Names have been concealed to protect them from the international legume conspiracy.

Date: Tue, 9 Apr 1996
To: [email protected]
Subject: Faked picture

I fear the New York Times is the victim of a hoax. The Sunday Times for April 7 (Section 4, Week in Review, page, 2) depicts a New Zealand farmer with a wheelbarrow load of what are alleged to be seven foot beans. A simple calculation shows that something is wrong.

A very large Kentucky Wonder green bean might reach 8.4 inches, one tenth of the length of a seven foot bean, and it might weigh a third of an ounce, say ten grams. The weight of the seven footer (by this conservative estimate) would accordingly be 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds.

What kind of a vine could support the weight of clusters of 20 pound beans, and how tall would it have to be to dangle seven foot fruit? What would it climb? If these are supposed to be bush beans, the bush would have to approach the dimensions of a small tree, and a sturdy one at that. To the best of my recollection, the largest fruits that dangle from a tree or vine would be something like coconuts or breadfruit. All really large fruit grow on the ground.

There are other clues. The stalks look suspiciously small to have carried such a large weight. Farmer Maich does not seem to be pushing very hard against what must be a hundred and fifty pound load (at least.) If you look carefully you will see that the light illuminating most of the scene comes from a different direction than the light falling on the beans, which do not appear to cast a shadow where they pass over the edge of the wheelbarrow.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology
State University of New York at Binghamton

April 29, 1996
Editor
New Zealand Herald
Hamilton NZ

On April 7 the Sunday New York Times ran a story from the New Zealand Herald, by way of Reuters, about a New Zealand farmer who had grown 7-foot green beans, with a picture of farmer John Maich trundling a wheelbarrow load of them.

It took no great perspicacity to see that the picture was a montage and the story a hoax, but since the date of the publication in the “Times” was the seventh, am I right in assuming that the publication date in the Herald was the first? I would like to think so.

That date should have induced caution even in the minds of Yankee editors, but so far the Times has refused to concede that it has been taken in.

I wonder if farmer Maich would let me climb his giant bean stalk. I might find a hen that lay golden eggs up there.

Anyway, my congratulations on a clever April Fool hoax.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology

May 3, 1996
Peter Thomas
Media Inquiries
Reuters London

In its April 7 issue, the New York Times ran a story from the Reuters wire about a New Zealand farmer who claimed to have grown beans seven feet long. The story was accompanied by a photo-montage; a rather obvious fake. The story was attributed to the New Zealand Herald, of Hamilton New Zealand. I assume from the date that the story was originally an April Fool joke.

My question is was Reuters taken in, or did you have the corporate tongue firmly inserted in the institutional cheek? If the latter, you managed to deceive some unexpectedly naive editors. Neither the Times nor the Herald has so far owned up to being taken in or originating this story.

I am not opposed to a little good natured spoofing, but I am made uneasy when I reflect that if people like newspaper editors, with all of the educational and resource advantages available to them, are so easily taken in, what must be the effect of stories like this on less sophisticated readers?

Doesn’t anyone have a responsibility here to admitting to this leg-pulling?

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology

May 3, 1996
Editor’s Office
The New Zealand Herald

Dear Professor XXXXXX

Thank you for your letter of April 29, but I wonder just who is the April Fool in this matter — certainly not us or the New York Times.

The photograph in question was no montage (except perhaps to those of no great perspicacity); the report was no hoax. And neither us, nor the Times, was taken in. The beans are as depicted, and I enclose the photograph as published on our front page on April 6 to show that.

Indeed, Mr Maich has exhibited them in the agriculture section at the Auckland Easter Show, a considerable feat for an April Fool’s hoax. I should perhaps add that, while we do on occasion essay such a seasonal jest, this most assuredly was not one of them.

But thank you for your interest, which is appreciated.

Yours sincerely
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
DEPUTY EDITOR

XXXXXXXXXXXXX, Deputy Editor
The New Zealand Herald
Auckland

Thank you for your response to my letter of April 29 concerning giant beans. To say the least I am surprised.

Would it be possible to obtain a print of the original photograph? I would be happy to pay the cost of shipment by parcel service, or any expedited shipping service.

Cordially,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology.

