Archive for the 'Friday Weird Science' category

Ignobels 2013! Reattachment of the penis, unless it was first eaten by a duck

Sep 13 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, IgNobel Prizes!

I'm over at SciAm Blogs today, and for the next few days, blogging the fabulously weird IgNobel prizes!! The ceremony was last night, and now I'm doing in depth analyses of all of the winners, and we're starting with...weirdest first. The IgNobel winner in public health, the reattachment of the penis, unless of course, it was partially eaten by a duck first. Like you do. For more about the reattachment, and why there's a duck in the first place, head over and check it out!


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IgNobels are Coming Soon!!!

Sep 08 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

I'm so excited! This year, for the third year in a row now, I'll be heading to Boston to cover the IgNobel Prizes, the funniest prizes in science! It's a fantastic time, and full of some AMAZINGLY weird science, which I will be covering in depth over at Scientific American. So make sure to head over on Thursday, 9/12, at 6:00PM EDT, to see the coverage! I'll also be live-tweeting from @scicurious, using the #ignobel hashtag.

Make sure to check it out! I'm incredibly excited and can't wait to share ALL the weird science with you!

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Friday Weird Science: A Dolphin Gets 'Spontaneous'

Sep 06 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

Do you ever wish that you were more like a dolphin? More playful, carefree? More, you know, spontaneous?



I guess that depends on what you mean by "spontaneous". Aside from the many interesting habits of dolphins (spoiler, dolphins can be raging jerks, and they, and their good looks are the primary reason Lisa Frank exists. Which, I must say, makes them a jerk in my book), it turns out that dolphins can be particularly spontaneous in one, special way.


Morisaka et al. "Spontaneous Ejaculation in a Wild Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops aduncus)" PLoS ONE, 2013.

(Note: Today's Friday Weird Science is courtesy of David Schiffman, of Southern Fried Science. So if you find what you are about to see disturbing/gross, blame it all on him.)

(Another Note: What you are about to see may be disturbing/gross.)

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Friday Weird Science repost: How much sun could a good beard block?

Aug 30 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

NOTE: Sci's got some major stuff going on professionally which requires her full attention. I would hate for you all to go without your weekly dose of Friday awesome, however, and so have arranged these reposts. Thanks for your patience!


...ok I guess that probably won't work for some of us. Fake beards, maybe?


I know a guy with a rather luxuriant amount of facial hair. I once asked him if he ever put sunblock on it. Get in the cracks, you know? He said of course not, hair blocks sun. He's never gotten a burn there, after all.

This is definitely true enough, I've never gotten a sunburn where my hair is, either. But how much sun does a good beard block if a good beard could block sun?

Answer? It blocks the sun that a good beard could block if a good beard could block sun.* At least, depending on the angle, and the thickness of the beard. But how to find out PRECISELY?!

Well for that you need SCIENCE. Science and fake heads with beards on them. On a weathervane. Really.


By now I think we all know the risks of UV radiation from the sun. Wear layers, slather on some SPF 30 until your skin can take no more, wear a hat, etc. But what about facial hair?

To investigate this point, the scientists in this study needed to look at the UV damage caused by the sun, at various angles, and with different lengths of facial hair. And since humans guys probably can't hold very still for the many hours it would take to measure this...well, this is what they built.
(I would have LOVED to see this thing hangin' out behind someone's lab on campus. Science in action, my friends!!)

They authors then looked at protection from UV radiation (using dosiometry, which measures dose exposure to UV radiation) at several angles of sunlight, and on several angles of chin, cheek, upper jaw, etc. They had a no beard condition, a "short" beard condition (10 mm on the upper lip, 40 mm on the chin), and a "long" beard condition (up to 20 mm on the upper lip and 90 mm on the chin). The beards were fake, as manikin heads have a terrible record of growing their own facial hair.

What you can see here is the exposure ratio, after 1 hour in the sun with the face angled up to receive the light (described as horizontal, they did 1 hour at most angles, except for the 25ish degree angle, which had 2 hours of exposure). You can see that beard presence significantly decreased the amount of UV exposure. When teased apart, the longer beards provided more protection.

So clearly, in addition to all our layers and sunblock, we need to be growing us some beards! Or, possibly, get fakes. There are of course caveats. Wither the stubble, my friends?! Wither the short goatee?! The "short" length here was 40mm long on the chin (almost 2 inches), which is pretty hefty, and the "long" was full on lumberjack. But most guys don't have facial hair that long, what protection, if any, are they getting? Does a couple of mm do any good? Or do we need to start a trend for some long and luxuriant facial locks?

Me, I think fake beards are going to be all the rage next summer.

