The weirdest things we learned this week: virgin births, composted humans, and naked South Pole scientists
Our editors scrounged up some truly bizarre facts.
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, Anchor, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every 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.
Fact: You can now (legally) compost a human
By Eleanor Cummins
For years, activists in Seattle, Washington lobbied for the right to compost humans. Instead of preserving your dead body with toxic chemicals or cremating it in one last giant poof of carbon, Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose argued we should instead turn ourselves into life-giving soil. Unfortunately, that wasn’t exactly legal—a lot of things you could potentially do with dead bodies aren’t. But in May 2019, the Washington state legislature made headlines around the world when it legalized the process. Come May of 2020, you, too, can be composted. Hurrah!
That doesn’t mean all our pressing decomp questions are answered. The company’s website has many serene renderings of what this facility would look like—a lot of plants and sun-drenched reflection spaces and honeycomb containers full of dead people. But how the process actually works is unclear. (Something about a steel vessel and unnamed microbes.) If we look at the way composting other forms has worked in the past, we turn up the biggest question of all: What will they do with dem dry bones?
Fact: Virgin births happen surprisingly often
By Rachel Feltman
It’s a tale as old as time: Boy meets girl, boy and girl make babies, boy goes away, girl just keeps having babies, sperm-be-damned. Parthenogenesis is rare, but well documented in reptiles and fish: female animals that are designed to reproduce sexually can, in some cases, create offspring that are basically their own clones. Most of the cases that make headlines are in snakes and sharks, because they’re frequently kept in captivity. If a snake spends a solid chunk of her reproductive years in a tank alone—or with only other female snakes—she’s probably much more likely to pull the parthenogenesis move than she would be in the wild.
The evolutionary benefit of this is pretty clear once you think about it. If resources are scarce and the population drops, parthenogenesis can help the species squeeze out one more generation in the hope of outlasting environmental hardships. The lack of genetic diversity can become a problem given more than one generation of this sort of propagation, but it serves animals just fine as a stop-gap. There are weird twists on this method, too, like the “kleptogenetic” salamanders that steal genes from other species instead of using the more traditional form of sex cell combination. And if a truly parthenogenetic birth is too much work, some animals can simply store sperm for years and years at a time, using it only when resources are favorable for their future pups. In 2015, a captive shark in California set a sperm storage record of 45 months.
So could a so-called virgin birth occur in humans? True parthenogenesis has never been recorded in a mammal, and when our sex cells try to turn into embryos without outside assistance things very quickly go awry. But in at least one case that we know of, that sort of process did help make a baby. Listen to this week’s episode to hear more about this strange case study.
Scientists are working to turn stem cells into sperms and eggs, which could theoretically allow two same-sex to have a biological child together. They’ve already done the deed in mice!
Fact: Researchers at the South Pole sprint naked through 24 time zones in the dead of the Antarctic winter
By Alex Schwartz
Here’s some very chilling information about what life is like at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. On the surface, Antarctica seems like a very tame continent sprinkled with groups of scientists diligently carrying out experiments—and penguins. But there’s also some pretty weird stuff going on down there: rocket-powered planes, underground neutrino detectors, and ATMs at the edge of the world, just to name a few.
But one of the strangest things in Antarctica is a ritual of sorts called the 300 Club, where presumably very bored scientists experience a temperature change of 300 degrees by sitting in a sauna… and then stepping outside. Okay, not just stepping: they make a run 100-yard run in temperatures of -100F or colder (and that’s before wind chill) to circle the ceremonial South Pole, crossing through all 24 timezones in the process. They only wear snow boots, because sweat from the sauna would make any underwear freeze right to their skin. Dangerous? Definitely. Stupid? Probably. Delightful? Well, it certainly delighted us. Check out this week’s episode to hear more about the researchers who make this daring run—and what can happen to their nipples in the process.
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