May 15,1996
Professor XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Section of Plant Biology
Cornell University

Here is the material I telephoned you about. With the aid of new information provided by the original story in the Herald, I am able to refine my estimate of the probable weight of these beans.

With a length of 200 cm and a diameter of 37 cm, and considering the bean as a cylinder, we arrive at a radius of 5.9cm and a volume of 6.935 litres. Reading that directly as kilograms ( I have no idea what the specific gravity of a bean would be) we get a weight of over 16 pounds. Since my beans, anyway, grow in pairs we would have a minimum of 30 pounds per cluster of beans.

Further evidence for doubting the authenticity of the picture is provided by the suspiciously bright lighting of the beans. Chlorophyll absorbs a hell of a lot of light. The beans are quite bright and must have been photographed under very strong light; much stronger than that illuminating the background vegetation.

If someone with your experience tells me I have insufficient evidence to condemn this as a hoax, I am perfectly willing to apologize to all and suffer the sensation of egg on the face. Otherwise, I have some other options. I await your judgment.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology
State University of New York at Binghamton

CORNELL UNIVERSITY
Section of Plant Biology
May 15, 1996

Dear Prof. XXXXXXXXX,

After looking over the material faxed to me I have no doubt that the photograph is a misrepresentation of fact.

In addition to the features calling into question the veracity of the photograph mentioned in your letters to various editors, I was struck by the fact that the beans show no structural distortions that would be expected assuming their size and growth rate are as proportional to one another as size and growth rate are to lesser sized beans. Also, there are certain size-dependent variations in fruit structure and shape (allometric relationships) that are absent in the beans in this photograph. In this case, I would expect a much narrower bean given the length shown in the photograph.

I doubt that these beans could have grown on any vine unless the pedicles were made of wood. I would mention the possibility that these fruits grew on the ground from a prostrate vine if the whole matter were not as ridiculous as you have so astutely judged. One of the great pities of this world is that people are so woefully ignorant of plant life that even the most skeptical editors (let alone their generally gullible readers) can be taken in by what are obvious hoaxes. Unfortunately, it is an extremely difficult matter to prove a hoax especially when access to the original material is denied or physically impossible. I sincerely doubt that you will be able to educate the editors of The New York Times and suspect that their retraction would appear in the obituary column if you could. Nevertheless, I applaud your clear thinking, energy and enthusiasm in trying to do so.

Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance. I fear I have not been of any help except perhaps to confirm your suspicions.

Cordially
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor of Botany

May 15,1996
Professor XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Section of Plant Biology
Cornell University

Dear Professor XXXXXXXX,

Thank you very much for your opinion. It is a great help to me. I didn’t expect these fellows to brazen it out, and I was taken by surprise. I really did think it was a typical newspaper hoax. Now it seems clear that it was hatched by the rascally farmer (who wants to get into the Guiness Book of Records) and his photographer friend. It took considerable skill to fabricate that picture. Getting the end of the bean to tuck in under the handle of the wheelbarrow without leaving a trace of the patch is not easy.

On the original newspaper picture that I have before me I can detect two very faint lines on the handle where it crosses the bean. If I had a print of the original photograph I might see more. In addition to everything else, Farmer Maich has an intriguing theory of agronomy. “You give them tonnes of compost and heaps of manure…You do that every day for five months and you’re in business.” Funny, when I give my plants “tonnes” of fertilizer, they don’t get bigger — they die.

I agree with you that it is unlikely that the New York Times will admit to a mistake, having been given an opportunity to back down gracefully and having chosen to ignore it. What I have in mind is to first get a little more information from New Zealand and then to write this up for “The Skeptical Inquirer” which has had an on-going discussion of the ethics of hoaxing,

Again, thanks for your help and encouragement.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology

May 21, 1996
Ms. Vicki Hyde
Chairperson
New Zealand Skeptics

Dear Ms Hyde,

Could I trespass on the good nature of a fellow skeptic to get some help with the attached project? I am convinced that this photograph is a fabrication. If just my own opinion were involved I might not be so positive (although the whole thing looks pretty hokey), but I submitted this to Dr. XXXXXXXXX of Cornell University, who is probably the world’s authority on plant biomechanics, and his opinion tallies exactly with mine. I originally thought it was just a clever leg-pull, in line with the venerable tradition of April Fool newspaper stories (considering the date upon which it originally appeared), but the editor’s bald denial puts a somewhat different light on this.

I have already requested a glossy of the original photograph, which Joe Nickell of CSICOP has agreed to look over for me to see if I am right about my criticisms of the photo, but If I am to go further with this I need the help of persons nearer the ground than I am. (And I fully realize that Christchurch is not exactly next door to Auckland and Helensville.)

Specifically, I would like to know:

(1) The genus and species of this “New Guinea Giant Bean” and the normal range of the bean size, and any pictures that may be available, The beans in the picture look like plain old Phaseolus vulgaris.

(2) Whether anyone has seen the plants (Vine?) upon which these remarkable beans were grown.

(3) Just what did Farmer Maich display at the “Agriculture Section of the Auckland Easter Show” (See Editor Milne’s letter. Milne calls it that, but the newspaper story says the beans are to be entered in the “annual agricultural show in Kumeu, northwest of Auckland.” I guess that doesn’t really matter, except the one implies exhibition in a big city. )

(4) Have the opinions of any New Zealand botanists or agronomists been consulted in this matter? Additional opinions would be welcome.

I realize this is a lot to ask, and I will certainly understand if you decide that you may not want to spend much time on what is, after all, a minor hoax, but I am annoyed that editors should get away with this kind of bluff.

Any help you can give me at all will be greatly appreciated.

Cordially,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology

Date: Wed, 22 May 1996 14:09:12 GMT
From: [email protected]
Subject: Humongous Giant Beans!

Dear Professor XXXXXXXX,

I’m relieved to be able to reassure you concerning the trustworthiness of New Zealand newspapers. While our papers are known to run the odd April Fool’s Day hoax, I am confident that the “giant New Guinean beans” represented in the photo from the New Zealand Herald are in fact real.

As editor of the New Zealand Science Monthly (as well as chair-entity of the local Skeptics), I’ve got good contacts in the science community. Leading bean experts from the Crop & Food Research Institute and Landcare Research have been happy to talk at length about these beans, known in their circles as Entarda phaseoloides.
E. phaseoloides is found throughout the tropical region as an enormous liane clambering up the sides of any tree large enough to bear their hefty weight. Over the period of 18 months, they have been observed to advance as much as 100 feet and produce stems “as thick as a man’s wrist”. The pods, as pictured in the NZ Herald photo can indeed reach seven feet in length, although 4-5 feet is more common.
The seeds are well-known for their nautical ability, being found as far afield as the British Isles; they’re sometimes referred to as “sea beans” because of this. They are dark brown, flat, about an inch or so across (I was pleased to recognise the description having encountered them on beaches here in New Zealand).
E. phaseoloides is indeed a legume and, although the bean is inedible, the vines are commonly used as a water source throughout the South Pacific. My helpful expert said it was reasonable to refer to the plant as a bean, though he himself, as a botanist, would hesitate to use the term in anything but a culinary sense.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth…

Best regards
Vicki Hyde
Chair-entity NZCSICOP Inc

September 9, 1996
Mr. XXXXXXXXXXXXX
Senior Research Fellow CSICOP

Dear Mr. XXXXXXX

A couple of months back I wrote to you about assessing the genuineness of a photograph that had appeared in the public press, purporting to be that of a wheelbarrow load of giant beans. In our telephone conversation at that time, you told me that it would be difficult to give an answer from just the newspaper pictures, since many of the sources of clues would be degraded by the half-tone processing, but that you would be willing to try if nothing else was available.

On May 21, I requested a print of the original photograph from the New Zealand Herald, the originator of the story. To date I have received nothing, and since three months is ample time to have received mail from New Zealand, even if sent by ship, I must conclude that the paper does not intend to honor my request.

I therefore submit to you the pictures that I do have, black and whites from the New York Times, and the front page of The New Zealand Herald; a much enlarged color photograph showing marginally more detail. The question is: Is this a montage of photographically enlarged beans superimposed on a picture of a full sized wheelbarrow, or not? Or, can you tell?

A bit of background. My professional specialty is that of functional morphology; I study the relationship between structure and function. One of the basic tenets of my trade is the Law of Scale. Simply stated, this holds that as any object increases in size, its weight increases more rapidly than does its strength to resist that weight. This means that as organisms attain large size, their proportions must change.

