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5 Scientist Screw-Ups to Remember Next Time You Bungle Something

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When we think of the world of science, we often imagine white lab coats and sterile instruments, where everything is perfectly measured, monitored and executed. After all, scientists are supposed to be the smartest of us all. It's easy to assume they aren't plagued by stupidity and clumsiness like the rest of us. But even scientists make mistakes. Unfortunately for them, their screw-ups tend to have more serious ramifications than ours.

1. Freezer Burn

In a recent example, a malfunctioning freezer at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital ruined 150 stored brains, including one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. Despite the fact that the freezer was protected by two separate alarm systems, and was to be physically monitored by staff members twice a day, the brains somehow sat for roughly three days in temperatures comparable to those you'd find in your own fridge, instead of at the prescribed minus-79 degrees.

"The glass half full side of this disaster at McLean is that it will act as a wake-up call to other brain banks to recheck their security systems," said Suzanne Corkin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

2. Right Brain, Wrong Brain

If you need to determine whether a disease has jumped from the brain of one species to the brain of another, make sure you don't mix up your specimens.

In 2001, a scientific study to determine whether sheep had been infected with mad cow disease after eating contaminated feed was scrapped after five years when researchers realized they had been testing the brains of cows rather than sheep.

"On a scale of laboratory blunders, the error ranks about as high as they come, given that the fate of Britain's 40 million sheep might have rested on its outcome," said Steve Connor at the Independent. The cost of the wasted research was £217,000. Converted and adjusted for inflation, that's roughly $440,000.

3. Busted Skull

Earlier this year, German researchers were snapping photos of an ancient Mayan skull prophesized to protect all of humanity from the looming 2012 apocalypse when the precious artifact somehow fell to the floor. The skull, which is now missing part of its chin, isn't just a 1,000-year-old treasure with magical powers. It also once belonged to SS overlord Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of the Nazi Party. Reports say no one involved in the incident is sure whether the skull was dropped or fell on its own. If you were the guy who dropped it, you'd probably keep it quiet, too. After all, who wants to take the blame when the world ends in December?

4. Self-Infection

Ebola is a scary virus: It causes fever and body aches, diarrhea and vomiting, as well as internal and external bleeding. Also, it kills up to 90 percent of its victims, which is why a German researcher must consider herself lucky for surviving the virus after she accidentally exposed herself to it in 2009. The unfortunate event occurred while she was studying new tests for the virus and she jabbed herself with an infected syringe. She sought help immediately, was treated with an experimental vaccine (which doctors weren't sure would even work), and was miraculously released from the hospital several weeks later. In 2004, a Russian researcher named Antonina Presnyakova did the same thing, but she did not survive.

5. Where's Waldo?

In 2009, scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory lost a $100,000 submarine used to hunt for the algae that produce noxious red tide. The 6-foot-long, bright yellow, winged robotic submarine, ironically named Waldo, mysteriously vanished in Gulf waters off the coast of Florida. The laboratory offered anyone who found the submarine a no-questions-asked $500 reward. Discouraged researchers worried that not finding the drone would mean they would have to go back to sending people out in boats to collect water samples to hunt for the algae, which is just "not a very efficient way to do it."
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Other times, however, these things work out for the best. Here are the stories of 8 Brilliant Scientific Screw-Ups.

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Learn to Spot the Sneaky Psychological Tricks Restaurants Use
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While dining out, you may have noticed (but perhaps didn’t question) some unusual features—like prices missing dollar signs, or burgers served on plates that could accommodate a baby cow.

These aren’t just arbitrary culinary decisions, as the SciShow’s Hank Green explains in the video below. Restaurants use all kinds of psychological tricks to make you spend more money, ranging from eliminating currency symbols (this makes you think less about how much things cost) to plating meals on oversize dinnerware (it makes you eat more). As for the mouthwatering language used to describe food—that burger listed as a "delectable chargrilled extravagance," for example—studies show that these types of write-ups can increase sales by up to 27 percent.

Learn more psychological tricks used by restaurants (and how to avoid falling for them) by watching the video below. (Or, read our additional coverage on the subject.)

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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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