This got me thinking about other great scientific hoaxes in the past. After doing a bit of digging, I was amazed by how many there were – and at the variety and creativity of the hoaxes. Here are a few of the best.
Of course, there are serious cases of scientific fraud, such as the stem cell researchers recently found guilty of falsifying data and the South Korean cloning fraud. The following stories, however, are not so serious.
In 1912, solicitor and amateur palaeontologist Charles Dawson “found” the Piltdown fossils, a skull and jawbone that appeared to be half-man half-ape, in Sussex. They were hailed as the evolutionary “missing link” between apes and humans.
It was over 40 years later, in 1953, that the fossil was exposed as a fake. In fact, the skull was constructed from a medieval human cranium attached to the jaw of an orang-utan.
The Cardiff Giant
A ten-foot “petrified man” was dug up on a small farm in Cardiff, New York, in October 1869. The “Cardiff Giant” became a huge news story and many Americans travelled to see it.
Early in 1870, it was revealed as a fake, the creation of New Yorker George Hull, who had paid for it to be carved out of stone.
Beringer’s fraudulent fossils
Physician Johann Beringer was amazed when he was presented with fossils “found” in Wurzburg, Germany, in 1725, which depicted incredible scenes: the forms of birds, bees, snails, lizards, plants with flowers, frogs mating and insects feeding, not to mention comets, moons and suns.
It turned out that he was the victim of an elaborate plot: envious colleagues of Beringer had planted the fossils.
Unfortunately, Beringer fell for it hook, line and sinker, and even published a book to tell the world about the fossils. Rumour has it that once Beringer realised the hoax, he tried to buy up any unsold copies of his book. (See Johann Beringer and the fraudulent fossils)
The Sokal hoax
In 1996, American physicist Alan Sokal submitted a paper loaded with nonsensical jargon to the journal Social Text, in which he argued that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. (Read Sokal’s paper)
When the journal published it, Sokal revealed that the paper was in fact a spoof. The incident triggered a storm of debate about the ethics of Sokal’s prank.
The spaghetti tree
In 1957, the BBC show Panorama broadcast a programme about the spaghetti tree in Switzerland. It showed a family harvesting pasta that hung from the branches of the tree.
After watching the programme, hundreds of people phoned in asking how they could grow their own tree. Alas, it was an April Fools’ Day joke.
The Upas tree
An account was published in the London Magazine in 1783 by a Dutch surgeon named Foersch (his initials were variously given as NP and JN). It claimed the existence of a tree on the island of Java so poisonous that it killed everything within a 15-mile radius.
This was the start of a legend. Even Erasmus Darwin wrote about it in a poem in 1791. A note to the poem read, “There is a poison-tree in the island of Java, which is said by its effluvia to have depopulated the country… in a district of 12 or 14 miles round it, the face of the earth is quite barren and rocky, intermixed only with the skeletons of men and animals; affording a scene of melancholy beyond what poets have described or painters delineated.”
You really can find the Upas tree in Indonesia. Though not as potent as legend would have it, the latex of the tree does contain a powerful toxin, which was traditionally used on arrow points.
The secret of immortality
Johann Heinrich Cohausen, an 18th-century physician, wrote a treatise on the prolongation of life, entitled Hermippus redivivus. Amongst other secrets of longevity, it claimed that life could be prolonged by taking an elixir produced by collecting the breath of young women in bottles.
Actually, Cohausen admitted in the last few pages of the work that it was a satire, so any gullible readers wouldn’t have been duped for too long