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The One Funny Thing

By Elizabeth Preston
Jun 30, 2011 3:20 AMNov 5, 2019 9:33 AM


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Most science is not hilarious. Science is slow, it involves repeating the same action tens or hundreds or thousands of times, and it often investigates deeply unfunny subjects such as cancer or polymer synthesis. That's why the rule of the One Funny Thing is such a relief.

The rule goes like this: If you read a paper all the way through, top to bottom, you have a good chance of finding something funny. It's usually hiding in the Methods section. Now, I can't vouch for the aforementioned cancer and materials science studies, and I admit the humor in most astronomy papers eludes me. But I always feel reassured to find something silly tucked away in an otherwise serious, peer-reviewed paper.

What follows is a collection of funny things. Some of them are from studies I've written about on this blog, in which case you can follow the link to get to the original story. Others are studies I've read for work. Going forward, when I cover a story that follows the rule, I'll label it with the "One Funny Thing" tag. Clicking that tag will take you back to this page, where I'll add the new tidbit at the top of the list.

Good to KnowOn recruiting volunteers for a study about diet and gut bacteria:

To be eligible, participants were required to be free from any chronic gastrointestinal disease, cardiac disease, diabetes mellitus or immunodeficiency diseases, to have a normal bowel frequency (minimum once every 2 days, maximum 3 times per day)...

Sniffin' SticksTo search for a correlation between people's olfactory abilities and the functioning of a certain brain area, researchers in Belgium started by giving their subjects a sniff quiz.

Orthonasal olfactory function was assessed by means of the standardized "Sniffin' Sticks" test. In this evaluation, odors are presented using felt-tip pens containing a tampon filled with four milliliters of liquid odorants. 

I wonder if the liquid odorants were blue, as in every Kotex commercial.

Mouse Refusal

In a study of people's intuitive geometric knowledge, researchers gave a group of five- and six-year-olds a test on a computer. 

Two additional children were excluded from the final sample in the lines intuition task, one because he was attending second grade despite his young age and the other because he refused to use the mouse of the computer.

Un-amenable OstrichesScientists studied the locomotion of ostriches by sticking motion-capture balls all over the birds' bodies. They started with five baby ostriches, reared them by hand, and spent eight months training the birds three to four times a week. After all this, only

[T]wo animals were amenable to the procedures required for full three-dimensional gait analysis.

Three out of five birds, that is, were totally untrainable. This might explain why more ostrich research isn't done. I've watched Animal Cops Houston. An ostrich that is not amenable to something will let you know by kicking you in the head.

Adverse EventsThis is almost cheating because the whole paper is so funny. The authors asked whether wearing socks over your shoes made it safer to walk down an icy hill (and won and Ig Nobel award for their efforts). First, the researchers recruited passing university students:

In light of the observed behavior of pedestrians (often young men) at these sites on previous mornings, participants were asked to refrain from deliberately skidding or sliding.

As participants made their way down the hill, with or without external socks,

Assessors were also asked to document any falls and to comment on the demeanor of the participants during their descent (for example, "walked confidently," "clung to fences or parked cars," "crawled").

Finally, the authors conclude that the socks did help.

The only adverse events were short periods of embarrassment for the image-conscious.

Expelling the Plug

It's believed that homing pigeons navigate partly by smell. To find out whether the birds depended more on one nostril than the other (they did; it was the right), researchers took on the task of plugging pigeon nostrils. 

The evening before the experimental releases, one nostril of each of the...pigeons was plugged. The plugs were made with a small amount of paste (Xantopren®, Heraues Kulzer, Hanau, Germany), which turns into a solid rubbery plug after insertion into the nostril. The plugs were removed once the pigeons homed.

The pigeons may have objected.

From our preliminary observations, the pigeons are able to expel the plug within a few days.

Cautious ConclusionA study of high-schoolers found that daylight saving time might negatively affect SAT scores. (Some test dates were immediately after clock changes, and teenagers like to sleep a lot.)

The cautious conclusion is that the daylight-saving time policy should possibly be even more controversial.

Yes, I'll say that's a cautious conclusion.

Rapid ScissoringFrom a paper on whether lobsters can recognize each other before deciding whether to fight comes a handy scale of lobster aggression. On one end of the scale is "Retreat." Levels of aggression progress through

Rapid and direct head-first advance towards opponent(s) without hesitation, often with claws outstretched


Rapid scissoring motion with both claws at opponent

and finally

Contraction of the abdomen to propel animal backwards in an attempt to rip off opponent's appendage.

The authors reassure us:

The experiments comply with the current laws of Italy, the country in which they were done...We intended to separate the lobsters and consider the observation over if fights appeared to escalate to potentially damaging levels.

After the experiment, they froze all the lobsters to death anyway.

No Objective WayA story about skunks and other stink-spraying animals also contained a helpful scale, this time measuring the degree to which an animal uses its anal gland secretions for defense, but I'll spare you the details. The authors quantified every possible aspect of each animal's coloration, habitat, and behavior. Some things couldn't be measured, though.

It is worth noting that several boldly colored species are quite pugnacious...however, we were unable to create an objective metric for ferocity. 


Although species that use anal gland defenses also vary in the noxiousness of the secretion, there was no objective way to score this.

I wish they had tried.

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