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Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Three

Do woodpeckers suffer brain damage?

One of the distinctive sounds to be heard in the garden of Blogger Towers is the drilling of a woodpecker as it tries to dislodge insects from within the bark of one of the nearby trees. It has always struck me that there must be easier ways for them to get their food. After all, each time they strike the tree their beaks and head undergo forces of between 1,200 and 1,400 G, over fourteen times the force that would give a human concussion.

A team of scientists from Boston University School of Medicine, led by Peter Cummings, reported in the ever popular Plos One, carried out some research into the brains of woodpeckers, using exhibits from the Field Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History. The tell-tale sign for brain damage, in human brains at least, is the build-up of tau protein around our axons. Normally, tau protein wraps around the axons, giving them protection and stability while preserving their flexibility. Too much of it, though, disrupts the ability of the neurons to communicate, causing problems with functions such as emotional, cognitive and motor.

In what is thought to have been the first detailed examination of woodpecker brains, the little grey cells were removed from a number of exhibits and the amount of tau protein was compared with that to be found in the brains of Red-winged Blackbirds. Now, of course, the woodpeckers in question may have been particularly stupid, having allowed themselves to be caught and end up in a museum’s glass case, but the researchers found that there was considerably more tau protein in their brains than in the blackbirds.

Is this indicative of brain damage? Frustratingly, the researchers are not prepared to commit; all Cummings was prepared to say was “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brain.” It is dangerous to assume that what is good for humans must also be the case for other forms of animal life so a bit more research is needed, I guess.

Empirically, though, as woodpeckers have been around for 25 million years and nature evolves – a controversial contention, I know – you would think that they would have developed mechanisms to prevent injurious damage to their bodies. And it seems they have. Researchers have previously established that woodpeckers have particularly thick neck muscles which serve to diffuse the blow when their beak strikes the wood. They also have a third inner eyelid which prevents their eyeballs from popping out.

In 2012 scientists from Beijing’s Beihang University and the Wuhan University of Technology carried out a more detailed examination of the thick bone that surrounds and cushions the woodpecker’s brain, details of which were reported in Science China Life Sciences. It appears that their brains are surrounded by a spongy bone plate made of tiny beams or rods called trabeculae. This provides a protective layer around the brain. Similarly, their beaks contain these same trabeculae. It is thought that the beak deforms during impact, absorbing the impact rather than sending it onwards towards the brain.

So the answer is probably no. Makes sense, I suppose.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via www.martinfone.com

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Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Two

Do your ears grow as you get older?

Ears are wonderful things. As well as opening up the world of sound for those blessed with the sense of hearing – that is another story – they provide us with something to which we can attach our spectacles. In Chinese physiognomy large ears are a sign of longevity. As I grow ever older I get this unshakeable feeling that the size of my ears is increasing. The consensus seems to be that old men have big ears and so for those of us with an enquiring mind this prompts the question: Do ears really grow larger with age and, if so, is it a phenomenon restricted to men?

The starting point for our investigation into the lughole is a paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1995, entitled Why do old men have big ears? In this fascinating monograph a general practitioner from Bromley in Kent, James Heathcote, recounts a survey he and three of his doctor colleagues conducted into the size of men’s ears in 1993. The doctors measured the ear sizes of 206 men of aged 30 and over and analysed the results. They calculated that ears grew at an average of 0.22 millimetres a year or, to put it another way, around a centimetre every 50 years. Frustratingly, the worthy medics didn’t hazard a guess as to why this may happen.

But it seems that the British investigation only tells half a story, having concentrated exclusively on the male sex. For an understanding of what happens with the ears of the fairer sex. A paper, reprinted in the BMJ in 1996 entitled Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan details the findings of some physicians working in care homes in Japan (surprise, surprise) where they measured the ears and height of some 400 adult patients of both sexes.  What they found was that there is a significant correlation between the length of your ear and age, confirming Heathcote’s findings, and that there is an even greater correlation when adjusted for height – across both sexes.

An Italian study in 1999, conducted by VF Ferrario and others, measured the ears of groups of males and females in age categories 12 to 15, 19 to 30 and 31 to 56. What they discovered was that ear dimensions were significantly larger in males than females and that there was a significant effect on the size of lugholes with age with larger ears to be found amongst the aging population.

