The 25 Most-Read Inverse Science Stories of 2017: Wild, Wonderful & Strange
Psychedelics, flat-Earthers, and sea monsters abound.
This year will be remembered for its immense cultural and social upheavals, both good and unbelievably, Earth-shatteringly bad. But what appears to have remained consistent, at least judging by the science stories that Inverse fans read, interacted with, and shared, is a healthy curiosity about the the weird and wonderful, the science of our own bodies and minds, and scientific discoveries that push the limits of what we currently consider reality. That, and an obsession with whatever Neil deGrasse Tyson has to say about anything.
To celebrate a strange and sensational year in science, here are the 25 science stories that Inverse readers loved the most.
25. Genetics Researchers Just Disproved a Long-Held Racist Assumption
As racial tensions escalated this year in America and around the world, scientists found hard evidence that many of the assumptions people make about people with dark skin are completely, utterly unfounded. Many people still act as if people born with dark skin are less human, a behavior inherited from Middle-Age Europeans who believed the African people they encountered were not the same species as them. In October, scientists revealed they — and the people who continue to promote those beliefs — were completely wrong, showing that the human genes for dark and light skin all originated in Africa.
Read more about the racist theory debunked by science.
24. Drake Equation Revision Hugely Ups Odds of Intelligent Alien Life
The Drake Equation, written in 1961 for the first meeting of SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), is a seven-variable equation that calculates the odds that there are any active civilizations beyond Earth. In 2016, scientists decided it was a bit outdated, and so they updated it to include new data on exoplanets collected in the 50+ years since the equation was written. The new probability that there isn’t any other intelligent life out there is 10 billion trillion — making it extremely likely that there is something else out there.
Read more about your chances of meeting aliens in this lifetime.
23. Science Explains the Marijuana Hangover
The marijuana hangover — replete with headache, fatigue, fogginess, and dehydration, — has long confused pot users, who are more likely to associate the symptoms with alcohol. Scientists chalk the tired feeling up to the restless sleep that ensues when you get too high, and the dehydration you feel is caused by weed shutting down saliva production, which is what also causes the dreaded “dry mouth” while smoking.
Read more about the psychological and physical downside of a pot brownie binge.
22. Humans Have Been Having the Same Nightmare for Thousands of Years
Over the centuries, humans have come up with countless, often absurd, explanations for the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis. When it strikes, sleepers find themselves suddenly awake but unable to move, pinned to their bed as if a heavy weight is sitting on their chest. Scientists think the phenomenon has its roots in our brains, which actively paralyze us during REM sleep so that we don’t act out our dreams. If we’re suddenly interrupted during that phase, our brains sometimes “wake up” before our bodies do, leading to the terrifying nightmare-like experience.
Read more about sleep paralysis, which led to the evolution of the “Night Hag”.
21. A Stolen Human Skeleton Might Be America’s Oldest
An investigation of the spoils from a plundered underwater cave in Tulum, Mexico, turned up an unlikely guest: the most ancient human skeleton ever found in the Americas. The Chan Hol II skeleton, which was first discovered in February 2012 and was actually stolen shortly after photos of it went public, was recovered by scientists who showed, using carbon dating, that it was 13,000 years old.
Read more about the very first Americans, who were actually in Mexico.
20. Diarrhea Is Evolution’s Immune System Drain-O
Poop will never not be funny for readers. It’ll also never not be interesting to scientists. This June, they discovered that diarrhea serves a critical purpose for animals, having evolved over millennia of evolution. As much as it sucks to get the runs while traveling or after eating an adventurous meal, having to rush to the can is much better than not getting diarrhea. The uncomfortable bowel movement, the scientists reported, is your body’s way of flushing out all of the potentially life-threatening toxins in your gut before they get into the rest of your body.
Read more about the biological reason diarrhea is good for you.
19. 20 Years After the Great Lego Spill, They’re Still Washing Ashore
In 1997, a container ship called the Tokio Express bound for New York was hit by a wave so huge that it knocked an enormous container full of 4.8 million pieces of Lego into the water. While at the time it didn’t seem like the miniature blocks would ever make it to their final destination, in July of this year residents of Cornwall, United Kingdom reported that the pieces are still washing up on the beach, suggesting there’s still a chance they may float to the other side of the Atlantic.
Read more about Lego pieces posing a hazard to barefoot British beach-goers.
18. Reddit Study on Ideal Penis Size Consistent With Dick Science
Despite all the changes that took place this year, our fascination with penis size did not waver. In July, the results of a small Reddit survey on penis size were presented in graph form, showing an upside-down U-shaped curve spanning lengths from four to ten inches. While this survey only incorporated self-reported data from 761 users, the results actually matched up well with what scientists already know about average peen size: like Reddit’s dicks, most dongs are about six and seven inches long and five to six inches around.
