10 Oddball Questions Scientists Have Genuinely Tried to Answer

Not just adorable, no: Pandas are bacteria factories whose gut flora can reduce kitchen waste by 90 percent!
Not just adorable, no: Pandas are bacteria factories whose gut flora can reduce kitchen waste by 90 percent!
Keren Su/Getty Images

On its good days, science is incredible, enlightening and amazingly informative. On its bad days, science is gross, disturbing and downright bizarre. We had to sift through some pretty murky waters to compile this list of odd questions science has tried to answer. Talk about typing a word into the Google machine for perfectly innocent reasons and getting completely perturbing results for your efforts.

Diamonds concocted from tequila, panda poop used as compost, uncontrollable coffee mugs, strangely swishy ponytails and the brain activity of dead salmon were some of the tame ones. Once we hit "how to make sure a patient receiving a colonoscopy doesn't explode" we were ready to call it a day.

And yet we persevered, sorting through all the gory consequences of these ill-advised searches just for you. Here's what came out of that shudder-inducing process.

Does the way you stand affect your ability to estimate?
Don't stand like the Leaning Tower if you're trying to estimate how tall the Leaning Tower is. You'll be wrong.
Don't stand like the Leaning Tower if you're trying to estimate how tall the Leaning Tower is. You'll be wrong.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images

If you're leaning a little to the left, you're also probably going to be a little on the low side when it comes to guesstimating all sorts of approximations. Whether that's how many people live in a certain city, how much alcohol is in a particular bottle of booze, how many top-10 hits a band has released or how tall a specific building is -- if you're tilted slightly to the left, that number is more likely to be less than what it really should be [source: Eerland].

Participants in a study at Erasumus University Rotterdam didn't even know they were tilted during the experiment. But with a tad tip to the right, the numbers were higher, and with a little lean to the left the opposite was true. Interestingly, the difference between when people were leaning right versus standing upright wasn't significant – perhaps because all the participants were right-handed. We need more science, stat!

If you name a cow, are you going to get more milk?
She looks like an Amber to us.
She looks like an Amber to us.

It might not be all in a name, per se, but one study came to the conclusion that when stock managers know all the cows in a herd individually, the amount of milk those better-beloved cows can crank out is quite a bit higher. It came to about 68 gallons (258 liters) more a year, based on a survey of 516 stock managers on U.K. dairy farms [source: Bertenshaw, Rowlinson].

There are still some causation and correlation questions to be pondered regarding this conclusion, and more fieldwork to be done to verify the results. But if your preferred milk of choice comes from a cow who's a happy camper, you've probably got a lot more of it coming your way.

Why don't pregnant ladies tip over?
That's a lot to manage.
That's a lot to manage.

It's the sort of question a child wonders out loud – usually very loud – in line at the grocery store, much to the horror of mom or dad. Still, how do pregnant women manage to haul their baby-filled bellies around without falling over?

Well, science is here to inform you, in the form of a study published in the journal Nature. Ladies can do something fancy with their backbones that men can't – they can compact the vertebrae in their lumbar area more easily. That means the bones in their lower backs are shaped more like wedges than those of males. So as women become increasingly pregnant, they can rock back on their spines to support and balance the additional weight [source: Whitcome]. Good thing too, for our species, don't you think?

How much wood could a woodchuck chuck?
The groundhog, aka woodchuck, which does not actually like to eat wood.
The groundhog, aka woodchuck, which does not actually like to eat wood.

Woodchucks aren't actually fond of wood (well, of eating it anyway – they might get all Bob Ross if they tried painting happy little trees) so their reputation for "chucking" isn't particularly accurate. But, if a woodchuck were so inclined, what would his rate of his fibrous chomping be?

Answer: 22.0859393 cubic inches (361.9237001 cubic centimeters) of wood per day. Yep. You heard it here first. An average of 22 cubic inches met a grisly fate each day researchers plunked a piece of lumber into a hungry woodchuck's enclosure [source: Scientopia]. The little groundhogs subjected to this culinary madness had a limited menu during the 12-day study (a two-by-four a day keeps the doctor away) so luckily the study was wrapped up pretty rapidly. And oddly decisively.

This study was so improbable that it made its way into the world in the Annals of Improbable Research.

Are cabbies' brains better than the rest of ours?
Your hippocampus is how big?!
Your hippocampus is how big?!