When I come upon a picture of what purport to be seven foot long beans that look to have the same proportions as ordinary ones, my suspicions are aroused. If these beans are over ten times as long as ordinary beans, they must weigh well over a thousand times as much. I wondered what the plants upon which they grew must have been like, and reflected that to have grown 400 of these things in the back yard (as the newspaper story claimed) must have created quite a spectacle.

Since, however, I am a zoologist and not well acquainted with the constraints of plant structure, I solicited the opinion of Professor XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX (perhaps the leading authority on plant biomechanics.) His reply was immediate and emphatic. The picture was a falsification.

Since the original newspaper story in the Herald was dated early in April, and since the falseness of the picture was so obvious to me, I assumed that the story must have been an April Fool’s day hoax, so I wrote a facetious, kidding letter to the Editor congratulating the Herald on the joke.

What was my surprise to get back a letter denying that the picture was a hoax and stating that the grower had exhibited his beans to the public. Apparently, if there were any deception, the Herald was not responsible. It was at this point that I requested the print of the original photograph that I have not received.

I noted that the newspaper story referred to the beans as “giant New Guinea beans”, a name I did not recognize, so I solicited the help of Ms. Vicki Hyde, Chairperson of the New Zealand Skeptics.

After consulting a botanist, she informed me that that term is used to designate the tropical liana, Entada phaseloides, whose pods drift around the tropical oceans, and can indeed reach almost that length. But my own research quickly revealed that the beans depicted could not possibly be E. phaseloides. The pods of the latter would have been flatter (and of course, considerably lighter) and the contained seeds proportionately much smaller.

I then consulted Mr. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX at the Harvard University Herbarium. He confirmed that the pods were certainly not Entada phaseloides but might be some sort of squash or gourd. This would mean a ground hugging fruit, which would eliminate the problem of supporting a heavy fruit and would make a larger fruit of the same proportions somewhat more likely.

Attractive as this solution is as a compromise, I finally rejected it. The structures depicted do not seem to have been lying on the ground, and it seems to me that there are some features of the photograph that suggest manipulation.

I come back to my original position. It is my professional opinion that the objects in this photograph are nothing more than ordinary green beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, photographically enlarged and mated to a photograph of a wheelbarrow to give a false idea of scale — in other words a deliberate hoax.

This is my opinion and I do not imply that my various consultants necessarily concur with it.

I look forward to any comments you may have on the photos.

Cordially,
XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX
Professor Emeritus of Biology

Date: Mon, 09 Sep
Subject: Giant Beans!

Dear XXXXXXX,

Thank you for the copy of the letter to XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX. I have managed to get a copy of the original photo from the Herald and sent it on to XXXXXXXXXXXXXXX, the bean man at Landcare Research (our Crown Research Institute which covers flora and fauna).

I think we finally have an answer! Firstly, Bill had not seen the photo before, but was working from my description and previous encounters when suggesting Entada as the possible identification. Now that he’s had a chance to take a close look at it, he tells me that “the photo clearly shows a member of the Cucurbitaceae called Lagenaria siceraria (Mol.) Standley, which seems to have as many common names as it has shapes of fruits”.

The commonest English name is bottle gourd, from its common use as a container for liquids. Bill adds that most forms have a flask or rounded shape and are much shorter.

“The elongated plant grown by Mr Maich is well-known in the Pacific region however, especially in the New Guinea region where they are commonly used by highland men as penis sheaths.”

I recall seeing a National Geographic special which showed a rather bemused Prince Charles encountering a whole range of these while on a state visit to New Guinea. They weren’t six feet long, but were certainly over-sized, presuming that New Guinean highlanders have the standard male anatomy…:-)

Bill concludes by saying “that there is not the slightest reason for the photo to be a hoax”, suggesting that you take a look at Charles B Heiser’s “The Gourd Book” (1979), which illustrates different forms of bottle and other gourd and states that they can grow to 9 feet long.

“Such bottle gourds are of the long cylindric type featured in the photo of course. Incidentally, when growing, these fruits are usually partly or completely hanging bacuase the plant is a vine and scrambles over a fence, wall or other vegetation.”

So I hope that this clears up the mystery of the great New Zealand bean hoax.

Best regards
Vicki Hyde
Chair-entity NZCSICOP Inc

Recommended Posts