An alchemist’s pursuit is ridiculed to perfection in Blackadder II‘s “Money”:
Blackadder: Now, look, Percy, I don’t mean to be pedantic or anything, but the color of gold… is gold. That’s why it’s called gold. What YOU have discovered, if it has a name, is some… Green.
Lord Percy Percy: [removes lump of Green from pot] Oh, Edmund… can it be true? That I hold here, in my mortal hand, a nugget of purest Green?
Blackadder: Yes indeed, Percy, except that it’s not really a nugget but more of a splat.
Lord Percy Percy: Yes, my Lord. A splat today, but tomorrow, who knows, or dares to dream…
Not all experiments need to produce a splat. A recent Reuters article discussed an experiment to study if happiness is genetically linked. What distinguishes the article is that it actually describes the experiment:
A study of nearly 1,000 pairs of identical and non-identical twins found genes control half the personality traits that make people happy while factors such as relationships, health and careers are responsible for the rest of our well-being.
The researchers asked the volunteers — ranging in age from 25 to 75 — a series of questions about their personality, how much they worried and how satisfied they were with their lives.
Because identical twins share the same genes and fraternal twins do not, the researchers could identify common genes that result in certain personality traits and predispose people to happiness.
Feynman stressed the importance of experimental design in his speech about cargo cult science, which included the following anecdote:
There have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on — with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.
The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.
He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.
Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers that clues that the rat is really using — not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.
While experiments can push the boundaries of science, they can also examine frivolities. In Mythbusters, the hosts design experiments to test popular and obscure myths. For instance, can a cork-filled bat can hit a baseball farther than a normal one?
My favorite experiments are ones that lead to unexpected insights. Consider Stanley Milgram’s small world experiment:
The six degrees of separation concept originates from Milgram’s “small world experiment” in 1967 that tracked chains of acquaintances in the United States. In the experiment, Milgram sent several packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska, asking them to forward the package to a friend or acquiantance who they thought would bring the package closer to a set final individual, a stockbroker from Boston, Massachusetts.
The letter included this specific condition: “If you do not know the target person on a personal basis, do not try to contact him directly. Instead, mail this folder to a personal acquaintance who is more likely than you to know the target person.”
Milgram discovered that the majority of the letters made it to the broker within 5 or 6 “steps”.