Thanks to everything from bad weather to cranky passengers, driving a cab must be challenging under the best of conditions. That could make driving a cab in a metropolitan labyrinth of lousy street planning an absolute nightmare. So how do taxi drivers manage it? By expanding pertinent parts of their minds.

London cab drivers have to pass some rigorous exams to command one of the cabs that dots London thoroughfares. Some of the memory-storing parts of the drivers who pass are more developed than those of the drivers who fail, says a five-year study conducted at University College London. The hippocampi of the successful sedan savants grew decidedly more developed in certain respects than those of us who simply push the peddles to get to the nearest grocery store [source: Jabr].

Can you make a bra that works as a gas mask?

You can! One for you and one for the person sitting next to you. Just be sure you put your C-cup on before assisting other passengers. As silly as this sounds, though, the reason behind the research is much more sobering. After the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, people could have been spared from exposure to large quantities of iodine-131 (a source of radiation sickness) if they had had fast access to gas masks [source: Daily Mail].

So since most ladies don said lingerie on a daily basis, arming them with bras that could double as lifesaving devices made practical sense. And it's not just nuclear fallout that could make these underwear oddities marketable products – there are lots of life-threatening scenarios in which a bugged-out bra could come in handy in a pinch. In pretty much any situation where air quality is seriously compromised, these babies will be there for the win.

Is it possible to take blink-free photos?
There's always one ... Or is there?
There's always one ... Or is there?

If you're looking to capture a photo of a group of people in which everyone has their eyes open, you're probably going to be snapping more than one shot in order to hedge your bets. Every family has a couple of chronic blinkers, after all.

So how many should be necessary? According to an equation laid out by two Australian researchers, for low-light photos of less than 20 people, you need to divide the number of people by two and take that many pictures to guarantee that one will have all eyes open. If the photo is taken in a well-lit setting, you can get by with dividing the number of people by three. Factors in the equation apart from the number of people and the lighting conditions are the shutter speed and blink frequency [source: Cheung].

Do chickens prefer hot humans?
They like bad boys, too.
They like bad boys, too.
David De Lossy/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Calm down. Chickens aren't about to throw us on a barbeque. It's not that kind of hot. They might, however, critique us in what would have to be the world's most awkward swimsuit competition.

It seems that chickens, like college students, tend to prefer the smoking hot among us. (Or at least the most desirable composite facial images researchers in Stockholm could cook up.) According to what one study found, the chickens' preference for the most attractive faces was overwhelming. We can't know for sure whether the chickens were really jazzed about the computer-generated faces they viewed, but it might be a good idea to fancy up the next time you set out to plunder a chicken coop. It's only fair [source: Ghirlanda].

If you hear yourself talking, will you want to shut up?

Yes. Apparently, hearing your own voice delayed and repeated back by even just few hundred milliseconds is enough to drive even the chattiest person more than a little bit nuts.

A device invented by the Japanese duo Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada – the SpeechJammer – creates what is called delayed auditory feedback. It has a few uses (and most could be perfectly useful in business settings, for example) but the really delicious fun has to be the possibility of infuriating raucous people in quiet places. Whether that person is close to you or far from you, you can adjust the settings to dial up the annoyance factor to mega-obnoxious – just like them!

Is it better to be hit with a full beer bottle or an empty one?
Better weapon full or empty?
Better weapon full or empty?

The answer to this question really should be "neither." It's better to avoid getting hit in the head with a beer bottle altogether. But assuming that's just not possible, would it be better to get clunked over the head by a full beer bottle or one that's already been emptied?

Well, according to research published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, you've got a couple of things to consider. First of all, full beer bottles will break with 25 percent less force than empty beer bottles. Unfortunately, though, full beer bottles are strong enough to crack your dome. They break more easily, but they pack 70 percent more striking force [sources: Troop, Bollinger].

So perhaps what it really comes down to is, do you feel luckier chancing a sharp trauma (from broken glass) or a blunt trauma (from unbroken glass), or do you want to go for broke and try to see your brains (which could happen either way)? Not great options all around, unless you're the zombie sitting off in the corner. He's seriously hoping for option three.


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Author's Note: 10 Oddball Questions Scientists Have Genuinely Tried to Answer

Writing this article was a lot of fun because zany, weird and nonsensical science is as hilarious as it is absurd. And, at times, surprisingly useful. Kudos all around, Science People, kudos.

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