Weird Science – The top ten weird science stories from 2010

This is a list which I recently compiled for the Australian Science Media Centre. It could potentially also be called “What happens when scientists get bored”, as some of the stories seem the product of simply having too much time on their hands.

Chocolate, gunfights and dancing – just another year in science.

10. The science of chocolate. Scientists love chocolate, so imagine how happy they are when they can study it! This year’s chocolate breakthroughs included that small to moderate chocolate intake leads to a lower risk of heart failure. But for those who are watching their weight, scientists also found that just imagining chocolate is enough to satisfy cravings. Unfortunately it probably doesn’t mean you can daydream your way to a healthy heart.

I’ll be blogging about some of the science of chocolate in the future.

9. The maths of skipping stones. English mathematicians have developed a mathematical model to study how stones skip across water surfaces. Okay, this actually has more useful applications (like studying ice formation on planes), but now we know how to skip a stone like never before!

8. To quiet the mind after a tough choice, use soap. US researchers suggest washing your hands after making a difficult choice may help you live with your decision. Often after making a tough choice people will try to justify their choice, even to themselves. However, after washing or even just wiping their hands they no longer feel the need to justify the decision and feel less worry or concern about their choice. This effect is seen even when there was no moral dilemma in the choice.

7. Bad moods are infectious. American researchers have shown that positive and negative emotional states behave like infectious diseases between people in large social networks.

The scientists found that the likelihood of feeling happy is increased by 2% for every happy friend you are in contact with, while the likelihood of feeling unhappy is increased by 4% for every unhappy friend you are in contact with. In other words you can catch someone else’s mood, so best avoid that grumpy friend of yours.

6. How cats have perfect drinking manners. For three and a half years a team of researchers from US universities studied just how a cat drinks milk. Rather than unrefined slurping or just using their tongue like a scoop like a dog, they use gravity and inertia – they skim the surface of the milk with their tongue before pulling it back, creating a little column of milk which the cat closes its mouth around (see picture below). To do this a cat’s tongue moves at around one metre per second. Let’s see dogs beat that!

P M Reis et al. Science 2010;330:1231-1234

5. The physics of the “wet dog shake”. Physicists have defended the pride of dogs by examining how animals shake themselves dry. Using a range of video techniques, including looking at the animal’s skeleton using x-rays, they found that larger dogs don’t have to shake as much to dry themselves as smaller animals. To remove water from fur, it needs to have force applied to it. Because bigger animals are bigger, the speed they need to move to apply this force is less than the speed small animals need to move.

Yes there’s a video.

We wait with bated breath for the next round of dog vs. cat studies.

4. Going up stairs makes you older. Einstein came up with many theories, one of which said that gravity has an effect on time. This theory says that objects which are above the surface of a body with a gravitational field (such as earth) experience a relative increase in the speed of time compared to those on the surface. US scientists used incredibly accurate clocks to show this can happen at very small differences in height, less than one metre in fact. This does actually mean that you age faster when you stand a couple of steps higher on a staircase, relative to someone at the bottom of the stairs.

So why is this important (except for the building industry)? Well it shows that Einstein’s theory of relativity was correct and can be measured at distances far shorter than previously found. It also has importance for scientists who study hydrology or geophysics, or indeed any research which measures the Earth.

3. “Go ahead, make my day”. A study directly inspired by Hollywood movies has investigated why the cowboy who draws his gun second wins the showdown.  UK researchers found that people move faster when reacting to something than when initiating the same movement. In fact, people move around 10% when reacting to a situation than when they initiate the same situation. This can be linked to survival instincts, where an animal which can react faster is more likely to survive. So there you go, there was a scientific reason Clint Eastwood would provoke his foe into moving first.

2. The world’s oldest shoe discovered. Everyone hates losing their shoes. The world’s oldest leather shoe was found this year in Armenia, dating back around 5,500 years. This makes it 1000 years older than the Pyramids of Giza and 400 years older than Stonehenge. And like when you are looking for your own shoes, they only found one of the pair…….

Shoe design seems to have improved somewhat as this shoe was merely leather wrapped around the foot, however it was shaped to the foot to provide some support and protection (pictured below). While this is the oldest shoe found, there have been shoes found in other regions from similar times which showed the style of shoe varied depending on where in the world you were.

Pinhasi R, Gasparian B, Areshian G, Zardaryan D, Smith A, et al. (2010) First Direct Evidence of Chalcolithic Footwear from the Near Eastern Highlands. PLoS ONE 5(6): e10984.

And my weirdest science study of the year:

1. Bust a Move – The science of male dancing. Every weekend guys are in bars and clubs hoping to attract ladies with their dance moves. Now scientists have found the sure-fire styles! Using computer-generated models they showed which body movements are associated with female perceptions of quality male dancing.

So why is this important? Well in nature the quality of the courtship display reflects the quality of the animal as a potential mate – animals with better genes or who are stronger will normally have a better courtship display. And in this case, humans may very well be the same. The scientists filmed male dance moves and found that there were 11 moves in particular which were thought of by women as a good dance move. Even better, they found that the speed of movement of the right knee, and the amount of movement of the body and neck were the key parts which split good dancers from bad.

What does that all mean? Watch these videos to find out!

“Good” dancing

“Bad” dancing

You can definitely list me under “Bad”.

Courtesy of the Australian Science Media Centre

Links to the studies:












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