From furry fish to N-Rays, scientific hoaxes have duped generations. Here’s SPYSCAPE’s pick of the most audacious and amusing scientific hoaxes of all time.
When a Wisconsin fisherman posted a furry trout photo to a news website in 2015 some readers fell for it - hook, line, and sinker. The investigative website Snopes fact-checked the fishy tale, however, and determined trout don’t actually wear fur coats. The truth hasn’t stopped museums from mounting the magical creatures on their walls throughout history though. In the 1930s, Colorado's Salida Museum was duped by a Chamber of Commerce rep who invented three furry trout and a ‘scientist’ dedicated to studying the cold-water phenomenon. The Royal Museum of Scotland proudly displayed its furry fish in the 1950s until a Canadian taxidermist admitted wrapping it in rabbit fur.
The Well to Hell
The ‘Well to Hell’ was supposedly discovered by Soviet engineers who drilled so deep they broke into Hell, an event reported as fact in 1989 by US religious network Trinity Broadcasting. The USSR team was said to have drilled nine miles deep into Siberia before breaking through a cavity. They then lowered a heat-tolerant microphone into the well - even though the chamber of fire below was 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 Fahrenheit) - and recorded the tormented screams of the damned. Unfortunately for Trinity, there was no Siberian well - although Soviet scientists did drill 12km (7.5 mi) into the Kola Superdeep Borehole but they didn’t meet Satan. The ‘screams’ were actually looped together from soundtracks including the 1972 vampire film Baron Blood.
Universities and scientific discovery go hand in hand - just not in the case of N-Rays. Back in the late 1800s, X-rays and vacuum ultraviolet radiation were discovered, so it seemed plausible that other types of rays would be found. Fast-forward to 1903 when French physicist René Blondlot announced N-Rays, a hypothesized form of radiation. Blondlot and 120 other scientists published articles claiming they detected N-rays emanating from substances including the human body. American physicist Robert W. Wood debunked the discovery in Nature, however. He visited Blondlot at France’s Nancy University and surreptitiously removed an essential prism from the experimental apparatus and swapped a file supposedly giving off N-rays with an inert piece of wood. Blondlot detected the N-rays regardless and scientists insisted they existed for decades.
The Tasaday Tribe
Back in the ‘70s, with the Vietnam War raging, the world was excited to hear about the Philippines’ peaceful Tasaday tribe, modern-day cave dwellers with no words for weapons or war. Manuel Elizalde Jr, who ran the Philippines’ ministry that provided aid to indigenous groups, announced the discovery of the ancient tribe, cut off from society for 1,000 years. The New York Times wrote about the tribe’s language and shortened life span. National Geographic ran a feature: The Gentle Tasaday. By 1972, scientists found anomalies in the tribe’s diet and language, however, creating doubt that the tribe was isolated for centuries. By 1986, journalists snuck into their protected land, finding the Tasaday tribe living in houses, wearing clothes, and admitting they’d only briefly adopted the stone-age lifestyle at Elizalde’s insistence. He’d promised aid money in return for the tribe’s silence.
Three magicians got in touch when the newly established McDonnell Laboratory for Psychical Research was preparing to conduct tests for paranormal phenomena. Magician James Randi contacted McDonnell to offer advice on how to conduct experiments. Meanwhile, two teenage boys - Steve Shaw and Mike Edwards - posed as subjects for paranormal experiments from 1979 to 1982. The teens faked many of the tests, including replacing straight spoons with bent utensils by using sleight of hand rather than mental telepathy. Randi held a press conference to expose the four-year deception, called ‘Project Alpha’, which aimed to demonstrate how easy it was to interfere in scientific research.
Fox TV’s first broadcast Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? in 1995, causing a sensation. Fox aired it twice more the same year, explaining that parts of the scientific ‘autopsy’ needed to be pixelated or edited out because of the film’s ‘graphic nature’. The footage was allegedly shot by the US military following a UFO crash near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. Three years after the hit program, Fox TV had another TV sensation - World's Greatest Hoaxes - this time revealing that Alien Autopsy was faked. And for those still wondering, Fox admits that footage of Bigfoot and flying saucers may not be altogether genuine either.
Amateur archeologist Charles Dawson claimed to have discovered the ‘missing link’ between ape and man back in 1912, a human-like skull unearthed in gravel beds near Piltdown village in southern England. The finding led Geological Society archeologists to hypothesize that human ancestors may have lived 500,000 years ago. By 1949, technology had advanced, however, and Britain’s Natural History Museum concluded the skull was only 50,000 years old, making it impossible for it to be the missing link. In fact, the skull and jaw fragments were from different species - one human and the other likely an orangutan.
Ornithologists may not be the first people you think of as practical jokers and hoaxers but bird watchers like to have a hoot. On April 1, 1975, the Royal Scottish Museum announced the discovery of a new bird species, the Bare-fronted Hoodwink (above), aka Dissimulatrix spuria. The April Fool’s Day hoax followed a tradition of bird pranks. Lester W. Sharp, a Cornell University botany professor, once gave a presentation on an unusual bird from the Gobi Desert known to locals as the Woofen-poof or Eoörnis pterovelox gobiensis. His finding then grew into a 34-page study by Augustus C. Fotheringham in The Buighleigh Press in 1928, describing the Woofen-poof’s rapid wing-beat, which produces a distinctive musical sound ‘three octaves above middle C’.
Japanese archeologist Shinichi Fujimura shot to international fame in 2000 with his discovery of 600,000-year-old stoneware signifying the earliest signs of human life. Fame comes with a price, however. Archeologists worldwide started paying closer attention to Fujimura’s work and his previous ‘discoveries’. A Japanese newspaper set up hidden cameras to examine exactly why Fujimura’s digs were so much more successful than others and caught him planting articles early in the morning to ‘discover’ later that day. Fujimura told the media he was tempted by the devil and an ‘uncontrollable urge’.
Loch Ness monster
In 1934 an iconic photo purporting to be ‘Nessie’ - as the Loch Ness monster is known - captured the world’s attention. The source of the photo appeared to be impeccable. It was sold to the Daily Mail by a London surgeon, R. Kenneth Wilson, who said he had taken the picture on a trip to the Loch near Inverness, Scotland. But was it a hoax? No one is sure. New Zealand scientists say the ‘monster’ may actually be a giant eel. Scottish authorities aren’t looking too closely into the matter, however. The mythical creature has created a booming tourist industry in the Highlands and a theater production of Loch Ness - The Musical is in development.