Bill Nye talks killer clowns, mermaids, pigeon poo, and deadly bicycles

Welcome to The Weirdest Thing I 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, 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. And don’t forget to snag tickets to our next NYC live show on June 14.

This week’s episode features an extra weird, very special guest: Bill Nye the Science Guy. Take a listen below (or wherever you like to get your podcasts) and keep scrolling for more info on some of the stories we shared. And don’t forget to check out Bill’s brand new podcast, Science Rules!

Fact: Your brain can ignore a lot—including a person in a giant gorilla costume directly in front of you.

By Claire Maldarelli

In 1999, two Harvard experimental psychologists—Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris—conducted an experiment that changed the way we think about attention.

In a 40-second-long taped scene, the two researchers placed a group of students in a large room. Half wore white shirts and the other half wore black. The psychologists also gave them a set of basketballs to throw around. Halfway through their play, a person in a gorilla costume walked straight through the ball tossing. Once they reached the middle of the room, right in front of the people passing the balls around, they pounded their chest and looked directly into the camera before slowly walking out of sight. In total, the costumed individual spent a solid nine seconds on camera. You can watch the video here.

Later on, the researchers asked study subjects to watch a video of the scene. At the tape’s onset, they were instructed to count how many times the players wearing white passed the ball around. The video played, balls were tossed, a gorilla walked across and pounded its chest. The screen then posed two questions to the viewers: “How many passes did you count?” (the correct answer was 15) and “Did you see the gorilla?”

Most participants correctly guessed the passes, but just half saw the gorilla. The others were completely shocked.

How can someone fail to notice someone in a gorilla suit walking directly in their line of sight? Surprisingly, it’s pretty easy. This is perhaps the best and most ideal representation of something called inattentional blindness, where the brain fails to notice something that the eye has clearly picked up on. In fact, in later replicate studies and analyses the researchers used eye trackers to follow exactly what the participants were looking at. Their eyes did indeed lock on the gorilla; it’s not as if they were so focused on the balls that they failed to look at the strange interloper. So why did they claim they didn’t see it? That’s because seeing something with your eyes is only half the battle. Your brain must still register, interpret, and remember those signals.

Listen to this week’s episode to see how you could also have missed the giant ape in the room, and what else you’re probably failing to see in everyday life.

Fact: Pigeon droppings helped confirm the existence of The Big Bang

By Bill Nye

Here’s a real weird one for you: when scientists first detected the background radiation left over from The Big Bang, they thought the signal was coming from pigeon droppings scattered over the antenna. You’ve got to scrape a few pigeon poops if you want to solve the mysteries of the cosmos. Now if only some bird excrement could help us figure out what came before The Big Bang. Whoa.

a couple in victorian clothing on an old-fashioned bicycle
This is not the kind of tandem Rachel is riding across California on. Public Domain

Fact: Doctors used to worry that cycling would hurt your heart (and make you ugly)

By Rachel Feltman

I’m about to set out on a 545-mile bike ride for charity, so I’ve been thinking about cycling an awful lot lately. Imagine my delight when, while perusing the very Weirdest-Thing-friendly works of Thomas Morris, I found a story about the physician who thought bikes posed a serious health hazard. At a conference in 1894, George Herschell argued that every cyclist’s heart was a ticking time bomb. He claimed to love the sport himself, but was certain that the craze was causing heart disease. Of races involving hills, he said: “Nothing more suicidal, or more certain to produce heart disease, can possibly be imagined.” He claimed a few moments of over-exertion on a bike would do damage to the heart “from which it perhaps cannot recover.”

His advice? Riders should cease and desist with the cycling as soon as they felt at all out of breath. This was in line with a general sense of distrust around exercise in the Victorian era. Of course, now we know you’re not really getting a hard workout in if you’re not at least a little out of breath, and we also know that (at least for most people) biking is excellent for cardiovascular health.

Herschell would no doubt be appalled by my plans to spend seven straight days on a bike (yes, really—you can donate if you want to encourage this insanity!) but other physicians would have discouraged me for a different reason: bike face. Listen to the podcast to hear about the health scare doctors used to try to keep young women off the streets.

Fact: The platypus was originally considered a hoax

By Eleanor Cummins

Platypuses are venomous, semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammals with duck bills, otter feet, and beaver tails. So it’s no wonder the first Europeans to hear about them didn’t believe they were real. Robert Knox, a prominent scientist of the day, was thoroughly convinced the first specimen sent from the Australian coast was a Chinese hoax. Some say he even went looking for the seams in this allegedly fraudulent work of taxidermy. (Of course, there were none.) But the reasons for skepticism extend beyond the platypus’ strange morphology. On this week’s episode, I talk about a few of the very real nature scams circulating in the 18th and 19th centuries, including P.T. Barnum’s nightmare-inducing “Feejee Mermaid,” the lies circling the pelican, and the overstated case of the mastodon.

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