A more exhaustive study was conducted in around 2006 was conducted by a team of Germans from the Freie Universitat Berlin, led by Carsten Niemitz, based upon some original original research carried out in 1959 by Montacer-Kuhssary. The team found some 1448 photographs of ears of people of all ages ranging from new-born children to adolescents to adults and old codgers up to the age of 92. Each of the photographs was subjected to fifteen different sets of measurements. What the team found that “in all parameters where post adult growth was observed, female ears showed a lesser increase than those of men.” Moreover the extent to which older men have bigger ears than younger males is greater than the extent to which older women’s lugholes are bigger than younger females’. But the fact is that women’s ears grow with age as well. Perhaps the reason why we don’t notice this phenomenon is because they often wear their hair in styles which cover the ears.

They also found that noses grow with age but not at the rate of ears – perhaps the Pinocchio effect of those shaggy dog stories the elderly are so fond of telling. There is no certainty as to why ears grow. It may be due to the loss of elasticity in the skin and the effect of gravity. Who knows?

Glad to have uncovered the truth on that one, though.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via www.martinfone.com

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Eight

Dr Louis Slotin (1910 – 1946)

We’ve all done it, I’m sure – moaned about the red tape of bureaucracy and ‘Elf and Safety which hinders us from getting on with what we are trying to do. But, occasionally, there are good reasons why a bit of safety awareness wouldn’t come amiss as this cautionary tale involving our latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Canadian scientist Louis Slotin, amply illustrates.

Slotin was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War 2 and he earned a reputation as one of the pre-eminent assemblers of nuclear warheads. Following the destruction of Horoshima and Nagasaki and the conclusion of the war, Slotin continued to experiment with nuclear fission. His particular sphere of interest was measuring the beginnings of the fission reaction, by bringing two semi-spherical pieces of radioactive material into close proximity. Of course, if the two actually touched there would be an almighty explosion and so a degree of precision, as well as a steady hand, was called for.

For some people, playing your part in developing something that could fry large portions of the world’s population is not enough. It would seem Slotin was a bit of a character who liked to spice up his life. That may be the reason why he eschewed any of the fancy-dan safety equipment available and relied upon a humble screwdriver to keep the two hemispheres apart.

On May 21st 1946 Slotin was training a colleague, the aptly named Alvin Graves, at the Omega Laboratory and for his piece de resistance a small crowd of his colleagues assembled to watch his performance. Unfortunately, at the critical moment at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the screwdriver slipped and the two pieces of radioactive material made contact. The official report into the incident reported, “The blue flash was clearly visible in the room although it (the room) was well illuminated from the windows and possibly the overhead lights. . . . The total duration of the flash could not have been more than a few tenths of a second.”  Showing a remarkable presence of mind, Slotin pushed the top hemisphere of plutonium off with his bare hands, thus ending the reaction.

It was calculated that Slotin’s screwdriver slip had set off about three quadrillion fission reactions – it sounds a lot but the bang, in fact, it was about a million times smaller than the first atomic bombs. The blue flash was caused by the high-energy photons emitted when the electrons in the air settled down after their agitation. But the damage was done. Slotin complained of a burning sensation in his left hand and a sour taste in his mouth. He was rushed into a car and taken to hospital, but during the journey started to vomit, a symptom of severe radiation poisoning. Slotin said to his colleagues, “You’ll be OK, but I think I’m done for.”

He was not wrong, dying nine days later of radiation exposure. He was commended for his actions in a citation read to him before meeting his maker; “Dr Slotin’s quick reaction at the immediate risk of his own life prevented a more serious development of the experiment which would certainly have resulted in the death of the seven men working with him, as well as serious injury to others in the vicinity.” It was a rather optimistic assessment; within two years of the incident, two of his colleagues had died of radiation sickness.

Clearly, Slotin’s approach to the experiment had been cavalier.  After all, there had been an incident a few months earlier when Harry Daghlian dropped a brick of tungsten carbide onto a plutonium mass, bathing him in radiation. He died a month later from radiation sickness.

