The weirdest things we learned this week: Curing syphilis with malaria, ejecting bears from planes, and discovering new beer yeasts
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 newest podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, PocketCasts, and basically 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.
Fact: Put away those lederhosen; lager ain’t exactly German
Lager isn’t what we think it is. That is to say: Lager, specifically the yeast that makes the brew happen, has a parentage that we are just beginning to uncover. When scientists sequenced the genome of lager yeast, Saccharomyces pastorianus, they discovered it was a hybrid; half of the genetic code matched with ale yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, but the other half could not be accounted for. In 2009, a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, launched a five-continent search for the yeast mama. This portion of the genetics is what gives lager style beer its primary characteristic: the ability to ferment cold. The first hit came from Argentina, a 99.5 percent match from a growth on a beech tree. They named it Saccharomyces eubayanus.
But the historical timeline didn’t add up. Brewers have been making lagers in Southern Germany since around 1400, long before explorers could have trucked the key microorganism across the Atlantic. In 2014, a group of Chinese researchers made their case (PDF); they’d discovered a match in Tibet, one with a 99.7 percent genetic match and also a timeline that made sense, since trade routes had connected Asia and Europe for centuries.
This year we are getting our first tastes of brews fermented with these wild yeasts, including Heineken H41 (on tap in select cities) and a forthcoming batch from Wisconsin, brewed with S. eubayanus yeast found within the state.
Fact: The U.S. Air Force shot bears out of planes to test ejector seats
If you want to test the safety of an ejector seat today, you’ll use a sophisticated crash-test dummy, kitted out with all manner of sensors that track how well your machine would protect the person within. In 1960, you used a bear.
Specifically, a drugged black bear that weighed about the same as an adult male pilot. It might seem odd and maybe even cruel today, but back then it was the best way they had to test the safety of these inventions before putting humans inside.
Here’s a video of the tests:
The bears were crucial to testing the safety of ejector seats that were able to function even at supersonic speeds. As planes got speedier, escaping from a plane got more difficult, resulting in severe injuries and even death. They showed that a person could survive the rocket-powered escape from a crashing plane. Pilots who later flew in the planes owed them a great debt, even if they never knew the story about the bears who flew before them.
Bonus bear: Wojtek the bear that became a Polish soldier.
Fact: In 1927, a psychiatrist won the Nobel Prize for giving his patients malaria
Pyrotherapy sounds super dope, but it was actually a really strange chapter in medical history. Pyrotherapy—more specifically malariotherapy—emerged in response to a truly dire lack of options for late-stage syphilis patients. Penicillin didn’t hit the scene until 1943, and for hundreds of years the best available treatment was mercury (very toxic), followed eventually by arsenic (slightly less toxic).
Enter malariotherapy: in 1917, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, who’d noticed patients with neurological symptoms seemed improved after fevers, started injecting neurosyphilitic patients under his care with Plasmodium vivax, the parasite most commonly behind malaria. Quinine had been a known cure for malaria since the mid 1800s, so this unpleasant, potentially fatal disease seemed benign in comparison. And it seemed to work—at least sometimes, and at least according to Wagner-Jauregg. People were impressed enough to award him a nobel prize, after all.
But as with so many so-called breakthroughs, there are a few caveats to mention: for starters, Wagner-Jauregg was pretty dang unethical in the way he went about testing his theory that a good strong fever might burn the cognitive decline right out of you. He couldn’t land on a good way to induce a fever reliably without killing patients—until a soldier showed up in his clinic with malaria. He responded by injecting that man’s blood into a bunch of very mentally infirm patients. And even by Wagner-Jauregg’s own admission, some 15 percent of them died (which, let’s be frank, probably means significantly more than that actually did die). There are no standardized trials we can use to evaluate the method; we only know that at the time people believed it worked. (One last big ol’ caveat: Wagner-Jauregg was a Nazi sympathizer, which perhaps isn’t too shocking giving his willingness to inject unwitting patients with the blood of a random guy with malaria).