The Australian Science Media Centre's top 10 weird science stories of 2016

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It was a bumper year for weird science in 2016 - a bloke bit off more than he could chew in a chili eating challenge and had to have his windpipe stitched up, frog sex taught us it's not easy being green, cuddly meerkats became murderous fearcats, and, to top it all off, science told us our brains simply can't cope with more than 150 Facebook friends. As if that wasn't enough, robot babies were getting teen girls pregnant, we met Graham the car crash-proof man, and the Brits almost named a multi-million-dollar research ship RRS Boaty McBoatface. Here at the AusSMC, we thoroughly enjoy a quirky science yarn that makes us giggle, then think. Scroll down for our ten favourites from the year!

Organisation/s: Australian Science Media Centre

Media Release

From: Australian Science Media Centre

A bloke took on one of the world's hottest chillies and lost (part of his windpipe)

chilli

When is a chili pepper too hot? When it leaves you hospitalised for 23 days with a hole in your oesophagus, that's when. October brought us the gory story of a 47-year-old American who took part in an eating challenge and came off second best after he ate a puree of one of the world's hottest chillies, Bhut jolokia, aka the ghost pepper, on a burger. The unfortunate, fiery fellow started sweating profusely, vomiting copiously and suffered chest and abdominal pains. He had to be taken to the emergency department, where doctors found a 2.5 cm hole in his oesophagus. The rupture wasn't caused by the chili itself, but was the result of excessive vomiting, a condition called Boerhaave syndrome after an 18th century physician whose patient died after vomiting up a particularly generous lunch. Fortunately, this man made a full recovery after surgeons stitched him back together, although it's probably best not to think too hard about his morning-after ring of fire. The Ghost Pepper measures 1 million on the Scoville scale, which rates the heat of chillies. While that's 400 times hotter than Tabasco sauce, Bhut jolokia isn't the world's hottest chili. That honour goes to the Carolina Reaper, which can reach an eye-watering, and oesophagus rupturing, 2.2 million units on the Scoville scale - fear the reaper!

Beware the meerkat - cuddly critters were the world's most murderous mammals

Meerkat

Meerkats - delightful, lovable fluffballs, right? Wrong - they're actually stone-cold killers, the mammalian world's most prolific murderers in fact, according to a study that came out in September. The scientists looked at murder rates in 1,000 mammal species, compared the meerkat (sorry) with the others, and found that one-in-five of these cuddly critters is killed in cold blood by another meerkat. Overall, around two-fifths of mammal species commit murder, they say, and around one-in-three hundred mammals falls victim, so how do we humans measure up? Well, the good news is we're relatively un-murderous at the moment. Murder rates in the first humans were probably similar to those seen in great apes today - around one-in-fifty. Killing each other appears to have peaked in popularity during the Medieval period, when they estimate that one-in-eight of us met a grisly end, but we've become a lot more civil since. As well as rating the mammals according to murder, there was a more serious question the researchers were trying to answer - are humans natural born killers or do we learn to murder? Their study suggests murder is an innate human behaviour, but one that can thankfully be overcome by culture and the rule of law.

The 'kermit sutra' expanded as frogs taught us a new sex position

Frog

Who'd have thought a frog could teach us a thing or two about sexual acrobatics, apart from Miss Piggy that is? On the whole, frogs and toads are sexual conservatives - 7,000 species around the world indulge in just six different mating positions - but in June we were introduced to an entirely new one. The Bombay night frog (Nyctibatrachus humayuni) mates in a unique position, named the dorsal straddle by the scientists who had the first pervy peep. The first unusual feature of these frogs' mating behaviour is that the female literally calls the shots - she's the one who croaks to attract a male, rather than the other way round. Then, after battling other frogs to secure her, the male straddles the female's back, hanging on to nearby branches or leaves to steady himself. Then, he ejaculates and leaves (ringing any bells ladies?), leaving gravity to do the rest; his sperm trickles down her back until it reaches her eggs and fertilises them. So there's no contact between the male and female when fertilisation itself  takes place. To be honest, I'm not sure it'll catch on.

A Pommy prank nearly named a $340m research vessel RRS Boaty McBoatface

BoatyMcBoatface

If we learned one thing in 2016, it's that you can never trust the public to make a sound decision, and that's exactly what happened when the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) held a vote to choose the name of its brand new $340m research ship. The winner, by a very wide margin, was Royal Research Ship (RRS) Boaty McBoatface. The daft name was first suggested as a prank by BBC radio presenter James Hand, who never expected it to catch on. But the Brits' famously silly sense of humour led 124,109 of them to pick Boaty McBoatface as their favourite, four times as many as voted for RRS Poppy Mai - the name of a 16-month-old girl with incurable cancer - which came second. Sadly, the killjoys at NERC decide to go with the considerably more sensible RRS Sir David Attenborough, after everybody's favourite naturalist, and a subsequent petition calling for Attenborough to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface, which attracted more than 2,000 signatures, failed to persuade him it was a good idea. However, Boaty McBoatface will live on - one of the ship's submersibles will bare the wacky moniker when the ship is completed in 2019.

