Science’s Silliest Stories – Science Museum Lates

Last week I ran an event at the adult-only Lates event at London’s Science Museum titled Science’s Silliest Stories. In it I told a story of some of the odder pieces of research that have been published recently to draw out some of the more curious sides of scientific research. I really enjoyed the evening. It was great to see friends who came and the audiences seemed to really get into it – perhaps the alcohol helped! Unfortunately I didn’t manage to record it (mainly to show my wife who was away with work), but here is essentially what I said:

Science’s Silliest Stories

Hello and welcome to science’s silliest stories.

In the next 20 minutes or so I will be regaling you with some of the sillier stories from science and scientific research. I’ll take you on a journey through real recent research, from animal sex, penises and vaginas, through to findings about wobbly pregnant women, levitating frogs and cheesy mosquitos. I’ll mention Sarah Palin’s now infamous quote about fruit fly research but hopefully leave you on a positive note that scientists aren’t always out to waste your tax money.

So, where do I start? Well, I’ve always been inherently curious about the world around us and drawn to some of the odder topics in science. I finished a PhD last year on body clocks in a blind fish that lives underground – this is my own foray into silly scientific research, perhaps I’ll speak more about it later.

It’s not just me doing silly science: Here are a selection of science’s silliest stories – here are some of my favourite headlines of real research that has been paid for, conducted, published and accepted into the academic community:
 

Silly science
 

Tonight I’ll concentrate on a few of them to draw out for you what is involved in them and what their results are. But I’ll start with one story in Nature News that recently drew my eye: “How the chicken lost its penis”.

This is the first of a few stories to do with sex. Scientists seem to be obsessed by sex and sex organs. In this particular piece of research, a group of scientists wondered why most bird species (97% of them) don’t have a penis at all. Before I go on, you might be wondering how birds have sex – so here’s a video:
 


 

Female on right, male on left, bit of precopulation pecking going on (to remove rival males’ sperm) and at 0:40, there it is! So, a fairly unique technique.

Chickens reproduce like this too. Why doesn’t the chicken have a penis, what did the researchers find out? The researchers in this study watched a chicken grow inside the egg. As the baby chicken develops they noticed that it starts to grow a penis before it shrinks back into nothing. The baby chicken is thinking, “yes! I’m going to be like all the other animals”, before being disappointed. It’s all to do with a molecule called BMP4 that causes the growing penis to die back. The scientists wrote this up and named the paper “Developmental Basis of Phallus Reduction during Bird Evolution”, which was published this year in a well-respected journal, Current Biology.

This isn’t the end of the bird penis fascination – not my fascination, the researchers! Other research has looked at the duck penises. The duck penis is pretty weird. Their long corkscrew shape is extended in explosive fashion – something that Patricia Brennan has spent a long time studying and published this video as part of a paper in 2009 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. This is a real figure from a real paper and is available online:
 


 

This story isn’t just about penises, it’s about vaginas as well. She noticed that the penis corkscrew is the opposite way round to the corkscrew of the female’s vagina and found that duck species whose males have the longest penises tend to have females with the most elaborate vaginas. She wanted to find out why and so made some equipment to replicate vagina shapes: straight, clockwise corkscrews, anticlockwise corkscrews and short dead end ducts, and in the next video you can see what she does with it:
 


 

The ballistic penis extends quite well into the straight tube, and clockwise tube that matches the shape of the penis, but is slowed right down and blocked in the anticlockwise and blind ended tubes. Work published under the title “Explosive Eversion and Functional Morphology of the Duck Penis Supports Sexual Conflict in Waterfowl Genitalia”.

She’s done some weird stuff and had her staff do some odd things like this unfortunate guy, but her work has shown that duck penises and vaginas and their array of shapes are all to do with an important evolutionary idea known as the battle of the sexes, where females and males evolve slightly differently to maximize their own offspring’s survival – the solutions aren’t always the same. In ducks, males try to mate with as many females as possible, and sometimes force copulation. Females don’t want this because they want to choose the best quality males for their babies, so evolution has led females to limit forced copulation with the elaborate anti clockwise vaginas. This stops the ballistic penis from getting very far. It takes a lot of cooperation and relaxing for a male to properly fertilise a female’s eggs. That story of the chicken penis may be similar – a battle of the sexes has led to the disappearance of penises to limit forced copulation – as you can see, you need two willing parties, and females have the control.

Next story: “Fellatio by Female Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time”. Again I emphasis, this is a real piece of research in a well respected international journal.
 

Figure 2 - Tan et al (2009)
 

This graph is from the paper, where they measure the duration of each copulation and duration of licking, and shows that more licking means longer sex. In fact, each second of licking prolongs copulation by 6 seconds. But the most amusing thing in this piece of research isn’t even the title. It is this video that is attached to the paper and is available online:
 

Bat fellatio – Tan et al. (2009) PLoS One
 

Watching a bat give fellatio is bad enough, but this figure comes with a creepy soundtrack and everything!

These stories caught my eye through their weirdness and appealing headlines. There is a whole award dedicated to this silly research. The IgNobel Awards honor research that makes people laugh, then think. The ‘celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative’ — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

For example: In 2009, the IgNobel prize for Physics was awarded to a group of scientists for answering why don’t pregnant women fall over. Researchers from Harvard University found that curvature of the back allows the women to counterbalance the added weight of the baby. Women also have a few vertebrae in the spine that allow this extra curvature and weight – pretty cool? In 2007, the Aviation prize was awarded for discovering that viagra aids jet lag recovery. This is a particular favourite of mine because it relates back to my research topic. The researchers from the National University in Buenos Aires put hamsters in a room with lights turning on and off once a day like sunrise and sunset. To simulate air travel, they changed the times of the artificial sunrise and sunsets by making them 6 hours earlier, like flying eastwards. Without any drug, the hamsters, like us, took a few days (12 days in fact) to recover a normal daily pattern. With Viagra (technical name sildenafil) they recovered much more quickly (within 8 days), that could be a really significant result if you’re willing to ignore the side effects. But can you imaging asking someone for money to give Viagra to hamsters?

This is great, but why should you care about silly sounding science? To get an idea of this, I have two examples to finish with.

Consider the 2000 IgNobel Physics prize for the magnetic levitation of frogs by Andre Geim and Michael Berry. These two scientists put a live frog in a giant magnet. This is a pretty silly experiment, the sort of thing scientists do at the weekend for fun, but they had the audacity to write it up and were rightly awarded an IgNobel Prize. But, in this example, the kind of curiosity that made him play with floating frogs also lead him to play with stick tape and pencil lead. In 2010 he and his colleague Kostya Novoselov were awarded the (real) Nobel Prize for Physics for discovering an extremely reliable way of producing graphene – possibly one of the most exciting materials of the 21st century.

Another, very recent, example is the story of malaria and cheese. In 2006 an IgNobel prize was awarded to researchers for publishing work in 1996 and 1997 which showed that mosquitos are attracted to the smell of Limburger cheese. They isolated some of the compounds in the cheese that attracted the mosquitos the most, and suggested that the same compounds on human skin may attract mosquitos too. That hypothesis was subsequently shown to be correct, and in work published in 2010 it was shown that the volatile gases produced by bacteria on the skin do attract mosquitos. Last month a paper was published which furthered this result to show that not only does the human and bacteria odour attract mosquitos, but mosquitos carrying the malaria parasite (the mosquitos that could infect you) are attracted even more strongly by this smell. A really quite important result for human medicine was built on silly sounding research.

So, science is about curiosity – a playful exploration of the universe. If you ignore the fancy words, lingo and statistics, scientists are just trying to understand what no one has understood before. That might be stupid on the surface, might lead to some ridiculous experiments and published work, but later on could have practical basis down the line.

I’m preaching to the converted. You’re here in the Science Museum because you’re not opposed to fundamental science – you have an interest. But the next time someone you know laughs at a Metro science article, or jokes about fruit fly research in Paris France, remember this: Science is funny, but it isn’t always daft.
 


References and sources

  1. How the Chicken Lost its Penis
  2. How Chickens Lost Their Penises and Ducks Kept Theirs
  3. Ballistic Penises and Corkscrew Vaginas
  4. Explosive Eversion and Functional Morphology of the Duck Penis Supports Sexual Conflict in Waterfowl Genitalia
  5. Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time
  6. The IgNobel Awards
  7. Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins
  8. Sildenafil Accelerates Re-entrainment of Circadian Rhythms After Advancing Light Schedules
  9. Of Flying Frogs and Levitrons
  10. The Story of Graphene
  11. On Human Odour, Malaria Mosquitoes, and Limburger Cheese
  12. Differential Attraction of Malaria Mosquitoes to Volatile Blends Produced by Human Skin Bacteria
  13. Malaria Infected Mosquitoes Express Enhanced Attraction to Human Odor
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