Glowing wombats, penguin poo giving researchers the literal giggles, and vodka-soaked worms - these are the weirdest and most wonderful science stories from this year.
Rae Johnston

14 Dec 2020 - 2:58 PM  UPDATED 14 Dec 2020 - 2:58 PM

It's been a long 2020, and while the majority of the science community was focused on the COVID-19 pandemic a whole lot of research was happening in other areas. Weird areas.

In fact, 2020 produced an absolute bumper crop of bizarre science yarns. Thanks to the Australian Science Media Centre we now know - officially and scientifically - the strangest of the bunch.

Melbourne researcher gets a worm drunk on vodka and gives it a little jiggle, for science

Vibrating a slightly drunk earthworm on a sub-woofer speaker in a rural Victorian backyard shed may sound more like a prank than the kind of activity that wins international scientific awards. But that's precisely what happened to Aussie researcher Dr Ivan Maksymov in September.

The gong in question was an "Ig Nobel" prize, a spoof of the illustrious Nobel Prizes, which are awarded every year for "research that makes people laugh and then think". As with all Ig Nobel winners, the silly-sounding study had a more serious side.

In Dr Maksymov's case, he was investigating the role of sound waves in the brain. He said he chose to work with worms as their nerves share similarities with mammals, and "one can easily anaesthetise a worm using vodka".

The unusual location, his garden shed, was the result of having to work under lockdown conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Antarctic Researchers had to laugh after penguin poo released laughing gas

Hilarity ensued in May, when Antarctic researchers revealed an unexpected challenge of the job: the sedative effects of laughing gas released by penguin poo.

Danish scientist Professor Bo Elberling said his team went "cuckoo" while working on greenhouse gas research in Antarctica surrounded by penguin droppings, the result of inhaling nitrous oxide - or laughing gas.

The gas is emitted because the birds' diet consists mainly of fish and krill, which are high in nitrogen. Once the penguins have 'dropped the kids off at the pool', soil bacteria convert the nitrogen into nitrous oxide, turning penguin business into funny business.

But it's not all poos and giggles – nitrous oxide is a potent greenhouse gas and is 300 times more damaging to the environment than carbon dioxide.

Platypus get their glow on

As if our native animals weren't charming enough, we learned this year that several of them glow under UV light.

The first to light up our lives was the platypus when, in October, US scientists noticed museum specimens of the duck-billed beastie glowed a greeny-blue under a blacklight. Then Linda Reinhold, a Queensland zoologist, found platypuses were not alone when she photographed a glowing northern brown bandicoot.

Those discoveries piqued the curiosity of Dr Kenny Travouillon from the Western Australian Museum who decided to turn UV lights on their collections of Australian mammals. As well as confirming their platypus specimens glowed, he found wombat, bilby and echidna specimens all emitted a similar ethereal light.

The last to join the glow gang was the Tasmanian Devil when in December Toledo Zoo in Ohio posted a picture of a devil's head emitting a ghostly blue light.

Exactly why so many Aussie animals glow under UV light still remains unclear.

A caterpillar upcycles its old heads to make a fetching hat

Hang on to your hats - in 2020's most extreme example of recycling, we were introduced to the mad "hatterpillar", or Uraba lugens.

It is a native species of caterpillar that really knows how to get ahead - or even several heads - and turn them into a rather swanky hat.

As the caterpillar grows towards moth-hood, it sheds its exoskeleton 13 times, but rather than chucking the defunct heads it hoards them from the fourth moult, leaving each ex-head stuck to the top of its new one. Eventually this ends in a towering ten-storey hat, where each new headpiece is a little bigger than the last.

The elaborate hat not only looks spectacular, but it may also help protect the caterpillar from predators.

But before you fall head-over-heels in love with this beastie, you should also know about its dark side. The mad hatterpillar is a serious pest of Eucalyptus trees, and also goes by a much more sinister monicker - the gum-leaf skeletoniser.

It is finally possible to smell like space, thanks to NASA

If like so many of us, you'd been waiting impatiently to be able to smell like the endless void of space, it finally became possible in 2020. A perfume based on NASA research hit the market – Eau de Space.

NASA originally commissioned a bottled space smell in 2008 to help train astronauts, based on first-hand accounts of odours encountered off-planet. The recipe remained a secret until it was revealed via Freedom of Information requests to a plucky entrepreneur, who decided to put it to good use, launching Eau de Space as a Kickstarter.

Having beaten their initial targets on the crowdfunding website, the first lucky customers are expected to be able to smell like space before the year is up.

So, what does space smell like? NASA's research revealed it's a combination of "fried steak, hot metal, and even welding a motorbike".

The company also launched a perfume that captures the scent of the Moon, which apparently whiffs of spent gunpowder – Eau de Luna.

Take It Blak podcast - EPISODE 20 STEM & Indigital's Mikaela Jade

In this episode of Take It Blak, NITV's Science & Technology Editor Rae Johnston has your monthly hit of the latest STEM news and interviews, looking at the intersection of traditional knowledge and modern science, and speaking to industry leaders. This month: how we know there's water on the moon, noise-cancelling without the headphones,  what makes the PlayStation 5 controller so special and the ethics and future of DNA study. Plus, Indigital's Mikaela Jade talks about alternate pathways into tech and decolonisation using Minecraft.