‘Findings’ Collects Science’s Best One-Liners
Every month, Harper’s magazine contributing editor Rafil Kroll-Zaidi combs the journals for science’s most fascinating—and flummoxing—facts. He collects those facts in a column called Findings. Part science journalism and part poetry, you might think of Findings as a news ticker for science’s most hilarious ephemera—facts like: “Czech and German deer still do not cross the Iron Curtain” and “Vanilla yogurt gives mice glossier coats and larger testicles.” Kroll-Zaidi joins Ira to talk about a few of his favorite “findings,” such as why bees might be able to recognize human faces (but only if they’re tricked into thinking we’re strange flowers), and pokes gentle fun at science journalism.
Rafil Kroll-Zaidi is author of “Findings: An Illustrated Collection” (Hachette, 2015) and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine. He is based in Brooklyn, New York.
Amy Denio is a composer based in Seattle, Washington.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
Flip to the back of Harper’s Magazine and you’re going to find a very strange kind of column. It’s called “Findings.” And is not quite science news. It’s not quite poetry. “Findings” is somewhere in between, sort of a stream of consciousness news ticker for science facts that are weird, wonderful, confounding, and hilarious.
Here are a few examples. “Czech and German deer still don’t cross the Iron Curtain.” Does that set you off? How about, “Rude sale staff increase the desirability of luxury goods.” I’ll buy that one. Or, “Have you noticed that the faces of LEGO people have been growing angrier?” I didn’t know that. “Findings” best science one-liners have just been collected in a book by the same name. It even adds funny pictures to the findings. Its author is Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, a contributing editor at Harper’s who writes the “Findings” column. And he joins me in our New York studios to share a few of his favorite facts. Welcome to Science Friday.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: Thanks for having me.
IRA FLATOW: What was the idea behind the book?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: The idea was just that there is such a rich diversity of weirdness in these facts and these discoveries, it would be remiss not to present a visual interpretation of them as well.
IRA FLATOW: I couldn’t help noticing the book is dedicated to a very, very old clam. Who is the what– Ming the clam?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: Yes, named after the dynasty. Because she was born in 1499, which scientists discovered because they cut her open to count her rings. So that was the end of Ming.
IRA FLATOW: What is the attitude of the column? Like, what attitude did you have in your head when you write the column?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: It’s a sort of dispassionate deadpan, but also a lot of appreciation, wonder for all the research that’s done out there and what it says about the world. How much we don’t know about it. How much what we find out can confirm or confound our expectations.
IRA FLATOW: A lot of people compare “Findings” to poetry, so we asked if you wouldn’t mind doing a dramatic reading for us.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: “It was determined 9 of ten Canadians who killed their minor stepchildren are men.” ”
That “The US health care system is not equipped to address the needs of pregnant men.”
And that, “American men who believe in traditional masculinity also believe in the efficacy of energy drinks.”
“Lead exposure makes children sleepy in the daytime.”
“Pediatric sleep experts called for smartphones to incorporate bedtime mode.”
“Children raised in religious families are less altruistic and more punitive.”
“Infants are unaware that the sensation of being tickled has a cause outside themselves.”
“The larger a male howler monkeys hyoid bone, the smaller his testes.”
“The vibrations of male red mason bees disclose the bee’s provenance to females.”
“Sleeping Germans given incorrect definitions of Dutch words are not hindered in their language acquisition.”
“Painful injuries fail to wake most sleepwalkers.”
IRA FLATOW: I’m hip to that jive. So are you sort of poking fun at a certain kind of science journalism then in these things?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: I am, in a gentle way I hope. There’s a lot of clickbait out there. There’s a great love in the media for oversimplifying a lot of studies or taking– especially psychology studies– and really running with them. I sometimes buy into that myself. I mean, I sometimes present exactly what the silliest, sort of most reductive version of a scientific discovery is. And other times, I’ll try to fight that and actually get behind what might be a very sort of broad headline to an incredibly specific aspect of how a study was done.
IRA FLATOW: “Tylenol may reduce existential dread.” Describe that.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: Well, inducing existential dread, I think, is a pretty is a pretty difficult proposition. And how the researchers in this case set out to do that was that they asked participants in the study to think about what would happen to their bodies after they died and to write about how that made them feel. And then they asked these subjects to set bail for a woman who had been arrested for practicing the world’s oldest profession–
IRA FLATOW: Prostitution.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: That’s correct. So that’s a widely held cultural bias. So what they were trying to test was whether people who’d had their sense of meaning in a large sense disrupted would try to reinforce meaning on the world by imposing their values. And they found that people did set a higher bail, but it was lower if they’d been given Tylenol. It’s a little wild to sort of the multiple steps that have to be combined here.
