The Year in Weird Science

Ten of the weirdest stories to come out of 1999.

By William R. Corlis|Saturday, January 01, 2000
BRAIN DRAIN:

If you are slothful, your IQ will suffer. That is the conclusion of Siegfried Lehrl, a German researcher who has analyzed 35 years of hospital data. In an October issue of Oslo’s Aftenposten, Lehrl claimed three weeks of mental inactivity can cause an IQ loss of 20 points and a noticeable shrinkage of vocabulary. Worse, he suggests that full recoveries from extended periods of inactivity are unlikely.


INFRARED BANDAIDS:

Astronauts must be careful shaving because nicks and other minor wounds do not heal well in space. For unknown reasons, the mitochondria that power cells work poorly in zero-gravity. But last September Harry Whelan, a neurologist at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, reported that radiating the mitochonidria with infrared light prompts them to go back to work. He is testing infrared –emitting LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes)to help the astronauts heal in orbit.

MYSTERIOUS PLANET:

A third of the 82 best-studied comets plunge into the inner solar system from a narrow belt in the sky. Something focuses them. In an October issue of Science, J. Matese and D. Whitmire at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette theorized that the comets are concentrated there by the long-sought-for Planet X, orbiting the sun within the Oort Cloud of comets at 25,000 times the Earth’s distance from the sun. They calculate that Planet X is several times larger than Jupiter, which would give it a gravitational field powerful enough to snare passing comets and fling them sunward in a narrow swath.

DREAM DEPRIVATION:

Observation of REMs (Rapid Eye Movements) during periods of sleep suggest that dolphins and whales are the only mammals, other than the primitive echidnas, that do not dream. Moreover, L.M. Mukhametov, who heads a research group in Russia, reported last September that a dolphin he’s studied spends 42.4% of its time in half-brain sleep, always keeping one hemisphere awake to watch for danger.

MOOD SHADOW:

Of the 65 moons in the solar system, ours is the only one that produces total eclipses of the sun. Is it only coincidence that the earth is also the only planet bearing intelligent life? Perhaps not. In the June issue of Astronomy & Physics, Gillermo Gonzalez of the University of Washington, Seattle, suggested this happens because a moon large enough to blot out the sun also stabilizes its planet’s rotation, preventing wild swings of climate and allowing advanced life forms to evolve. This may also explain why we have yet to encounter intelligent extraterrestrial visitors.


ELECTRIC GENES:

The long strings of DNA certainly look like wires. Surprisingly, Jacqueline Barton and CalTech colleagues have shown that they actually do carry electricity. In a TK-DATE issue of Chemistry & Biology, they speculate that DNA may be an information superhighway that carries signals between genes located along the wire-like molecule. In this way, genes that are far apart can turn one another on and off.


HEAVY WEATHER:

The amount of carbon locked up in rocks is 600 times that in today’s atmosphere, biosphere and hydrosphere combined. Where did this extra carbon come from? In the January issue of the journal Paleo, David Deming, a geophysicist at the University of Oklahoma theorized that a rain of carbon-bearing comets over billions of years was the source. He also suggested that the water present in cometary ice may have filled the Earth’s oceans and affected the pace of life’s evolution on Earth.


FINICKY BEARS:

A study released last January revealed that in 1998 bears at Yosemite National Park clawed their way into 1103 automobiles searching for food. The total damage: $634,595. Rangers observed that bears have special techniques for each type of car and pass their wisdom on to their cubs. A favorite ploy is to insert their claws just above a rear side door and rip the door frame out. Next, they claw through the back seat into the trunk where food has been stored. Based on availability and ease of entry, bears prefer Hondas. Toyotas come a close second.


ACCIDENTAL ANTIFREEZE:

Antarctic cod prosper in frigid waters because their blood contains glycoproteins that act like antifreeze. In a September issue of Nature, Chi-Hing Cheng, at the University of Illinois, Urbana, speculated that a “lucky” mutation apparently happened when the fish’s genetic machinery “stuttered.” A protein normally used in digestion was mistakenly converted into a glycoprotien that permitted the cod to enter a new ecological niche.


KILLER ANGELS:
These tropical beauties are capable of harnessing solar power for murderous ends. Andrew Parker, a researcher at the Australian Museum, revealed last fall that the scales on a species of Amazonian angel fish reflect almost 100% of the sunlight falling on them. The fish use their mirror-like sides in Star Wars-like light fights. They zap their rivals by turning their sides to reflect laser-like beams of bright sunlight at their foes. The intense flashes can burst blood vessels in the eyes of their targets and even cause death.

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