Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Top 10 weird science stories of 2017

By Joe Milton

Weird science was out in force in 2017 - someone named a planet Bernard, sheep were trained to recognise Baaarack Obaaama, octopuses marched out of the sea, and re-inflated dolphin dangly bits revealed some sea sex secrets, among many other peculiar science yarns.

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Sheep recognised Baaarack Obaaama
When it comes to picking out a famous face, there’s no pulling the wool over sheep’s eyes. We learned in September that the humble sheep can pick out a celebrity face almost as well as we can. The animals were trained to associate a few famous faces – including Barack Obama, Jake Gyllenhall and Emma Watson - with a food reward. They were then able to rustle up a snack by identifying the celeb when faced with a choice between the famous face and another, with about 80 per cent accuracy. Even when the celeb faces were displayed at an angle, the sheep were pretty good at spotting them. So, what was the point? Well, scientists use sheep to study Huntington’s disease in humans, a condition that can make facial recognition difficult. So, learning how sheep recognise faces could help develop treatments for the disease.
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Boxer crabs didn’t half love their anemone mittens
Who knew crabs enjoy wearing mittens made of anemones? We certainly didn’t. But, in January, we learned boxer crabs love their anemone mittens so much, they simply won’t do without them. The researchers said crabs that lost one of their mittens quickly got their claws on another by pinching an anemone from another crab. And if there weren't any other crabs around, they'd simply tear their remaining anemone mitten in two - ouch!

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Smileys in emails made us seem incompetent
If you think you’re spreading the love and passing on positive vibes by adding a smiley face emoticon to the end of your emails at work, you should probably think again. According to Dutch and Israeli research published in July, smiley faces don’t make the sender seem warmer, but do make them seem incompetent. The survey of 549 people from 29 countries also found that people frequently didn't bother replying properly to emails with smiley faces, and that, on unsigned emails, people tended to assume the sender of a smiley was female, rather than male. :(

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Dozens of octopuses marched out of the sea
In November, news outlets around the world reported a bizarre phenomenon that we hope doesn’t turn out to be a harbinger of the apocalypse. Between 25 and 30 octopuses were witnessed leaving the ocean and marching along a Welsh beach on their tentacles. Why the marine animals lost their eight sea legs and decided to turn land-lubber remains a mystery, although it’s possible they were confused by stormy conditions and took a very wrong turn. Some of the octopuses were returned to the sea by bystanders, but others sadly died. Could they have been answering the call of Cthulu? We’re hoping they turn out to be 'armless.

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Res-erections revealed sea sex secrets
In one of the most NSFW pieces of research to cross our desks in quite some time, we learned in October that marine biologists had res-erected the willies of dead marine mammals - including dolphin danglies, porpoise peckers and seal schlongs - by pumping them full of salt water. The post-mortem members were used to simulate sex with casts of the lady bits of the appropriate marine creatures, all performed in an CT scanner for an X-ray view. "Why in the name of all that’s holy would anyone do such a thing?" you may ask (we certainly did). Well, the aim was to learn more about the mechanics and evolution of marine mammal sex, which, as you can probably imagine, is pretty darn tricky to observe in the wild. The scientists say the weird shape of marine mammal vaginas probably evolved to allow females to divert the sperm of mediocre males, preventing them from fertilising their eggs.

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Someone called a planet Bernard
Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars….and Bernard? It might not be the first name that comes to mind when asked to pick a moniker for a previously-unnamed planet in our solar system, but in February we learned a minor planet in orbit between Mars and Jupiter had been named just that, or Bernardbowen, to give it its full name. Scientists from Australia’s International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) named the planet in honour of their founding chairman, Dr Bernard Bowen, after citizen scientists at theSkyNet won a competition to choose a name. Bernard may seem an odd choice, but we should probably count ourselves lucky we didn't end up with the name Minorplanety McMinorplanetface.

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Swimming pools contained a wee-lie bin of pee
We've all done it, but if you fess up to peeing in the pool, then urine trouble! In some frankly gross news in March, we learned that an average-sized public swimming pool of around 830,000 litres of water contains a wheelie bin-worth of whiz - that's 75 litres of pee people! Canadian researchers used a new method of detecting wee in pools by testing the water for a common artificial sweetener which, after being eaten, passes straight through your body in your urine. And, aside from being a deeply unpleasant thought, pee in pools can cause eye irritation and breathing problems when it reacts with chlorine, so this study certainly wasn't taking the piss. One more reason to hold your nose when you take the plunge!
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Scott of the Antarctic’s frozen fruitcake was ‘almost edible’
In August, a 106-year-old fruitcake that once belonged to explorer Robert Falcon Scott - or Scott of the Antarctic - was found frozen in Antarctica’s oldest building, a hut on Cape Adare, by the Antarctic Heritage Trust. Remarkably well preserved thanks to the freezing temperatures, the cake was reported to be “almost edible”, despite giving off a faint whiff of rancid butter. It was apparently a favourite brand of Scott's, who successfully led his team to the South Pole in 1912 from the hut. Sadly, nobody survived the return journey. In addition to the cake, the Trust also found "badly deteriorated" meat and fish, and “rather nice-looking” jams. But nobody will get to find out if the cake is actually edible - it will be returned intact to Antarctica following building conservation work on the hut.
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We could tell a movie villain from their face
In April, we learned that some of the best known movie villains have striking similarities in their facial features, so you can probably pick a goodie from a baddie simply by looking at their faces. US researchers reviewed the top ten celluloid heroes and villains of all time, including Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, The Queen from Snow White and The Wicked Witch of the West, and said that six of the scoundrels share similar dermatological features. The common traits were hair loss, dark eye bags, deep wrinkles, multiple facial scars, warts, and a big, bulbous nose. Only two of the movie heroes shared any of these conditions - Humphrey Bogart and Indiana Jones both had scars, but theirs were much more subtle, and were more devilishly handsome than devilish. However, the scientists pointed out that Hollywood's tendency to depict skin conditions as the mark of an evildoer is bad news for people in the real world who have similar facial features, because it can lead to bullying.
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Cosmic rays revealed a secret pyramid chamber
They came from outer space to reveal a secret chamber in Egypt’s 4,500-year-old Great Pyramid, the last remaining ancient wonder of the world, but these were no little green men, they were tiny subatomic particles called muons. Japanese and French scientists announced in November that they'd used three different types of muon detectors to learn more about the internal structure of the pyramid, and uncovered a large, previously unknown chamber in the process. Muons are created when cosmic rays hit Earth's atmosphere. They pass straight through the planet (and straight through us too), and their speed allows researchers to distinguish between solid rock and empty spaces. The chamber is around 30 metres long and located above the Grand Gallery. However, it remains completely inaccessible, so while we know it's there, we still have no idea why.

Credit: Australian Science Media Centre