The Winners of the 2014 Platypus Awards

This story originally appeared in print in the October 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Consider the platypus. It’s a venomous mammal that lays eggs. It has a duck bill, a beaver tail, and otter feet. The platypus is an outlier: the sole living member of its genus. When the first specimen was sent to scientists, they thought it was a hoax.

The platypus is the Captain Planet of the animal kingdom: a force that combines these various heroic traits into something even more universe-defying than the sum of its parts. For all these reasons, it’s the animal we feel best embodies our new series of innovation awards.

The Platties honor ideas that are interdisciplinary: a bit duck, a bit beaver, a bit otter. These are the new ideas and innovations that made us do a double take. At first, we wondered whether they could be real. And when they proved to be, it wasn’t just the little idea, but the little idea’s enormous potential that delighted us.

This year, we honor innovations that use sound, twisting it in unexpected ways. The academics and artists you’ll meet below are changing how we relate to one another, to other species, to our environment, to our own bodies, and to our dinner. They’re working in the borderlands where traditional disciplines collide and where new disciplines are born. 

How Fluid Dynamics of Mosh Pits Will Help Herd Cats

Jesse Silverberg has spent a lot of time in mosh pits. A metalhead turned Cornell University physicist, Silverberg was at a 2008 DevilDriver show with his girlfriend when he noticed a familiar pattern in the hordes of bodies colliding before him. They looked and behaved a lot like the gas molecules in his lab. This prompted Silverberg and fellow physicist Matthew Bierbaum to wonder: Could physical laws describe rowdy human behavior? They found an ample petri dish in all the mosh-pit videos available on YouTube. In studying them, they found that mosh pits behave like granular material. Each discrete particle can move independently on its own, but taken as a whole, stress makes the entire mass act more like a solid. “Mathematically, you really can describe people with these physical laws,” says Silverberg, who’s continuing to analyze concert footage with Bierbaum in hopes of developing safety protocols that could be used to manage large crowds, preventing injuries and even saving lives. [PDF]

How Entertaining Animals Can Spread Empathy

What kind of tunes would tickle a donkey's fancy? Laurel Braitman found an answer while working on a project that’s changing the way we relate to our furry friends—and maybe even one another. Braitman, a science historian with a PhD from MIT, was researching animal psychology in 2009 when she stumbled across a Victoria-era music journal featuring a series of concerts that had been performed expressly for animals. Intrigued, she decided to modernize the concept. “This all came out of the idea that we’re not the only creatures to have taste, preference, and personality,” she says. Humans tend to think about animals in certain contexts: as pets, zoo attractions, or dinner. Braitman’s project asks us to think differently. What might be going on in animals’ brains? Her research explores how individual animals with psychiatric conditions deserve individualized treatment and not simply blanket care and prescriptions. Ultimately, her project is about empathy, something we all could use. “Nothing exposes the limits of the human imagination more than imagining what it is like to be someone else,” Braitman writes. “Particularly if that someone else is nonhuman.” To date, Braitman’s concert series has included performances for distressed sea lions, bison, and gorillas. Thanks to her, these lucky creatures get to enjoy being entertained instead of having to entertain us—and at the same time, we’re getting to know and understand them a little better. As for Mac, the miniature donkey Braitman raised? Turns out he’s soothed by Afrobeat and Nina Simone.

How Harnessing the Power of Jet Engines Could Generate Quiet 

As a grad student in electrical engineering, Stephen Horowitz found himself in a pickle that’s probably only familiar to other students of electrical engineering: how to power tiny, hard-to-reach sensors deep inside a jet engine. If there’s one thing all of us know about jet engines, it’s that they’re impossibly loud—160 decibels, which is 40 decibels beyond the level that drives most people to cover their ears. What if, Horowitz thought, there was a way to capture all that noise pollution and turn it into a power source? After all, “waves are waves,” Horowitz says. His invention takes acoustic waves and converts them into electricity using piezoelectric materials. The idea isn’t new. Pierre Curie was meddling with piezoelectricity as far back as 1880, harnessing energy from the charge that certain ceramics and crystals produce when they vibrate. But Horowitz’s jet engine application is novel. “It might not be much,” Horowitz says of the power produced, but that extra drip of electricity “can be the one thing that can make or break an application.” Not only can it power technology without extra wiring or batteries, but it could also someday reduce noise pollution overall by enabling quieter factories and jet engines.

