Science Hoax of the Week: Artificial Insemination with a Bullet

Science Hoax of the Week: Artificial Insemination with a Bullet

‘Son of a gun’ 

Dr Capers
 The day was May 12th 1874. Dr Legrand Capers was serving with the Confederate Army in the battle of Raymond. Suddenly, a young man fighting next to him screamed, his tibia had been fractured. The bullet had then ricocheted off the bone, obliterating his left testicle and disappeared. After quickly patching up his comrade he was immediately rushed off to tend to a nearby young woman who had been shot in the abdomen, the bullet had passed into her uterus and “was lost”. Both patients thankfully recovered. But, the girl’s stomach became distended. Dismissing this as a side effect of the injury Capers was shocked when 278 days after her injury she gave birth to boy. However, the greatest shock was still to come when 3 weeks after his birth the baby displayed an unusual scrotal defect. Capers immediately performed surgery and found a small damaged bullet. He then published his findings in the American Medical Weekly in 1874 declaring it to be the same bullet that had injured both patients, thus giving the first example of human artificial insemination by bullet!

There is one slight catch in the story. None of it happened, it was a joke story. This however, did not stop the spreading and becoming widely accepted, as late as 1959 it was being cited as fact by the New York Journal of Medicine.

Science of Dating: Topics of Conversation

Science of Dating: Topics of Conversation

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

So, your attempts at chat-up lines have gone well (the topic of the first post in this theme) and you have gotten yourself a date. But what now? What do you talk about? Well it appears science has the answer to that too!

An investigation conducted at the Edinburugh Science Festival by psychologists James Houran, Caroline Watt and Richard Wiseman looked into what topics of conversation are the most sucessful in a dating situation. One hundred randomly selected participants (50 men and 50 women) engaged in the scientific speed dating.

The subjects were sat on 5 long tables facing a member of the opposite sex. Four of the tables were given a topic to discuss (film, travel, hobbies or books), while the fifth control table were allowed to talk about whatever they wanted. After 3 minutes of conversation each participant rated their potential suitor based on physical attraction, chemistry, how quickly they made their mind up and if they would see the other person again. The  participants then swapped and had introductions with more people.

Those who said that they wanted to meet again were given each others numbers. Around 60% left with at least 1 number and 20% got 4 or more numbers. But, it was differences in success of the topic of conversation that was the really interesting statistic.

Talking about films was the least successful topic with only 9% saying that they would like to see the other person again, whilst 18% who discussed travel (the most popular topic) wanted to meet again. The poor showing for film was attributed to the differences in film tastes between men and women, also Wiseman observed that whenever he walked past the film table the participants were just arguing!

Also discovered was that 45% of womens descisions were made during the first 30 seconds, whilst only 22% of men made their descision in that time.

Whatever you talk about though it appears that humour plays a very important role. A 2004 study by Arthur Aron and Barbra Fraley got pairs of strangers to undergo tasks. One part of the study half the participants were paired up with one blindfolded and the other asked to speak with a straw in their mouth to give themselves a funny voice. The individual with a straw was asked to instruct the blindfolded individual to do a dance routine. The control group  learnt the dance without the blindfold and speaking normally. The second part of the study had the ‘comedy group’ act out commercials using a made up language while the controls acted them out in english.

Unsurprisingly the participants involved in the siller actions had more fun. But, importantly they also rated themselves as feeling closer and more attracted to their partners.

So, what can we gather from this? Well, the implactions seem to be, be funny, enthuse about your travels, but for God sake don’t go on about how much you hate the other persons favourite film!


Fraley, B., & Aron, A. (2004). The effect of a shared humorous experience on closeness in initial encounters Personal Relationships, 11 (1), 61-78 DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2004.00071.x

Wiseman R. Quirkology: The Curious Science of Everyday Lives. Macmillan. 2007

The Science of Dating: Pick-Up Lines

The Science of Dating: Pick-Up Lines

As a bit of a break from my usual blogging routine, this weeks blogs will all be on a theme. The science of dating, moving from pick-up lines through to the biochemistry of long term relationships. I will go through the staggering amount of research in this area and attempt to find out if you can use science to orchestrate a perfect date! [Note: Appologies for the poor formatting word press went a tad crazy when I put the tables in!]


“If I could be any enzyme I would be DNA Helicase so I could unzip your genes”



There is more to the science of chat-up lines than utilising some classic science puns on an unsuspecting individual. A surpring amount of research has been done into why we attempt pick-up lines and which have the greatest chance of a positive reception, a 1986 study by Chris Kleinke sought to answer the latter.

