Chocolate Teapots

Back in 2001, Simon Bradshaw and his colleagues published a tongue-in-cheek article in Plotka analyzing the utility of a chocolate teapot. They were inspired by the phrase (common in the UK) that something is as "useful as a chocolate teapot." Their conclusion was that chocolate teapots are indeed not very useful since they leak everywhere, and therefore they "serve as an excellent baseline of uselessness against which to compare other, similarly dysfunctional, items."

The article became a minor classic of scientific humor. (Yeah, science humor tends to be a bit nerdy) and was replicated by other researchers.

More recently, the Naked Scientists (authors of Crisp Packet Fireworks) decided that the problem was that the teapot was too thin. If you make the chocolate thick enough, it'll hold the hot water and brew tea. But how thick? Two centimeters proved to be enough. They note:
When chocolate melts it doesn't become totally liquid immediately, it remains quite viscous. Unless you apply a fairly large force to the melted chocolate, it seems to sit there. Chocolate is also mostly made of fat, which is a good thermal insulator (whales use blubber as a form of insulation). This means that the molten chocolate near the hot water protects the less molten chocolate below it, insulating it from the heat of the water. Also, it takes a significant amount of energy to melt chocolate, so it will take a significant amount of time to move heat into the solid chocolate, thus slowing its melting.

The main structural design defects were the lid, which melted, and the spout, which collapsed after the tea was poured.

Posted By: Alex - Wed Sep 03, 2008 - Comments (1)
Category: Food, Science

Do pets make you snore?

A recent study published in the journal Respiratory Research found a correlation between growing up with dogs and snoring as an adult. The authors found the correlation after giving a questionnaire about snoring frequency to 16,190 randomly selected men and women. The other factor associated with habitual adult snoring was growing up in a large family. The authors conclude:

exposure to a dog as newborn, and growing up in a large family appear as possible risk factors for snoring in adulthood. We speculate that these factors may enhance inflammatory processes and thereby alter upper airway anatomy early in life causing an increased susceptibility for adult snoring.

Their theory sounds rather unlikely. After all, correlation does not equal causation. I grew up with a dog, and I don't snore. But then, my family wasn't very large either. (Thanks to KT Jayne!)

Posted By: Alex - Tue Sep 02, 2008 - Comments (1)
Category: Pets, Dogs, Science

Help Zimbardo Study Helping

Dr. Phil Zimbardo, famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment which revealed how quickly average college students will embrace the roles of sadistic prison guards and passive prisoners, and most recently author of The Lucifer Effect, is now turning his attention to helping behavior. From the hero workshop blog (via boing boing):

The goal is to discover how individuals perceive the behavior of helpfulness.
The first step is to conduct a survey with as many participants as possible. That’s where you come in. The survey takes about 30 minutes and can be found at

I took one look at the length of time and thought, "30 minutes! I don't want to take a survey for that long!" I'm basically unhelpul and selfish. But this made me realize that the only people taking the survey will be those that are more helpful than most. It'll be a biased sample.

Zimbardo and his co-researchers are very smart people, so I'm sure they realize this. I'm guessing that the real purpose of the survey may be to find out how many people actually take it, versus how many visit the link. That could provide a quick snapshot of how many helpful people there are on the internet. (Thanks to Joe Littrell!)

Posted By: Alex - Wed Aug 27, 2008 - Comments (1)
Category: Science, Experiments, Psychology

Cow Compass

New evidence of the hidden talents of cows. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that cows have some kind of built-in compass that allows them to align themselves along a north-south axis while grazing in fields. The researchers found this out by studying thousands of satellite photos of cows from all over the world.

But another scientist noted, "the study is based entirely on correlations. To demonstrate conclusively that cattle have a magnetic sense, some kind of experimental manipulation will eventually be needed." That sounds like a bizarre experiment waiting to happen!

Posted By: Alex - Tue Aug 26, 2008 - Comments (4)
Category: Animals, Science

Sonic Boom Simulation Chamber

During the 1960s NASA sponsored research into the effect of sonic booms on human subjects. This was in response to growing concern about "the nature of the boom phenomena" as supersonic aircraft were flying with increasing frequency. Shown in the picture is one subject (unidentified) about to be locked inside the "Sonic Boom Simulation Chamber."

