Scientists reveal weirdest things they’ve done in the name of science

From sending cakes into space to filling their refrigerators with cat poo, scientists detail the bizarre lengths they’ve gone to in the pursuit of research.

19 November 2019

John Pickrell

The Feed SBS

In 2015 astronomer Emily Petroff stood on the upturned dish of the Parkes radio telescope in New South Wales, Australia. She played On the Blue Danube by Strauss on her violin as the massive structure rotated beneath her.

“Standing up and trying to play music while this big piece of machinery moved under me was something totally new,” says Petroff, who is now based at the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, but was then using the Parkes telescope to collect data on fast radio bursts from distant galaxies for her PhD at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne.

Petroff’s story was among a slew of responses to a question recently posed on Twitter by British antibody engineer and medical scientist, Esther Odek, who asked her nearly 20,000 followers: “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done in the name of science?”

“I wanted to find out if it was common for people in STEM to do weird, out-of-the-box things in order to answer scientific questions,” says Odek, a senior scientist at pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline.

From cutting into the cadavers of roadkilled wildlife, to stuffing their home refrigerators with poo and watching opossums mate for hours on end, Odek’s question elicited hundreds of replies.

Sam Langford, a science communicator and educator at the Glasgow Science Centre in Scotland says he and colleagues devised the idea of sending a Tunnock’s teacake – an iconic Scottish confectionary – where no teacake had gone before, to ignite local interest in science.

Using a high altitude balloon, they managed to launch the teacake to a height of 37,007 metres, “which, technically, is ‘near space’ and not outer space,” Langford says. They captured images and video footage along the way.

Sir Lanka-based conservationist, Anya Ratnayaka, elaborating on her tweet, says she collects fishing cat scat around the capital, Colombo, as part of a diet study for her Master’s degree at The University of Queensland in Australia.

“Right now, I have more than 150 scat samples scattered around my house, in various stages of soaking, drying, and cataloguing. We are literally drowning in shit,” says Ratnayaka.

She made the error of thinking old Nutella jars might be the perfect way of inconspicuously storing samples in the fridge to keep them cool. Her husband mistakenly opened one of these sample jars, “Luckily, the smell hit him first,” quips Ratnayaka, whose research is aimed at understanding how vulnerable fishing cats traverse urban landscapes.

“More scientists than I could have imagined have worked with poo,” adds Odek. A series of responses related to that and a variety of other revolting, but no doubt important, kinds of samples.

Other scientists showed remarkable dedication to their work, such as neuroscientist, Soldedad Miranda, at the University of Montreal, Canada, who enlisted the help of a colleague when she gave birth to help collect and culture her son’s umbilical cord cells for her graduate thesis.

Some had the potential to come off as creeps to those not aware they were collecting data, such as Rebecca Gibson, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, who ordered ‘skin’ samples from a series of sex doll manufacturers as research for her book, Desire in the Age of Robots and AI: An Investigation in Science Fiction and Fact.

Finally, a series of droll but ‘relatable’ replies, highlighted the daily pressures of studying to become, or working as, a scientist, says Odek.

Petroff’s stunt with the violin on the telescope was to illustrate the science of radio waves for a segment on an Australian television show.

“In the end everything – sound, light – is waves, and connecting my music to the ‘music of space’ was an idea that really appealed to me,” she says.

Odek says she hopes the responses on Twitter will show people how doing science can be “weird and wonderful”.

“Many mainstream articles simply state ‘A group of scientists discovered XYZ,’ but rarely share the weird process that led to these discoveries,” she says. “Hopefully everyone will recognise just how common it is to answer scientific questions by doing stranger things.”

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