4 Nutty Questions Scientists Actually Tried Answering
It's human nature to ask unanswerable questions, but as social media has proven time and time again, plenty of people are willing to answer them anyway. Those people aren't scientists, though, and we tend to give scientific answers more credence, if only because they're usually not bothered with questions like ...
When Does It Become Okay To Joke About Tragedy?
We've all groaned "too soon" after some weirdo wildly misjudged the room's appreciation of edginess, but when is it no longer too soon? Exactly when can you tweet that gobsmacking wildfire joke you've got up your sleeve? After all, if you wait too long, no one gives a crap anymore. Should you wait a week? Wait a month? Consider that this isn't about you? Be honest: If that were an option, would you even have a Twitter?
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Texas A&M University decided to find out, using Hurricane Sandy and a novelty Twitter account purportedly owned by the hurricane that tweeted jokes like "JUS BLEW DA ROOF OFF A OLIVE GARDEN FREE BREADSTICKS 4 EVERYONE." (Incidentally, it now appears to be owned by a man who reviews guitars.) Over the course of several months, starting just before the hurricane hit, they asked participants to rate the jokes on a scale from "forcefully exhaling through my nose" to "smashing the reply button to furiously type an expletive-laden screed that will be hidden under the 'Show more replies' button."
They found that jokes before people realized the extent of the hurricane's damage did okay, but their perceived humor steadily fell to an all-time low at 15 days before swinging back up to an all-time high at 36 days. From there, it steadily fell back down, so there's your answer: Your hilarious joke about a hurricane-level tragedy will be best received after 36 days.
Note that the exact timeline can fluctuate based on the scale of the tragedy, so you can probably joke about your buddy tripping over his shoelaces right away but the Holocaust never. Glad we cleared that up.
Why Do Old Men Have Such Big Ears?
Aging can be so undignified: the ceaseless existential despair, not knowing what a Doja Cat is, and somehow looking more and more like a troll doll with every passing year. (Do they still make troll dolls? Consarn it, we're old.) You know the type: a drooping nose, unruly and increasingly surprisingly located hair, and most of all, big ol' flapping head receivers. As if it weren't bad enough that you've lost your chance to learn to skateboard. Now you look like one of the ancienter royals.
But why is that? Why do ears get bigger as we age, and why does it seem to happen mostly to old men? Do our ears get bigger as we age, or is this some kind of trick of perception, like how the characters on Cheers once seemed so old to you and now they're mere whippersnappers? The answer to that last question is, unequivocally, yes.
According to several studies coincidentally performed in the '90s, your ears grow by an average of .22 millimeters per year after age 30, or about half an inch by age 80. It happens to noses, too, and it's worse for men. It's not clear why, especially considering that wearing big, feminine earrings can exacerbate the problem, but it helps that women's hairstyles often conceal their ears, so we're also less likely to notice their growth. Think of it as a sexism consolation prize.
The answer to why is a bit murkier. Basically, it's a loss of skin elasticity and plain old gravity, but it's also possible that it's because noses and ears are stuffed full of cartilage, which continues to grow throughout your life, unlike bones, which hopefully stop somewhere between Aziz Ansari and Andre the Giant. There's some debate about that, though, so if scientists want to try to keep a person alive well beyond their natural lifespan just to find out if the power of cartilage can results in ears that wobble to and fro, can be tied in knots, and can be tied in bows, we support them.
Do Falling Trees Make Sounds If No One Is Around?
It's an age-old philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Of course, as with most philosophical questions, it's not really meant to be answered, and people will get annoyed with you if you try. It's a true hypothetical, intended to provoke consideration of the existence of objects independent of your own perception. Real nerd shit.
Or is it? The question was actually answered by the first person who posed it in a magazine called The Chautauquan all the way back in the ancient days of 1883. Their answer was, "No. Sound is the sensation excited in the ear when the air or other medium is set in motion," which must have pissed off a lot of people because the next year, freaking Scientific American acknowledged that a falling tree produces vibrations in the air that can be perceived as sound but agreed that "if there be no ears to hear, there will be no sound."
That's clearly a copout based on the most technical definition of sound, though. Is there a big bang boom or not? If only there were some way to capture sound outside our stupid skulls....
Of course, there is. Researchers studying noise pollution at Crater Lake National Park stumbled upon the obvious solution when they placed microphones all over the park, where some trees happened to fall over the course of their study. Behold, the sound of a tree falling when no one is around:
You could argue that the microphone counts as "someone," but unless you're prepared to give it rights, consider the matter solved and feel free to whip it out the next time you're at a party and want everyone to stop talking to you.
What Is The Question To The Answer Of The Meaning Of Life, The Universe, And Everything?
If you're not familiar with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, stop reading this article right now and fix this glaring hole in your life. If you insist on seeing this through first, the book is about many things but partially the effort of a bunch of scientists to construct a supercomputer that can solve the question of the meaning of "life, the universe, and everything" who are disappointed when the computer answers "42." It's ostensibly a commentary on the broader human tendency to ask the wrong questions; the actual equation solved by the computer is irrelevant. Douglas Adams came right out and said the number was chosen at random.
But it turns out there was an equation whose answer is 42 that stumped mathematicians for centuries and could only be solved by a supercomputer.
The Diophantine equation is a set of problems that basically asks "How can you express every number between 1 and 100 as the sum of three cubes?" In other words, "how do you solve x3 + y3 + z3 = k, where k equals any whole number from 1 to 100?" Are you still with us? All that algebra isn't really important; what you need to know is that in 1955, mathematicians realized the answer was "pretty easily, for the most part." They calculated the equation for every answer except 33 and, you guessed it, 42. For some reason involving chalkboards and voodoo, those numbers are just more elusive than others.
In 2019, nerds were still on about the Diophantine equation, so Andrew Booker of the University of Bristol used a computer algorithm to run the equation with every possible combination of numbers between 99 quadrillion and its negative. Don't think about how many numbers that is or your ears will start bleeding. He got the question to the answer 33, but 42 still escaped him. He ended up needing a network of 500,000 computers to run all the equations needed to find the question to the answer of life, the universe, and everything. It is ... (-80538738812075974)^3 + 80435758145817515^3 + 12602123297335631^3.
What does it mean? Apparently, it's cubes. It's all cubes. So yeah, time to comb through Adams's bibliography for all mentions of cubes. Who's got the red string?
Top image: Mark Paton/Unsplash