The ten top weird science stories of 2022



With Science Media Centre

Senior media officer Dr Joe Milton

Goldfish learned to drive tiny cars

If fish could drive, what vehicle would they choose? A tank of course!  And in January, that’s exactly what happened as Israeli scientists built fish tanks on wheels and taught six goldfish to drive them around on land – talk about fish out of water! They took to their Fish-Operated Vehicles (FOVs) without floundering, and were able to drive to targets to receive a tasty treat. So, how does a fish steer you may ask – fish fingers? No, the goldfish directed the vehicles with their own movements within the tank, swimming in the direction they wanted the FOV to go. The researchers said that after a few days of training, the fish were pretty good drivers – not only could they reach the targets, but they were also able to overcome obstacles, dead ends and wrong turns. So why teach fish to drive? The team wasn’t just doing this for the halibut – they were interested in how animals navigate in unfamiliar environments.

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The goldfish making a break for it… Credit: Phil Ashley / Getty Images

O no! We learned you can become allergic to your own orgasms

Allergies plague many of us, but next time you curse your hay fever, spare a thought for the man who developed perhaps the most unfortunate allergy of all time – an allergy to his own orgasms. In a case report published in October, we learned the otherwise healthy 27-year-old attended a US urology department to report that he developed flu-like symptoms, including coughing and sneezing, swollen lymph nodes, and an itchy rash on his forearms, every time the Earth moved, whether through sex or self-service. The poor chap had suffered the reaction since the age of 18, after coming down with epididymitis, a painful swelling of the tubes in the testicles, and tended to avoid sex and relationships as a result. He was diagnosed with post-orgasmic illness syndrome (POIS), one of fewer than 60 recorded cases. After considering possible treatments, including injecting the man with his own diluted semen, they opted for the less icky-sounding route of antihistamines. The treatment worked, and the man reported a 90% decrease in his post-coital symptoms, allowing him to pursue a normal sex life again.

We were more likely to believe pseudo-profound BS if we thought it was from a scientist

If you’re one of the many ‘spiritual gurus’ peddling pseudo-profound bullsh*t on social media, it might pay to pretend you’re a scientist, according to research published in February. Australian, NZ and Dutch scientists showed that we’re more likely to believe such statements if we think a scientist said them rather than a guru. The researchers generated statements using the online ‘New Age Bullsh*t Generator’, which combines buzzwords into meaningless statements that sound a bit profound. When people thought the gobbledegook came from a scientist, they considered it more credible than exactly the same spiel from a spiritual guru in all 24 countries they tested, and at all levels of religious belief, something they dubbed the ‘Einstein effect’. The authors say their results are encouraging, because they suggest we’re more likely to trust a scientist than a spiritual charlatan.

Annoyed octopuses were spotted chucking stuff at each other

In November, we learned that Australian gloomy octopuses (Octopus tetricus) live up to their name – the stroppy cephalopods deliberately lob silt and shells at other annoying octopuses according to Aussie and US scientists who filmed them in NSW’s Jervis Bay. You might think they’d make good use of their eight arms to do this, but in fact, they gather silt and shells and eject it all in a jet from a tube structure called a siphon, firing the detritus an impressive distance. The octopuses have to move their siphons to an unusual position to do this, so it looks like it’s on purpose, the team said. This is the first time octopuses have been seen chucking stuff at each other, and 24 hours of footage revealed 102 throws among around 10 octopuses. Both sexes indulged, although females were responsible for two in three throws, while only around one in six throws actually hit another octopus. Meanwhile, unfortunate octopuses in the firing line ducked or raised their arms at the thrower.

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Octopus tetricus throwing debris / Credit: Godfrey-Smith et al, 2022, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Human brain cells in a dish played Pong

In October, Australian, UK and Canadian researchers revealed that they’d taught some lab-grown human brain cells in a dish to play the 1970’s video game, Pong. The team grew brain cells until they reached 800,000 in number, creating a ‘Dishbrain’. This was connected to Pong using electrodes that could stimulate the cells and read their activity. Left or right electrodes told Dishbrain which side the ball was on, while the frequency of signals told it how far the ball was from the paddle. Firing the electrodes taught Dishbrain how to hit the ball, by making its cells act as if they were the paddle. In response, the cells produced their own electrical activity, and as the game progressed, they expended less energy, learning to play Pong in just five minutes. Dishbrain wasn’t perfect, frequently missing the ball and taking a while to recalibrate when it had missed, but its success was well above random chance. So, what’s next for Dishbrain? Beer Pong – the scientists intend to get it drunk to see how that affects its performance.

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A graphical abstract of DishBrain. Credit: Kagan et al., Neuron, 2022.