Read more about the average penis size and girth, on Reddit and elsewhere.
17. Neuroscience Reveals How the Brain Changes as it Watches Porn
We’re watching porn at record-breaking rates, and all that visual, er, stimulation has scientists wondering what it’s doing to us on an individual and a societal level. So far, we’ve learned that porn acts in many ways like a drug, causing our brains to release the pleasure-tr iggering neurotransmitter dopamine, and it may also activate the amygdala, the part of the brain linked to emotional behavior and motivation. Word’s still out on whether casual porn watching is problematic, but some scientists worry that very frequent porn viewing might be linked to certain psychological issues.
Read more about what all those late-night Pornhub visits do to your brain cells.
16. The Real Story Behind ‘Roanoke’ Is Creepier Than ‘AHS’
The sixth season of American Horror Story, centered on the historical real-life tragedy of the lost American colony at Roanoke, premiered in 2016, but it continued to intrigue Inverse readers well into 2017. Scientists have used lasers, magnometers, and radar to uncover rare objects that survived the 400 years since the colony was founded, but these still haven’t cleared up whether the colonists succumbed to disease, a violent uprising, or something even more sinister.
Read more about American Horror Story and the even more horrific Roanoke legend behind it.
15. China Transmits Data Into Space Using Quantum Entanglement
Around the world, scientists are making huge leaps in the field of quantum teleportation, which could revolutionize quantum computer security. China’s researchers are leading the pack, this year succeeding in transporting a quantum particle 870 miles into space — breaking the former distance record of 62 miles.
Read more about China’s supremacy in the quantum teleportation race.
14. Human Mini-Brains Growing Inside Rat Bodies Are Integrating
We’re living in the age of farmed organs, but scientists are still working out the kinks. These days, they’re growing human mini-organs inside animal bodies using stem cells that can be coerced into turning into livers, hearts, and brains. The brains are proving to be a bit problematic: in November, scientists reported that human brain cells grown inside rats are starting to transfer blood and nerve signals, giving the researchers pause: might these rat-brain hybrids become conscious?
Read more about whether hybrid rat-human brains will ever wake up.
13. Conspiracy Theorists Have a Basic Cognitive Issue, Say Scientists
Conspiracy theories abounded this year, which is perhaps not surprising, as previous studies have shown that increases in such beliefs tend to correlate with rising mistrust in authority structures. In October, scientists discovered what’s different about the way that people with these beliefs actually think: people who tend to believe in conspiracy theories, they explained, see patterns that don’t actually exist, and it’s this “illusory pattern perception” that causes them to believe in bizarre explanations for those imaginary patterns.
Read more about what’s different about the brains of conspiracy theorists.
12. Here’s Scientist Bill Richards’s Playlist for Tripping on Mushrooms
Psychedelic researchers have had a big year, using mind-altering drugs to treat psychological illness and thereby mitigating decades of stigma against them. Studies on the effects of the drugs, however, must be meticulously designed so that they will be considered legitimate, and so Bill Richards, Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins University researcher, used science to create a seven-hour playlist to maximize the experience of a psychedelic trip.
Read more about how to listen to music during a mushroom trip like a psychedelic scientist.
11. The Crazy Flat Earthers’ Theory That Trees Don’t Exist Isn’t Completely Crazy
The Flat Earth Movement drew criticism from Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and pretty much every other rational mind out there, but one of their bizarre theories actually kind of made sense. Kind of. Some Flat Earthers believe that what we call trees are actually just the tiny remnants of a world where trees were as wide as mountains and were so tall they scraped the sky. In the “no forests” theory, the present-day world represents the sad, small remains of what the Earth once was — which, as Inverse argued, is not altogether untrue.
Read more about the flat-Earther “no forest” theory and its somewhat compelling argument.
10. Indonesia Sea Monster Has Been Identified (It’s Not a Giant Squid)
In May, our appetite for the grotesque was satiated when news broke about a “sea monster” that had washed up on the shore of Indonesia’s Maluku Islands. This 50-foot-long blob of flesh was so badly decomposed that it was unidentifiable, and the giant bones that pierced through it only deepened its mystery. But about a week after it washed up, experts finally determined that it was the corpse of a type of baleen whale, misshapen because of the hot gases that bloated up inside it during decomposition.
Read more about the huge, dead sea animals mistaken for sea monsters.
