Alex Boese made a name for himself with his Museum of Hoaxes website and accompanying book, as well as Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S. In Elephants on Acid, Boese turns his attention to the weird and disturbing history of science. This latest guide deftly compresses centuries of questionable research into a short, interesting read.
Within ten themed chapters, Boese explores different experiments conducted over time related to the overarching theme. The order in which themes are covered is logical and straightforward, with the notable exception of the first: Frankenstein's Lab. Boese does not ease his reader gently into the subject. While readers might expect bizarre experiments, there's a good possibility that most picking up the book for the first time might not be mentally prepared for morbid or disgusting experiments in the very first chapter. This negative is helped by the fact that the book is not linear in any way; it's certainly possible for the reader to skip around and read different themes at different times, depending on their interest. It could be jarring to some not expecting the book to hop right into the more explicit experiments, which consist of zombie kittens, severed heads, and extreme, graphic experiments on monkey brains.
The book contains experiments both serious and silly. Humbling experiments that delve into human nature include the famous Stanford Prison Experiment and Stanley Milgram's infamous shock treatment experiment but are contrasted with lighter topics such as memory skills of waitresses as well as elephants.
The flow within chapters is simple and easy to follow - here's an experiment, here's an experiment, end chapter. Each section receives no more than a few pages, so the information is never so in-depth as to risk getting boring. Readers who decide to find out more about any particular topic or experiment can make use of the sources cited following each experiment. The book operates as an introductory guide for readers who might want to explore more about the experiments and follow up on further research.
Around one in three experiments include a photograph or diagram to accompany the explanation. The pictures range from innocent to wince-worthy, and all contribute to the overall interest of the topics they highlight. Unfortunately, all the photos are black and white, even for very recent experiments where color photography is certainly available. This was likely a financial decision on the part of the publisher, but the quality of the photos isn't very high; better pictures or color pictures where available would have been more visually appealing. Some might hope for more pictures to lend to the stories of the experiments, but strictly speaking they aren't really needed as Boese has a nicely descriptive narrative voice.
The Achilles' heel of the book can be summed up in one word: yucks. Boese insists on ending each experiment recap with a cheesy one-liner. Most are merely groaners, and though some draw a genuine chuckle they feel inappropriate in the serious or disturbing sections (such as the infamous Milgram shock experiments). More than half feel shoe-horned in, humor forced in a place where humor doesn't belong.
However, overall the book is well-researched and written, a breezy introduction to the weird paths science and scientific inquiry have taken over the last few centuries as people attempt to better understand the world and how things work. Even when gross, seemingly useless or morally appalling, Elephants on Acid is an entertaining, educational read.