5 Science Stories to Help Steer the Thanksgiving Convo Away From Politics

Do this, not that.

Wikimedia Commons

Thanksgiving is Thursday, which means that — like gravy dribbling down from an upturned boat — the hours are trudging forward until you have to hear about Ivanka’s or Hillary’s emails at the dinner table. And despite what your conspiracy theory-loving aunt might think, there is more going on in this world than American politics. There’s also a buttload of science research that’s released daily. So your advice from Inverse is simple: Bring up that stuff instead. Just do it. We will guide you.

These science facts can serve as talking points to steer the conversation whenever a family member brings up something you’d rather stab yourself with a sharpened turkey bone than talk about. Don’t let the table chat unravel like an especially shitty episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. Listen for your keywords, bring up some cool fact-based science, and make it to pie time without having to lock yourself in the bathroom with your grandma’s copy of GRAND.

Here are your choices:

Wombats Are the Only Animals That Poop Out Cubes

Is Grandpa Terry talking about his bad indigestion? Great. Use his bathroom break to bring up this truly delightful fact: Wombats are the only animals whose feces are square-shaped, and scientists finally figured out why. On Sunday, researchers presented a study at the American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics 71st Annual Meeting in Atlanta, proving that this square poop happens because of the wombat’s digestive process and the unique elasticity of its intestinal wall tissues.

In other words, what gives poop its shape isn’t the hole it pops out of, but the process of its formation. Wombat feces is only about 50 percent water (human feces is about 70 to 80 percent water), and their intestines have evolved to pack waste into cubed excess. It’s not only weird; it’s beautiful too because squares are extremely hard to find in the natural world. The only known natural squares are wombat poop and the top part of a seahorse’s tail.

Elephant bird mock-up image.

(c) Jaime Chirinos 

10-Foot-Tall Blind Birds Used to Live Among Humans

The fact that this gluttonous holiday has evolved to be based around a fat bird is great news for you because any turkey chat is a great opportunity for bird science. For example: Did you know that 10-foot-tall, 1,763-pound birds lived alongside humans in Madagascar 10,500 years ago? I bet your uncle didn’t know that, much like he doesn’t really know whether voter fraud happened in Florida.

Furthermore, scientists revealed in a recent study that there’s reason to believe these birds — called elephant birds — were nocturnal and very likely had terrible vision. CT-imaging data of elephant bird skulls revealed that their optic lobes were very small. Because this is the region of the brain that processes visual input, it’s reasonable to think that the elephant bird was a lot like its close relative, the kiwi bird: flightless, nocturnal, and nearly blind.

Babies Laugh More Like Chimps Than Humans

Is your mom asking you if you’re going to have kids, even though the answer is always oh my god, why are you bringing that up? Make a quick pivot and bring up the fact that babies don’t laugh like the rest of us. Instead of laughing like human adults, a baby’s laugh is more similar to that of nonhuman primates. In other words, a baby laughs like a chimp.

At the meeting of the Canadian Acoustical Association in Victoria, Canada in early November, a team of phoneticians and psychologists revealed that when babies laugh they both exhale and inhale. Adults, meanwhile, laugh primarily on the exhale. What the researchers don’t know is why the process of laughter changes as children age. They reason that perhaps human laughter changes when we develop the ability to speak, but it’s not known for sure. What is known is that nonhuman primates laugh on the inhale and exhale too — meaning that, as babies, we’re one step closer to our evolutionary cousins.

This forest contains viruses. 

Unsplash / Lukasz Szmigiel

There are Giant Viruses Hidden in Forest Soils

Is the family talking about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade? That sounds like the perfect opportunity to tell them that within soil ecosystems there are viruses the size of Macy’s Parade balloons. A study released Tuesday in Nature Communications revealed that a team of biologists discovered 16 giant viruses within a singular soil sample taken from Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts.

It might surprise your mom, but viruses aren’t only found in the body — they can also be found in soil and in the ocean. Viruses are the main predators of bacteria, and in the soil, they can infect the bacteria that carry out ecosystem functions like nutrient cycling. The viruses in Harvard Forest were actually discovered while the researchers were looking for bacteria, which they hoped would explain how microbial communities in dirt respond to changing temperatures. These viruses are the largest ever found in forest soil ecosystems — and signify to scientists that we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to understanding biodiversity.

NASA Has Chosen Where Its Going to Look for Life on Mars

Are the state of affairs on Earth too much for your family to discuss civilly? While Earthly matters are important to address, you can always take a breather and bring up another planet: Mars. On Monday, NASA concluded a five-year process and officially chose where the Mars 2020 rover will hunt for alien life. The space agency will send its rover to the Jezero Crater, where they suspect water once flowed.

The idea that this region once contained water is key because it indicates that Martian life might have once thrived there. If that proves to be true, you’ll have a pretty good talking point for next year’s Thanksgiving because aliens are the one thing you and your Roswell-loving cousin can agree on.

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