Breaking News Emails
Last year's doomsday hype was a hard act to follow, but when it comes to weird science, there's still plenty to choose from for the 2014 Weird Science Awards.
For example, there's another look at kinky bat sex. There's another doomsday worry, this time having to do with actual particle physics. And we'll always have Bigfoot to kick around.
Here's your chance to pick the weirdest research of the past year. We've put together 10 categories to choose from — and if you're not satisfied with our top 10, feel free to cast a write-in vote. We'll celebrate the No. 1 Weirdy during a "Virtually Speaking Science" chat with Ig Nobel impresario Marc Abrahams at 8 p.m. ET Friday.
May the weirdest science win!
Bat bizarreness: Four years ago, we learned that female fruit bats engaged in oral sex to prolong the reproductive act. This year scientists reported that male bats reciprocate. And if that's not kinky enough for you, researchers also determined that bat tongues have erectile tissue. It may sound as if those researchers have a bat fetish, but their interest isn't merely prurient: The structure of those tricky tongues could someday be adapted to create softer, more flexible surgical tools. Oh, myyy!
Real-life vampires ... and their graves: Speaking of bats, 2014 was a banner year for vampires — and not just because the complete "Twilight" saga came out on DVD. "Dateline NBC" ran an expose about the blood-sucking vampire underground, and Turkish doctors reported the chilling case of a 23-year-old man who became addicted to drinking blood, Meanwhile, in Poland, archaeologists unearthed a set of graves containing skeletons and strangely severed heads. The head-chopping strategy was apparently aimed at making sure that the dead stayed dead.
Monster DNA analyzed: Geneticist Bryan Sykes claims to have solved the mystery surrounding sightings of the Himalayas' "Abominable Snowmen," also known as Yeti monsters. Sykes analyzed traces of DNA recovered from hairs linked to two Yeti specimens from India and Bhutan, and found that both sets matched the genetic signature of an ancient polar bear jawbone found in the Norwegian Arctic. If it turns out that the Yeti was actually some kind of snow bear, at least one monster myth could be put to rest. But never fear, cryptozoologists: You'll always have Bigfoot. One researcher claimed that DNA extracted from purported Bigfoot mucus, hair and other icky stuff came from a weird hominid hybrid, but it's more probably a case of contamination. And in case you're a believer, another researcher mapped the best places for Bigfoot sightings.
Scatological scares: In the "news that makes you go eww" department, it's hard to beat the penis-snatching scare that swept through the Central African Republic. It turns out that this particular phobia about disappearing genitals is a long-recognized, "culture-bound" disorder known as koro. Are toilet ghosts also in the medical manuals? In June, thousands of workers at a garment factory in Bangladesh rioted over the purported presence of an unfriendly ghost in the women's restroom. The factory's owners decided to fight superstition with superstition — by conducting an exorcism. Meanwhile, in London's sewers, authorities confronted a true toilet menace: a 15-ton "fatberg" composed of wet wipes and slime.
Drugged-out mummies: Studies of South American mummies revealed that booze, drugs and far-out smokes were, if anything, more prevalent in ancient societies than they are today. An analysis of hair samples from scores of Chilean mummies turned up high concentrations of nicotine, which was used for medicinal and hallucinogenic purposes across all social strata. A similar analysis of Inca child mummies in Peru showed that they were drugged with coca and beer for up to a year ... before they were ritually sacrificed.
Belly-button brie and other human cheeses: This was a big year for research into the human microbiome — the community of thousands of kinds of microbes that inhabit our body and play an indispensable role in digestion. It may sound icky, but fecal transplants are on the rise as a way to get a misaligned microbiome back on the right track. And if you're really into icky science, you'll love the selection of cheeses created using bacteria from belly buttons, toes, noses and mouths. "This isn't cheese for eating, but for thinking," says artist-biologist Christina Agapakis. I'm thinking that I'll take a pass on the cheese plate.
The science of sea monsters: When it comes to marine science, 2013 was the Year of the Oarfish. Specimens of the elusive deep-sea creature washed ashore in California not just once, but twice. Necropsies conducted at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that those oarfish were "majorly parasitized fish," with oodles of tapeworms in their guts. Some wondered whether the oarfish appearances signaled an imminent earthquake, but the Big One didn't come. Meanwhile, in Spain, the washed-up carcass of a different "sea serpent" was identified as the remains of a thresher shark.
Subatomic doomsday looms:The panics over the Maya calendar's apocalypse and the Large Hadron Collider's world-gobbling black holes have died down, but cooler-headed scientists say doomsday is probably not a question of "if" but "when." Fortunately, that "when" is likely to be tens of billions of years away. In February, physicists said the characteristics of the recently found Higgs boson suggest the universe will end in a fast-spreading bubble of doom. Months later, theorists proposed that eventually we'll either fall prey to the killer bubble or turn into disembodied brains, depending on the mass of the top quark.
How beer goggles work: It's been scientifically proven that the potential targets of romantic ardor look better and better as more beers are imbibed. But does that "beer goggle" effect apply to the imbiber's self-image as well? Ohio State University psychologist Brad Bushman and his colleagues found that it does. Their study, titled "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder," earned the researchers an Ig Nobel Prize.
Swarmageddon: The advance reports made it sound as if this year's East Coast cicada outbreak would be bigger than "Sharknado" — and the emergence of the flying, buzzing bugs after 17 years of underground dormancy was certainly worth watching, even if it wasn't quite as widespread or as disruptive as some folks expected. Navy researchers are still trying to figure out how the cicadas create their 100-decibel din, in hopes of adapting the trick for underwater communication. If you didn't get a chance to try out your cicada recipes during 2013's Swarmageddon, keep them handy: The next cicada invasions are due to sweep over the Midwest as well as Louisiana and Mississippi in 2014.
Rounding out the weird 20: Looking for more weirdness? Here are 10 more weird tales from the past year:
- Dung beetles guided by Milky Way
- Cat DNA solves homicide (but cat spy fails)
- Rat spotted on Mars (and an iguana, too)
- Scientists say Lego toys are getting grumpier
- Cockroaches swear off sweets (and survive the cold)
- Ants use math to find fastest routes
- Bees get a kick from caffeine
- How did dinosaurs 'do it'? Very carefully
- Termites make weird circles (so do pufferfish)
- Amazon caterpillar sports Donald Trump combover
Wonderful world of Weirdies: