Explainer: 2009 Weird Science Awards

  • Image: A stash of cannabis found in the 2,700-year-old grave.
    David Potter  /  Oxford University Press

    Far out, man! The top vote-getter in the 2009 Weird Science Awards is the story about the 2,700-year-old marijuana stash. Archaeologists found the still-green plant material in a grave uncovered in China's Gobi Desert. They believe that the marijuana was buried along with an ancient shaman as a mark of high respect. And speaking of "high" ... lab tests showed that the once-potent pot had lost its psychoactive effect over the centuries. Click "Next" to see the nine other Weird award-winners, and click on the highlighted links to learn more.

  • Centuries-old jokes live on


    Did you hear the one about the guy who complained that the slave he was sold had died? The other guy says, "When he was with me, he never did any such thing!" That joke, found in a 1,600-year-old Greek manuscript, sounds very much like the Monty Python comedy troupe's "dead parrot" sketch. The dead-slave tale and other ancient gags were revived onstage recently by British comedian Jim Bowen, just to prove that old jokes (unlike old parrots) never die.

  • Shark's virgin birth confirmed

    Image: A blacktip shark
    AP file

    It may sound sacrilegious, but scientists used DNA tests to prove that the progeny of a female Atlantic blacktip shark was conceived without the aid of a male. This is the second documented case of asexual reproduction, or parthenogenesis, in a shark species. Aptly enough, the "virgin birth" took place at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.

  • Fame for four-eared feline

    Image: Yoda -The Four Eared Cat
    Fame Pictures

    A cat named Yoda made a big splash during the summer of 2008, thanks to his crazy kitty ears. He was born with an extra set of outer ear flaps, or pinnae, and once the photo was posted on the Internet ... well, the rest is hiss-tory. "For the past few days, our phone has just been ringing off the hook," said Ted Rock, Yoda's owner. The trait is rare among mammals, but not all that rare.

  • Scientists create mind reader

    Image: Letters and reconstructions

    What are you thinking? Japanese researchers say they've developed a system for figuring out what your brain is visualizing. In one experiment, they flashed letters on a screen, recorded the brain patterns of people who were looking at the screen, and fed the data into a computer. The software deciphered the rough shapes of the letters: N-E-U-R-O-N, as shown in the lower row of this image. (Neuron is the name of the journal in which the research was published.) The researchers said the technology could be used as communication for people who cannot speak, or help visualize hallucinations as an aid for medical treatment. Theoretically, the contraption could reveal what you're thinking about, or dreaming about. Is that totally weird ... or totally scary?

  • Tree shrew is world-class boozer

    A pen-tailed tree shrew with a radio collar. Credit: Annette Zitzmann
    Annette Zitzmann

    This is one party animal that can really hold its liquor: Researchers have found that the Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew subsists on a diet roughly equivalent to 100 percent beer, drinking up the fermented nectar of the flower buds of the bertam palm plant. The nectar's alcohol content can go as high as 3.8 percent, but the animals never show signs of getting drunk. "If we can figure out why these animals are able to cope with it perhaps it could be used to develop medicines to help people deal with alcohol poisoning," the University of Bayreuth's Frank Wiens said.

  • Real-life Furbys rediscovered

    Image: Pygmy tarsier
    Texas A&M

    Tarsiers are weird-looking primates found in Southeast Asia, and the weirdest species in the bunch is the pygmy tarsier. These critters are native to the highlands of an Indonesian island, but were thought to be extinct for decades. In 2008, researchers finally tracked live specimens of the pygmy tarsier, which looks like a living version of the Furby electronic toy.

  • Penguin gets a wetsuit

    Image: Pierre the Penguin
    Eric Risberg  /  AP

    You'd think a penguin would be used to being cold and wet — but when you're getting old and your butt is bald, even penguins need a little high-tech help. So biologists and dive-gear specialists created a custom-made wetsuit for Pierre, a 25-year-old African penguin at the California Academy of Sciences. Now Pierre is the coolest bird in the pool.

  • Scientists breed see-through fish

    Image: See-through fish
    Richard White / Children's Hospital Boston

    Why would you ever want to breed zebrafish that display their insides for all to see? See-through fish may sound like novelty pets, but they're really designed to show researchers how cancer spreads — and how it can be treated — in not-so-transparent human beings.

  • Bigfoot is just a gorilla suit

    Was the Bigfoot mystery finally solved? For a while, two Georgia law-enforcement officers really stirred up a buzz with claims that they had a genuine man-ape on ice ... but their frozen specimen turned out to be a rubber gorilla suit.

    Click here for the 2008 Weird Science Awards


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