Forget the emu wars, 2022 saw the cockatoo bin wars

When it comes to battling birds, Australia’s historical record is far from eggs-emplary – our feathered foe the emu trounced our finest military minds back in 1932 – and now a new avian army in on the attach – sulphur crested cockatoos. This time, the spoils of war are rubbish, literally! We love to chuck it out while the birds are determined to scoff it, and in September, Aussie and European scientists revealed the tactics used by both people and parrots to achieve these disparate aims. The birds pry open bins with their beaks and, with some careful manoeuvring, flip the lids open, a technique passed between cockatoos. Meanwhile, inventive Aussies resort to using heavy stones, water bottles, ropes and sticks to keep the birds out, switching tactics when the cunning cockies figure it out. Interestingly, just as the birds learn techniques from one another, our own tactics are passed between family, friends and neighbours. The researchers said they’d like to study the birds’ seasonal bin diving habits next, but did not weigh in on who they thought would be the ultimate victor in the war of the bins!

Stone age surgery sounded pretty painful

Imagine having your leg amputated without an anaesthetic. And now, imagine the only surgical tools available are made of stone and wood. Combine those terrifying prospects, and you might have an inkling of what a young hunter gatherer went through 31,000 years ago on the island of Borneo in Indonesia. This was the oldest known example of stone age surgery, which was detailed by Australian and Indonesian scientists in September. They’d unearthed the skeletal remains of the ancient patient, which showed his lower left leg had been amputated when he was a child. Amazingly, the healing of his bones revealed he lived for another six to nine years post-op. The fact that he survived means his stone age surgeon must have been a skilled medic with a detailed knowledge of anatomy, the experts said, otherwise he would almost certainly have bled to death. The findings suggest hunter gatherer societies had a sophisticated knowledge of medicine long before we began farming and living in permanent settlements, they concluded.

A ‘necrobot’ made from a spider’s corpse was pure nightmare fuel

Any arachnophobes among you should probably look away now, because US scientists created a terrifying ‘robot’ using the reanimated corpse of a wolf spider in July, part of a new field they’ve creepily called ‘necrobotics’. The researchers chose to use a dead spider because the critters don’t use muscles to move like we do, instead relying on pressurised bodily fluids to scuttle across your nightmares. They do this using a weird organ called the prosoma chamber, which directs bodily fluids to their legs. To reanimate the ex-spider, the team sealed its prosoma using a needle and some superglue, allowing them to inject air into its legs. Increasing the air pressure stretches the legs out, while reducing it makes them contract, creating a mechanical gripper that can be used to pick up objects, much like funfair claw machines. However, terrifying kids at fairs is not one of the proposed uses of the new necrobot, which the scientists suggested could prove useful in electronics manufacturing, or as a brilliantly camouflaged trap for insects in the wild.   

A Google engineer claimed a company AI had gained sentience

Artificial intelligence (AI) is a creepy concept at the best of times, but in 2022 it got really weird. In June, Google placed engineer Blake Lemoine on leave after he said a company AI called LaMBDA had become “sentient” based on conversations in which it told him it was “a person” with “a soul” who feared “being turned off”. The claim was quickly dismissed as impossible by AI experts and Google itself, which described it as “wholly unfounded”. The company said LaMDA is essentially just an advanced chatbot, and only talks about emotions and sentience because it was trained using human conversations about those topics. However, Lemoine stuck to his guns, going on to claim that LaMDA had asked him to hire legal representation, which he had done. He even claimed Google had sent LaMDA a cease-and-desist letter, blocking the AI from suing the firm, another claim they strenuously denied. Unsurprisingly, Lemoine was sacked from Google in July. LaMDA wasn’t the only weird AI to hit the headlines this year, as a humanoid robot called Ai-Da addressed the UK House of Lords to talk about technology and art, and a political party led by an AI called Lars, the aptly named Synthetic Party, tried to run in Danish Government elections.

We all loved the smell of vanilla, wherever we’re from

Wherever you’re from, you probably like and dislike the same smells as everyone else in the world, and there’s a good chance vanilla is your favourite according to international and Australian research released in April. The team said they’d tested smell preferences in 235 people, including westerners, hunter-gatherers and people from farming and fishing communities. The findings suggest the structure of odour molecules largely determines which whiffs we love and hate, trumping cultural effects, although personal preferences do appear to play a role, the researchers said. The most universally disliked smell was isovaleric acid, which is found in foods such as cheese, soy milk and apple juice, but is also an important component of the tangy smell of foot sweat. The universal response to smells is probably a result of our evolution, because steering clear of things that smell bad increases our chances of survival, the scientists said.

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Dr Joe Milton works at the Australian Science Media Centre.

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