Parisi AV, Turnbull DJ, Downs N, & Smith D (2012). Dosimetric investigation of the solar erythemal UV radiation protection provided by beards and moustaches. Radiation protection dosimetry, 150 (3), 278-82 PMID: 22090417

*How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

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Friday Weird Science repost: The physics of the strapless evening gown

Aug 23 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

NOTE: Sci's got some major stuff going on now professionally which requires her full attention. But as I would hate for you all to be stuck without your Friday weird science (who could IMAGINE such a thing), I've arranged for some reposts.


Today's Friday Weird Science comes to you courtesy of Marc Abrahams, the founder of the IgNobel Prizes (which I'm going to next week! So excited!!). The study was featured in his new book, This is Improbable, and Marc was kind enough to send me a copy of this paper when I asked about it. (Ok, honestly, Marc has sent me a freakin' AVALANCHE of papers...because there were just that many awesome ones. And those were only the first 40 pages of the book! Marc Abrahams will be the official patron saint of weird science for the next year at least. Worship him, ye masses).

I didn't even have to come up with a fun title for this one!

Charles E. Siem "A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown" (last edited online 7/2010).

This is a funny little paper. I'm not sure it was ever peer reviewed, you can only find copies of it online, I have no record of where it was published, etc, etc. Not only that, it is entirely theoretical in nature, containing no references to literature on the subject, and with no studies into the actual physics (apparently due to a lack of female volunteers, as you read'll probably figure out why).

In this paper, the author lays out the physics of the strapless dress. He begins by rhapsodizing on the strapless dress, and the many other ways in which women dress "to bring about [the] libido-awakening infliction on the poor male". He touches briefly on sheer tops, skin tight bodysuits, sweaters ("Another powerful attractant is the tightly fitted garment. A well-known example of the type of weapon is the sweater" You can't make this stuff up), and makes a brief mention of the bikini. He then moves on to his main subject, the strapless dress:

A delightful device which has sufficiently aroused the masculine sex is the use of durable but fragile-appearing cloth which gives the impression that at any moment the garment will slip down or that, better yet, certain parts may slip out of place. The best example of this method of attracting the attention of the weak and susceptible male is the strapless evening gown.

(Sci must note that I have worn a good share of strapless dresses in my time, and I never once thought of them in this light. This is something about the male gaze that I never needed to know. I will never look at my old bridesmaids dresses the same way...)

Once over the lingering pleasure of the many ways in which women dress, the author gets down to the question at hand, namely: How DOES this type of dress stay up. And being a guy who, I conjecture, has never seen a woman getting into or out of a strapless dress, he did not go to the immediate and sensible answer: Boob Tape.

Nope. He went to physics. And there certainly is a good deal of physics involved.

To aid us in our scientific foray, the author presents us with Figure 1:

It was here that I began to wonder if the author had ever seen a woman at all, let alone one wearing a strapless dress. But I think mostly he just couldn't draw.

But here we can see the main forces at work here. We have the forces F1 and F2, equal (presumably) and opposite, forcing the breasts apart (lift and separate!). You have the weight of the top (W), and the upward force of the fabric (V), which is due to the tightness of the fabric above the navel (plane A). Enough upward force (V), and the whole thing is at equilibrium and nothing falls down.

But that's ASSUMING there is enough upward force. Is there? If you take plane B alone (B for boobs! And obviously not for scientific reasons, no indeed!), you will see that there's not enough upward force to counteract the weight of the fabric (and, presumably, the breasts in it, which are not made of air, though silicone is of course an option). If you can't hold that dress up by sheer force of lift and separate...well you can't hold it up at all. The author claims that "If the female is naturally blessed with sufficient pectoral development, she can supply this very vital force and maintain the elemental strip at equilibrium." But I can tell you that sufficient pectoral development be damned, fabric won't stay up of its own will up there.

So how do you make up the difference? Here we have two options. The designer of the dress can use friction (F) to keep the dress from moving. If you increase F, the perpendicular normal force will also be increased, and the dress will stay up. When I think of increasing friction, I think of the rough side of velcro against my chest, and that doesn't sound pleasant, but what he means is that you can increase normal force by making the point at the tip of the breasts as tight as possible, which does indeed work, but can produce boob-squishery, or what is colloquially known as "baby heads".

Next, the author gets into the issues at hand when a lady decides not only to go strapless, but also to go BACKLESS ("some females require that the back of the gown be lowered to increase the exposure and correspondingly attract more attention.").
(Again...has this person EVER seen a breast in its natural habitat?! That shape's...oh dear)

Now he refers to the downward angle known as "t", but which I cannot find in either of the figures. Anyway. Now you're backless. How do we keep these puppies from basking in the sun? Since you have less force coming in from the sides, you need to increase the force from below.

And as many women will know, this means boning.