For conducting an experiment that caused your demise, Louis Slotin, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Seven

Margaret Knight (1838 – 1914)

This series has been criticised, quite fairly, for ignoring the contribution of women to improving our daily life so to start to redress the balance it is my pleasure to enrol Margaret Knight into our illustrious Hall of Fame. Born in York, Maine Margaret worked in a cotton mill as a child and at the tender age of twelve witnessed an accident in the factory where a steel-tipped shuttle shot out of a mechanical loom, stabbing a work colleague. Within weeks of witnessing this traumatic event, she had invented a safety device which prevented a recurrence.

Margaret never patented her invention which was soon adopted by other mills. Indeed, quite what it was is not clear – it might have been a guard to stop the shuttle from flying off or some kind of safety device to stop the loom. Either way, Margaret made a valuable contribution to safety in the mills but never saw a penny for her initiative. Dogged by poor health, Margaret left the mill before she reached twenty.

In 1867 Margaret moved to Springfield, Massachusetts and started working at the Columbia Paper Bag Company. The industrialisation of paper bag manufacturing had taken a major leap forward when, in 1852, Francis Wolle, a Moravian priest cum schoolteacher cum business man from Pennsylvania, invented and patented a paper bag-making machine. The basics of its design are still used today. That said, the bags it produced were fairly rudimentary, were like envelopes and flimsy, without the flat bottoms that are used today for takeaways and the like. How to improve the paper gag-making machine was a challenge which Margaret could not resist.

She spent time working on a device that would cut, fold and paste the bottoms of bags. When her employer complained about the time Margaret was spending on developing her prototype, she offered him the rights, for a price, if she could come up with a solution. He agreed and after knocking out thousands of bags on her wooden model, Margaret was satisfied that she had a fully functional device. She had a metal prototype made in Boston which was a requisite for submitting a patent application.

But this is where her problems began. A chap called Charles Annan had visited the factory and paid particular attention to her prototype. So meticulous were his observations that he filed for a patent for a machine which looked suspiciously like the square bottom paper bag-making machine that Margaret had painstakingly developed and trialled. Our heroine wasn’t going to let this device slip from her grasp and filed a patent interference suit against Annan. With the bit firmly between her teeth, spent upwards of $100 a day plus expenses in garnering depositions from herself and other key witnesses in preparation for the trial.

As part of his defence Annan claimed that because Margaret was a woman, she could not possibly understand the complexities of a machine like this. Margaret’s preparation paid off though, her notes, diary entries, samples and affidavits convincing the court to dismiss Annan’s rather chauvinist arguments and to find in her favour. But it took three years to get that far. She established the Eastern Paper Bag Company and began to receive royalties for her invention.

Margaret then became a bit of a serial inventor, and is credited with around 90 inventions and twenty-two patents. Her inventions included a new window frame and sash design, a numbering machine, an automatic boring machine and a spinning or sewing machine. Although these all made her money, by the time she died in 1914 she had just $300 to her name.

Margaret, for having to fight male chauvinism to get your just deserts, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Six

Peter M Roberts (1945 – present)

Here’s a cautionary tale about employee suggestion schemes and involves socket wrenches and the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Peter M Roberts. Socket wrenches have been around since medieval times and were used, for example, to wind up clocks. The first ratcheting socket wrench with interchangeable sockets was invented by an American, J.J Richardson, who filed a patent for his tool on 16th June 1863. Although immensely useful, interchangeable socket wrenches were cumbersome as the operative had to stop what they were doing and use both hands to change the socket.

Roberts’ light bulb moment was to make the operation much slicker by developing a simple, quick-release device which allowed the user to change sockets quickly and easily with one hand. He even developed a prototype. At this time the 18 year-old Roberts worked for the retail chain store, Sears, in Gardner, Massachusetts but all the development was done in his own time, not his employers’. So pleased was Roberts with what he had produced that he was about to hire a lawyer and file a patent when he made a fatal mistake. He mentioned what he had done to his boss.

