The Weirdest Scientific Papers Ever Published

As part of my tour of the weirdest areas of science to write articles for TimeBlimp, I come across some really strange research papers.  While 99% of scientific publications have extremely dry, unappealing titles, the weird 1% make it all worthwhile.  Here I’ll collect the best of the best (and incidentally, recycle some material that I had to read anyway into a brand new article.  Efficiency!).


Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation  (Dacke et al, Current Biology, February 2013)

I came across this topic while researching a new article on Unusual Communication in Animals (to hopefully appear later this century, if all goes well).  Lots of animals use the sun for navigating their environment, a fair amount use the moon, but this particular animal senses the entire galaxy to help it navigate around at night.  Did I find it particularly funny because of the mention of poop?  You betcha.  And speaking of…

Dogs are Sensitive to Small Variations of the Earth’s Magnetic Field   (Hart et al, Frontiers in Zoology 2013)

Sounds a little odd, but not outlandish, right?  After all, it’s fairly common knowledge that some animals are able to sense electromagnetic fields.  But that’s not what makes this paper weird — this is the landmark study that showed that dogs prefer to poop with their bodies aligned with the Earth’s magnetic field.  Yes, dogs use their extraordinary magnetic sense, a sensory experience we can only dream of, to decide where to poop.  Though I gotta admit, once you try it, you’ll never drop a deuce the same way again.

SARS — a clue to its origins?   (Wickramasinghe,  Lancet, May 2003)

One of several oddball papers from the majestic collaboration between Chandra Wickramasinghe and Fred Hoyle, centered around the idea that microbial life on Earth sometimes comes from space.  For another good one in this arena, check out Francis Crick’s paper on directed panspermia, the concept of alien beings intentionally seeding Earth with life.  I found this while researching weird ways humans have attempted communication with aliens — shameless plug, that article ends with the strangest scientific experiment discussed anywhere on this blog.

IRAS-based whole-sky upper limit on Dyson spheres   (Carrigan,  Astrophysics 2009)

So you’re pretty handy with tools, eh?  Built a nice shed in the back yard, eh?  When you’re ready to step up to the next level, try building yourself a Dyson Sphere — a gigantic artificial shell that surrounds an entire star, harvesting all solar energy emitted by the star to power your advanced civilization.  Of course, it might be handy to look for other Dyson Spheres out there in the galaxy to copy ideas from.  So you probably want to check out this paper describing a sky-wide search for signs of Dyson Spheres built by alien civilizations.

Is bacteriophage phi X174 DNA a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence?  (Yokoo et al,  Icarus  1979)

Do I even need a descriptive blurb here?  Why haven’t you clicked that link yet?

The Wow! Signal of the Terrestrial Genetic Code  (shCherbak et al,  Icarus 2013)

So let’s say alien civilizations somehow had something to do with the origin of life on Earth — where would they have left behind some signature of their handiwork?  A giant obelisk in the desert?  A black, featureless rectangle orbiting Jupiter?  Maybe.  But we should also check our own genome first.

New Dark Matter Detectors using DNA for Nanometer Tracking   (Drukier et al, 2012)

Physicists propose the existence of something called “dark matter”, a new form of matter made of we don’t know what yet.  Not knowing what it is makes it particularly hard to catch a sample of it for testing.  So what device can we use to catch a dark matter particle?   Well, off the top of my head, howbout a giant tangle of DNA molecules?

Ultrasonic Velocity in Cheddar Cheese as Affected by Temperature  (Mulet et al, Journal of Food Science, July 2006)

OK, I admit to hearing about this one from another “weirdest papers ever published” list.  But “ultrasonic cheddar” is so funny that it makes the list, and also will be the middle name of my firstborn.

“OK kids, we have three Dakota’s in the class this year, so we’re going to add their middle names to tell them apart.  We have Dakota Madyson, Dakota Ultrasonic Cheddar, and…  hmm, we have two kids named Dakota Ultrasonic Cheddar?  OK, the next tiebreaker will be the names of your parents’ science-related blogs…”

50-kHz chirping (laughter?) in response to conditioned and unconditioned tickle-induced reward in rats: effects of social housing and genetic variables.  (Panksepp et al, Behavioural Brain Research, 2000)

Rats giggle when you tickle them.  And they laugh in ultrasound.  I mean, so what if my job is to tickle the bellies of lab rats while holding up little high-frequency microphones to them?  I don’t know why tickling rats for science has to be considered weird…   Also check out ‘Laughing rats are the evolutionary antecedent of human joy?‘, and also (one that has my favorite figure of all time) ‘Laughing Rats Are Optimistic‘. Perhaps not antecedent, but I certainly am getting some joy out of knowing there’s a small percentage of lab rats whose lives are not entirely awful.