9. Genetic Analysis Shows Early Humans Avoided Inbreeding, Incest
This year marked the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, which was as rife with incestuous themes as any other season. A study published in October echoed those themes, suggesting that our ancient human ancestors were a lot less genetically reckless than the inhabitants of Westeros. In the Science study, archaeologists showed evidence that humans buried together in Russia 34,000 years ago were no closer than second cousins, suggesting that even these humans knew not to bone their closest relations.
Read more about why incest is best left to the characters on Game of Thrones.
8. Scientists Discover Super-Massive Black Holes Just Outside Our Own Galaxy
We’re comfortable making movies about black holes because they’ve long seemed so far removed from real life, but a study published in January suggested that they’re a lot closer to us than we think. In an announcement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, scientists reported that they’d found evidence of two super-massive black holes in two of the Milky Way’s neighboring galaxies, 39 million and 176 million light years away from us.
Read more about your friendly neighborhood super-massive black holes.
7. Long-Term Marijuana Use Changes Brain at the Cellular Level, say Scientists
Weed smokers have long noticed, anecdotally, that long-term marijuana use tends to change people’s behavior, but it wasn’t until October of this year that scientists started to notice the cellular changes underlying those behavioral shifts. Using rats that were administered daily doses of marijuana, researchers publishing in JNeurosci showed that the GABA neurons in the brain were unable to properly regulate the amount of dopamine swimming around, causing abnormally drawn-out good feelings of reward — which is the mechanism that’s thought to lead to addiction.
Read more about marijuana’s long-term effects on your brain.
6. Upper Body Strength Is Biggest Factor in Male Attractiveness
Scientists behind a controversial study, published in December, used the results of a questionably designed experiment to argue that women, by and large, find strong-looking men attractive because those men look like they can fight. The ability to fight, in turn, is said to be appealing because ancient women needed men to protect them, and some vestige of that preference remains today. The researchers’ explanation, however, didn’t take into account the fact that perhaps the women involved in the study were not necessarily hard-wired to find those men attractive and rather were subject to a number of other influences, including their own personal choice.
Read more about why male attractiveness isn’t all about being swole.
5. Neil deGrasse Tyson Slams Flat Earth Theory With a Single Picture
Astrophysicist and notorious know-it-all Neil deGrasse Tyson could not resist sharing his thoughts on the rising Flat Earth conspiracy theorist movement, tweeting a sick eclipse-related riddle in November that was guaranteed to stump even the staunchest “globalist” truther.
Read more about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s admittedly clever addition to the flat Earth debate.
4. What Never Leaving Your Hometown Does to Your Brain
Written in 2015, this scientific investigation on the psychological effect of staying in one’s hometown remains a perpetual Inverse Science favorite. It’s not surprising, considering that migration rates among American youth are at a historic low and that more and more people are choosing to put down roots in the states where they were born.
Read more about the psychological effect of never leaving home.
3. Nanoparticle Scientists Warn Tattooed Folks: Ink Doesn’t Stay Put
A report from nanoparticle scientists in September, published in Scientific Reports, cast doubt on the permanence of ink tattoos, revealing that tiny particles from certain kinds of inks actually swim away from the skin and wind up in the lymph nodes. In particular, they found elevated levels of titanium dioxide, a white compound that’s often added to other pigments, in the lymph nodes of the four cadavers they used in their small study. It’s not clear yet whether the escaped compounds pose any danger to people with tattoos, but it’s certainly something scientists must consider.
Read more about the troubling impermanence of seemingly “permament” tattoos.
2. Surgeons Remove Over 28 Pounds of Feces From a Constipated Man
It was hard for readers to resist the horrific photo of an enormous colon, clogged with nearly 29 pounds of feces, cradled like a small animal in the arms of a surgeon. It belonged to a 22-year-old Chinese man in Shanghai who, suffering from an ailment called Hirschsprung’s disease, was unable to expel the majority of waste in his body for his entire life. He’s fine now, thanks to a team of surgeons who removed 30 inches of his swollen colon during a 3-hour operation.
Read more about what happens to a body when it never gets to poop.
1. Scientists Have Found the ‘Holy Grail’ of Physics, Metallic Hydrogen
Kicking off the year, in January, was a monumental announcement by Harvard physicist Isaac Silvera, Ph.D., who claimed to have created metallic hydrogen — a theoretical state of matter that scientists never thought would be possible. Silvera reported in Science that he had forced elemental hydrogen into that state using immense amounts of pressure and extremely cold temperatures, noting that, if produced in large enough amounts, metallic hydrogen could be used as a form of fuel for deep space travel. Other scientists in the narrow field, however, did not mince words when the time came to publicly criticize Silvera’s work.
Read more about metallic hydrogen and its potential to revolutionize the space race.