The boss, in what was possibly the worst piece of mentoring advice in modern history, suggested that Roberts enter his invention into the employee suggestion scheme. After all, Sears were selling around a million wrenches a year and would be bound to be interested. This Roberts did on 7th May 1964 with a note stating that a patent application was pending. He made the even more calamitous mistake of surrendering the only prototype in existence.

Having received this gift horse, Sears proceeded to put the device through a number of tests and received the thumbs up from wrench operatives. By this time Sears had closed the store Roberts was working at in Gardner and as he was out of work he went back to Tennessee to live with his parents. They gave him $10,000 for the patent, claiming that there was no commercial value in the device.  Market research, however, had convinced Sears that they were on to a winner and the product was launched in October 1964. Within a year Sears had sold 26 million of the wrenches, trousering a profit of some $44 million. By 1982 they had sold some 37 million. The only contact Roberts had from Sears during this time was a phone call asking for the identity of his patent lawyer, whom they promptly hired to protect their interests!

Realising the enormity of his mistake, Roberts started to bombard Sears with law suits claiming that they had defrauded him. The path to justice is long, tortuous and expensive and it was not until 1976 that Roberts succeeded in getting a US Federal jury to agree with him and award him $1 million in damages – a paltry amount considering the success of the product but for someone on their uppers welcome indeed.

Sears were not finished with Roberts just yet and decided to appeal the decision, taking the case all the way up to the Supreme Court, although they eventually lost. But the litigation continued and Roberts was able to up the damages awarded to him to $5 million. But even then the dispute dragged on and it was not until 1989, some twenty-five years after the wrench had been invented, that the case was settled and Roberts walked away with $8.9m. This was enough for him to establish Link Tools which, surprise, surprise, manufactured quick-release ratchets, sockets and accessories.

Peter Roberts, for almost giving away all the fruits of your genius, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

Bee Stunts Of The Week

What is it with men and bees? In my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – how’s that for a gratuitous plug? – I call for volunteers to extend the experiments into the calibration of the intensity of bee stings on various parts of the human anatomy. It seems that the call to arms is being answered, if these stories I stumbled upon this week are to be believed.

First we have Juan Carlos Noguez Ortiz, a worker on a honeybee farm in Ontario in Canada, who smashed the Guinness World Record for sitting in a sealed dome while more than 100,000 bees crawled over his face and neck. He endured the ordeal for 61 minutes beating the previous best of 53 minutes 34 seconds hands-down. Defying bee-lief, he claimed only to have suffered a couple of stings.

Less fortunate was Kiwi, Jamie Grainger, who accepted a bet for NZ$1k to help towards paying for his forthcoming nuptials by positioning his bare backside atop a hive of bees. Grainger, a serial risk taker who once accepted a NZ$500 bet to eat a slug, sat there for 30 seconds, was stung numerous times but claims it was the easiest money he had ever earned. It’s going to be one hell of stag do, is all I can say.

There’s nowt so queer as folk”, said a spokesman for the bee community.

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Five

Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864)

At primary school, for some unaccountable reason as it was situated in a county with a fine folk tradition, the songs we sang were mainly American. One particular favourite which we sang with gusto was Camptown Races which started off, “Camptown ladies, sing this song/ doo-da doo-da/ The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long/ Oh doo-da day.”  It sounded better than it appears on paper. It was one of over two hundred songs written by the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Stephen Foster, not that I knew at the time nor, frankly, cared.

Foster has been called the father of American music and many of his songs are popular to this day. In his musical canon are ditties such as Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie with the light brown hair, Old Black Joe and Beautiful dreamer. As a youngster he joined a quasi-secret society  known as the Knights of the Square Table who spent their evenings singing songs and was heavily influenced by a German musician, Henry Kleber, who ran a music store in Pittsburgh and Dan Rice, an itinerant entertainer. It was during this period that he wrote one of his most famous songs, Oh! Susanna, although the first song he published, at the age of eighteen, was Open Thy Lattice, Love.

When he was twenty-four and married, Foster decided to earn his living as a professional song-writer. The problem with being the first in your field, is that there are usually no rules of engagement. So whilst Foster would generally find someone who would pay him some money for the rights to publish his songs, there was no such thing as an established music royalty system. So Oh! Susanna, published in 1848 and the unofficial anthem of the Californian gold rush, earned him just $100 while his publisher raked in $10,000.

