Top 10 weird science stories of 2018

  Last updated December 19, 2018 at 1:21 pm


There was no shortage of weird and wonderful science in 2018 – octopuses were high on ecstasy, a billionaire shot a car into space, scientists injected memories between sea snails and someone started a petition to drink the ‘mummy juice’ found in a 2,000-year-old sarcophagus.

Starman on his way to Mars. Credit: SpaceX

Scientists gave octopuses ecstasy and they started hugging

In a classic piece of “who funded this?” science, in September we learned that US scientists had been dosing-up a species of solitary, asocial octopus – Octopus bimaculoides – with MDMA, then watching the critters get all touchy-feely. The loved-up cephalopods spent more time socialising and even went in for an eight-armed hug, which is very unusual in sober octopuses. This endearing behaviour was caused by serotonin, the neurotransmitter that floods our own brains when we take ecstasy, said the authors. So why did they do it? To show that octopuses and humans have the same system that allows serotonin to control social behaviour, despite being separated by more than 500 million years of evolution – something the scientists suspected after studying the octopus’ genes.

Read the story on Scimex

Billionaire Elon Musk fired his car into space

The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket went off without a hitch in February. It made the news partly because of the successful launch, but mainly because the rocket company’s owner, eccentric billionaire Elon Musk, had strapped his US$100,000 Tesla Roadster car to the rocket’s second stage. The sports car, manned by a dummy driver in a spacesuit dubbed ‘Starman’, was equipped with a stereo blaring David Bowie, a friendly reminder “Don’t panic!” stamped on the dashboard, cameras to capture its initial trip through space, and a label stating the car was “made on Earth by humans”. SpaceX aimed the car at Mars, niftily proving its rockets are capable of delivering payloads to the red planet.

The 10 best photographs from the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch

You can see follow Starman’s journey here.

We learned that cat poo might help make you an entrepreneur – seriously!

Clearing out that litter tray can seem like a serious downside to cat ownership, but In July, international scientists revealed that kitty crap could help turn you into a fat cat. Their research found that people infected with a parasite found in feline faeces called Toxoplasma gondii are more entrepreneurial and less fearful of failure when launching a new business. The parasite infects an estimated 2 billion people worldwide and has previously been linked to a host of behaviours, from wreckless driving to suicide. The scientists even showed that, in countries such as Australia with low rates of T. gondii, fewer people intend to start their own business.

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Ouch-choo! A man ripped a hole in his throat when he tried to suppress a sneeze

In January we learned you should definitely never suppress a sneeze, when it was reported that a British man had managed to rip a hole in his throat while attempting to hold one in by pinching his nose and clamping his mouth shut. The unfortunate sneeze suppressor ruptured the soft tissue at the back of his throat, leaving him barely able to speak or swallow, and in considerable pain. He reported hearing pops and crackles as he breathed and air passed through the puncture. Happily, after a spell in hospital, he made a full recovery. While the condition is extremely rare, the message is clear – sneeze loud and proud!

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People wanted to drink the ‘mummy juice’ from an Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus

Would you scull a mysterious, festering red liquid found by archaeologists when they cracked open a huge, black Ancient Egyptian sarcophagus? Thought not, but in July, that’s exactly what some people petitioned the Egyptian authorities to allow them to do.  A petition was set up asking to “let people drink the red liquid from the dark sarcophagus”, a petition that has attracted more than 34,000 signatures so far, despite expert assertions that the liquid is mainly sewage. The gigantic, 2,000-year-old sarcophagus was unearthed in Alexandria and was found buried with a giant white alabaster head, leading some to speculate that opening it could unleash a mummy’s curse. On opening it, researchers found three mummies stewing in a red liquid, and Egyptian archaeologist Mostafa Waziri told the press: “The sarcophagus has been opened, but we have not been hit by a curse.”

You can sign up to drink the mummy juice here

We learned that frisky wombats love a bit of bum biting, and how they poop cubes (but sorry, they’re not connected)

In May, a study by Aussie researchers burrowed into the sex life of the southern hairy-nosed wombat, revealing some salacious secrets, including the cuddly critters’ penchant for a spot of bum biting when in the mood for love. The researchers found that females pee less, pace more and bite males on the bum more often during their most fertile phase, all valuable intel when you’re trying to breed wombats in captivity. Then, the iconic Aussie animals hit the headlines again in November, when US scientists attempted to answer one of nature’s greatest enduring mysteries – how do wombats poop cubes? The researchers said wombats have especially stretchy insides, allowing neat cubes to form just before exiting their wombasses. And as for why they do it, cubic poo stays put, rather than rolling away, allowing the short-sighted marsupials to stack their business high as a signal to other wombats.

Read the wombat sex secrets story on Scimex here and the cubed poop story here

In a mollusc mind meld, scientists injected memories between sea snails

In May, we were introduced to a whole new form of snail mail when US scientists said they’d successfully transferred memories between two sea snails by injecting genetic material called RNA from a trained snail into an untrained animal. The trained snail (Aplysia californica) had been sensitised to having its tail shocked with electricity, triggering an involuntary defensive reflex. When RNA was removed from the trained snail and injected into another, untrained, snail, it reacted to a tail-tazing in the same way, and brain cells associated with the reflex action were activated. The researchers said their findings support recent theories suggesting memory storage may involve changes in gene activity induced by RNA.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic genius was explained by his wonky eye

Could Leonardo da Vinci’s artistic genius all come down to his wonky eye? That was the theory put forward by a UK researcher in October. His analysis of six pictures and sculptures portraying the great artist and inventor suggested Leonardo may have had a condition called exotropia – a misalignment of the eyes that causes them to look outward (the opposite of being cross-eyed). This could have given him the ability to suppress the vision from one eye, leading to an extraordinary ability to depict three-dimensional reality on a two-dimensional canvas, and perhaps explains why his landscapes have such depth. If that suggestion leaves you wide-eyed in disbelief, Leonardo is not the first celebrated artist thought to have suffered from eye misalignment – Rembrandt, Degas and Picasso are believed to have had wonky eyes too.

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‘Yanny’ or ‘Laurel’ was 2018’s ‘The Dress’

Remember the dress that split us into ‘gold and white’ or ‘blue and black’ camps back in 2016? Well May 2018 brought its own equivalent when an audio clip of a single word which sounded like ‘Yanny’ to some web users, but like ‘Laurel’ to many others, started doing the rounds on social media, and splitting the internet. Experts explained that whether we heard ‘Yanny’ or ‘Laurel’ came down to how our hearing degrades as we age, which makes it harder for older people to pick up high frequency sounds. Younger people with intact high frequency hearing were more likely to hear ‘Yanny’, while older people were more likely to hear ‘Laurel’, because the recorded clip, which was a simulated rather than a real voice, was made up of both high and low frequency sound.

Make your own mind up here

Mexican soccer fans’ World Cup jump for joy caused a mini earthquake

Forget ‘Mexican jumping beans’, this year was all about ‘Mexican jumping beings’ as boisterous, bouncing Mexican soccer fans caused enough ruckus to trigger sensitive earthquake detectors at two locations in Mexico City during their team’s World Cup match against reigning champions Germany. In a move that surely rivals the more conventional Mexican wave and should have had the Germans quaking in their boots, the triumphant tremors, labelled ‘artificial’ quakes by Mexico’s Institute of Geological and Atmospheric Investigations, were picked up in the game’s 35th minute, when winger Hirving Lozano scored a goal. Mexico went on to beat Germany 1-0, but don’t jump to the conclusion that they won the cup – that honour went to France.

Visit the website of the Mexican Institute of Geological and Atmospheric Investigations

About the Author

Joseph Milton
Joe Milton is an evolutionary biologist who, after studying the evolution of plants for ten years at various Scottish universities, made a move into journalism. Since then he has written for the Financial Times, Nature and New Scientist, among others. Joe joined the London Science Media Centre in 2010, where he was Senior Press Officer for Mental Health, before taking up the position of Senior Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre in July 2012.

Published By

The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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