Review: Electrified Sheep by Alex Boese

‘For the sake of thoroughness he proceeded to electrocute his genitals’… Elberry enters the world of the mad scientist…

So the world never found out how savannah chimps would respond to the sight of a live leopard rolling down a hill towards them in a wire-mesh ball.

This is the kind of thing you find, when you open Electrified Sheep. It is accurately subtitled “atomic pigs, glass-eating scientists, and more bizarre experiments”. Scientists set out to study the world, Boese to study the scientists. There probably are some fairly normal scientists, somewhere, but to date I haven’t met any, nor do any appear in Boese’s book.

It’s a humorous but often sobering account of the lunacies of scientists, lunacies all the more grotesque as the perpetrators imagine themselves to be dispassionately devoted to truth; to be, in some way, above mere humanity and the world. For example, we have Johann Wilhelm Ritter, a typical scientist; having constructed a voltaic pile he began to systematically electrocute himself:

Next he carefully placed the wires on his tongue. The positive pole produced an acidic flavour – after a few moments his tongue felt as if it were bursting out with welts – whereas the negative pole tasted alkaline and produced an empty feeling, as if an enormous hole had formed in the centre of his tongue. Sticking both wires up his nose caused him to sneeze. When the wires were in his ears, he heard a sharp, crackling buzz on the negative pole and a muffled noise, as if his head was full of sand, on the positive pole. Finally, he touched the wires gingerly to his eyeballs. Strange colours swam in his vision. In one eye, shapes bent and warped. He saw blue flashes. Objects shimmered and bowed outward. In the other eye, everything he gazed at became sharper and smaller, veiled in a red haze.

For the sake of thoroughness he proceeded to electrocute his genitals, with consequences too interesting to report on a family website.

At first glance, Electrified Sheep seems a scurrilous collection of silly and horrible experiments, by silly and horrible people. It goes somewhat deeper, however: there is something grotesque and human about men like Ritter, and Boese manages to capture something of this “human, all too human” lunacy. There is a curious incongruence between the ideals of knowledge and discovery, and the actual grubbiness, cruelty, and mania of scientists; so, for example, we learn that in the public relations battle between AC and DC electricity, Eddison hired one Harold Pitney Brown, to torture animals with electricity, a common theme in this book.

When not torturing and killing animals, scientists also like to play with weapons of mass destruction (but then, who doesn’t?). On 1 July 1946 an atomic bomb was dropped on Bikini. Presumably unwanted ships were stationed close to the blasts, as targets. Not wishing to miss out, scientists placed psychoneurotic goats on one of the ships. The fortunate goats were remotely filmed, to see how neurotic animals would react to an atomic explosion; the film was viewed, and in the offical report of Operation Crossroads:

‘Goats are imperturbable animals…The pictures give a clear view of the goat, and show him munching his hay without interruption as the shock wave struck and debris flew all about.’

Nuking an uninhabited island (uninhabited because the habitants were forcibly evicted) is all very well but not a sufficiently satisfying demonstration of power. Boese records:

By the late 1950s, the United States and Soviet Union, in their desperate bid to outdo each other, had dropped nuclear bombs on all kinds of things. They had levelled fake cities, Pacific islands, naval fleets, and quite a few desert landscapes. As a result, the public had grown complacent, accustomed to a steady stream of press releases announcing new nuclear tests. The generals and military planners were beginning to wonder, ‘Is there anything else we can bomb?’ Or rather, ‘Is there anything we can bomb that will still get people’s attention?’ The answer appeared above them at night, hovering in the sky like a giant target. It seemed so obvious. Nuke the moon!

This isn’t a joke. Luckily:

[…] the Soviets, like the Americans, ultimately backed down from the idea of nuking the moon. Their main concern was that the rocket might fail fully to lift the bomb out of earth’s orbit – rockets weren’t exactly reliable technology. Then they’d have a fully armed nuclear bomb slowly spiralling back down to a random spot on earth, which might cause awkward political issues. The Soviets also concluded that, even if their bomb did make it to the moon, the explosion simply wouldn’t be impressive enough. People on earth, if they were looking at exactly the right moment, would see a small bright flash, and then nothing. It hardly seemed worth the effort.

This is the kind of book Dr Johnson might have enjoyed, as demonstrating the insuperable humanity of human beings. For all the achievements of the human intellect, human beings remain, on the whole, witless and irresponsible. Giving a nuclear weapon to a human being is like giving a loaded pistol to a small child. No one, however, gave nuclear weapons to human beings; we invented them; but we failed to become more than human: we simply became heavily armed. And so the interest of Boese’s book, the disparity between the great technical achievements of science, and the appalling folly and pettiness of human beings. It would be a fantastically grim book but for Boese’s style, his penchant for the farcical – and, being as it is a book about human beings, it abounds in inadvertent comedy. And so:

But maybe, somewhere on a farm in China, a giant, cosmic-ray-enhanced pig is rolling happily in the mud.

A pleasing thought.

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2 thoughts on “Review: Electrified Sheep by Alex Boese

  1. Worm
    February 21, 2012 at 09:14

    I used to work for a certain science themed TV station, organising programmes for transmission. There were a preponderance of nuke-themed shows, which I am generally interested in and must have watched literally dozens of times, but I really grew to be sickened by the slow motion footage of those pigs and other animals being blasted on the deck of a battleship. We can be a beastly bunch that’s for sure.

  2. Brit
    February 21, 2012 at 20:15

    A highly entertaining review. Isn’t nuking the moon the wicked plot of the protagonist of the recent animation ‘Despicable Me’? Fiction, as ever, can never compete with truth…

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