I like the juxtaposition of the prim-and-proper woman and the massive audio system. Unfortunately there aren't any pictures of what she looked like after being repeatedly blasted with simulated sonic booms.

The image comes from NASA Contractor Report CR-1192, "Relative Annoyance and Loudness Judgments of Various Simulated Sonic Boom Waveforms."

Posted By: Alex - Wed Aug 20, 2008 - Comments (2)
Category: Science, Experiments, Technology

Super Cows

These cows have to be seen to be believed. I wouldn't want to be in their sights should one of them decide to attack. Though it doesn't look like they could move very fast.

Posted By: Alex - Wed Aug 20, 2008 - Comments (0)
Category: Animals, Science

Catatonic Rats

Old science books and articles are a great source of weird images. For instance, I found the two pictures below in Of Mice, Men and Molecules by John Heller (published in 1960). The images are titled "Catatonic rats" and have this explanatory caption:

These rats will maintain these weird positions for 15 to 30 minutes without moving. This catatonic effect has been induced by a minute amount of a chemical. The effect wears off completely in about an hour.

Unfortunately, Heller doesn't reveal what the chemical is that caused the rats to freeze in these positions. My guess is that it's LSD.

image image

Posted By: Alex - Mon Aug 18, 2008 - Comments (3)
Category: Animals, Drugs, Science, Experiments

The Smoke-Filled Room

If you were sitting in a waiting room and smoke began to billow out of a vent in the wall, you'd probably do something about it. At least, you'd report the problem to someone. Or maybe not.

In a famous experiment conducted by John Darley and Bibb Latané during the 1960s, Columbia University students were invited to share their views about problems of urban life. Those who expressed an interest in participating were asked to first report to a waiting room in one of the university buildings where they would find some forms to fill out before being interviewed. They had no idea that the urban-life study was just a cover story. The real experiment occurred in the waiting room.

As they filled out the forms, smoke began to enter the room through a small vent in the wall. By the end of four minutes, there was enough smoke to obscure vision and interfere with breathing. Darley and Latané examined how the students reacted to this smoke in two different conditions.

In the first condition, the students were alone. When this was the case, they invariably investigated the smoke more closely and then went out into the hallway to tell someone about it.

But in the second condition, the students were not alone. There were two or three other people in the room, who were secret confederates of the researchers. They had been instructed to not react to the smoke. They would look up at it, stare briefly, shrug their shoulders, and continue working on the forms. If asked about it, they would simply say, "I dunno."

In this setting, according to Darley and Latané, "only one of the ten subjects... reported the smoke. the other nine subjects stayed in the waiting room for the full six minutes while it continued to fill up with smoke, doggedly working on their questionnaires and waving the fumes away from their faces. They coughed, rubbed their eyes, and opened the window -- but they did not report the smoke."

That's the power of group pressure.

If you ever get the chance, check out Darley and Latané's book The Unresponsive Bystander: Why Doesn't He Help? It's not easy to find because it's out of print, but it's full of strange experiments like the smoke-filled room one.

Also check out this youtube video based on the smoke-filled room experiment. It's not the original study, but a later replication of it.

Posted By: Alex - Thu Aug 14, 2008 - Comments (0)
Category: Science, Experiments, Psychology

The Truth About Rainbows

This video offers a pretty good case for why our country is doomed. After all, these kind of people are allowed to vote.

From the video: "I'm just wondering what the heck is in our water supply, what the heck is in our oxygen supply of the metallic oxide salts that creates a rainbow effect in a sprinkler? What is oozing out of our ground that allows this type of effect to happen?"

Posted By: Alex - Wed Aug 13, 2008 - Comments (2)
Category: Science

13 Things That Don’t Make Sense

I just read this breezy yet well-researched pop-sci book to write it up for THE BARNES & NOBLE REVIEW, and my essay will appear there soon. But for now, I can heartily recommend it to WU readers interested in the many unexplained weirdnesses lurking beneath the tidy coverlets of science.

Posted By: Paul - Sun Aug 10, 2008 - Comments (3)
Category: Science, Technology, Unsolved Mysteries, Books

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Who We Are
Alex Boese
Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction books such as Elephants on Acid.

Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.

Our banner was drawn by the legendary underground cartoonist Rick Altergott.

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