Wild Ideas: Weird science  

I’m always fascinated with the Bizarro World aspects of science. With the cold weather recently making outdoor adventures less appealing, I decided this was a good time to catch up on some of the weirder science stories that have landed in my inbox recently, including those below.

“The brain grows new cells and then quickly kills some of them off in a type of neuron slaughter.” By Pam Owen

Weirdness motherload: In a recent googling adventure, I was pleased to find a website that was right up my alley — LiveScience. In a December article, science writer Laura Geggel listed her picks of the 10 strangest science stories of 2017, a year “brimming with strange science news.” Some are stranger than others, but here’s a sampling (for more details, visit the website):

  • Are our brains neuron killers? “It may sound strange, but when humans learn, the brain grows new cells and then quickly kills some of them off in a type of neuron slaughter.” That’s one explanation offered on why our brains tend to swell and shrink, according to the website. This housecleaning could just be the brain’s way of making room for new knowledge.
  • A Swedish Viking warrior turns out to be female, raising questions about the role of women in a society that “has historically been thought of as a testosterone-fueled, patriarchal culture.”
  • “Moscow Mule” cocktails drunk from copper-lined mugs, as they are traditionally served, can potentially cause copper poisoning from the mineral being leached out from the high-acidity ingredients — vodka, squeezed limes, ginger beer (and ice cubes).
  • Two physicists walked into a bar . . . No, that’s another story. Two physicists discovered that two tiny particles, called “bottom quarks,” theoretically could fuse together to make a powerful flash. This discovery was so scary to the scientists that they almost didn’t reveal their findings. Why scary? “This ‘quarksplosion’ would be more powerful than the nuclear fusion reactions that take place in the cores of hydrogen bombs.”
  • Remember the “butterfly effect” — the theory that small causes could have larger effects? Scientists think a volcanic eruption in ancient Egyptian could have disrupted weather patterns, which led to fewer crops, which led to famine, which initiated “ a societal unraveling that led to the Ptolemaic dynasty’s eventual collapse.”
  • The “world’s deepest living predator,” a lizard fish (Bathysaurus ferox) — named for its toothy, lizard-like face — was unexpectedly caught in a fisherman’s net off the coast of Australia. The vessel’s onboard communicator described it in a blog post: “This terrifying terror of the deep is largely made up of a mouth and hinged teeth, so once it has you in its jaws, there is no escape: The more you struggle, the farther into its mouth you go.”
  • A disgusting mass of solid waste called a “fatberg” plugged up a London sewer. The largest ever found there, it blocked 820 feet of Victorian sewage pipe and weighed an estimated 143 tons. The good news is that it will be converted into about 2,643 gallons of biodiesel. This phenomenon is not exclusive to the UK. As reported by USA Today, Baltimore had to deal with a fatberg it its sewers last September, and more reports of fatbergs emerged elsewhere last year.
  • More blobs— in this case, jelly-like and about a yard long — were spotted off the western coast of Norway. Not fatbergs, these could be egg masses or . . . ? Scientists were left “scratching their heads” on this one. (Check another article at LiveScience, about bizarre things that have washed up on beaches.)

Dumpster cuisine: A Smithsonian article recently considered the time-honored question, “Would you eat food made with ‘trash’?” The quotation marks around “trash” are key here. Apparently, this refers to food that has not made its way to a dumpster, and yes, there apparently is a market for this: “An increasing number of food companies are using food normally destined for the dumpster, and a new study shows eco-minded consumers don’t mind a bit.” With rising concerns about wasting food, such “value-added surplus” — the term researchers used for foods normally destined for the dumpster — has become more acceptable.

Will dumpster diving for a meal may become a thing of the past as companies repurpose unused food as “value-added surplus”? By Sascha Kohlmann via Wikimedia

And companies have taken advantage of this shift in the public’s consciousness, according to the article: Misfit Juicery, based in Washington, D.C., sells cold-pressed juices made from “aesthetically flawed” product and the trimmed parts of cut up fruits and vegetables, Britain’s Toast Ale brews beer from surplus bread and a Dutch company makes heat-and-eat soups from surplus veggies.

Companies looking to repurpose foods that would otherwise go to waste — often for merely cosmetic reasons — can face technical or regulatory challenges, according to the article. With the changing perception about food “trash,” though, more companies are likely to jump onboard this waste-saving train.

Shapeshifting tissue: Science magazine reports that researchers have harnessed living tissues that fold to create a variety of inanimate objects, including bowls, coils and ripples. The researchers start with plugs of cells from mouse-embryo tissue that contains cell layers that either stretch or pinch together. A combination of both layers causes the tissue to bend inward like a bow. The researchers used a 3D printer and their knowledge of how the cell plugs would bend to shape them in a culture dish filled with a structural support naturally secreted by cells in the body. The goal here is apparently not to open a Pottery Barn stocked with living pots, according to the report: “Eventually, researchers hope to use this strategy to engineer more natural tissues and organs able to replace those in lost in people because of age or disease.”

© 2018 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”