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Cambridge University Science Magazine

Whale snot collected by helicopter

Collecting whale snot isn’t easy. Previously, snot had only been obtained from stranded whales or whales in captivity. Recently, however, researchers from the Zoological Society of London have come up with an ingenious method for collecting snot in the wild.

Whales exhale through a blowhole in the top of their head, so the team hired a trained pilot to fly a remote-controlled helicopter into these exhaled ‘blows’, using binoculars to keep track of proceedings from a safe distance away. They collected their samples in two sterile Petri dishes, strapped to the landing gear of the helicopter with cable ties. When the helicopter returned from its five-minute flight, they retrieved the snot, wearing safety masks and disposable gloves to avoid contamination.

Back in the lab, molecular biology techniques were used to analyse the snot for disease-causing bacteria from the whales’ respiratory system. Infectious diseases are currently considered a serious threat to wildlife conservation, and the researchers hope that their pioneering new technique will help conservationists to monitor whale diseases. Tim Middleton

No luck in dating? Change your shirt

A surprising amount has been written about the psychological effects the colours you wear have on others. For example, red clothing seems to increase success in competitive sports, whilst darker jackets contribute to perceived competence among female job applicants. A recent study from the University of Liverpool set out to test whether the colour of one’s clothes affects how attractive one seems to others. The researchers found that subjects rated photographs of members of the opposite sex more attractive if they wore black or red shirts, less attractive if they wore white or yellow shirts, with green and blue somewhere in the middle.

And bad news if you think you can just cover up that yellow shirt with a jacket. The study also showed that even when the shirts in the photographs were hidden from view, subjects still rated the red and black shirt wearers as more attractive than the yellow and white shirt wearers, suggesting that even the wearers were not immune to the psychological effect of their shirt colour. The moral? Wear red or black next time you’re trying to pick someone up. Or, if you can’t, at least try to make them believe that you are. Thomas Gizbert

Oh F*@#!

Whether stubbing your toe, touching a hot stove or hitting your thumb with a hammer, we’re all guilty of uttering some expletives. However, scientists have shown that swearing really does help lessen pain. Ig Nobel prize winners from Keele University recruited students to plunge their hands into cold water whilst reciting a swear word of their choice or a commonplace word to describe a table. While repeating the swear word, the volunteers were able to withstand the pain for longer and perceived the pain as being considerably less. Why or how swearing has this effect is not known, but in the study the swearers also showed an increase in heart rate, which could indicate the general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, the physiological alarm reaction known as the ‘flight or fight’ response. This fundamental response allows our body to deal with imminent stress. When faced with pain, swearing may also raise levels of aggression, thus reducing feebleness, enabling us to better deal with what could be a dangerous situation. But do not overdo it! Excessive casual swearing can result in the words losing their emotional attachment, meaning next time you walk into that table corner there will be no expletive help at all. Helen Parker

If you have a wacky research story, let us know and we may include it in the next issue of BlueSci