Weird Science Weekly: This ‘metal snow’ is not a Norweigan rock band


In this installment of Weird Science Weekly, I discuss more of the weirdest things going on in the world of science, and this week it includes angry LEGOs, raising bugs in your kitchen and even metallic snow.

Our toys are getting angrier

Okay, let me just put this out there: LEGO is awesome. I've loved it since I was a kid, and I still collect their sets as an adult. The toy has always had a really positive reputation, but lately this reputation might be taking a hit, as the expressions on their mini-figure faces have been showing a greater range of emotion, and this has been trending a lot more darkly in recent years.

To get a feel for this, researchers asked 264 people to rate the intensity of 627 LEGO mini-figure expressions, using figures from 1975 all the way up to 2010. Although happy faces still outnumber the rest (324), the next most common was anger (192), then sadness (49), disgusted (28), surprised (23) and scared (11), and this shows a trend over time towards fewer happy expressions and more angry expressions (as well as other negative emotions).

This trend, along with the increase in the number of weapons available to the mini-figures, has the researchers wondering if LEGO can hold on to their positive reputation. As the researchers write: "The children that grow up with LEGO today will remember not only smileys, but also anger and fear in the Minifigures’ faces."

I remember back when mini-figures first came out, in sets like the old 1978 LEGO Space Command Center (one of my favourites!). Each tiny astronaut had this serene, happy expression on their little yellow face — obviously a clear message to us that living in space was just the best thing ever. Following along with this research, I have to wonder if my personal view of space travel would be as positive as it is, if my LEGO mini-figures hadn't looked so happy about it.

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Have bugs in your kitchen, on purpose

Last month, we heard from the U.N. how eating bugs would be good for us and the world. Microlivestock may be the way of the future, but right now, the idea of eating bugs just brings back memories of the neighbourhood bully.

If it is going to become more common though, at least we won't have to go digging around in the grass for our dinner.

Even now, you can own your very own micro-ranch, right in your very own kitchen. Designer Mansour Ourasanah, in collaboration with kitchen gadget giant KitchenAid, are bringing us Lepsis — a prototype counter-top grasshopper breeder.

It's actually a nifty design — the pod is made up of sections to grow, feed, harvest and kill your little herd (swarm?) in four individual units.

Okay, so in all seriousness, 80 per cent of the world already eats bugs (yes, on purpose). While the idea doesn't seem likely to catch on in meat-hungry North America in the immediate future, this kind of product could help the idea along by making it more accessible and interesting to people, and that's never a bad thing.

Venus has heavy metal snow

Okay, the words 'Venus' and 'snow' already sound really strange together, considering that it's hot enough on the surface of that planet to melt lead, but there's apparently snow on the mountaintops there, and it's made of metal!

We can't see the surface of Venus through the thick layer of clouds that's constantly enshrouding it, but we've had spacecraft in orbit that used radar to look down through those clouds to map the surface. When these spacecraft flew past the mountain ranges, the signal that bounced back was exceptionally bright, as if they were taking pictures of snowy mountaintops. Looking over the data, scientists found that's exactly what they were seeing, but instead of being made from water, this snow was made from galena (a lead ore we use to make lead-acid batteries) and bismuthinite (we use bismuth in some pigments and cosmetics).

According to Discovery News, reflective minerals on the planet's surface are vapourized in the incredible heat, becoming a metallic mist in the atmosphere. "At higher altitudes, this mist condenses, forming shiny, metallic frost on the tops of the mountains. And Earth’s simmering sibling has plenty of high altitude terrain. Maxwell Montes, the tallest peak on Venus, stands at an altitude of 11 kilometres — 3 kilometres higher than Mount Everest."

Given that anything we've landed on the Venusian surface hasn't lasted very long before it was crushed, melted and burned by the hellish conditions there, it's highly doubtful that Venus will become a popular a tourist destination, but I have to say, shining metallic snow on the mountaintops has to be quite the sight to see.

Guppies can breed even after death!

You know the song; birds do it, bees do it. Guppies do it up to 10 months after they're dead!

All right, that's not as catchy as Cole Porter, but it turns out it's true. A team of biologists at the University of California recently discovered that dead male guppies can become fathers.

It's less salacious than it sounds, though. Turns out female guppies can store sperm inside their bodies for a long time, until the best time for fertilization. Female guppies have the luxury of much longer lives than their male counterparts; around two years rather than the fella's three to four months, so it's sometimes beneficial for them to wait to reproduce. That means, though, that the majority of baby guppies are born long after dad is floating at the top of the proverbial bowl.

David Reznick, leader of the study, says that "long term sperm storage means that a single female can colonize a new site and establish a new population that has a fair measure of genetic diversity since we have found that the older, larger females can carry the sperm of several males."

And 10 months is just where they stopped monitoring. Some females might hold onto 'the goods' even longer than that!

New material expands when you squeeze it

This sounds a bit like a paper-towel commercial, but scientists have come up with a new material that actually gets bigger and less dense when you squeeze it.

The scientists spent years testing this out, just to be sure they weren't all going through some shared delusion, but every test showed the same thing. When they applied pressure to zinc cyanide — mainly used in electroplating — it didn't compact down and get more dense, like you'd expect something put under pressure to do. Instead, the material completely rearranged itself, opening up into a more porous structure.

"It's like squeezing a stone and forming a giant sponge," said Karena Chapman, a chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy laboratory, said in a statement. "Materials are supposed to become denser and more compact under pressure. We are seeing the exact opposite."

This very strange, but very cool discovery will allow scientists to create a host of new porous materials, for anything from new water filters, carbon dioxide traps and chemical sensors, to new ways of delivering drugs.

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Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Images courtesy: LEGO/Bartneck et al., Ourasanah/KitchenAid, NASA, Getty Images)

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