The 14-Year-Old Who Convinced People to Ban Dihydrogen Monoxide

Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

In the spring of 1997, a 14-year-old’s school science fair project made a convincing argument to ban a dangerous chemical compound: dihydrogen monoxide, known as DHMO. Nathan Zohner, a junior high school student in Idaho, gave 50 of his fellow students a report called "Dihydrogen Monoxide: The Unrecognized Killer,” which accurately laid out the dangers of DHMO, convincing the majority of students to call for its ban. The experiment caused enough of a splash that it was picked up by The Washington Post.

The compound can corrode and rust metal and cause severe burns, the paper correctly argued. If you consume it, it can cause bloating and excessive urination and sweating. Thousands of people in the U.S. die from its accidental ingestion every year. If you are dependent on it, going through withdrawal can kill you. It’s found in significant quantities in acid rain, tumors, and more. Armed with this information and asked what the world should do about the threat of DHMO, 43 of Zohner’s classmates voted to ban the compound, citing its deadly nature. Lucky for them, no lawmaker would agree: DHMO is the chemical formula for water. Zohner—whose project won the grand prize at the regional science fair that year—wasn’t the first person to drive people into hysterics over the (real) dangers of DHMO, which can in fact burn, drown, and otherwise harm you in its various forms.

One of the earliest iterations of the hoax came from a Michigan paper called The Durand Express, which ran a piece decrying the harms of DHMO as an April Fool’s Day joke in 1983. Zohner’s experiment highlighted how easily young students—even those who had taken chemistry—could be taken in by misleading, fear-mongering scientific information. But scientific illiteracy isn’t just an issue with kids, and the widespread ability to Google basic facts hasn’t kept similar hoaxes and conspiracy theories from taking root in the public imagination today.

People still believe that fluoride in the water is a result of the government trying to poison them (fluoridation has been called one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, causing a major decline in dental cavities and tooth loss across populations) or that vaccines cause autism (an idea, widely disproven, that was based on a 12-person study that used falsified data) or that deodorant can cause breast cancer (no scientific evidence supports this claim, according to the National Cancer Institute).

Consider the recent trend of “detoxing” propagated by publications like Goop. Most people don’t know what “toxins” they’re trying to filter out with their expensive juice cleanses to begin with, but doctors point out that the human body is pretty well equipped to handle the damaging materials you throw at it—like, say, alcohol. With no real scientific evidence to back it up, it’s the modern equivalent of leeching, experts have pointed out.

No doubt Gwyneth Paltrow would be as worried about DHMO as she is about underwire bras causing cancer (don’t worry, they don’t). The lesson of Zohner’s project, two decades later? Chemicals aren’t always bad. Everything is made of chemicals, and just because it has a name you can’t pronounce doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. It’s easy to get taken in by doomsday pseudoscience—because hey, pollution is truly dangerous and most of us haven’t taken a science class in decades. But with a little bit of skepticism and some basic research skills, we can all learn to sort through the false facts. In moderation, a little DHMO is a wonderful thing.

Lost Your Wallet? You Might Be More Likely to Get It Back If There's Cash Inside

iStock/tzahiV
iStock/tzahiV

Few things can incite more panic than discovering you’ve lost a wallet or purse containing money, identification, credit cards, and/or keys. You wonder if anyone will find it—and if they do, whether they’ll decide to retain your cash using the playground ethics of the "finders keepers" rule.

An ambitious new study in the journal Science has provided at least a partial answer. If your wallet has cash inside, it’s actually more likely for people to return it than if it didn’t have any.

Researchers at the University of Michigan conducted an exercise in civic honesty, dispatching 13 assistants to 355 cities in 40 countries across the globe. At each destination, the assistants were armed with clear wallets that held things like grocery lists and business cards along with an email address. Some wallets had no money inside. Others contained about $13.45 in the local currency. The assistants gave the wallets to employees at banks, hotels, post offices, museums, and police stations, explaining they had “found” the wallet and were in too big of a hurry to contact the owner themselves. They passed the responsibility to the person receiving the wallet. All told, 17,303 wallets were left as proverbial bait to see what the employees might do.

Of the wallets without cash inside, researchers received an email seeking to return roughly 40 percent of them. About 51 percent of the employees attempted to return the wallets containing $13.45 in cash.

These percentages fluctuated by country. In Denmark, 82 percent of wallets with cash were returned. In the United States, the figure was 57 percent. When researchers upped the stakes by including $94.15 in wallets for areas in the U.S., Britain, and Poland, the return rate went up to 72 percent.

It’s difficult to infer motivations for why people returned wallets with more money than less, or none. In a survey, researchers found that people in general described wanting to avoid feeling like a thief by keeping the money. (Respondents were different than the employees who were left with the wallet.) That would explain why returns increased as the dollar amount went up.

The study was limited by the fact that the wallets were left with people who could have presumably been held accountable for not returning them. The research assistant could have returned to inquire about the wallet’s status, while no such concern exists for people finding a wallet in the street. Still, it does indicate that people feel a measure of sympathy for—and moral obligation to—lost money and will make an effort to see it returned.

[h/t Science News]

Some Fish Eggs Can Hatch After Being Pooped Out by Swans

iStock/olaser
iStock/olaser

A question that’s often baffled scientists is how certain species of fish can sometimes appear—and even proliferate—in isolated bodies of water not previously known to harbor them. A new study has demonstrated that the most unlikely explanation might actually be correct: It’s possible they fell from the sky.

Specifically, from the rear end of a swan.

A study in the journal Ecology by researchers at the Unisinos University in Brazil found that killifish eggs can, in rare cases, survive being swallowed by swans, enduring a journey through their digestive tracts before being excreted out. This kind of fecal public transportation system explains how killifish can pop up in ponds, flood waters, and other water bodies that would seem an unlikely place for species to suddenly appear.

After discovering that some plants could survive being ingested and then flourish in swan poop, researchers took notice of a killifish egg present in a frozen fecal sample. They set about mixing two species of killifish eggs into the food supply of coscoroba swans living in a zoo. After waiting a day, they collected the poop and dug in looking for the eggs.

Of the 650 eggs they estimated to have been ingested by the swans, about five were left intact. Of those, three continued to develop. Two died of a fungal infection, but one survived, enduring 30 hours in the gut and hatching 49 days after being excreted.

Because killifish eggs have a thick outer membrane, or chorion, they stand a chance of coming through the digestive tract of an animal intact. Not all of what a swan ingests will be absorbed; their stomachs are built to extract nutrients quickly and get rid of the whatever's left so the birds can eat again. In rare cases, that can mean an egg that can go on to prosper.

Not all fish eggs are so durable, and not all fish are quite like the killifish. Dubbed the "most extreme" fish on Earth by the BBC, killifish have adapted to popping up in strange environments where water may eventually dry up. They typically live for a year and deposit eggs that can survive in soil, delaying their development until conditions—say, not being inside a swan—are optimal. One species, the mangrove killifish, can even breathe through its skin. When water recedes, they can survive on land for over two months, waddling on their bellies or using their tails to "jump" and eat insects. A fish that can survive on dry land probably doesn't sweat having to live in poop.

The researchers plan to study carp eggs next to see if they, too, can go through a lot of crap to get to where they’re going.

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER