11 Strange Science Lessons We Learned This Summer

In vitro meat? Teeth grown from urine? Screaming rocks and singing bats? It’s all real science from the summer of 2013

Are test-tube burgers transformative science?
Are test-tube burgers transformative science? Photo courtesy of the Cultured Beef Project

A few days ago, scientists in London unveiled the first lab-grown burger created from stem cells taken from the muscle tissue of cow. The small strips of synthetic meat were collected into pellets and ultimately shaped into the hamburger patty rolled out before the cameras.

Although food critics on hand agreed that the burger felt like real meat in their mouths and tasted okay, most of the coverage of the event came with a heavy dose of snark, usually accompanied with shots of people chomping on big, thick, juicy burgers straight from the cow.

But there was science behind it all–with the research funded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was motivated to help find more imaginative and planet-friendly ways to produce food. As he put it, “If what you’re doing is not seen by some people as science fiction, it’s probably not transformative enough.”

This summer has been full of stories like that, where on the surface the science may seem strange, but it’s spurred by innovative thinking that finds out something new about the world or may make a difference in the way we live some day. Here are 10 more of them:

1) So much for minty breath: Last week, Chinese scientists shared the latest example of why science often isn’t pretty. They reported that they’ve been able to grow rudimentary teeth from human urine. Technically, they transplanted stem cells from urine into mice and those cells were able to grow into knobby things resembling teeth–they had pulp, dentin and enamel-forming cells. While they were only about a third as hard as the real thing, one day, as the researchers wrote in the journal Cell Regeneration, dentists may be able to plant little buds in your jaw that started out in urine.

2) I love the sound of slot machines in the morning. It sounds like…winning: And scientists from the University of Waterloo in Canada say that based on their analysis, the cacophony emanating from slot machines not only makes gambling more exciting, but it also can cause gamblers to think they’ve won more times than they actually have. All that noise, the scientists suggested, can make losses feel like wins.

3) How else would we show how big was the one that got away?: One of the highlights of the annual meeting of the Society for Experimental Biology in Spain last month was the presentation of Cornell University Andrew Bass, who contends that talking with our hands may have its roots in fish. That’s right, fish. Bass, aptly named, said his research indicates that the evolutionary origins of the link between speech and gesturing can be traced to a compartment in a fish’s brain. And that part of its brain, notes Bass, allows a fish to vocalize and gesture with its pectoral fins simultaneously.

4) When rocks scream: Who knew that volcanoes “scream” before they erupt? Okay, it’s not a blood-curdling wail–more like a harmonic vibration–but in some cases, such as Alaska’s Redoubt Volcano, the mountain makes a sound so loud it can actually be heard by humans. A study published in July says that in Redoubt’s case, the sound–high-pitched and increasing in volume–is produced by a succession of small earthquakes caused by quick movements of magma pushed by building pressure before an eruption.

5) I’m too sexy for this cave: While we’re on the subject of nature noise, give props to the male bat. It apparently is quite the romantic singer, according to research by Texas A&M biology professor Mike Smotherman, at least when it comes to enticing a mate. In short, a male bat needs to cut to the chase–he has less than a second to grab a female’s attention as she flies by at 30 feet per second. If he gets her to stop by, he then mixes up his songs to keep her entertained long enough to get to the matter at hand.

6) They need to listen to some slot machines: A Duke University study of chimps and bonobos not only found that apes are quick to throw tantrums when things don’t go as expected, but that they can become particularly agitated when they gamble and lose. In one part of the research, the apes could choose to accept a very small portion of food or wait longer for a larger serving of a meal they weren’t able to see. If the gamble paid off, the apes were able to chow down on a large helping of their favorite fruit. But if it didn’t work and they ended with a big heaping of something like cucumbers, they flipped out, or tried to switch their choice at the last minute. The researchers also found that chimps were both more willing to wait for food and much bigger gamblers than the bonobos.

7) But wait until they get a load of their first kangaroo: Okay, go with me on this: If Martians did exist and if they wanted to take a getaway vacation, but to a place that still felt a little like home, they would head to the Australian outback. So says University of Sydney geologist Patrice Rey, who believes that the red dirt in the central part of the continent might be very much like what’s found on Mars. He has researched why precious opal can be found all over the place there, but hardly anywhere else on Earth, and believes that it started forming when a giant sea that covered much of Australia began drying out about 100 million years ago–conditions similar to those seen on the surface of Mars.

8) The first nano smile: Scientists at Georgia Tech have recreated the world’s most famous painting–the Mona Lisa–on the world’s smallest canvas–a surface about one-third the width of a human hair. The nano-art, titled “Mini Lisa,” is meant to demonstrate a technique in which an atomic force microscope is used to vary the surface concentration of molecules. Da Vinci the scientist would be thrilled, da Vinci the artist, not so much.

9) Show me you care: Humans have much more positive feelings about a robot that cares for them than one they have to take care of. According to a study by an international team of scientists, people think a robot that seems to look out for them is smarter and more human than one that appears to need help. The researchers say this helps them better understand how to get humans to trust robots.

10) When there aren’t enough brains to go around: And finally, researchers using a zombie-themed game found that people under pressure tend to make dumb decisions when evacuating a building. In fact, the more pressure players were under, the more likely they were stick to evacuation routes they knew, even if they meant it took longer for them to escape. The study, reported last month, was part of real science incorporated into a ZombieLab event held at London’s Science Museum earlier this year.

Video bonus: Here’s a clip of the taste test of the first in vitro burger. And an animation that explains how a cow’s muscle tissue grows into a burger, although it sure doesn’t make it very appetizing.

Video bonus bonus: And here’s a look at how science and zombies mix.

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