead. It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: “Languille!” I saw the eyelids slowly lift up.

Kids, don't try this experiment at home.

4. Sergei Brukhonenko's Dog-Headed Cyborg

WARNING: DISTURBING FOOTAGE.

Sergei Brukhonenko, a Soviet physician, developed what he called an "autojector," a heart-lung machine intended to keep alive the head of a dog while separated from its body. When presented, the dog head responded to stimuli of sound and light, and even ate a piece of cheese. Brukhonenko claimed he was able to drain the dog head of blood, let it sit for ten minutes, and then restart the machine to bring it back to life. Good dog.

5. Stubbins Ffirth's Toxic Vomit Cocktail

In the early 19th century, a young man named Stubbins Ffirth was training to become a doctor in Philadelphia. He closely studied yellow fever, a disease that had decimated the area only a few years prior. Ffirth believed that yellow fever was not contagious, and set out to prove it by pouring the vomit of a yellow fever patient into his eyes, open wounds he created specially for the experiment, and down his gullet. Yellow fever, it turned out, is contagious through transmission into the blood stream, and it was quite surprising that Ffirth never fell ill himself. Better lucky than right, apparently.

6. Winthrop Kellogg's Chimpanzee Daughter

Mad Science Museum 

Tarzan taught us what it might be like for a boy to be raised by apes. But have you ever wondered what really happens to apes raised by humans? In 1931, Winthrop Kellogg took a seven-month-old chimpanzee, Gua, into his home and raised her alongside his 10-month-old son, Donald, as if the chimp were human herself. Kellogg regularly tested the pair to track their development. Surprisingly, Gua tested better than Donald in all categories except one: language skills. In an interesting twist of "human see, human do," nine months into the project, Donald began to imitate Gua's "food bark" to signal his hunger instead of using words. Kellogg cut his experiment short, and Gua was sent back to the primate center from which she came.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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10 Scientific Benefits of Being a Dog Owner
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The bickering between cat people and dog people is ongoing and vicious, but in the end, we're all better off for loving a pet. But if anyone tries to poo-poo your pooch, know that there are some scientific reasons that they're man's best friend.

1. YOU GET SICK LESS OFTEN.

Dog snuggling on a bed with its person.
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If cleaning commercials are to be believed, humanity is in the midst of a war against germs—and we shouldn't stop until every single one is dead. In reality, the amount of disinfecting we do is making us sicker; since our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs, our entire microbiome is messed up. Fortunately, dogs are covered in germs! Having a dog in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and gets inside the occupants (one study found "dog-related biodiversity" is especially high on pillowcases). In turn, people with dogs seem to get ill less frequently and less severely than people—especially children—with cats or no pets.

2. YOU'RE MORE RESISTANT TO ALLERGIES.

Child and mother playing with a dog on a bed.
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While dog dander can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives. And the benefits can start during gestation; a 2017 study published in the journal Microbiome found that a bacterial exchange happened between women who lived with pets (largely dogs) during pregnancy and their children, regardless of type of birth or whether the child was breastfed, and even if the pet was not in the home after the birth of the child. Those children tested had two bacteria, Ruminococcus and Oscillospira, that reduce the risk of common allergies, asthma, and obesity, and they were less likely to develop eczema.

3. YOU'LL HAVE BETTER HEART HEALTH.

Woman doing yoga with her dog.
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Everything about owning a dog seems to lend itself to better heart health. Just the act of petting a dog lowers heart rate and blood pressure. A 2017 Chinese study found a link between dog ownership and reduced risk of coronary artery disease, while other studies show pet owners have slightly lower cholesterol and are more likely to survive a heart attack.

4. YOU GET MORE EXERCISE.

Person running in field with a dog.
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While other pets have positive effects on your health as well, dogs have the added benefit of needing to be walked and played with numerous times a day. This means that many dog owners are getting 30 minutes of exercise a day, lowering their risk of cardiovascular disease.

5. YOU'LL BE HAPPIER.

Woman cuddling her dog.
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Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression than non-pet owners. Even for those people who are clinically depressed, having a pet to take care of can help them out of a depressive episode. Since taking care of a dog requires a routine and forces you to stay at least a little active, dog owners are more likely to interact with others and have an increased sense of well-being while tending to their pet. The interaction with and love received from a dog can also help people stay positive. Even the mere act of looking at your pet increases the amount of oxytocin, the "feel good" chemical, in the brain.

6. YOU HAVE A MORE ACTIVE SOCIAL LIFE.

Large bulldog licking a laughing man.
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Not only does dog ownership indirectly tell others that you're trustworthy, your trusty companion can help facilitate friendships and social networks. A 2015 study published in PLOS One found that dogs can be both the catalyst for sparking new relationships and also the means for keeping social networks thriving. One study even showed that those with dogs also had closer and more supportive relationships with the people in their lives.

7. YOUR DOG MIGHT BE A CANCER DETECTOR.

Man high-fiving his dog.
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Your dog could save your life one day: It seems that our canine friends have the ability to smell cancer in the human body. Stories abound of owners whose dogs kept sniffing or licking a mole or lump on their body so they got it checked out, discovering it was cancerous. The anecdotal evidence has been backed up by scientific studies, and some dogs are now trained to detect cancer.

8. YOU'LL BE LESS STRESSED AT WORK.

Woman working on a computer while petting a dog.
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The benefits of bringing a dog to work are so increasingly obvious that more companies are catching on. Studies show that people who interact with a pet while working have lower stress levels throughout the day, while people who do not bring a pet see their stress levels increase over time. Dogs in the office also lead to people taking more breaks, to play with or walk the dog, which makes them more energized when they return to work. This, in turn, has been shown to lead to much greater productivity and job satisfaction.

9. YOU CAN FIND OUT MORE ABOUT YOUR PERSONALITY.

Man running in surf with dog.
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The kind of dog you have says a lot about your personality. A study in England found a very clear correlation between people's personalities and what type of dogs they owned; for example, people who owned toy dogs tended to be more intelligent, while owners of utility dogs like Dalmatians and bulldogs were the most conscientious. Other studies have found that dog owners in general are more outgoing and friendly than cat owners.

10. YOUR KIDS WILL BE MORE EMPATHETIC.

A young boy having fun with his dog.
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Though one 2003 study found that there is no link between pet ownership and empathy in a group of children, a 2017 study of 1000 7-12 year olds found that pet attachment of any kind encouraged compassion and positive attitudes toward animals, which promoted better well-being for both the child and the pet. Children with dogs scored the highest for pet attachment, and the study notes that "dogs may help children to regulate their emotions because they can trigger and respond to a child's attachment related behavior." And, of course, only one pet will happily play fetch with a toddler.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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