Science

There’s a good reason why so many adults are scared of clowns

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits Apple, Spotify, YouTube, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

By Rachel Feltman

Glassy-winged sharpshooters aren’t exactly the most lovable bugs. They’ve got wiggly abdomens that they use to make vibrations to communicate when it’s time to mate, bulbous eyes, and red-veined wings. They’re also considered pests: when they and other sharpshooters feed off of grapevines, they leave a bacterium called Xylella fastidiosa behind that causes leaves to yellow and wither with a condition known as Pierce’s disease. That plague can wipe out more than half of a vineyard’s vines in a single outbreak, and is estimated to cost $100 million in lost grapevines and mitigation efforts in California alone. And unlike the blue-green sharpshooter that tends to spread the disease most in Napa and Sonoma counties and along the coast, the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which causes trouble in Southern California, is invasive—it likely came over from its natural habitat in the southeastern US on the back of a nursery plant in the early 1990s. 

But in addition to posing a threat to the wine industry, glassy-winged sharpshooters pose a more immediate threat to any humans who happen to pass by them: The threat of being sprayed with a constant mist of bug urine.

Learn more about the super-powered urinary capabilities of these insects by listening to this week’s episode—or by hopping on over to this article about the prolific pee-ers. 

FACT: A fear of clowns may stem from the makeup itself

By Chelsey B. Coombs

Despite the cultural cache that a fear of clowns holds, and the fact that it’s super common for pop culture to reference it, there hasn’t been much academic research on the fear of clowns.

So the authors of a new study from the International Journal of Mental Health decided to examine the fear of clowns in an international population with the appropriately named “Fear of Clowns Questionnaire,” which was adapted from the “Fear of Spiders Questionnaire.”

Out of 927 participants, 27% said they had a fear of clowns, with 5% saying they were extremely afraid of clowns. More women reported that they were afraid of clowns and they had a more extreme fear of clowns than men, which actually follows a similar pattern in phobias just generally.

The strongest factor the researchers found causing people’s fear of clowns was that a clown’s makeup keeps people guessing at what their actual intentions are. They may have a permanently happy face, but that conceals whether they’re angry or upset, so the authors believe that being unable to know what a clown is really thinking or what they might do puts us on edge.

FACT: In the 18th Century, toilets were not just for poop

By Melissa Dunphy

We’ve all come across signs in toilets begging us not to flush anything other than waste and sewer-safe toilet paper for fear of clogging or damaging plumbing. But before modern sewer systems, no such rules applied. Colonial Americans who used privy pits—shafts dug into the ground beneath an outhouse—tossed all kinds of trash into the depths along with their sewage. Wine bottles, kitchen waste, unwanted ceramic plates and bowls, old buttons, toys, cannon balls, smoking pipes, waste from cottage industries such as tanning and metalwork, and anything else they needed to get rid of from their households often ended up down the toilet hole, since in addition to lacking sewage pipes, they also lacked the convenience of modern trash collection. If, for example, your horse died while you were too busy to find a better means of disposal, you might simply heave it into the privy instead. It certainly couldn’t have made the smell any worse.

During this time period, specialists known as nightsoil men were paid to manually clean out privies every now and then, but after sewer systems came along, many privies were simply filled in, trash intact. Modern archaeologists especially value these privy pits as rich time capsules that provide fascinating snapshots into the everyday lives of the people who once used them, demonstrating that just about any trash will become treasure if you wait long enough.

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