IRA FLATOW: We read a lot of studies on Science Friday. It’s what we do here. And we wondered if any of these recent papers might be “Findings” contenders. Let me read a few for you.
Here’s one. “Hunger increases people’s desire to acquire binder clips.” Why is that this is?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: Well, I like that one plenty. I would take that one and run with it. I’m guessing that the binder clips are a sort of arbitrary indicator of wealth or possessions and it’s a test of the effect of hunger rather than the attractiveness of the object. So I like that one and its apparent existential meaninglessness, perhaps. That would definitely a good “Findings” candidate.
IRA FLATOW: Here’s another one. “Listening to recordings of tooth brushing while tooth brushing increases feelings of accomplishment.”
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: Well, I don’t know what to make of that. But I’m going to do that now.
IRA FLATOW: You going to try that one out?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: I’m going to try that one out.
IRA FLATOW: It increases feelings of acco– maybe it’s because you hear so much brushing going on you think you’re getting more done.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: It certainly could be. I mean, you might just like the company. I mean, if you feel like someone is there, sort of observing you and shaming you. And just the programming on an electric toothbrush that tells you, not yet, not time to change the quadrant quite yet, is such an effective scold.
IRA FLATOW: You have hit on something. Maybe the study should be done that if you brush with someone else at the same time, is that different than brushing and listening to the recording of somebody else brushing at the same time?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: They’re definitely a lot of interesting things that do have to do with synchronization, I guess. And company. There all sorts of studies of singing, in particular. There’s actually one in the book that’s about Swedish choirs. So they collected together healthy 18-year-olds and had them do different kinds of collaborative singing. And they found that when they were singing hymns together, as opposed to just humming, or chanting mantras, their heart rates became synchronized with each other in a really predictable way. That I just found wonderful and it feels a little less mundane and then the tooth brushing study, perhaps.
IRA FLATOW: But you did something very particular though, that I’ve been talking about for years. It’s that all these studies usually come out of universities and they usually teenagers or a group of graduate students who are part of the study. And so what we know about how things work is basically based on these young kids. And you and you talk about that a little bit when you have a study, “Scientists made grad students provoke spitting cobras into attacking them.” You imagine being in school. “Well, if you want to get extra credit, you’re going to have to be attacked by a spitting cobra.”
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: This was in Germany, and I don’t know if the practices are different there, but I notice that no graduate students were given co-author credit on the paper. So that just seemed really harsh. I actually read the study and when I did there was a mention of an experimenter who would move his or her head erratically in order to provoke the cobra into spitting. But there was no mention of who the experimenter was or anything like that. So I actually found an outside article in which it was revealed that these were graduate students who were asked to do this and then when I look back at the study at the diagram of the cobra spitting, there was a silhouette of a male human head with a beard and a ponytail. And I thought this guy is the unsung hero of the study. So I decided to make the finding about him.
IRA FLATOW: That’s true. It’s all these graduate students. If you worry about that highlighting the wacky science stories, in this age of the criticism of science, that you give ammunition to people who might say, see these studies are silly! We don’t need them! Why fund them?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: I don’t think that those people are particularly looking to the little poetic precis that I do. But you could certainly use it that way if you weren’t if you were a fan. But still there so many studies out there that on the face of them can be made to sound ridiculous. If you’re a member of Congress and you want to attack science funding you can say, “Well, why do we need to study the effect of cocaine on the sexual habits of male quail?” Well, it’s because quail have been used in these studies for nearly a century. So it’s a fine way to look at cocaine addiction in a way that’s ethical. Because you’re not giving people cocaine and then sneaking into their bedrooms and seeing how much it messed up their lives.
IRA FLATOW: If you want to attack research, you’ll find any reason. You could if you really want to.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: Yeah, you can look through any database and just the description, the title of a study, will give you enough to go on.
IRA FLATOW: Have you gotten any angry calls from scientists who read this and say, “Oh. This is really making fun of my work or of science.”
