The strangest things we learned in 2017
We discovered so much odd stuff this year about aliens, tigers, apocalypses, goats, lawns and even Albert Einstein.
As people who look for strange things to write about, we come across a lot of odd information. Some of these weird facts make it into articles, while others just turn into stories that make people uncomfortable at parties.
But today, we're going to dig up all those precious nuggets and give them to you as an end-of-the-year present. If you're a Harvard astrophysicist, wildcat refuge volunteer, zoologist or science historian, you may already know this stuff. From the Grapevine presents: the strangest things we learned this year.
Honest people swear more.
You'd think that swearing and lying would go together like peas in a bad behavior pod, but apparently people who swear more are also more honest. Gilad Feldman, an Israeli-born neuroscientist at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, led a team of researchers to publish a new paper on the connection between cursing and integrity. The scientists analyzed hundreds of surveys and tens of thousands of social media interactions.
“In three studies, at both the individual and society level, we found that a higher rate of profanity use was associated with more honesty," wrote the scientists.
Bats can learn foreign dialects.
Israeli researchers raised about a dozen baby bats in different colonies. They piped bat sounds through a speaker. The baby bats could communicate just fine with their mothers, but they developed dialects based on the new sounds the scientists gave them.
"The difference between the vocalizations of the mother bat and those of the colony are akin to a London accent and, say, a Scottish accent," said Dr. Yossi Yovel, who led the research. "The pups heard their mothers' 'London' dialect, but also heard the 'Scottish' dialect mimicked by many dozens of 'Scottish' bats. The pups eventually adopted a dialect that was more similar to the local 'Scottish' dialect than to the 'London' accent of their mothers."
A teen figured out how to disarm anthrax.
Probably just to shame my own seventh grade science fair project, Israeli high school student Sarit Sternberg found a way to stop anthrax.
It all started when she and her classmates were working on research projects for gifted students. Sternberg was studying viruses that can kill bacteria, and she found that one virus can cancel out the effects of anthrax.
"Anthrax is a very dangerous disease," she said. "It could cause death within a week or less."
Someone stole Albert Einstein's brain.
The famous scientist may be gone, but he lives on in each of us, particularly if you happen to be a Tupperware container containing a piece of Einstein's brain.
Einstein wanted to be cremated, but the doctor performing his autopsy, Thomas Harvey, stole his brain. Harvey refused to give it back, even after the hospital and U.S. Army demanded he do so. He wanted to figure out what amazing quirk of Einstein's brain produced his genius. But as it turns out, there's no real way to get that information from a few chunks of preserved brain tissue. So he just stashed the brain under his beer cooler for decades.
"The interest in Einstein does not fade into history," explained Hanoch Gutfreund, a professor at Hebrew University in Israel who recently wrote a book about Einstein's theories of relativity. "If one can say anything about this, the interest in Einstein increases with time. It's greater now."
Older dads have nerdier sons.
A group of scientists from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. created a "Geek Index," measuring nonverbal intelligence, IQ, the ability to focus and social aloofness. The scientists used this not-at-all-silly-sounding index to compare a bunch of twins, looking for a connection between how old the twins' dads were and how geeky the kids turned out. The researchers found that older dads had nerdier sons. These geeks went on to get better grades in school.
"High attainment in the STEM subjects have been consistently shown to predict future income over and above overall school performance, with STEM degree majors earning on average more than $15,000 per year than non-STEM degree majors in full-time jobs," wrote the researchers.
A Harvard scientist came up with a plan to find aliens on a goat farm.
Avi Loeb, an Israeli astrophysicist and chair of the Harvard Astronomy Department, was on vacation on a goat farm in the Israeli mountains when he got an unexpected call. A Russian philanthropist wanted Loeb to come up with a plan to meet aliens. In a few days.
Loeb sat down at the goat farm's ramshackle office computer because it was the only place on the farm where he could get internet access.
"I basically sat at 6 a.m. in the morning, working on this presentation, with my back to the wall of this office, looking at the goats that were just born the day before, and contemplating the first realistic plan to send a spacecraft to the nearest star," Loeb told From The Grapevine. "And I'm sure that the owner of that goat farm never imagined that this would happen."
He presented the philanthropist with a PowerPoint a week later, and the two are now embarking on said alien-finding mission.
The same Harvard scientist thinks aliens may have star-powered spaceships.
We've got to hand it to Avi Loeb again. The Harvard astrophysicist wrote a paper about how aliens riding in star-powered spaceships might explain some strange radio activity. The aliens could be using sails powered by starlight rather than wind.
“Deciding what’s likely ahead of time limits the possibilities,” said Loeb, an alumnus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “It’s worth putting ideas out there and letting the data be the judge.”
There are more tigers in people's backyards than there are in the wild.
A majestic Amur tiger sits alert. (Photo: israeltourism / Flickr)
A tiger was found wandering a highway near Atlanta this September. It sounds absurd, but a quick Google News search will show that it's not the only story like that. In fact, lions and tigers are found wandering city streets pretty regularly.
A woman working at a wildcat refuge explained the whole phenomenon to us: People buy lion and tiger cubs from breeders to keep as pets. When the cubs get too big and start resembling, we don't know, man-eating predators, the owners often just let them go. There are only around 4,000 tigers left in the wild, but there are many more in American backyards.
You can control premature ejaculation from your phone.
These intimate moments need not fill men with fear. (Photo: Lisa Shalom)
This isn't some app to track your testosterone cycles or help you plan sex — it actually slows down your ejaculation. An Israeli company is making a patch that delivers electric stimulation to your muscles, making them contract and preventing them from ejaculating right away. You can control the stimulation from your smartphone.
"It does not detract from spontaneity," explained Tal Gollan, an Israeli biomedical engineer and the company's CEO who apparently goes on his smartphone all the time during sex. "Most of our patients said that the feeling is tolerable – a tickling that is even pleasant."
Lawns don't make any sense.
We hadn't thought much about lawns until reading Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari's book, "Homo Deus." The world history professor traces the history of lawns, finding that medieval lords would keep lawns around their castles to signify just how wealthy they were, since only a rich person could afford to care for a large patch of useless plants that don't even grow food.
Monarchies fell over the centuries, but lawns remained a sign of power – wealthy business folk tended lawns surrounding their mansions; even the White House had a lawn (and still does). When suburbs started springing up, homeowners wanted their own little aristocratic lawns, which is why we have them today, even though they're still totally useless and not even a symbol of nobility anymore. They're basically the appendixes of home decoration.
Tiny bears are going to survive the apocalypse.
Scientists think that if any animals survive the apocalypse, it'll be these weird things. They're called tardigrade water bears, and they can live in really difficult conditions. We can't decide if they're adorable or freaky.
A group of scientists tried to figure out what life forms would survive various apocalyptic scenarios, including asteroids, gamma-ray bursts and supernovae. They concluded that the water bears would most likely live on, and they named the water bear the world's most resilient animal. These millimeter-long animals can survive very hot and cold temperatures, and they don't need light.
"Although near supernovae or large asteroid impacts would be catastrophic for people, tardigrades could be unaffected," said David Sloan, an Oxford professor who co-authored the study.
Oh, and Avi Loeb also coauthored the study. Of course.
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