Since 2008, my annual Weird Science Awards have thrown a spotlight on the weirdest tales from the lab and from the field, ranging from glow-in-the-dark clones to lab-grown rabbit penises and an ancient Chinese marijuana stash.
This year’s lineup includes a couple of projects from the University of Washington, which provides a nice Seattle angle for GeekWire’s first running of the Weirdies. Without further ado, here’s the top 10:
Scientists set up brain-to-brain conversation: UW researchers created an electronic system that could translate brain waves into electrical impulses, and then back into brain waves. The arrangement let two humans participate in a Q&A session just by thinking about “yes” or “no.” Messages are picked up using a brainwave-reading skullcap, and sent as impulses to a magnetic device that stimulates the brain’s visual cortex. The recipient sees the “yes” message as a flash of light in his or her visual field. The latest experiment, published in PLOS ONE, built on earlier work in brain-to-brain communication.
Reverse-causality experiment ends in a quantum muddle: Can quantum phenomena from the future affect the past? For years, UW physicist John Cramer has worked on an experiment designed to study that weird hypothesis, which relates to a way-out concept known as retrocausality (as well as tons of science-fiction movie plots). Cramer concluded that any hints of backward causality would have been masked by the interference patterns created during the experiment. Sorry, Doc Brown: This won’t help you get back to the future.
Holometer finds no evidence we’re living in a hologram: Yet another weird physics experiment struck out this year. Fermilab’s Holometer was designed to detect ever-so-slight fluctuations in spacetime. Such dicontinuities would be consistent with the idea that the universe is actually a two-dimensional hologram, rather than the 3-D world we think we perceive. No quantum jitters were found, but the case isn’t closed quite yet. (The lead researcher at Fermilab, Craig Hogan, used to work at UW.)
High-tech imaging hints at hidden chamber in Tut’s tomb: It was weird enough when archaeologist Nicholas Reeves claimed that King Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings may contain a concealed burial chamber. It was weirder still when Egypt’s antiquities ministry agreed to conduct a high-tech survey of the tomb. And it was super-weird when scientists actually found evidence of hidden chambers. One of the chambers may have been meant for Nefertiti, Tut’s stepmother. Now the question is, what to do about it? They wouldn’t knock holes in the tomb’s priceless 3,300-year-old walls … would they?
Facebook users solve archaeologists’ not-so-ancient mystery: While digging in a Jerusalem cemetery that went back to Roman times, Israeli archaeologists found a strange golden object that was shaped like a grooved rolling pin. Was it a cultic talisman? An alien artifact? After puzzling over the 19-pound object for months, the experts posted a picture of the darn thing on Facebook and asked for tips. The answer wasn’t long in coming: It’s a new-age gizmo called an “Isis Beamer,” which is supposed to focus healing energy. “We hope that those responsible for hiding the object in the cemetery will contact us, tell us why it was buried in the ancient structure, and to whom amongst the dead and buried they wanted to give positive energy,” the Israel Antiquities Authority said.
Why Burger King’s black bun turned poop green: When Burger King designed a special burger for this Halloween, the company created a black-colored bun that was laced with A-1 steak sauce. Those who ate the burger were surprised to discover that their poop took on the color of green grass. The likely suspect is the intensely blue food coloring that was used in the bun, When the blue dye combines with bile, it produces a bright green color that would make a leprechaun envious. Talk about “green chemistry”!.
Scientists ‘unboil’ an egg: Every year, Improbable Research awards a set of Ig Nobel Prizes to recognize achievements “that first make people laugh, then make them think.” This year’s chemistry prize went to researchers who figured out how to unboil egg whites — that is, untangle the cooked proteins and allow them to fold back into their original shapes. In the journal ChemBioChem, they said the method “could transform industrial and research production of proteins.” And that could have a positive impact on products ranging from cheese to anti-cancer drugs. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Apes get into scary King Kong movies: Can chimpanzees and bonobos use their memories of past events to anticipate similar situations in the future? The answer seems to be yes, based on a weird experiment conducted by Japanese researchers. They showed the apes movies in which someone in a King Kong suit menaced nearby humans. A day later, the experimenters screened similar movies, and used eye-tracking technology to find out what the apes focused on. The second time around, the apes kept a close eye on the door that they expected King Kong to leap out of, and the toy weapon that the human eventually picked up to fend off the monster. That demonstrated the apes’ anticipatory abilities. But I wonder … were they rooting for the humans, or for King Kong?
Houston, we have a skin problem: Scientists have long known that prolonged periods of weightlessness in outer space are bad for your muscles, your bones and even your eyesight. But what about your hair and skin? A study published in May took a close look at mice that spent three months on the International Space Station in 2009. The researchers found that the skin of the astro-mice was thinner than that of earthbound mice, and hair growth was disrupted. Those findings are consistent with astronauts’ complaints of skin dryness and itching. Using body lotion can help with the dryness, but the skin-thinning problem might be a tougher nut to crack for long-duration spaceflights. Let’s see you “science the shit” out of this one, Mark Watney.
Worm injects itself with sperm to get pregnant: No Weirdy awards ceremony is complete without a tribute to a truly weird animal. This year’s recipient is Macrostomum hystrix, a hermaphroditic flatworm that apparently injects sperm into its own head for self-insemination. “To us, the idea of self-injecting sperm does indeed sound pretty gruesome, amusing even,” says evolutionary biologist Steven Ramm, the principal author of a study focusing on the worm’s reproductive habits. “But it may well be that under conditions where they can’t find a mate, it really is the best option available to these worms.” Brogrammers, don’t try this at home.
Does all this give you a yen for more weird science? Check out these Weirdy winners from the past eight years: