Weird Science: 2020 edition


If 2020 wasn’t far enough out of the ordinary for you already, the Australian Science Media Centre has put together a list of its top 10 weird science stories…

2020 was certainly a weird year, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it produced a bumper crop of weird and wonderful science yarns.

We heard an unenthusiastic voice from beyond the grave when researchers recreated the vocal tract of an ancient Egyptian mummy, an artificial intelligence blew a fuse trying to understand Donald Trump, and internet idiots started dipping their family jewels in soy sauce after learning testicles have taste receptor cells.

Meanwhile, in the weird world of animals, we were introduced to the mad haterpillar, penguin poo gave scientists the giggles, and we learned that lots of native Aussie critters glow under UV light.

Scroll down to see all these stories and more…

Talk like an Egyptian – we heard the moan of a 3,000 year old mummified priest

In January, it was a case of The Mummy Returns meets The Talking Dead, as UK and German scientists recreated a cry from beyond the grave – the muffled moan of a 3,000-year-old ancient Egyptian mummy. They reproduced the sound, which resembles nothing more than the ‘moo’ noise made by an old-fashioned cow toy, based on the remains of an ancient Egyptian priest and scribe called Nesyamun, who was mummified and buried in Karnak in Thebes (now Luxor).

The deceased priest’s larynx and throat remained intact over the centuries thanks to the mummification process, allowing the researchers to use X-ray scans and 3D-printing to recreate a copy of the soft tissues of his vocal tract.

They then used an electronic larynx to recreate the sound, which they said can’t be used to recreate his speaking voice, but instead reproduces the unique sound made by his vocal tract.

For his part, the resurrected ancient Egyptian sounded distinctly unimpressed by the whole thing – all together now… “meh”!

An Aussie researcher got a worm tipsy on vodka and gave it a little jiggle, for science

Vibrating a slightly drunk earthworm on a sub-woofer speaker in a rural Victorian backyard shed may sound more like a prank than the kind of activity that wins international scientific awards, but that’s exactly what happened to Aussie researcher Dr Ivan Maksymov in September.

The gong in question was an ‘Ig Nobel’ prize, a spoof of the illustrious Nobel Prizes, which are awarded every year for ‘research that makes people laugh and then think’.

As with all Ig Nobel winners, the silly-sounding study had a more serious side. In Dr Maksymov’s case, he was investigating the role of sound waves in the brain.

He said he chose to work with worms as their nerves share similarities with mammals, and “one can easily anaesthetise a worm using vodka”.

The unusual location, his garden shed, was the result of having to work under lockdown conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A woman’s boob job saved her from a bullet

In April, it was a case of ‘thanks for the mammaries’, as doctors reported the strange tale of a 30-year-old Canadian woman whose silicone breast implants saved her life after she was shot in the chest at close range.

She had been walking down the street when she felt heat and pain in her chest and noticed she was bleeding, so she hurried to hospital.

Examining her injuries, the medics found a bullet had hit her in the left breast, but her silicone implant had deflected its course, preventing it from piercing her heart. Instead, the bullet flew through her right breast implant, completely flipping it over, but sparing her life.

The woman made a full recovery, although her doctors advised her not to get new implants for another six months.

Reviewing previous cases, they found just four recorded incidents of breast implants deflecting bullets, two of which saved the owners’ lives.

Men dunked their two veg in soy sauce after learning testicles have taste receptors

In January, a 2013 study that showed mouse testicles have taste receptor cells resurfaced and found an appreciative audience among YouTubers and TikTok teens.

True to form, internet idiots promptly whipped out their junk and liberally applied the salty condiment, all while filming themselves to rack up views of course.

Several swore blind they could taste the soy sauce via their salty balls, but scientists were quick to point out this was a load of bollocks. It was likely that people thought they were ‘tasting’ soy sauce because they could smell it, having slathered the stuff all over themselves.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dangly dunkers had failed to grasp the nuances of the research, which found taste receptors on the testicles of mice, not on the scrotum. The function of these receptors remains unknown, although the original research found removing them rendered rodents infertile.

Donald Trump’s unique speaking style broke a speech recognition AI called Margaret

The ramblings of Donald Trump can be hard to follow at the best of times, so we can probably all sympathise with an artificial intelligence (AI) called Margaret that crashed when tasked with analysing the speech patterns of the orange orator.

Poor old Margaret was created to analyse a database of all Trump’s “best words” since 1976, including speeches, interviews and his prolific social media outpourings, a grand total of more than 13 million words.

But when the AI attempted to make sense of a short section of a speech commemorating the anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea, she crashed almost immediately, according to her creator.

