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 iTunes, 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.
This week’s episode is extra special: it’s the first half of our second live show, which happened on February 1 at Caveat in NYC. As mentioned at the top of this week’s episode, you may hear hosts or audience members shouting “drink!” This is because we were playing a drinking game, which you’re welcome to recreate on your own time (assuming you’re of legal age and not driving while you listen). Take a drink of your fabulous and refreshing beverage of choice whenever:
Someone makes a pun (two drinks if it gets a groan!)
Rachel makes a joke about the fact that we obviously planned the live show in advance even though the podcast is totally spontaneous we swear
Jason makes an appearance
Someone in the audience is audibly appalled (or just appallingly audible)
A cast member says the word “Weird”
Eleanor finds an excuse to bring up taxidermy
Rachel finds an excuse to mention her fiancé or cat
Anyone finds an excuse to bring up some kind of body horror or otherwise excessive mention of viscera
If we try to declare a tie you have to finish your drink, so you’d better cheer loud for your fave
Fact: Dancing plagues were once very common
By Eleanor Cummins
The human mind is nothing like a steel trap at all. It’s a real mess between your ears, making us all susceptible to logical fallacies, heuristic shortcuts, and misinformation. Perhaps the weirdest thing that can happen to our highly-social brains is “mass hysteria,” which occurs when large groups of people physically manifest a disease that, biologically, there is no evidence for.
The list of reported mass hysteria cases is long. (I know, because I read through all of them.) They include a windshield pitting epidemic in Seattle, something called the “2016 clown sightings,” and even that quarantine on an Emirates flight last year, when it seemed like a hundred passenger had suddenly all contracted a major illness.
But far and away the strangest cases were a series of medieval dancing plagues. Vigilantly documented by John Waller in his comprehensive 2009 Lancet article “A forgotten plague: making sense of dancing mania,” these incidents resulted in hundreds of people dancing, often until they died, in the belief they had somehow all contracted the same disease. There was one in 1021 (that’s the one Waller called “a ring dance of sin”), and again in 1247, and again in 1518. Then, just as quickly as they appeared, dancing plagues died out.
In this live episode, I talk about the evolution of mass hysteria, and the ways they capitalize on our deepest and most culturally-specific fears. While you listen, don’t forget to really soak up the dramatic engraving at the top of this post.
Fact: A teenage girl scammed the Royal Academy of Arts real good
By Rachel Feltman
This is a story about art history, chemistry, and hubris. We begin in the late 1700s, when Benjamin West—known as the “American Raphael,” a painter of historical scenes who served as president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London—got some art lessons from a girl named Ann Jemima Provis. Along with her father, Provis was hawking painting tutorials based on a journal given to her by a late relative, which she claimed contained the secret Rennaisance masters used to create their incredible art. See, West and his contemporaries were desperate for there to be a secret—some kind of chemical concoction or light-bending way of layering paint—because if not, that meant they just weren’t as good as icons like the great Titian. (Side note: here’s that Titian painting I mention in the show—he really captured my fiance’s beard perfectly!)
Find out more about how Ann Jemima Provis’ con went down—and what the real secret behind Renaissance art turned out to be—in this week’s episode. Here she is, resplendent in her scammery, in the only image I was able to find of her. It happens to be a tabloid cartoon made to mock the men she conned. What an icon.
If you’re wondering just how silly Benjamin West looked when he unveiled the painting described during this week’s episode, here it is. Compare it to the redo he released a few years later painted in the actual style of his day, and you’ll understand why his peers all made fun of him. And here’s a painting he did of an extremely goofy lion and a slobbering horse just to add insult to injury.
Fact: NASA once worried that astronaut farts would pose a fire hazard in space
By Claire Maldarelli
While human beings haven’t made it to Mars yet, we have—without a doubt—come a long way in our understanding of space travel. Don’t believe me? Consider this study. It’s called, “Intestinal hydrogen and methane of men fed space diet”, but its name doesn’t give it the weird science credit it deserves. However, just a brief skim of the first line of the abstract—Intestinal bacteria form two gases, hydrogen (H2) and methane (CH4), that could constitute a fire hazard in a closed chamber—gives a hint at the research goals: NASA had serious concerns about whether or not the normal amount of flatulence emitted by astronauts when eating space food would be a fire hazard on space flights.
The study was conducted in the late 1960s, after the Apollo missions and in the middle of the Gemini program. The in-flight food Apollo astronauts ate was rather unappetizing. (See this picture for reference.) NASA had big plans for upgrading its menu service for the Gemini flights, but first, they needed to answer a big question: Would the newly improved space grub cause enough flatulence that it would pose a fire hazard? As one outside researcher cautioned to NASA, astronauts in outer space are typically locked in small capsules without an escape valve and so, logically, the hydrogen and methane—the two most common gases in all human farts—that the astronauts excrete get locked in as well.
Spoiler alert: Many studies and farts later, there has never been a space capsule explosion caused by human flatulence.
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