This, my friends, is the inside hardware of your strapless dress. The thin lines you see are flexible plastic (or metal or even actual bones) boning, which gives the inside structure and allows the top to remain vertical despite whatever is inside it. If you ever see a strapless bridesmaids dress, for example, feel the inside of the top. It's firm. Some of them freakin' stand up on their own. That's boning.

However, as the author notes, there are other forces at work. Most particularly the downward forces caused by things like dancing, walking,, and which require people wearing strapless dresses to haul them up when they think no one is looking. Strapless dress wearers of the world? I give you, BOOB TAPE. Know it. Love it.

But you have to keep in mind, this is all theoretical! "Many females have been asked to volunteer for experiments along these lines in the interest of science, but unfortunately, no cooperation was encountered. There is also the difficulty of the investigator having the strength of mind to ascertain purely the scientific facts." wonder he had trouble getting volunteers.

The author maintains that the engineering of strapless gowns will have to remain trial and error. I think many of the people at this past week's New York fashion week could easily tell him it's been done. And the answers are tightness, fit, fabric, boning...and boob tape.

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Friday Weird Science: Gonads and Stress, gonads and stress, gonads and stress...

Aug 16 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

(One of the oldest memes on the internet. And, in my opinion, one of the best)

We all worry about stress for lots of reasons: weight gain, depression, headaches, insomnia. But have you ever worried about what doing to your 'nads?

Well, if you are the common starling, perhaps you should.

McGuire et al. "The direct response of the gonads to cues of stress in a temperate songbird species is season-dependent" PeerJ, 2013.

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Friday Weird Science: Get off my beach blanket!

Aug 09 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

It's summertime, and that means it's time to head to the beach. And of course, when there's only a limited amount of beach, a limited amount of summer, and lots of people, well, you get crowded beaches.

What's the first thing that anyone does when they go to the beach? No, it's not running straight into the water or put on your sunscreen or whatever. When you get to the beach, the first thing you do is claim towel (and umbrella, if you are an umbrella type) territory. You gotta stake your claim! Usually you need a place to put however many towels out, umbrellas, maybe a cooler, toys for kids. Things. Beach things. You need space for that. And a place to park your butt when the sea is too cold and the sand is too hot, or to soak up some rays (which, it should be noted, has its health hazards, esp when a book is involved. I gave myself a second degree sunburn once trying to finish "Pillars of the Earth", because I forgot to do things like roll over or put on sunblock. This is why beach reads should not be TOO interesting).

And when you look for a spot on the beach...well you don't want to just up and set your towel RIGHT NEXT to someone else. Especially if the beach is less crowded. It looks weird, ok? If you don't know them, it's weird.

But how much space do you give? What's the personal space beach bubble diameter?

Would you believe that someone has done science on this?

H.W. Smith. "Territorial Space on a Beach Revisited: A Cross-National Exploration.

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Friday Weird Science: The Armadillo Penis, a study in flexural stiffness

Aug 02 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

You know, it's nice to know that there are people out there who really CARE. Who CARE about things like penises. Animal penises. And how they work. And who care so much about animal erections that they will create mathematical functions to describe them. Where would we (or at least, weird science) be without these people? I really cannot say. And most particularly, where would we be without Diane Kelly. Without Diane, who I would hereby like to promote to the Queen of Animal Peen (in an importantly non-dirty way), there would be no awesome studies of the armadillo penis, for example.

But we have Diane, and I am grateful. Because now, my friends, now we know all about the flexural stiffness of the armadillo penis. I'm sure that question has been plaguing you for ages, right? Right??

NINE-BANDED ARMADILLO (DASYPUS NOVEMCINCTUS)" The Journal of Experimental Biology, 1999.

(I must say these guys are cute. Would make such charming little pets! Source)

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Friday Weird Science: the science of speed-eating

Jul 26 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

With every 4th of July, there are various 4th of July traditions. Fireworks. Barbeques. Concerts. And, of course speed-eating.

What, you guys don't attempt to pour down 24 hotdogs in 10 minutes?! Where is your PATRIOTISM?!



Regardless of what this may or may not say about our country, hearing about these things makes you wonder: how do they DO it?

Levine et al. "Competitive Speed Eating: Truth and Consequences" AJR, 2007.

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Friday Wierd Science: Mopey Mice Pee their Feelings

Jul 19 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

...or, in fact, they DON'T.

Anyone who has ever held a mouse has, honestly, probably been peed on. If you've held a lot of mice, you've been peed on a lot. Everywhere you put a mouse, that mouse WILL pee. It's part of the game and one of the things you get used to (probably one of the things we should warn new grad students about, too. "Congratulations! Be prepared to be peed on!"). So most people who work with mice don't really think anything of it.

But what if we should? ...and what if you could get some art out of the deal?

Lehmann, et al. "Urine scent marking (USM): A novel test for depressive-­‐like behavior and a predictor of stress resiliency in mice." PLoS ONE, 2013.


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