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: No. There are some fans out there and there are some people who would like a little more citation or context. But generally the scientists can take it on the chin. I think they understand that this is a sort of reductive and playful game that’s going on here. And it’s underpinned by a fundamental appreciation for their spirit of inquiry and their curiosity.
IRA FLATOW: This is my favorite finding, I think, because I like bees. “Bees can remember human faces but only if they are tricked into thinking we are strange flowers.”
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: This is an instance in which I took a lot of liberty in the way that I presented a study. And I love that study, and I like studies about bees generally. But this was a test of bees’ ability to make really fine visual distinctions, which was already known to some extent. And what these scientists set out to determine was whether they could be trained to differentiate individual faces. They started by giving the bees really simple line drawings that basically look like old fashioned keyboard emoticons. Two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. And they kept mixing things up by giving them those same stimuli, but with different symmetry. Or all mixed up, or with tiny variations. And the bees could definitely pick out even tiny variations in the emoticons. And then they continue to test this with different kinds of stimuli, including regular pictures of human faces. And the bees could still make distinctions between one face another. Or if you erased the eyes the nose and the mouth they could pick out people based on their hairstyles, maybe that’s like flower petals. And then, if you erase the hairstyle, they could pick up people based on the internal facial features. So the facial array was essentially like a flower.
IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Rafil Kroll-Zaidi about his book Findings, An Illustrated Collection. I want to bring on another fan of the bee finding and that’s Amy Denio. Amy’s a jazz composer based in Seattle. Welcome, Amy.
AMY DENIO: Good morning. How are you?
IRA FLATOW: Fine! You composed a whole song based on that bee finding. How did that happen?
AMY DENIO: Well, I’m a big fan of bees as well and the idea that they have characteristics, sort of anthropomorphic characteristics, made me laugh. One of the other lines from that same addition was, “Honey bees who waggle dance are head butted by hive mates when danger is present.” When I read that, I thought, that sounds like lyrics! Lyrics for some kind of composition. And I have an all women saxophone quartet called The Tiptons Saxophone Quartet. So went ahead and composed a very strange, dark piece using those words, because I’m also pretty concerned about the eventual extinction of bees. Thank you, Rafil, for being such a wonderful writer.
IRA FLATOW: Well, let’s listen to some of that strange, dark piece called the “Strange Flowers.”
[MUSIC – THE TIPTONS SAXAPHONE QUARTET, “STRANGE FLOWERS”]
Yeah, wow. Not something you can dance to, but it’s catchy.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: You might be able to waggle dance to it, Ira.
AMY DENIO: There you go.
IRA FLATOW: Amy, does it change the way you think about bees to know that they might be able to recognize you?
AMY DENIO: Well, it’s rather exciting to think that I might have some unknown bee friends flying around.
IRA FLATOW: You might befriend them. So, that’s my worst one for the day and I think I’ll end it there. Thank you, Amy, for joining us. That’s great. That’s a beautiful little song.
AMY DENIO: My honor.
IRA FLATOW: And we’ll have it up on our website. A little link to it that people can go listen to the whole thing. Thank you, Amy. Amy Denio is a jazz composer based in Seattle, Washington. Thanks for joining us. Rafil Kroll-Zaidi it is still with us. He’s the author of Findings Illustrated Collection from Harper’s Magazine. Has writing this column changed the way you view science?
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: I think it probably has. I appreciate the value of different kinds of weird studies a little bit more. Now that I’m able to read into them more deeply and look at the whole thing in context and think of how it could be applicable or not applicable in a broader sense. I mean, that bee study is an interesting one because maybe the mini-brains of bees, which are not so complex, if they’re able to make these extremely fine visual distinctions, could be a model for facial recognition software that takes up a lot less space and runs a lot faster. So you never know when something is useful or not useful, although applicability is also not a test of usefulness. And that’s something that I am hoping to imply subtly, is that the poetry or the wonder that these things induce when you hear them can have its own worth.
IRA FLATOW: Well, I’ll leave everybody in this holiday season– the football bowl season coming up– with one final conclusion from your book. That is, “NFL quarterbacks play better if they are better looking.” You can think about that as we head toward the Superbowl. Thank you, Rafil.
RAFIL KROLL-ZAIDI: Thank you, Ira. Rafil Kroll-Zaidi is the author of the new book Findings, based on the column he writes from Harper’s Magazine. He’s also a contributing editor at Harper’s. And you can see a gallery the cartoons based on Rafil’s “Findings” at our website, go to sciencefriday.com/findings.