Strange Science News So Far This Year

July 24, 2012

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Not all scientific advances are groundbreaking -- or even practical. Here we look at the many odd, funny and creative breakthroughs from the first half of 2012.

The first six months of 2012 have provided us with numerous examples of innovation and breakthroughs in scientific discovery, although not every discovery has the potential to transform humankind. Here we look at some of the more offbeat scientific advances reported so far this year.

Dogs Reduce Job Stress

Having dogs around the workplace may contribute to employee performance and satisfaction. A recent study from Virginia Commonwealth University found that employees who brought their dogs to work experienced lower stress levels throughout the workday, reported higher levels of job satisfaction and had a more positive perception of their employer. In a study conducted over the span of a week at North Carolina-based dinnerware manufacturer Replacements, Ltd., 76 of the company’s workers were broken down into three groups: 18 dog owners who brought their dogs to the office each day; 38 employees who owned dogs but did not bring them to the office; and 19 employees who didn't own pets. The preliminary findings, published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management, indicated that “the workers accompanied by their dogs reported the lowest amount of stress at all points in the workday,” in addition to other benefits, including increased productivity, higher employee morale and increased co-worker cooperation, Inc.com explains.

Credit: mmagallan/stock.xchng

Bragging Feels Good

Why do we talk about ourselves so much? According to a recent paper by Harvard University researchers, it’s because people’s brains consider self-disclosure to be a rewarding experience. Based on a series of experiments that used methods from neuroscience and cognitive psychology (brain imaging and behavioral experiments), the neuroscientists found that we spend 40 percent of our everyday speech telling people about ourselves, and how we think and feel – whether in personal conversations or through social media. The findings, published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, indicate that the act of disclosing information about oneself activates the same sensation of pleasure in the brain that we get from eating food, getting money or having sex. In other words, the reason people use Facebook and Twitter to tell you about what they’re eating for lunch is because it feels good to do so.

Mermaids Don’t Exist

Last month, the National Ocean Service published an unexpected statement on its website saying that “aquatic humanoids” – or mermaids – don’t exist. According to the government agency – part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – which usually focuses on real ocean phenomena, there is no evidence that the legendary “half-human, half-fish sirens of the sea” have ever lived. “We had gotten a couple of questions about mermaids recently,” a spokeswoman for the NOAA told CNN, saying the timing may have been due to a recent documentary-style film on Animal Planet. The closest we'll get to a real-life mermaid, apparently.

Mars Robots Found Signs of Life in 1976

In 1976, NASA launched the Viking program, sending space probes to Mars to determine whether there was life there. Decades after analysis of data from soil samples obtained by the Viking probes concluded there was no life on the Red Planet, new research has shown that the first analysis was flawed. Moreover, the team of researchers who analyzed the 36-year-old data concluded they have found evidence of life on Mars, Discovery News reports. “Mathematical analysis of the samples concluded that salts in the soil on Mars ‘threw off’ initial estimates – and that the soil samples show strong evidence of microbial life,” the Daily Mail reports. The research was published in the International Journal of Aeronautical and Space Sciences.

Each Viking spacecraft had two parts: an orbiter (top left) and a lander (bottom left). After orbiting Mars and scouting for landing sites, the orbiter and lander would separate. Then the lander, protected from intense heat by an "aeroshell," would parachute to a safe landing (right). Credit: NASA

Dinosaur Flatulence May Have Warmed Earth

Sauropods, or large plant-eating dinosaurs, may have contributed to prehistoric climate change simply by passing gas, according to a (greatly exaggerated) study published in the journal Current Biology. The researchers found that the greenhouse gas methane produced by all sauropods across the globe would have been about 520 million tons per year, comparable to total modern methane emissions currently produced by both natural and man-made sources. “A simple mathematical model suggests that the microbes living in sauropod dinosaurs may have produced enough methane to have an important effect on the Mesozoic climate,” study leader Dave Wilkinson, of Liverpool John Moores University, said in an announcement of the findings. “Indeed, our calculations suggest that these dinosaurs could have produced more methane than all modern sources.” Related: Engineering technology reveals how plant-eating dinosaurs fed.

Newly Discovered World’s Tiniest Fly is Also Horrifying

“A new fly discovered in Thailand is the world’s smallest. It is five times smaller than a fruit fly and tinier than a grain of salt (0.4 millimeters) in length – half the size of the smallest ‘no see-ums,’” LiveScience reported earlier this month. “It probably also feeds on tiny ants, likely decapitating them and using their head casings as its home.” The discovery is detailed in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America.

This is a reconstruction of the tiny phorid fly Euryplatea nanaknihali, with body size compared with a house fly (Musca domestica). Credit: Inna-Marie Strazhnik

Calculating the Cost of the Death Star

How much would the Death Star, perhaps science-fiction’s most iconic space weapon, cost to build? According to calculations done by Centives, a blog run by economics students at Lehigh University, constructing Darth Vader’s planet-destroying mega-weapon would cost $852 quadrillion – or “roughly 13,000 times the world’s GDP” for the necessary steel alone. In fact, it would require so much steel, it would take 833,315 years to produce it.

The Death Star would require so much steel to build. Credit: Wookieepedia

What the Higgs Boson Sounds Like

On July 4, while the rest of us were eating hotdogs and watching fireworks, physicists representing the Large Hadron Collider’s two biggest experiments – ATLAS and CMS – announced the discovery of a subatomic particle that’s consistent with the Higgs boson, the long-sought sub-atomic particle thought to endow all other particles with mass. The moment the CERN scientists announced the discovery of a Higgs-like particle, researchers at the pan-European GÉANT network set to “sonifying” the latest batch of collider data, making it possible to “hear” the newly discovered particle. Discovery News describes it as “a melody which resembles the dotted rhythm of the habanera, a Cuban dance which became popular in Spain in the early 19th century.”

Batman's Cape Unsafe for Landing

A group of physics students at the University of Leicester say that Batman would likely suffer serious injuries if he tried to fly using his cape. Based on a December 2011 study titled Trajectory of a Falling Batman, Wired, The Telegraph and BBC News this month reported that the students calculated the 15.4-foot wingspan of the Dark Knight’s memory-cloth cape – which becomes rigid when exposed to an electric current – would allow him to glide from the top of a 492-foot building for about 1,148 feet, but that his velocity would increase to around 50 mph as he tried to land. At these high speeds, any impact would likely be severely damaging, if not fatal. The students concluded that Batman needs a much wider cape or a parachute.

Batman gliding at a constant angle with respect to his direction of travel. Credit: Journal of Special Physics Topics (University of Leicester')

Interstellar Travel at Least 200 Years Away

According to a research paper on interstellar travel, recently published by the International Astronautical Federation, the earliest that humans will be boarding a spaceship and star-hopping “is probably in about 200 years,” The Atlantic reports. “Could be as soon as 2106. Could be as far off as 4220. Hard to say really!”

Credit: Marc G. Millis/International Astronautical Federation

 

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