In February, the viral phenomenon that was ‘the dress’ took hold, dividing the world into two camps based on whether we perceived it as gold and white, or blue and black, and generating more than 10 million Tweets in a single week. The saga began when a Scottish woman took a picture of the dress she intended to wear to her daughter’s wedding. The family couldn’t agree on the colour of the dress in the photo, and posted it on Facebook. Soon, the image made its way on to Tumblr, and the rest is history. Savvy scientists grasped an opportunity to discuss perception, colour vision and optical illusion at a time when the public was really engaged, culminating in the publication of three scientific papers discussing the dress in May.
2015 was the year an Aussie scientist introduced us to the machine that could ‘unboil an egg’, leaving many wondering whether the whole story was just a big yolk. The ‘vortex fluidic device’ unscrambles proteins, and Colin Raston of Flinders University had noticed his machine could return cooked egg whites to their original state, leading to its quirky, unofficial name. But the machine doesn’t just offer the tantalising possibility of reverse breakfasts, Colin also used it to crack some hard-boiled science, such as cooking up cancer drugs, anaesthetics and even biofuels. And it was all ‘sunny side up’ for Colin in September when the discovery earned him a coveted Ig Nobel prize, awarded for research that makes us laugh, and then think. All together now…Eggs-traordinary!
Just how much do you want kids? This worm stabbed itself in the head with its own penis to hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet
In news that simultaneously brought a whole new meaning to the phrases “Not tonight dear, I have a headache” and “what a dickhead”, German and Swiss scientists revealed the bizarre self-loving sex life of a tiny flatworm in July. They reported that Macrostomum hystix, which has both male and female genitals, can use its needle-like penis to stab itself in the head and fertilise its eggs with its own sperm when it can’t find another amorous worm to mate with. The sperm, which have evolved to be able to burrow through the worms’ bodies, swim down to the tail where the eggs are fertilised. Suddenly, remaining childless doesn’t sound so bad.
We all suspected wasps were evil, but in August, Japanese scientists confirmed it beyond any doubt. Their research investigated a wasp species that lays mind-controlling eggs in innocent spiders and turns them into web-spinning zombie slaves, only to murder the unfortunate arachnids once they’ve done the wasps’ bidding. Hormones released from the eggs produced by Reclinervellus nielseni wasps have a narcotic effect, forcing Cyclosa argenteoalba spiders to spin specialised web cocoons which protect the developing wasp offspring. Once the job is done, the zombie spiders blindly make their way back to the centre of the web, where the wasp offspring murder them. Charming! Amazingly, the research showed that the enslaved spiders up their game, building tougher and more elaborate webs for their wasp overlords than they do for themselves.
In November, US scientists released research that must have ruffled a few feathers in the medical world. They used tempting food rewards to train pigeons to distinguish between dangerous and harmless breast cancers by looking at slides and X-rays. The birds were then able to apply their knowledge to cancers they had never seen before, and pick out the dangerous tumours. Perhaps worryingly, the pigeons were just as good at spotting malignant cancers as human pathologists. However, it's unlikely your doctor will have a nest on their desks next time you pop in - the study was intended to help us learn about humans' ability to interpret medical images, and not to recruit pigeons into the medical profession, although apparently they’re going cheap.
A 34-year-old US man must have been shocked when a paternity test for his son came back negative, and probably started to look closely at the milkman, but he needn’t have worried. In October we heard that the boy was fathered by the man’s dead twin, whose DNA he had absorbed while still in the womb. Studies suggest one in eight single childbirths begin as multiple pregnancies, but only one foetus survives. Very occasionally, cells from these ‘vanished twins’ are absorbed by the survivor, contributing DNA to their bodies and leading to a very rare genetic condition known as chimerism. In this case, 10 per cent of the man’s sperm carried the twin’s genes, and one of those had won the race to fertilise his partner’s egg. Because he carries two different sets of DNA, the man’s DNA differs between his saliva, which was used in the test, and his sperm, explaining why the paternity test failed.
Since the 1970s, it’s been thought that kangaroos’ digestive systems produce hardly any of the potent greenhouse gas methane thanks to some unique microbes in their guts, suggesting they could be a more environmentally friendly food source than cows, which produce a lot of the gas. But in November, Australian and European researchers revealed that ripper of a story to be just so much hot air. The answer, according to the researchers, was literally blowing in the wind, as they measured the methane content of the ‘thunder from down under’ in both western grey and red kangaroos. The results showed that kangaroos produce just as much methane as horses, so they’re unlikely to have specialised gut microbes that curb methane production. However, they did find the kangaroos to be a lot less greenhouse-gassy than cows.
Snoopy fans might remember the character ‘Pig-Pen’ who was constantly followed around by a cloud of dust, germs and flies. Well, in September US scientists effectively crushed any sense of superiority we might have felt when they revealed that we’re all surrounded by billowing clouds of millions of airborne bacteria which are shed from our bodies. The microbial mist is mainly made up of harmless bacterial species, such as Corynebacterium, but can also include some potentially nasty germs such as Streptococcus, some types of which can cause infections. The research showed that the composition of our personal clouds is unique and that we can be identified from sampling the cloud alone, which could be useful in police forensics. The research should also help us learn more about how infections spread from person to person, said the scientists.
In June, we learned that skinny genes aren’t just a crime against fashion, they’re also a potential health hazard. Australian doctors reported the case of an Adelaide women who managed to cut off the blood supply to her legs – a condition known as compartment syndrome - by squatting for hours in skinny jeans while helping her friend move house. The unfortunate woman experienced numbness in her feet and had difficulty walking, causing her to trip and fall. She was unable to get up and lay on the ground for several hours before being found and taken to hospital. Her calves were so swollen that the offending jeans actually had to be cut off her. On examination, the doctors found that she had damaged the muscles and nerves in her lower legs, all as a result of prolonged squatting in skinny jeans. After four days in hospital on an intravenous drip, the woman made a full recovery and was able to walk again.
If you’ve ever wondered why our knuckles ‘crack’ when we pull our fingers, Australian and Canadian scientists explained the phenomenon for the first time in April when they used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look inside finger joints as knuckles were cracked. The scans showed that a gas-filled cavity forms inside the lubricating fluid in the joints, called the synovial fluid, because there isn’t enough of it to fill up the extended joint. The formation of the cavity, which is a bit like a vacuum, produces the familiar popping sound, with each crack lasting less than a third of a second. Further work could answer the age-old question of whether cracking your knuckles is bad for them, they say, but why some people squirm on hearing others crack their knuckles will likely remain a mystery.
AusSMC's Top 10 weird science stories of 2015
Every year the Australian Science Media Centre publishes its own top 10 weird science stories of the year. Please feel free to republish the list below, completely or partially, with attribution (Credit: Australian Science Media Centre).
Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre, Flinders University
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