The weirdest things we learned this week: killer surgeons and mysterious floating feet

Our editors are back with more bizarre facts for season two.
an old drawing of a surgery
The fastest knife in the West End. Wikimedia Commons

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. And if you like what you hear, join us for our next live show on February 1 in New York City. Tickets are on sale now, and they’re going fast.

Fact: Dozens of feet have washed up in the Pacific Northwest—and no one knows why

By Eleanor Cummins

Forget Bigfoot. These regular, human-sized feet are the scariest thing in the Pacific Northwest. On the far left coast of the United States, in the waters between northern Washington state and southern British Columbia, Canada, 21 severed feet and counting have surfaced on local beaches. Some are left, some are right; some belong to women, some to men. Some have really intact skeletons inside, some contain mush. The shoes are pretty universally ugly—and finding one is a terrifying, emotional experience. But after a decade of regular podiatric terror, we still haven’t pinpointed exactly where these feet are coming from, and the most reasonable answer is the least satisfying. Listen to this week’s show to learn more.

Fact: The ability to touch your toes has little to do with your athleticism

By Claire Maldarelli

As a middle schooler, one of my life goals was mastering the Presidential Fitness Award—an accolade given to those who passed a series of gym-class tests including pull-ups, running a mile, and, among other things, the sit and reach: A flexibility test in which one sits with their legs outstretched in a V position and reaches their fingertips as far past their ankles as they can manage. That’s where things went sour for me. I could never reach quite far enough to be a presidential fitness scholar.

It turns out that I’m not alone. I reached out to Jeffrey Jenkins, who is a physiologist at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. And he shed some light on what actually determines a person’s ability to touch their toes.

As Jenkins explained to me, the three biggest factors that contribute to successfully touching your toes are the flexibility of your hamstrings, the range of motion of your hip joints, and the relative length of your arms and your torso to your legs. To a certain degree, you also need to have a flexible spine. The thing is, not all of these are under your control, nor do they determine how healthy or physically fit you are. Having the right combo of these physical characteristics only does one thing: Help you win meaningless achievements like the Presidential Fitness Award.

But if you’re determined to inch closer to touching your toes, listen to the podcast for some special tips.

Fact: Surgery used to be so dangerous that an operation on one patient could kill multiple people

By Rachel Feltman

Lovers of internet trivia and Wikipedia-fueled lore may be familiar with the tale of Robert Liston: according to some medical historians, this 19th-century surgeon once completed a surgical procedure with a 300 percent mortality rate. One patient walked in and three corpses were rolled out. It’s a shocking tale, to be sure, but I couldn’t help but wonder—was it too gruesomely good to be true?

Here’s the supposed story: Liston, renowned as a remarkably fast surgeon (which was basically the only thing a surgeon had going for them, in the days before anesthesia) was performing an amputation. In his rush to severe the limb as swiftly as possible, he also happened to slice off the fingers of his unfortunate assistant. This, as I explain in the episode, is totally plausible. Then, the story goes, both the patient and the surgical assistant got gangrene and died. That’s two fatalities for the price of one! And again, as I explain in the podcast, this is totally believable and probably happened more than once. The third death is the fishiest: according to legend, one of the many people observing the procedure got the (literal) shock of his life when Liston, covered in blood and leg-meat and severed fingers, accidentally snagged the man’s jacket with his knife. I couldn’t find any primary source for this oft-referenced death by fright-induced heart failure, but that isn’t to say I think it’s impossible. After all, how would you react if you watched a surgeon cut his colleague’s hand off and then thought he was turning on you?

If you like The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week, please subscribe, rate, and review us on iTunes (yes, even if you don’t listen to us on iTunes—it really helps other weirdos find the show). You can also join in the weirdness in our Facebook group and bedeck yourself in weirdo merchandise from our Threadless shop. And don’t forget to snag tickets for our live show on February 1 in NYC.