The weirdest things we learned this week: biblical rhabdo, corpse adventures, and socks from the world’s loneliest island
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: Quails can give you rhabdo, and it happened in the bible
You can absolutely have too much of a good thing. Case in point: weight lifting. And also quail.
Last week, I took a deep dive into a muscular condition known as rhabdomyolysis, in which the breakdown of muscle fibers causes toxic buildup of proteins in the blood—leading to kidney damage or failure. The condition has been in the news in the past few years because excessive exercise can bring it on. This is especially true when you’re not conditioned for the workout, which is why sports trainers and coaches always, always tell their athletes to take it slow at first.
But, as I found in my research, a plethora of other factors and diseases can lead to rhabdo. I thus went on a quest to find the strangest case report of them all. And I found it—in the Bible.
I happened upon a few case reports all with similar titles, but my favorite was: “The patient with rhabdomyolysis: Have you considered quail poisoning?” It turns out that it’s not an uncommon notion in the medical literature that people can get rhabdomyolysis from eating quails (those small, pudgy game birds).
Researchers have hypothesized that the toxins responsible for a curare-like muscle paralysis can be found in seeds that quail eat, most likely hemlock. These toxins build up in the tiny birds and enter our bodies when we eat them. In large amounts these toxins are lethal. But in far smaller quantities, they produce a neurotoxic effect on the muscles, acute rhabdomyolysis, and subsequent renal failure.
When medical historians looked further into this phenomenon, they found that it indeed occurs at a higher rate in the rural Mediterranean, where quails often migrate for a period of time. But the strange relationship between rhabdo and quails was actually first identified during biblical times. “As the Israelites wandered the desert, they encountered a quail migration and gathered birds to dry and store. Consuming large numbers of of quail the people were stricken with a very great plague,” the case report states.
That very great plague was most likely rhabdomyolysis. But as crazy as quail-induced rhabdo is, nowadays, it’s not the most likely instigator of the muscular condition. As The New York Times reported last year, a far more likely cause is overworking yourself at fancy exercise courses like spin classes or a session at CrossFit.
The thing about rhabdo is that it’s incredibly preventable: Listen to your body and know when too much exercise is too much exercise. If you do overdo it, rhabo is also incredible treatable. So learn the symptoms here. And avoid quails, too, unless you know what they’ve been eating.
Fact: When you donate your body to science, it can end up in corpse pose
This week’s weird fact starts with a feature that just so happens to be available on PopSci. Erin Blakemore’s “Corpse Pose” checks in on a bunch of yoga instructors (and massage therapists, etc.) who participate in dissection classes in the hopes of gaining better understanding of human anatomy.
But that’s just where the fact started. As usual, the strange story sent me down a rabbit hole and taught me a whole lot of bizarre new facts.
First off: yes, you can go dissect a corpse (or at least watch a dissection) without going to medical school. And while labs like the one mentioned in the feature above often solicit body donations directly from enthusiastic community members, they can also purchase bodies (and parts) from brokers.
When you donate your organs, they go right to donors in need. There’s no middle man making money. It’s actually illegal to buy and sell body parts in the United States. But when it comes to donating your body to science, things can get murkier. Folks can go directly to universities and non-profit organizations and be sure their donation is going right to a medical school dissection lab (or some other research endeavor) but that often costs the donor’s family money; someone has to make sure the body gets where it needs to go, and schools usually won’t pay for that. That’s where brokers step in. These companies offer to take care of the corpse entirely, perhaps even paying for cremated remains to return to the family once research is complete. For some, this is too good an offer to pass up. Dying is expensive in America, after all. But many “donors” don’t realize these companies are making money on their remains (like, a lot of money), and the regulations on where those body parts can end up are basically nonexistent. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with a body helping a physical therapist understand physiology a bit better, but I might be a little squeamish about my head ending up at a cryogenics start-up run out of a dental office (yes, that happened).
Let’s say it one more time to be safe: this is not about organ donation. Don’t worry about who will get your organs when you donate them. The answer is always going to be “someone who needs them very much, and definitely way more than you do, because you are dead.” But if you want to donate your body to science and know for sure it’s going to end up in a medical school, donate directly.
For more fun facts on the history of dissection—including the so-called Resurrection Riots, which were wild—check out the podcast, or take a gander at this thrilling academic paper on the subject.
Fact: Tristan de Cunha is the most remote inhabited island in the world, and they’re doing just fine
By Sara Chodosh
There is only one store on the island of Tristan de Cunha. Being a six-day journey from Cape Town means that the islanders can’t rely on standard grocery store fare, so though the shop provides some basics, everyone on Tristan also helps out raising livestock and farming potatoes. It’s this kind of subsistence farming that keeps the islanders fed. And because everyone works a variety of jobs and pools resources, they can afford to declare that everyone gets three weeks of vacation around Christmas (everyone on the island is, reportedly, a practicing Christian—there are two churches for 293 residents). That means that the store closes. And that means that if you think you might need anything from the store in that three week gap, you will need to stock up in advance.
It’s little details like that that make me so fascinated by remote places, especially far-flung islands. That store is only open Monday, Thursday, and Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. I can only assume that it doesn’t really matter that this falls during “work hours,” because presumably everyone on the island understands if you need to run to the store in the middle of the day, and you probably don’t work a standard 9-to-5 job anyway.
Tristan is a completely fascinating place—it’s just so isolated from the rest of the world. So much of the current global climate is irrelevant to the islanders, and indeed has probably passed them by without them even noticing: there’s essentially no internet and definitely no phone service. With what limited access they do have (via a VSAT terminal in a cafe), the islanders have made a website featuring Tristan history, cultural information, and records of various birthdays, deaths, and weddings. It’s charming, and I highly recommend you take a look. You can even order a wool sweater hand-knitted by Tristanians. Goodness knows how long it will take to arrive, so consider ordering it now to get it by Christmas.
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