The Time Australian Researchers Studied Why There Are Never Any Spoons in Your Office Kitchen

iStock.com/RobynRoper
iStock.com/RobynRoper

As with any communal space, office kitchens are replete with their own particular problems. There are always dirty coffee mugs in the sink, directly under the “please wash your dishes” sign. Lunches get stolen from the fridge, no matter how carefully—or passive-aggressively—they’re labeled. And inevitably, at some point, all the spoons will disappear.

That last part is pure scientific fact. The phenomenon of the missing office spoons once proved so consternating to a group of Australian public health researchers, in fact, that they conducted a whole study on it.

Included in 2005 in the British Medical Journal's annual Christmas issue—which publishes research on quirky topics like neck injuries in heavy metal musicians and the hypothesized walking speed of the Grim Reaper—the months-long study tracked the rapid loss of spoons in communal office kitchens at the Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne.

It began in early 2004, when the researchers discovered that their office tearoom (what Americans would call a break room) was completely devoid of the spoons necessary to measure out instant coffee and sugar. So they bought new spoons. Within a few months, those, too, had disappeared, never to be seen or stirred again.

To get to the bottom of the mystery of the vanishing utensils, they methodically put out 70 “discreetly numbered teaspoons” (i.e. labeled with red nail polish) in the eight communal break rooms around the institute, returning weekly to count how many spoons were left. Some of spoons were stainless steel while others were of a "higher quality," allowing the researchers to determine whether people would be more likely to walk off with a nicer spoon rather than run-of-the-mill silverware.

Office spoons, the researchers found, have a half-life of just 81 days. By that point in the experiment, half of the new spoons had permanently vanished. After five months, a full 80 percent of the spoons had disappeared. It didn’t matter whether the spoons were high-quality or average, though spoons placed in rooms that were used by more people at the institute disappeared faster than spoons in break rooms linked to specific programs.

When the researchers revealed their study to the rest of the colleagues, a select few spoon-hoarders came forward to return their utensils. But in total, only five of the 56 missing teaspoons were recovered. “Four of these were returned from areas far removed from their place of last observation; one had been missing for 20 weeks,” the researchers write. “No one admitted to the permanent removal of a teaspoon from the institute, and no plausible explanations were advanced for the high rate of teaspoon loss.” At this rate, they calculated, the institute would need to buy at least 252 teaspoons every year to maintain a workable ratio of one spoon to every two employees.

Their final conclusion? Employers need to buy more spoons, or their whole organization might fall apart. “The loss of workplace teaspoons was rapid,” they write, “showing that their availability, and hence office culture in general, is constantly threatened.” Without sufficient numbers of spoons, employees will quickly become dissatisfied with their workplace. They’ll have to waste precious company time tracking down something to measure out coffee and sugar—forks, knives, even staplers.

We don’t say this about most studies, but the paper is well worth reading in its entirety.

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

An Ice Age Wolf Head Was Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost

iStock/stevegeer
iStock/stevegeer

Don’t lose your head in Siberia, or it may be found preserved thousands of years later.

A group of mammoth tusk hunters in eastern Siberia recently found an Ice Age wolf’s head—minus its body—in the region’s permafrost. Almost perfectly preserved thanks to tens of thousands of years in ice, researchers dated the specimen to the Pleistocene Epoch—a period between 1.8 million and 11,700 years ago characterized by the Ice Age. The head measures just under 16 inches long, The Siberian Times reports, which is roughly the same size as a modern gray wolf’s.

Believed to be between 2 to 4 years old around the time of its death, the wolf was found with its fur, teeth, and soft tissue still intact. Scientists said the region’s permafrost, a layer of ground that remains permanently frozen, preserved the head like a steak in a freezer. Researchers have scanned the head with a CT scanner to reveal more of its anatomy for further study.

Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at London’s Natural History Museum, witnessed the head’s discovery in August 2018. She performed carbon dating on the tissue and tweeted that it was about 32,000 years old.

The announcement of the discovery was made in early June to coincide with the opening of a new museum exhibit, "The Mammoth," at Tokyo’s Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The exhibit features more than 40 Pleistocene specimens—including a frozen horse and a mammoth's trunk—all in mint condition, thanks to the permafrost’s effects. (It's unclear if the wolf's head is included in the show.)

While it’s great to have a zoo’s worth of prehistoric beasts on display, scientists said the number of animals emerging from permafrost is increasing for all the wrong reasons. Albert Protopopov, director of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha, told CNN that the warming climate is slowly but surely thawing the permafrost. The higher the temperature, the likelier that more prehistoric specimens will be found.

And with average temperatures rising around the world, we may find more long-extinct creatures rising from the ice.

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