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10 weirdest science stories of 2013

Peter Griffin
Mon, 23 Dec 2013

You may have seen our list of what we thought were the top 10 international and New Zealand science stories of 2013. Well, my colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre also came up with a list of what they considered to be the weirdest science stories of the year. Yep, some research published in New Zealand makes the list – farts on a plane. All of the research listed below reminds us that the pursuit of new knowledge can take us down some windy paths, but that’s what makes science so interesting. 

1. Researchers found we can smell ten smells – and one of them is popcorn!  We all know tastes can be classified into five distinct flavours, but research released in September suggested there are 10 basic categories of odour – and that one of them is popcorn. The other odours are fragrant, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, lemon and two kinds of sickening odours: pungent and decayed.

2. Farts on a plane were found to be ‘better out than in’Talking of pungent and decayed, in February a team of Danish and British gastroenterologists discussed that while holding back a fart on an aeroplane may cause significant discomfort and physical symptoms, releasing flatus presents social complications, leaving potential aerial farters in a quandary. Suggesting that there’s truth in the tradition of ‘better out than in’, the researchers also provide advice on how to get away with it. They recommend walking up and down the aisle if you want to let rip as “the social problems of flatulence are reduced, since the odour is distributed over a larger area”. And the final take home message? “The future frequent flyer may develop the ability to “sneak a fart” by wearing charcoal-lined underwear thus experiencing a comfortable flight in harmony with fellow passengers.” We can only hope.

3. Sorry boys, scientists found size matters after all: In April, Australian researchers showed that, when it comes to attractiveness at least, penis size does matter. Using a series of life-sized, computer-generated images of male figures, they discovered that women rated the ‘cyber’ men as more attractive as penis size increased. But there is some comfort for less well-endowed blokes out there, assuming you’re also tall – increased height had an almost equivalent positive effect. The results suggest the female tendency to choose a man with a bigger manhood could have driven the evolution of larger penises in humans.  Video available:

4. Studying applause revealed it’s infectiousScientists found that when it comes to applause, it’s not the quality of performance, but peer pressure that affects clapping. In June, researchers revealed that clapping spreads through a crowd like an infection, and that it’s the social pressure from people around us who start or stop clapping that has the biggest influence on how long we applaud. It seems no-one likes to be the first or the last caught clapping.

5. To the mothmobile! Insects hitched a ride on robots: Forget dogs driving cars, in February moths got their own mode of transport – robots. Japanese researchers developed a two-wheeled robot that’s driven by a male silk-moth. The moths steer the machine towards enticing female sex pheromones, allowing researchers to monitor their neural activity. Video available:

6. Detachable penises and an inevitable headache – sea slug sex astounded us allIt might have seemed ridiculous in the mildly popular 90s song, but in February scientists were surprised to discover a sea slug with a truly detachable penis. The sea slug, Chromodoris reticulata is able to dispose of its penis after sex and grow a new one within 24 hours – a feat it can repeat at least three times. And in similarly weird sea slug sex news, in November, Australian scientists found that a Great Barrier Reef species stabs its sexual partners through the head during mating. The researchers suggest this ‘head injection’ shoots prostate gland secretions into the recipient’s central nervous system, directly affecting their physiology. Video available:

7.  Scientists figured out how to read our dreamsWe’ve all been bored rigid by other people recounting their dreams, but in April Japanese researchers read people’s dreams directly for the first time. The scientists first built up a database of dream images by scanning peoples brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) while they slept, then waking them and asking them to describe the images in their dreams. By matching the images to the brain maps, they were then able to predict which images people had dreamt about just by looking at the brain scans, getting it right about two thirds of the time. Video available:

8. Szechuan peppers were found to pack a punchIf you think eating a Szechuan pepper feels a bit like a slap in the mouth, you’re right. In September, UK scientists showed that the signal sent to the brain in response to eating a spicy Szechuan peppercorn is the equivalent of 50 light taps on the skin every second, mimicking the sense of touch.

9. Illusory fake fingers fooled our brains:  In September, Australian researchers revealed a whole new class of illusion by tricking the brain into believing a fake finger was the real thing using only sensory inputs from muscles. The illusion shows that the body does not require sight or touch to sense which parts of your body belong to you, or to determine their positions in the world.

10. Research revealed that dogs can tell left from rightYou might think a wagging tail is a wagging tail, but you could be underestimating man’s best friends. Italian research released in November suggested dogs recognise and respond differently when their fellow canines wag to the right than when they wag to the left. The findings show that dogs, like humans, have asymmetrically organised brains, with the left and right sides playing different roles. Video available:

Peter Griffin manages the Royal Society's Science Media Centre and posts at Sciblogs.

Peter Griffin
Mon, 23 Dec 2013
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10 weirdest science stories of 2013