The Late Time Behavior of False Vacuum Decay: Implications for Cosmology and Metastable Inflating States and a String Landscape  (Krauss et al, Phys Rev Letters, 2008)

Have you ever left a drink in the freezer too long, and it was right on the cusp of freezing but not quite, and as soon as you disturbed it the liquid rapidly turned to slush?  (Nice party trick to do this to someone else’s beer by tapping yours on the top of the bottle.)  It’s as though the drink wanted to freeze but couldn’t — it’s in a “metastable” state, a temporarily stable physical state that collapses on the first disturbance to a more stable state (ice).  Now imagine the supercooled beer is the entire universe, and the slush-inducing perturbation is humans observing the universe.  This paper poses the question of what if the entire universe is in some fragile temporarily-stable quantum state, and we knock it out of that state by observing it?  And hence destroy the universe?   Makes me want to drink a beer or ten…

Is the normal heart rate chaotic due to respiration?  (Chaos, 2009)

OK, not as baroque as the speed of sound in cheese — this one’s more for the conoisseurs of chaos.  Specificially, a sighting of chaos and nonlinear dynamics in nature!  For such a fascinating topic that has been proposed as a driving force behind the universe, it’s awfully hard to find explicit examples of chaotic dynamics in nature.  Well, here’s one!  Our heart beats at a regular rate, we breathe at a regular rate, and these rates don’t necessarily harmonize with each other.  Could it induce chaotic behavior in our heartbeat?  Also check out signs of nonlinear dynamics in planetary orbits, and in plant leaf respiration.

On the Dynamical Stability of the Solar System  (Batygin et al, The Astrophysical Journal, 2008)

Every so often, it’s a good idea to check on aspects of your life you might usually take for granted.  How’s my credit rating doing?  Is the carbon monoxide detector still working?  Oh, and is Earth going to continue orbiting the sun for the foreseeable future?   Because gravitational forces among any more than two objects orbiting each other can become chaotic and unpredictable, the astrophysicist authors of this paper decided to double-check whether our Solar System will keep on truckin’ like usual, or if it will fly apart at some point.  Fortunately it looks like Earth is safe until the sun reaches its red-giant phase, but I wouldn’t recommend buying real estate on Mercury in the next 1 gigayear or so.

Galactic Neutrino Communication   (Learned et al,  Physics Letters B, 2009)

OK, aliens communicating via DNA, that’s ludicrous!  Let’s stay firmly on solid ground by considering how aliens might use neutrinos instead.  You know, neutrinos — the elementary particle that interacts so rarely with any other matter that astronomers have managed to catch just a handful from the trillions that are streaming straight through the earth (and you) right now?  Might be a little problem getting good reception — can you imagine the size of the rabbit-ears anntenae we’re going to need?

Why Boltzmann Brains are Bad   (Carroll, 2017)

I know they’re bad, but they’re so tasty!  No wonder I can’t get back down to my grad-school weight.  To help work off those extra pounds, let’s take a stroll down a long chain of logic.  In physics, there are events that are impossible, and events that are so unlikely that they’re effectively impossible.  Entropy spontaneously decreasing isn’t strictly impossible — for example, all the air molecules in your room could spontaneously move to one side, leaving a deadly vacuum on the other side.  Or a deck of cards could be shuffled back into perfect numerical order.  Obviously, the next logical step is that a conscious being could spontaneously form all by itself from the nothingness of space — such a being is called a “Boltzmann Brain”.  They’re extremely unlikely, but if the universe lasts long enough, they’re bound to happen.  Indeed if the universe lasts long enough, they’ll become the most common conscious beings in the universe, far outnumbering us “ordinary” life forms.  Hell, how do we know we aren’t Boltzmann Brains ourselves?  If we were, we’d immediately have to doubt all our scientific evidence and reasoning, as we’re just a random fluctuation, doomed to disappear soon back into the void.  So any cosmological theory that predicts a relatively long lifetime to the universe, hence predicts Boltzman Babies are extremely common, would paradoxically suggest we shouldn’t trust our theories anymore.  According to Carroll, the “theories that predict [Boltzmann Babies] are cognitively unstable: they cannot simultaneously be true and justifiably believed.”

Wow, that was a helluva long trek!  Man, my calves are burning…

Rat Navigation Guided By Remote Control   (Talwar et al, Nature 2002)

Ah, now we’re back to familiar scientific territory — while not exactly a relief, seeing this kind of research is certainly more to-be-expected than Tickling Rats For Science.  And this one’s easier to explain — simply put, these researchers can remotely control where a rat walks via a (probably unwieldy and painful) brain implant.  Cleverly, they don’t override the rats’ cortical motor functions to make them walk (primarily because we don’t understand how to do that).  Instead they stimulate the right brain center to simulate a tap on the cheek, then train the rat to turn toward whichever cheek was tapped.

Adaptive flight control with living neuronal networks on microelectrode arrays   (DeMarse et al, IEEE Joint Conf Neural Networks, 2005)

In the first step toward building a hyper-intelligent evil brain in a vat that will destroy the planet, these researchers trained a small network of living neurons how to play Flight Simulator.  I prefer to think they gave the little dollop of neurons some tiny aviator sunglasses to wear.

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