The weirdest things we learned this week: birthing rabbits, gruesome taxidermy, and the Parthenon’s best-kept secret
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.
This week’s episode is another extra special one: it’s the second half of our first-ever live show, which happened on September 14 at Caveat in NYC. We’re already cooking up plans for another one in the near future, so keep your eyes peeled for more info!
Fact: An 18th-century lady scammer convinced the royal physician she was giving birth to rabbits
In September of 1726, Mary Toft had a baby. A rabbit baby. More specifically, she labored and seem to give birth to a jumble of bloody animal parts. This was her fourth child. She claimed she’d chased down a rabbit for supper while several weeks pregnant, and thought of nothing since. When her assisting neighbor spread the news of the strange birth, the local midwife John Howard took notice.
“[Mary is] of a very stupid and sullen Temper,” he later wrote. But boy did she keep on giving birth to rabbits! Here’s an illustration of the act, though in real life the rabbits were not exactly leaping out of her in good health.
King George I apparently took keen interest in this strange event and sent his court anatomist Nathaniel St. Andre to check it out. St. Andre, for the record, does not have a reputation for having been a good doctor. And true to form, he essentially walked in ready to believe the tale. Mary was laboring on her 15th bunny when he arrived, and based on the quivering of her abdomen he determined that the rabbits were leaping out of her right fallopian tube. They came out dead and in pieces because of her uterus crushing them (because that’s how childbirth works).
You can hear more about Mary’s story in the podcast, or read up on her here. Here is a triumphant image of her that I think serves her glorious memory well.
Fact: The Parthenon is a giant optical illusion.
If you’ve ever looked at pictures of the Parthenon (or seen it in person) and were awed at the incredible ability of the architects to construct a near perfect structure with pencil straight columns and flat floors, you aren’t alone. Throughout history, historians have taken keen interest in how these ancient builders were able to pull off such a hefty feat without the use of modern equipment or technology.
As it turns out, they found, the key to making something perfect to the human eye is to make it imperfect. The Parthenon is perhaps one of the best examples of this. The same quirks of the brain that divided the internet into yanny and laurel and blue and gold dress believers, were employed in creating this ancient structure.
When examined closely, researchers have found, the Parthenon contains almost no straight lines or right angles. And yet, when you look at it—especially from a distance—no matter what the angle, the building looks essentially perfect: Each column straight as a razor’s edge. Holding down a perfectly box-like top. Listen to this week’s episode and uncover all the (so-far-known) optical illusions that lay hidden in this 5th Century B.C. structure.
Fact: An all-too-real work of taxidermy
“Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” was an instant sensation. The dramatic work of taxidermy was crafted for the Paris Exposition in 1867 by the famed Verreaux Brothers, Jules and Edouard, whose works at the time were among the prides of Paris. Sources report some 50 million people stopped by the months-long festival of innovation specifically to see this. Where stuffed birds were typically restrained, and mounted game sat isolated above a fireplace, this piece told a story. But the story was a little spookier—or, rather, a little more ethically fraught—than anyone initially expected. At the live show, we explored 150 years of revelations about this stuffed camel, his upholstered lions attackers, and, most importantly, one overlooked human skull.
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