He told the LA Times that Margaret blew a fuse because she was trying to punctuate the speech as if it was in English, rather than in Trump-ish, and actually had to un-learn English to make any progress.

Rumours that the AI actively chose to end its life rather than spend any more time listening to Trump are completely unsubstantiated.

Antarctic Researchers had to laugh when penguin poo released laughing gas

Hilarity ensued in May, when Antarctic researchers revealed an unexpected challenge of the job – the sedative effects of laughing gas released by penguin poo.

Danish scientist Professor Bo Elberling said his team went “cuckoo” while working on greenhouse gas research in Antarctica surrounded by penguin droppings, the result of inhaling nitrous oxide, or laughing gas.

The gas is emitted because the birds’ diet consists mainly of fish and krill, which are high in nitrogen. Once the penguins have ‘dropped the kids off at the pool’, soil bacteria convert the nitrogen into nitrous oxide, turning penguin business into funny business.

But it’s not all sh*ts and giggles – nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and is 300 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.

Australia’s native critters got their glow on

As if Aussie animals weren’t charming enough, we learned this year that several of our native critters glow under UV light, suggesting they’d turn heads strutting their stuff at a disco.

The first to light up our lives was the already-pretty-weird platypus, when in October US scientists noticed museum specimens of the duck-billed beast glowed a  greeny-blue under a blacklight. Then Linda Reinhold, a Queensland zoologist, found platypuses were not alone when she photographed a glowing northern brown bandicoot.

Those discoveries piqued the curiosity of Dr Kenny Travouillon from the Western Australian Museum, who decided to turn UV lights on their collections of Australian mammals. As well as confirming their platypus specimens glowed, he found wombat, bilby and echidna specimens all emitted a similar ethereal light.

And the last to join the glow gang was the Tasmanian Devil, when in December Toledo Zoo in Ohio posted a picture of a devil’s head emitting a ghostly blue light.

Exactly why so many Aussie animals glow under UV light remains unclear, but they certainly look fabulous!

An Aussie caterpillar upcycled its old heads to make a fetching hat

Hang on to your hats – in 2020’s most extreme example of recycling, we were introduced to the mad hatterpillar (Uraba lugens), an Aussie species that really knows how to get ahead, or even several heads, and turn them into a rather swanky hat.

As the caterpillar grows towards moth-hood, it sheds its exoskeleton 13 times, but rather than chucking the defunct heads, it hoards them from the fourth moult, leaving each ex-head stuck to the top of its new one, and eventually resulting in a towering ten-storey hat, in which each new head piece in its headpiece is a little bigger than the last.

The elaborate hat not only looks spectacular, it may also help protect the caterpillar from predators.

But before you fall heads-over-heels in love with this beastie, you should also know about its dark side. The mad hatterpillar is a serious pest of Eucalyptus trees, and also goes by a much more sinister monicker – the gum-leaf skeletoniser!

It was finally possible to smell like space, thanks to NASA

If, like so many of us, you’d been waiting impatiently to be able to smell like the endless void of space, it finally became possible in 2020 as a perfume based on NASA research hit the market – Eau de Space.

NASA originally commissioned a bottled space smell in 2008 to help train astronauts, based on first-hand accounts of odours encountered off-planet.

The recipe remained a secret until it was revealed via Freedom of Information requests to a plucky entrepreneur, who decided to put it to good use, launching Eau de Space as a Kickstarter. Having beaten their initial targets on the crowdfunding website, the first lucky customers are expected to be able to smell like space before the year is up.

So, what does space smell like? NASA’s research revealed it’s a combination of “fried steak, hot metal, and even welding a motorbike” – sounds delightful.

The company also launched a perfume that captures the scent of the Moon, which apparently whiffs of spent gunpowder – Eau de Luna. What’s next, we wonder – Eau de Uranus?

A love of liquorice lollies killed an otherwise healthy American

Liquorice is one of those foods that people tend either to love or to loathe, and in September doctors reported the case of a 54-year-old American man whose appreciation of the divisive lolly sadly killed him.

The patient arrived in hospital following a heart attack and loss of consciousness. Doctors were initially mystified because there were no signs of heart problems in his medical records, but then they noticed two things: he had low levels of potassium in his body, and he had an unusually unhealthy diet, eating several packets of lollies every day.

Then they learned that he had recently switched from eating red liquorice to black liquorice as his snack of choice.

Black liquorice contains glycyrrhizic acid, which can change potassium levels in the body, disrupt vital electrolytes, and increase levels of stress hormones, which in this unfortunate man’s case led to serious heart problems and kidney failure.

Courtesy Australian Science Media Centre

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