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Friday, March 1, 2024

Column: Scientific hoaxes

Last week, the subject of my column was of scientists being honest but wrong. This week, I want to talk about the other part of being wrong: being dishonest. Entire books can and have been filled with stories of infamous hoaxes by people with a variety of reasons (often money, sometimes fame, occasionally to prove a pet theory).
Here are a few of the most infamous scientific hoaxes throughout history. I only included the ones where people have definitive proof of deception and that actually took place (urban legends don’t count).
Piltdown Man: The Piltdown Man’s fame began in 1912, when Charles Dawson said at a paleontological meeting that he was given several fossil fragments by a workman at the Piltdown gravel pit. He took the finds to Arthur Smith Woodward, who was the geological keeper of the British Museum. Woodward assembled the fragments and declared that it was a skull of an evolutionary “missing link” between humans and apes due to its human-like cranium and its ape-like jaw.
The hoax was not properly exposed until 1953, when Kenneth Page Oakley, Sir Wilfrid Edward Le Gros Clark and Joseph Weiner proved that the skull was actually composed of three species: a medieval human, a Sarawak orangutan (the jaw) and a chimpanzee (the teeth). The fossils looked much older due to chromic acid and an iron solution, which proves deliberate deception rather than putting together the wrong fossils. Though no one ever confessed to the hoax and there are actually several suspects, my money’s on Dawson working together with someone else; archaeologists looking at Dawson’s collection found that nearly 40 of them were forgeries.
Chess-Playing Robot: Simply put, the “Mechanical Turk” was a chess-playing robot who looked like a Turkish man in traditional sorcerer’s garb. The Mechanical Turk was constructed in 1770 by Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian inventor trying to impress the Empress Maria Theresa. The Turk won the majority of the games that it played against many people at the original exhibition for the Empress. People continued to play against the Turk until its destruction by fire in 1854.
The cabinet beneath the Turkish man looked like it was filled with cogs and gears; in fact, that was just the exposed outside of the cabinet. The inside of the cabinet actually contained a human chess master operating the Turk’s arms with levers and a voice box to declare, “Check.”
Rabbit Mother: Mary Toft was a woman from Surry, England who, starting in 1726, gave birth to more than a dozen rabbits. Apparently, during her pregnancy she became fascinated by a rabbit, and her miscarriage soon after contained several rabbit parts. Reports soon reached the community, and then doctors, that several days later she gave birth to additional whole, live rabbits.
Well, not really. Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that. She managed to fool a significant number of surgeons, including the surgeon of the Royal House of King George I. She was taken to London and intensely studied. She produced no more rabbits, confessed to the hoax and was jailed for fraud. The method of her madness soon became disgustingly apparent: After her initial miscarriage, while her cervix was still wide enough to allow it, an accomplice inserted the body and claws of a cat and the head of a rabbit. Her motive was most likely money; she claimed that a “traveling woman” had told her that if she pretended to give birth to rabbits, she would never need more money. How this could possibly happen is lost to history and was known only to Toft.
Dihydrogen Monoxide: Did you know that dihydrogen monoxide is a chemical that is a major component of acid rain, contributes to the greenhouse effect, is fatal if inhaled and has been found in the tumors of terminal cancer patients? Despite this, it’s still commonly used as coolant in nuclear power plants, as a fire retardant, in pesticides and as food additives!

Since this hoax has been around since the mid 1990s and was widely publicized, I’m guessing many of you reading this already get the joke: Dihydrogen monoxide is water. The list of “dangers” of dihydrogen monoxide came from a group of college students as a joke and to show how gullible people can be.

AMY STEWART can be reached at science@theaggie.org.


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