Returning to Pennsylvania in 1849 he signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels and over the next five years or so wrote many of his most well-known songs, including Camptown Races in 1850. They were often in the blackface minstrel stylee which was popular at the time but with subtle changes, as Foster wrote, “to build up taste…among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order”. But instead of the millions that his works would have earned him these days, he received little more than $15,000 in total for all the songs which are now the staple of the American songbook.

Inevitably, Foster hit hard times. 1855 might well have been his annus horribilis – he separated from his wife and both his parents died. He reacted to his troubles in the only way he knew how – by writing another hit, Hard Times Come Again No More. What certainly did not come no more was money and he was reduced to living a rootless existence, dossing in hotels in New York.

His demise is worthy of our Hall of Fame. In January 1864 Foster contracted a fever and was severely weakened by it. He was found, naked, lying in a pool of blood, by his then writing partner, George Cooper, having hit his head on a wash basin. He died in Bellevue Hospital three days later, on February 13, aged just thirty-seven. In his wallet was found a scrap of paper with the words, “Dear friends and gentle hearts” and just 38 cents. Perhaps his most famous song, Beautiful Dreamer, was published posthumously.

Stephen Foster, for enriching the American song tradition and not enjoying your just desserts, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Four

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844 – 1906)

Science in general and physics in particular, whilst fascinating, has always been a closed book to me. Thank goodness there have been cleverer people than I who have made a significant contribution to the understanding of how the universe works like the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Austrian born Ludwig Boltzmann.

Take entropy or the degree of disorder and uncertainty in a system. I have always thought that tidying up was a bit of a waste of time and now I have the scientific evidence to back up my empirical observation. If I’m prevailed upon to tidy up a pile of clothing, have I contributed to a decrease in disorder and a corresponding reduction in entropy? Not a bit of it. You see, there are side effects to my attempt to restore order to my unruly pile of glad rags. I will be breathing, probably cursing, metabolising and warming my surroundings. When everything is totted up, the total disorder measured by entropy will have increased.

Boltzmann’s contribution to the corpus of scientific knowledge was to apply statistical techniques to understanding the second law of thermodynamics, first articulated by the French scientist Sadi Carnot in 1824, that stated that the total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time. He was an atomist and believed that these tricky little devils held the key to the understanding of entropy. By blending the laws of mechanics as applied to the motion of atoms with probability theory, he concluded that the second law of thermodynamics was essentially a statistical law. The formula he derived to describe entropy in 1877 was S = k · log W. Clear as mud to me but it became the foundation of statistical mechanics.

Our hero didn’t finish there. Between 1880 and 1883 he continued to develop his statistical approach to explaining the mysteries of the universe and refined a theory to explain friction and diffusion in gases. In the late 1880s, following Hertz’s discovery of electromagnetic waves, Boltzmann devised a number of experiments to demonstrate radio waves, lecturing on the subject.

Impressive as this all is, Boltzmann did not find favour with his colleagues. Atomism, which is the bedrock of modern-day physics was under attack at the time and Boltzmann’s theory that entropy was irreversible was counter to prevailing thought at the time. After all, the equations of Newtonian mechanics are reversible over time and the great Poincare had demonstrated that a mechanical system in a given state will always return to the state over time.

One of Boltzmann’s leading critics was Wilhelm Ostwald who paid no heed to atoms, preferring to explain physical science purely in terms of energy conditions. Ostwald put the energist case against Boltzmann succinctly, “The actual irreversibility of natural phenomena thus proves the existence of processes that cannot be described by mechanical equations, and with this the verdict on scientific materialism is settled.” Scientific discussions at the time were lively affairs, one contemporary describing a debate between Boltzmann and Ostwald as resembling “the battle of the bull with a supple fighter”.