The study was divided into two parts, one looking at lines that men use to meet women and the other looking at the inverse. In the first part of the study 137 men and 163 women (90% of participants were under 27) were asked to list ‘lines’ that they thought would be successful. These were then ranked by women on a 7 point scale (from 1-Terrible to 7-Excellent). The lines were then grouped into types, ‘Cute-Flipant’, ‘Direct Approach’ or ‘Innocuous’. From this it was observed that women prefer direct or innocous lines compared to cute-flipant, although the most direct lines (such as “I’m easy, are you?”) unsurprisingly ranked very poorly! But what lines in particular were ranked at the best and worst?

The Best Rated Lines:



Responses rated as good to excellent (%)





Do you want to dance?



I haven’t been here before, what’s good on the menu?



Can I help you with those bags?



Want to go and grab a beer or cup of coffee while we’re waiting?



Want to play Frisbee?


The Worst Rated Lines:
Line Responses rated as poor to terrible (%)
General – Is that really your hair? 89
Bar – (Looking at a woman’s jewellery) Wow it looks like you’ve just robbed a Woolworths. 89.6
Laundrette – A man shouldn’t have to wash his own clothes 83.5
Supermarkets – Do you really eat that junk? 89.6
Beach – Did you notice me throwing that football? Good arm, huh? 88.2

But what about women? Well, when the study looked at the lines used by women they asked, 93 male and 112 female, students from the Universities Of California and Massachusetts for what liens women might use. They were ranked on the same 7 point scale and the following:

The Best Rated Lines:


Responses rated as good to fantastic (%)

Since we’re both sitting alone would you like to join me?




I’m having trouble getting my car started. Will you give me a hand?


I don’t have anyone to introduce me, but I’d really like to get to know you more.


Can you give me directions (to anywhere)?


The Worst Rated Lines:


Responses rated as poor to terrible (%)

It’s been a long time since I’ve had a boyfriend


Didn’t we meet in a previous life?


Hey baby, you’ve got a gorgeous chassis. Mind if I look under the hood?


I’m easy, are you?


What’s your sign?


Being aware of which lines are deemed good and which are deemed bad begs the question, why do we do it? A separate more recent study from Edinburgh University commented on this. They also found that direct approaches for sex (such as ” I’m not Fred Flintstone but i’ll make your bed rock”) and hyperbole compliments were treated with great disdain, commenting that it is a wonder why we had evolved to aproach the opposite sex in this way. In the end they theorised that it may be “used by men to identify sociosexually uninhibited women”, a polite way of saying they are looking for easy girls!

As far as I can tell the only studies that have been done into pick-up lines have been questionnaire filled in surveys then statistically analysed. Does this really tell us what works and what doesnt work in the real world? I think anthopologists should actually go to bars and use lines and observe their effects. If only for the pure amusement I would get from a scientists approaching someone on a beach and saying:

“Let me see your strapmarks?” … 86.8 % of girls rated this as poor to terrible!

BALE, C., MORRISON, R., & CARYL, P. (2006). Chat-up lines as male sexual displays Personality and Individual Differences, 40 (4), 655-664 DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.07.016

Kleinke, C., Meeker, F., & Staneski, R. (1986). Preference for opening lines: Comparing ratings by men and women Sex Roles, 15 (11-12), 585-600 DOI: 10.1007/BF00288216

Engineered to Save the World: The Messianic Child

Engineered to Save the World: The Messianic Child

Henry Coombe-Tennant aged 1

Everybody’s mother tells them they are special. Children are doted on by their parents and made to feel they are the most important people in the world. However, for one individual there was a little more this.  Henry Coombe-Tennant, born in 1913 was ‘engineered’ by his parents to be a messiah in a bizzarre story of early 20th Century psychic experimentation.

Britain at the turn of the century was a decidedly odd place to be it seems. Having accepted the Darwinian theory of evolution, many were unable to come to terms with the implications of his findings, that humanity is not special from other organisms and that in a Judeao-Christian sense there is no afterlife. As a result some turned to occult like activities claiming them as science in attempts to prove that death is not the end.

One individual who was involved in these psychic experiments was Gerald Balfour (younger brother of Prime Minister Arthur Balfour), an MP who at one point was secretary of state for Ireland, and Winifred Coombe-Tennant (a British Delegate at the League of Nations). They and other spiritualists came up with “The Plan”.  Half spiritualism and half eugenics, “The Plan” was to create a child who would be scientifically engineered to change the world. This, however isn’t a tale of designer babies in the modern sense. The child would be altered by those beyond the grave!

Balfour and Coombe-Tennant were believers in the power of “automatic writing”. This is a process in which an individual writes something without any consciousness or thought, and it was believed that long dead individuals were controlling what  was being written. Balfour, Coombe-Tennant and others believed, following ‘correspondence’ with these spirits, that the dead would engineer the child to “deliver humanity from chaos”. One spirit in particular they were trusting was Francis Maitland Balfour (another of the Balfour brothers) a Cambridge Biologist who died in 1988 whilst climbing Mont Blanc.

