bone flutes, zebra carriages and laughing gas parties

Lionel Walter Rothschild and his striped carriage. Wikipedia/Public Domain

neolithic bone flute
A neolithic bone flute Wikipedia/Public Domain

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve learned this week? Well, anyway, we promise you’ll get an even weirder response if you listen to PopSci’s latest podcast. Weirdest thing I’ve learned this week hits iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, PocketCasts and pretty much anywhere you listen to podcasts every Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the weirdest science-related Wikipedia facts, figures and spirals, the editors of popular science can collect.

Fact: An intrepid zoologist once drove a zebra-drawn carriage past Buckingham Palace

Through Rachel Felman

walter rothschild zebra carriage
Lionel Walter Rothschild and his striped carriage. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Everyone wants a pet fox, as evidenced by the long-tail success of the PopSci article “Can I have a pet fox?” So I was tickled when Neel V. Patel presented this update on fox domestication genes. Reading about domesticated foxes that after about 40 generations have positively grown into puppies, I began to wonder: what determines whether or not we can domesticate an animal?

No Weirdest Thing fact-finding mission is complete without a weird internet rabbit hole, and I found mine in Lionel Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild of Tring. The zoology enthusiast is famous for his contributions to collections of preserved animal specimens around the world, but he is Also famous for driving a zebra-drawn carriage past Buckingham Palace. But despite Rothschild’s impressive efforts to tame the striped creatures, they adamantly refuse to be domesticated.

Fact: In late 18th and early 19th century England, people really liked to inhale laughing gas

Through: Sophie Bushwick

laughing gas party
A satirical cartoon depicting a laughing gas party Wikipedia/Public Domain

In 1798 Humphry Davy, a young poet and aspiring physician, became the supervisor of the newly established Bristol Pneumatic Medical Institute, a center for medical treatment and research. Davy quickly realized that the Institute’s diets were not based on real trials or experiments, so he embarked on a program of research into various inhalable gases. His first subject: himself.

After suffering fainting spells, nausea, and a near-death experience with carbon monoxide, Davy finally decided on nitrous oxide, N2O, would be the safest substance to test on himself and others. It was also the most fun. “That gas got my pulse racing, made me dance like crazy in the lab, and has kept my mind in top shape ever since,” Davy wrote. Thanks to reactions like this, people would eventually nickname the substance laughing gas.

Davy loved inhaling nitrous oxide; for a period he breathed it up to three or four times a day. He wrote poetry under the influence (“On Breathing Nitrous Oxide”), experimented with the combination of alcohol and N2O (apparently it reduced his hangover) and spent some time saturating his lungs in a portable gas chamber.

In addition to self-experimentation, Davy tested other subjects, pioneering a blind experimental method. Without telling the volunteers whether they were inhaling nitrous oxide or clean air, he recorded their physical reactions and asked them how they felt. He also gave gas to his friends, including female acquaintances (which gave rise to rumors that the substance made women hysterical and suppressed their inhibitions) and poets Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Many of them enjoyed the experience as much as Davy; Southey wrote: “It made me laugh and tingle in every toe and fingertip.”

Although Davy realized that nitrous oxide could knock a person out and then revive them without ill effects, he didn’t jump on the application of laughing gas as an anesthetic during surgery. (It was not used in this way until 1844, after Davy’s death.) But he published the results of his detailed experiments – to mixed reactions. The popular press and political cartoonists ridiculed his work, implying that nitrous oxide caused not only hilarity, but also sexual debauchery.

However, this negative press did not harm Davy’s career. He then made a name for himself as a famous chemist, using electricity to isolate seven elements, including potassium and calcium, for the first time. As an inventor, he also created a new lamp that miners could safely use underground. And he continued to write poetry.

The oldest instruments are all bone flutes

Through Eleanor Cummins

This sound you hear is the haunting music of the Divje Babe flute, which many experts consider to be one of the oldest known instruments on Earth. Dating back to a Slovenian cave around 43,000 years ago, the flute is made from a cave bear femur. (Unless they were teeth marks from a hungry cave bear murderer, as other archaeologists suggest.) Listening to his spooky tune, I accidentally unlocked an ancient curse and I fell down a rabbit hole about the origins of music. Although little is known about why we sing, scat or play the tuba, one thing is certain: humans love to turn bones into flutes.

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