A sloth redefines sloth, a scream kills hundreds of chickens, and a researcher determines the world's most disgusting sound.

The Sin of Sloth
Scientists are patient people. They will wait months or even years for experimental results. But researchers at Jena University in Germany have finally snapped and fired the most uncooperative research-subject-cum-enemy-of-science they have ever known: Mats the sloth. Scientists have spent three years trying, in vain, to coax Mats up and down a pole so they could study his locomotion. (In a method of travel unknown to the rest of the animal kingdom, sloths hang from a branch by their claws and move down headfirst.) The researchers hoped to see Mats in action, and they tried to tempt him down the pole with pasta and boiled eggs—treats fit for a sloth king—but Mats literally would not pull his weight in the experiment. “He wasn’t remotely interested in furthering science,” said university spokesman Axel Burchardt. Since Mats is apparently unfit for the glorious life of an intellectual, he has been excommunicated to a zoo in Duisburg, where he will be expected to father little sloths. Hopefully the lady sloths at the zoo aren’t looking for an exhilarating thrill-ride.

Sober Alcoholics
Alcoholism isn’t funny. Neither are alcoholics. According to a study recently published in the journal Addiction, alcoholics don’t process humor as well as non-alcoholics. Researchers examined 29 recovering alcoholic patients and 29 healthy controls who were comparable in IQ, gender, and age. They were asked to choose punchlines for jokes, some of which were funnier than others. For example:

It was Mother’s Day. Anna and her brother had told their mother to stay in bed that morning. She read her book and looked forward to breakfast. After a long wait she finally went downstairs. Anna and her brother were both eating at the table.

The subjects could select from the following:

a) Anna said: “Hi mom, we didn’t expect you to be awake so early.”
b) Anna picked up an egg and smashed it on her brothers head.
c) Her brother said: “We have a new teacher at our school.”
d) Anna said: “It’s a surprise for Mother’s Day. We cooked our own breakfast.”

92 percent of the people in the healthy group chose d, the correct punchline, but only 68 percent of the alcoholics picked out the right ending for this knee-slapper. The researchers suggest that deficits in the working memory and mentalizing ability of the alcoholics may have decreased the alcoholics’ capacity to understand jokes and be tickled by them. They didn’t seem to consider that they might just be really, really into slapstick.

Head Case
This week, a 27-month investigation of suspected brain harvesting by the Stanley Institute ended without any charges filed against the Stanley Institute, founder E. Fuller Torrey, or state funeral inspector Matthew Cyr. Cyr, who works in Maine’s medical examiner’s office, was paid over $150,000 to collect brains for research on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder; between 1999 and 2003 he sent at least 99 brains to the Institute. But some relatives of those who once housed the brains in question have said they never consented to the donation. Those under investigation have said they did not break any laws in obtaining the brains, but some families of the donors say they only consented to give away small amounts of tissue. Some say they had no idea their loved one’s brain was going to be donated at all, and several families only found out that the brains had been given to science because of the investigation. While the researchers have escaped criminal charges, the families have filed 17 civil suits so they may be compensated for the brain drain.

Goodnight, Moon
The time: 5 billion years from now. The place: The moon. The forecast: Doom! Iowa State University astronomer Lee Anne Willson recently explained the fate of our dear traveling companion to SPACE.com, and the outlook is not good. Over the next few billion years, the moon will move gradually away from Earth, until its orbit grows by 40 percent. At this point, the moon will be a geostationary satellite orbiting once every 47 days—the length of one future Earth rotation. When the sun turns into a red giant, it will stand in the path of the moon’s orbit, knocking the moon toward the Earth. When it gets within 18,470 kilometers of our planet, the moon will be torn apart, scattering into a Saturn-like ring around Earth. Soon the debris ring will be pulled into our atmosphere, and the moon’s shattered corpse will rain down on us. If the sun expands enough that its surface hits Earth as well, our orbit, too, will be slowed, and we will fall into the Sun and meet our fiery end. Since we don’t know that much about the process by which a star turns into a red giant, it is possible we could end our existence in a less dramatic way. But unless we find a way to colonize other planets, we won’t be around to see the results of the Sun’s mutation.

Fowl Bawl
In further morbid news, a court has ruled that a four-year-old Chinese boy is responsible for the death of 443 chickens. He didn’t chop them up, or squeeze them too tight, or even put them under the focused light of a magnifying glass. No, the boy screamed the chickens to death. His father was delivering bottles of gas to a village home, when a dog barked at him. The scared child leaned over the henhouse window and began to wail. The court determined that no other “unexpected abnormal sound” had occurred that afternoon, and the screams likely sent the chickens into panic: The winged beasts trampled each other to death in fear. The Improbable Research blog suggests that the key to this unusual case of battered chicken may lie in a study entitled Effects of short-term whole body vibration on animals with particular reference to poultry. Here, authors claim that broiler chickens have a resonant frequency, and vibrations at that frequency might cause them serious trauma.

Noisome Noise
The results are in: The most disgusting sound a human can hear is…vomiting! Trevor Cox, a Salford University acoustic engineer, set up an internet survey where participants rated the unpleasantness of 34 sounds. With 1.1 million votes from around the world, the sound of vomiting (not safe for stomach) most made subjects want to hurl. Microphone feedback came in second, and crying babies and scrapes and squeaks of a train were tied for third. The popularly derided “fingernails on a chalkboard” sound came in at a surprisingly low 16th, far below the sound of, say, the Tasmanian devil. Cox hopes to use his results to find out what makes certain sounds so repulsive.  Already, he has found that women generally find sounds more offensive than men do, with the exception of babies crying, which men find more unpleasant. Cox hypothesizes that since women protect their offspring, they may have habituated to babies crying. He also found that the sound of a dentist’s drill was most disturbing to kids under 10 and people in their 40s and 50s, when people are most likely to have to face the drill itself.

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Originally published January 29, 2007


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