Robot bubs got teen girls pregnant

Baby

School-based programs that aim to reduce teen pregnancies by giving girls a 'robot baby' to look after, simulating the experience of having a real infant, actually have the opposite effect, Australian scientists announced in August. They found teen girls who cared for a technological tot were more, rather than less, likely to get pregnant. Similar programs are used in schools in 89 countries around the world, but this was the first time the artificial infants had been tested in a proper scientific trial. The robotic rugrats were looked after for a weekend by 1,267 girls aged between 13 and 15 from 57 schools in WA, while 1,567 girls didn't receive a toy toddler. When the scientists looked at their medical records at age 20, they found 8 per cent of the girls given the digital dolls had been pregant since, compared with just 4 per cent of those who had remained robot-free. The girls who cared for the robots were also more likely to have had an abortion by age 20; 9 per cent compared to 6 per cent. The conclusion? Robot bubs aren't a good use of public money when it comes to preventing teen pregnancies.

We briefed the media on the robot baby research

We got ship-wrecked after sinking the world's oldest beer

Beer

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of...beer? It might not be the first thing you'd expect to find in a 220-year-old shipwreck, but that's what divers pulled from the wreck of the Sydney Cove, one of the first merchant ships to journey to the newly formed colony of Sydney in 1797. For nearly two centuries, bottles of the ancient ale lay buried under sand and seagrass - conditions that effectively sealed them, preserving the beer inside - until they were plucked from their resting place in 1990. Then, in June this year, chemist and museum conservator David Thurrowgood revealed that he'd successfully resurrected the two hundred year old tipple, recreating it using the original yeasts recovered from the submerged stubbies. After a first attempt to extract yeast from a sealed bottle revealed it contained castor oil rather than beer, scientist turned to two bottles that had been decanted 20 years earlier. This time, they struck (XXXX) gold, and were able to extract two brewer's yeasts that are not in use today - Brettanomyces and an ancient strain of Saccharomyces. David then set about brewing the beer based on an old English ale recipe, and has named it Preservation Ale after Preservation Island, where the Sydney Cove sank. He describes the taste as "distinctly light and fresh" and still Fosters the hope that he'll  be able to market the beer commercially. Altogether now...CHEERS!

Graham the crash-proof human's whole appearance was a bit of a car crash

Graham

Would you like to be car crash-proof? Well, take a look at Graham the crash-proof human and you may change your mind. We were introduced to Graham, and a face that only a mother could love, back in July, as part of a road safety campaign by the Victorian Government. The Transport Accident Commission collaborated with a trauma surgeon, a crash investigation expert and an artist to come up with the aesthetically-challenged chap, whose bizarre body represents what we might look like had we evolved to withstand a traffic accident. And Graham's good looks aren't just skin deep; augmented reality allowed us to take a look under the hood and see the internal adaptations that would be required to make us car crash-proof. The intention was to highlight just how vulnerable we all are to the forces at play when vehicles collide, because we've only evolved to survive impacts at running speed.

We believed anything was 'art' if we were told it was art

Art

French artist-provocateur Marcel Duchamp may have been on to something when he displayed a commercially-manufactured urinal signed by 'R. Mutt' as 'art' in his famous 1917 work 'Fountain', if a Dutch study published in September is anything to go by. The scientists said that just believing something is 'art' can completely change the way we perceive and respond to it. Presumably, it also means art collectors would suddenly be willing to part with wads of cash in exchange for it too. The researchers scanned students' brains as they looked at images they had been told were either 'art', or simply photographs, and found activity in the brain's outer layer - the cortex - was much lower when students thought they were looking at art. That's probably because they didn't think of the image as 'real', and took a mental 'step back' to appreciate colour, shape and composition, said the scientists. When asked to rate the images, the students liked the 'art' more than the photographs. Duchamp's urinal sold for around $1.4m in 2002, which you could argue is taking the piss. Now, does anybody want to buy my kitchen sink?

A squidgy roboctopus was mostly 'armless

Octobot

In August, US scientist introduced us to their 3D-printed autonomous 'Octobot', an entirely soft and squidgy robot octopus which is made of a gel-like substance and doesn't require a solid battery to operate. The synthetic cephalopod moves using its eight arms, which are driven by small pistons powered by the release of oxygen, created as a product of the chemical reaction between hydrogen peroxide (bleach) and platinum catalysts within its bendy body. Soft robots can operate in environments which are inaccessible to their rigid robot peers, but previous models were limited by the need for hard batteries as a power source, say the scientists. If the prospect of an autonomous robotic Cthulhu terrifies the hell out of you, you needn't worry too much - the robot's catalytic power source lasts a maximum of eight minutes, so the human race is safe...for now.

Please unlike me - we learned you can't have more friends on Facebook than IRL

Facebook

How many Facebook friends do you have? Hundreds? Thousands? Well, according to research published in January, your brain can't really cope with any more friendships on Facebook than it can in real life, and the upper limit is around 150 mates. A survey of more than 3,000 Facebookers in the UK found most had around that number of friends, and those who had many more identified a similarly-sized group that they actually considered proper 'friends'. The limit of 150 friends on Facebook mirrors the number of friends scientists think we can maintain meaningful relationships with offline, a figure known as Dunbar's number. Robin Dunbar is a British anthropologist who studied the relationship between the size of various primates' brains and the size of their social groups, which he found to be linked. Calculating the maximum size of human social circles based on our own brains, he came up with the figure of 150.

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