Science continuous to out-pace what even the best fiction writers can produce in their craziest moments.
Here’s the top ten weird science stories of 2013 (and some of the research could be described as useful) as selected by the Australian Science Media Centre:
1. We can smell ten smells and one of them is popcorn! Researchers find ten basic smells, overturning conventional thinking that there are five. The ten: popcorn, fragrant, woody/resinous, fruity (non-citrus), chemical, minty/peppermint, sweet, lemon, pungent, decayed.
2. Size matters after all. Australian researchers showed that, when it comes to attractiveness, bigger is better. Women rated men more attractive as penis size increased. Also increased height in a man 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 members in humans.
3. Insects riding robots. Forget dogs driving cars, the mothmobile is now the big thing. Japanese researchers developed a two-wheeled robot driven by a male silk-moth. The moths steer the machine towards enticing female sex pheromones, allowing researchers to monitor their neural activity.
4. Astounding sea slug sex. 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. And in November Australian scientists found that a Great Barrier Reef species stabs its sexual partners through the head during mating.
5. Reading dreams. Scientists figured out how to read what goes on inside our heads at night. We’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 dreamed about just by looking at the brain scans.
6. Szechuan peppers. If 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.
7. Better out than in. A team of Danish and British gastroenterologists discussed that while holding back a fart on an aircraft may cause discomfort and physical symptoms, releasing flatus presents social complications. The researchers also provide advice on how to get away with it. They recommend walking up and down the aisle because “the social problems of flatulence are reduced, since the odour is distributed over a larger area”. The researcher also say: “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.”
8. Applause. It really is infectious. Scientists 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. 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.
9. Fake fingers. 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. Dogs can tell left from right. You might think a wagging tail is a wagging tail, but you could be underestimating man’s best friends. Italian research 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.
We’re grateful to the Australian Science Media Centre for compiling this list.
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