What do men and women of science do to amuse themselves, get even with rivals or prove a point? Read these true tales of scientific hoaxes to find out.
Johannes Bartholomew Adam Beringer
Beringer was a respected professor of medicine at the University of Wurzberg in Germany in the early 1700s. Apparently he was also an arrogant ass. His colleagues at the University, J. Ignatz Roderick and Johann von Eckhardt, wanted to take him down a notch. The result? The greatest scientific stunt of their time.
Knowing of Beringer’s interest in natural science, Roderick and Eckhardt hired stone masons to craft “fossils” out of limestone and enlisted his specimen supplier to sell them to Beringer. The fossils became more and more ridiculous as time went on, but Beringer was still a believer, even as he was presented with fossils from bees with honeycomb, birds and eggs, spiders and webs to even more outlandish ones containing samples of ancient languages, stars and comets.
The prank worked so well that Beringer wrote a book about his discoveries and his many theories, some of which were so ludicrous that Eckhardt and Roderick probably had trouble controlling their bladders whenever Beringer was discussing them. They included a “plastica” theory that fossils grew spontaneously, a “spermatica” theory that seed of ancient creatures slipped through rock cracks to form the impressions, and – his favorite- that the fossils were the capricious works of God.
An unproven rumor is that Beringer finally realized the deception when one of the fossils had his own name carved into it. However he learned the truth, he sued Roderick and Eckhardt, in what is also the greatest joke backfire of the time. They were both discredited and dismissed from their positions at the University. Beringer is said to have become penniless trying to buy all the copies of the embarrassing book he created. Not that it did much good. It was reprinted again after his death. The fossils have been known forever since as the Lying Stones.
Below: Drawings of some of the “fossils” that appeared in Beringer’s book
Everyone knows Ben Franklin was a genius of politics, literature, science and math, and most people have heard of his many hoaxes, political stunts and what we can euphemistically call “self-promotion”. What most people haven’t heard is the speculation that his famous kite-in-a-thunder-storm was probably a hoax. It was most likely a joke directed at the intellectuals of Europe who dismissed his writings on electricity. Ironically, while his serious work on electricity was ignored, the sensational tale of “discovering” electricity by flying a key on a kite string in a violent storm was taken up enthusiastically. The most amazing thing is that it has taken this long for the scientific community to realize what grade schoolers hearing this story know right away- wouldn’t getting struck by lightning have killed him? It, at least, would have taken the spring out of his step.