Road rage—and parking spot envy—can reveal a lot about how humans tick

Plus other weird things we learned this week.

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits Apple, Spotify, YouTube, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

Heads up: Rachel and Jess are planning a livestream Q&A in the near future, as well as other fun bonus content! Follow Rachel on Patreon and Jess on Twitch to stay up to date. 

FACT: Parking says a lot about who we are as a society

By Amanda Reed 

My partner recently read a really interesting book—“Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World” by Henry Grabar—and told me all me about it over dinner and NA beers. It turns out people go cuckoo bananas as soon as they step into a vehicle and try to park, and there’s lots to unpack.

There are social and psychological reasons behind parking and road rage. Many rules of the road are self-imposed. (e.g., “The left lane is the passing lane, don’t hog it up”). People get angry when they see other people not doing this “socially acceptable” thing and take it upon themselves to correct the other person—sometimes in violent ways. 

Parking theorist Sarah Marusek says that parking follows what she calls “frontier law,” where people find a public spot and claim it as theirs a la the 1800s. They don’t need to do that, however: There are between 1-2 billion parking spaces in the US. A study of 27 mixed-use neighborhoods found that parking was over-supplied by 65 percent. Neighborhoods with resident-reported “parking shortages” were still oversupplied by 45 percent.

Drivers are pretty much toddlers who don’t want to share their pencil for fear of losing it and never getting it back, despite there being plenty of other pencils in this world. We as a society struggle with sharing and being inconvenienced, which we see in everyday life through so many things, like the response to COVID-19, college debt relief, healthcare … and now, parking. 

FACT: Some penguins take 10,000 naps a day

By Rachel Feltman

As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, sleep is both very mysterious and very important. All animals do it—even ones without brains or central nervous systems (I’m looking at you, jellyfish). And many single-celled organisms have circadian rhythms, meaning they have biological functions that follow roughly 24-hour cycles. 

We know sleep is essential, but we don’t know exactly what it does or how it evolved. One way we can start to learn more about snoozing is to look at how other animals do it, since most of the really robust research we have is on primates and rodents. 

That’s where a recent study on chinstrap penguins comes in. Researchers found that these flightless birds in Antarctica get about 11 hours of sleep a day, which doesn’t sound all that remarkable at face value. But the real kicker is how they get it: in increments of roughly four seconds

Scientists hung out with a colony of thousands of breeding chinstrap penguins, keeping close tabs on 14 of them in particular. From the outside, it seemed like the penguins were doing the sort of slow blinking and head jerking you’d expect from sleep-deprived new parents. We already know that these animals spend weeks hardly sleeping to protect their nests from predators and other penguins looking to steal pebbles or eggs, with parents trading off time spent either hunting or guarding. The researchers had to attach electrodes to the birds to even tell they were sleeping at all. But they were: all those little blinks and head nods were brief periods of sleep. They did this about 10,000 times a day, adding up to an apparently sufficient 11 hours. 

Listen to this week’s episode to hear more about the study—and what it means (and doesn’t mean) for humans who rely on micronaps to get by. Plus: Some bonus fun facts on other strange animal sleeping habits

FACT: This medieval torture device was actually a myth

By Jess Boddy

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about iron maidens lately. Not the band, but the legendary torture device of yore. They were (supposedly) these giant, human-sized cabinets with spikes on the inside. You open it up, put in the torturee, and close it. Ouch!!

What got me thinking about iron maidens, you ask? Well, Resident Evil 4 did, of course. The enemies called iron maidens in that game are some of the most terrifying in any horror game that I’ve ever played. But it turns out, “real life” iron maidens were probably just as fictional as the ones in RE4. 

After 18th-century German philosopher Johann Philipp Siebenkees proposed the idea of iron maidens being used for torture, the idea spread like wildfire in the 1800s. Victorian era folks kept pointing the finger at the Medieval era folks before them, saying they were the barbarians who used these spiky cabinets (among other devices, including chastity belts) to torture ne’er do wells. But this seems to be a classic case of juicy gossip and well-crafted misinformation trumping good sense. Listen to the episode to hear all about how the iron maiden myth began (it involves a barrel of shame!), proliferated, and eventually got debunked.