There was one slight thing in the way of their plan, both Balfour and Coombe-Tennant were married to other people. Charles Coombe-Tennant was almost 60 at the time, but despite any potential paternity doubts said nothing. Gerald Balfour took a more direct approach telling  his wife, Betty, that he could no longer have sex with her.  Upon this news, Betty apparently sank into depression, although the two were reconciled years later when he explained why he made that decision.

From this adulterous relationship was born Augustus Henry Coombe-Tennant in 1913. So did Henry “deliver humanity from chaos” or “bring peace and justice into the world”, in short, no. But, he still led a very interesting life. After attending Eton and Trinity College Cambridge he went off to fight in World War 2 with the Welsh Guard. Unfortunately, he was captured and kept as a prisoner of war for 2 years, before staging an almost miraculous escape. He simply walked out of occupied Europe in British uniform, unable to speak any language other than English.

After this he later worked for MI6 before converting to Catholicism and becoming a monk. It was not until late on in his life that he was told his rather strange origins.

So next time your parents are a bit pushy, just be thankful that they don’t expect you to save humanity!


Roy, Archie E. (2008). The Eager Dead: A Study in Haunting. Brighton: Book Guild Publishing.

Gray, John (2011). The Immortalization Commission. Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Allen Lane

‘You had me at hello’ – Love at First Sight

‘You had me at hello’ – Love at First Sight

Valentine’s day is upon us. With love hearts adorning every shop window, radio stations playing non-stop love songs and an army of loved up teddy bears invading homes there is never a better time to look at the science of love.

A recent meta-analysis has indicated that falling in love can take a little as a fifth of a second and can produce similar euphoric effects to cocaine.

“These results confirm love has a scientific basis,” says Stephanie Ortigue who conducted the study at Syracuse University. The study has shown 12 areas of the brain work simultaneously to release chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and vasopressin, bringing about euphoria when falling in love.

It was also found that the nerve growth factor levels also increased, especially in those who had just fallen in love. Ortigue claims that while this is interesting in terms of being a neuroscience curiosity it could have potential therapeutic possibilities for those suffering depression after heartbreak. She says “”By understanding why they fall in love and why they are so heartbroken, they can use new therapies.”

Now for anyone that has ever been down about a failed relationship that is no doubt a tempting solution, a pill to cure heartache would sell in the millions. However, having seen ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds’ I am wary of using science to get rid of heart break!

Alternatively you could look at this information in another way. If researchers are claiming that by understanding the chemical process they may be able to treat a broken heart, could they then not use the same knowledge to create love? Will we end up with a situation where married couples on hard times can have chemical and hormonal therapies to fall back in love with each other? I doubt it as the comments by comments by Ortigue seem to be no more than the typical ‘5-10 year’ theoretical enhancements the media loves.

But can you use this information to impact on the success of dates you have tonight, no? Although, if it does all go wrong then blaming biochemistry might bring a little bit of comfort.

Ortigue S, Bianchi-Demicheli F, Patel N, Frum C, & Lewis JW (2010). Neuroimaging of love: fMRI meta-analysis evidence toward new perspectives in sexual medicine. The journal of sexual medicine, 7 (11), 3541-52 PMID: 20807326

Fish Go Mad for Ginger Gene

This was originally published in ‘The Nerve’ the Southampton Biological Society Paper:

The different pigmentation of Medaka: (a,g) HN1 – Wild Type (b,h) b98 – orange (c,i) ci – grey

There may be plenty of fish in the sea but the medaka knows what it likes. A single gene mutation that causes the Japanese Killifish to be born a drab grey colour has proved to be a turn-off to members of the opposite sex.

Found commonly in Southeast Asia, the medaka exists in a wide range of colours; from brown, to more uncommon orange and grey variations. The grey medaka were often observed to be rejected in favour of their brown or orange rivals. “This is the first demonstration of a single gene that can change both secondary sexual characteristics and mating preferences” said Shoji Fukamachi, who led a team of researchers from the University of Konstanz, Germany and the University of Tokyo.

The greys, however, need not be completely despondent at these findings, as the study also showed that they were preferentially selective for each other. The attraction seen in the different coloured fish for their colour counterparts, suggests a potential window for sympatric speciation.

The orange colour observed in medaka is due xanthophores, a type of pigmented structure. The grey fish have a mutation in the xanthophore gene resulting in under-expression.

By over-expressing this same gene ‘super attractive’ bright orange medaka were created . These fish induced hyperactivity in members of the opposite sex resulting in the other potential mates being ignored almost completely.

The new study published in the open access journal BMC Biology concludes, “This discovery should further facilitate molecular dissection/manipulation of visual-based mate choice”.

Dual control by a single gene of secondary sexual characters and mating preferences in medaka

Shoji Fukamachi et al; BMC Biology 2009, 7:64;

September  29th