The constant criticism of his theories and the need to defend himself vigorously against all-comers wore Boltzmann down. Whilst on holiday with his wife and daughter at the Bay of Duino near Trieste in 1906, he committed suicide by hanging himself. Ironically, shortly after his death discoveries in atomic physics such as the Brownian motion – the random movement of particles in a liquid or gas which can only be explained by statistical mechanics – reinforced the primacy of atomic theory and established Boltzmann’s work as the cornerstone of modern-day physics.

For this, Ludwig, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=fifty+clever+bastards

Position Of The Week

My latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – now available via Amazon and all good booksellers (there is a distinction) – seeks to answer some of those maddening questions that life throws up. One that escaped my attention was: Which is the most dangerous sexual position for men?

Fortunately, the improbably named International Journal of Impotence Research, a flop if there ever was going to be one, has come up with the answer, reporting the results of some research conducted in Brazil into the circumstances which led to penile fracture in 90 victims. The answer, it appears, is doggy style. Men aged between 20 and 30 are most likely to suffer this injury because of their fitness and firmer erections. Eighteen unfortunates fractured their penises in the UK last year, according to the ever helpful NHS.

For women, if this incident which came to my attention this week is anything to go by, it may be deciding their respective positions in a three-some. Two women were discussing the point when one of them toppled 10 feet from the balcony of a house in the German town of Bad Breisig. She broke bones in her feet and legs. Her friend (or rival) rushed down the stairs to help her, slipped and broke bones in her arms and neck. Both had a stay in hospital whilst the chap, presumably, was left wondering why they were taking so long.

A good book and cup of cocoa seems the safest option.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty One

What happens when three Christs meet?

For a confirmed agnostic the world of religion is a confusing and mystifying place. There are so many faiths competing for our attention that the obvious question is how do you know you are backing the right horse. Of course, there is just the chance that there is an omnipotent being up there who has control over your immortal soul and being a cautious sort of chap, I don’t want to find that out when it is too late to mend the errors of my ways. I have a fond image of representatives of all the major religions crowding around my death-bed intoning their own versions of their creed simultaneously, rather like a DJ sound system clash in a reggae club in the late 70s.

The bedrock of the Christian faith is monotheism – one God, one Jesus etc. Over the last millennium or so groups have formed eagerly anticipating the second coming of Christ, all to be sorely disappointed, at least as far as we know. From time to time some deluded soul pops up claiming to be the reincarnation of Christ. For the enquiring mind, the obvious question is what would happen if two or more so-called Christs met each other. Fortunately, we have a clue from a rather bizarre experiment conducted by psychologist, Milton Rokeach, in 1959.

The starting point is to gather a number of schizophrenics who think they are Christ. Rokeach got his hands on three, Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel and Leon Gabor, and forced them to live together at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. As for methodology, he chose to replicate the apparently successful technique adopted several years earlier where two women who believed they were both the Virgin Mary were put together and one of them as a result of them chatting together realised the extent of her delusional behaviour, was cured and discharged. But men, it would seem, are made of sterner stuff.

As you might expect, when they first met each other, the three Christs argued as to who was the real deal. Arguments became heated and on occasions, instead of a cheek being turned, blows were traded. Over time, though, the three patients began to tolerate each other and to prefer each other’s company. Each developed an elaborate explanation as to why the others were not the real McCoy. Clyde believed that his companions were dead and that they had been taken over by robots, whereas Leon and Joseph thought that their comrades were either crazy or had been duped. Leon came nearest to the truth by recognising that they were in a mental institution so the others, although, interestingly, not he, must be crazy. Rokeach tried to manipulate Leon’s behaviour by taking over the character of his imagined wife – an episode which caused Leon great emotional distress.

Rokeach abandoned the experiment in 1961 without curing the patients of their delusions or even getting any useful insights into the nature of schizophrenia. Towards the end of the experiment, none of the men showed the remotest interest in resolving the question as to who was the real Christ and, in fact, would go out of their way to avoid any conversational topic which might have strayed, however inadvertently, into matters religious. Anything for a quiet life!

The person who displayed the most delusional behavioural characteristics was Rokeach himself who seemed to relish playing the role of God in trying to manipulate his patients’ behaviour. Over time he realised how unethical his experiment was and in his 1981 edition of his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, he wrote, “while I failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine – of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives”.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

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