How Recycling Trash Into Instruments Can Engineer Hope

Cateura is a tiny Paraguayan slum built on a landfill—and a place where children make melodies out of trash. In 2006, environmental cleanup specialist and former orchestra leader Favio Chávez had an epiphany that would end up creating a better future for scores of poor South American youths. He was already helping clean up their land. What if he also could improve their lives with music? Chávez enlisted Nicolás Gómez, a trash collector who fashions instruments out of refuse, and founded La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados Cateura (“The Recycled Orchestra”). The pair gave local kids instruments like a violin made from glue canisters, forks, and recycled wood; a horn created from a tin water pipe and bottle caps; or a cello fabricated from oil cans and leftover wood. Then, Chávez taught them how to play. The feel-good story cast a spotlight on the squalid conditions the band members live in, leading to a surge of donations. The benefits for the hundreds of kids who have cycled through the program? Improved self-esteem, higher marks in school, and a better life than their parents and grandparents ever had growing up. “Music isn’t going to change or fix all problems, but through the orchestra, they can find stability they don’t have in their family and communities,” Chavez told People in 2013. Even in the ugliest conditions, beauty still finds a way to be heard.

How Space-Age Sonic Beams Will Smooth Operations

Tractor beams are straight out of science fiction—remember the stream of light the Starship Enterprise used to tug space objects? Well, a group of scientists has figured out how to make a real one—using sound as the pulling force.

The discovery carries potentially profound implications for the human body. The inventors, Christine Demore, an ultrasound engineer at Scotland’s University of Dundee, and Patrick Dahl, an undergrad assistant in physics at Illinois Wesleyan University, who started by creating a field of intersecting acoustic waves in a water-filled chamber. When they manipulated the waves to hit a small triangular object inside the chamber, they found they could lure the object toward them. The discovery parrots the acoustic tweezers invented in 2012 by a team at Penn State. Like real tweezers, the gizmo can move objects—specifically, cells. Unlike real tweezers, it uses acoustic waves to alter each cell’s path. We’re talking only a matter of centimeters here, so right now the tractor beam’s most exciting applications remain on a small scale: our insides. This technology could help avoid more invasive procedures and direct treatments exactly where they need to be, potentially even limiting the damage of chemotherapy.

How High-Pitch Tones Will Demolish Diets

As the old adage goes, you are what you eat. As it turns out, you hear what you eat too, at least according to a growing body of research that shows how sound affects our taste buds. The upshot: Imagine a world in which we could sweeten food without sugar and reduce epidemics like diabetes and obesity (and, in turn, health-care costs) simply by piping certain sounds into our ears. Not convinced? Just ask Caroline Hobkinson, a food artist who teamed up with the University of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory on an experiment that tested sound-based taste modulation on diners at the London eatery House of Wolf. The Oxford team had previously determined that high notes tend to enhance sweetness and low ones bring out bitters. No one’s quite sure why, but one theory is that the brain has a tendency to “match” perceptions across the senses. (In more pronounced cases, this is what causes synesthesia.) To demonstrate the effect for the public, House of Wolf offered a bittersweet chocolate toffee cake pop served with a telephone number. Diners were invited to dial one for sweet or two for bitter, prompting a high-or low-frequency sound. “It makes me laugh because it works every time,” Hobkinson told The Guardian, “and people say, ‘Oh! That’s so weird!’” The lesson to be learned? If you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake and lead a healthier life, keep those low, lumbering tones on full blast. The tuba never sounded so good.

10 Facts About Aspirin

Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.


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