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.
FACT: 1920s New York City architects hid spires in their buildings to sneakily become the tallest
By John Kennedy
In June 1930, the Empire State Building was ready to claim the title of world’s tallest, but its developers were at least a little bit worried the nearby Chrysler Building would sneakily unveil its final form and snatch the trophy right back.
This will-they-won’t-they suspense epitomized the architectural design slugfest between three (yes three) New York City buildings in the late 20s as they each tried to simply be bigger than all the others. The one you’re least likely to have realized was a part of this contest was 40 Wall Street, now known as the Trump Building. That’s because this 927-foot structure was, at best, only briefly No. 1 before the Chrysler developers secretly built a height-boosting spire inside the main structure and hoisted it into place, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
Naturally, at least a few people working on the Empire State Building a few blocks away were worried the Chrysler architect, William Van Alen, had a similar trick up his sleeve for when their structure finally surpassed Chrysler’s 1,046-foot height. Listen to this week’s episode to learn more about New York City’s race to the sky, and the underlying rivalry between former business partners that’s now set in stone and steel.
FACT: A bug that hadn’t been seen in decades showed up at a Walmart—and got identified over Zoom
By Rachel Feltman
In 2020, Michael Skvarla had the unenviable task of leading an insect identification lab course over Zoom. The director of Penn State’s Insect Identification Lab was partway through describing a bug from his personal collection—one he’d labeled as an “antlion,” which is a dragonfly-like creature known for having predatory larvae most people call doodlebugs—when he froze. He was realizing, on Zoom and in real-time, that this wasn’t an antlion. He told the class they’d reclassify it together, and in a couple minutes they’d come to a shocking conclusion.
It was actually Polystoechotes punctata, a member of a family of giant lacewing that’s existed for at least 100 million years.
A few quick caveats: Many news outlets referred to the giant lacewing as a “Jurassic-era insect,” but J. Ray Fisher, who works remotely from Fayateville for the University of Missouri and helped Skvarla confirm the insect’s identity, pointed out that this is a bit of a stretch. This is one of about 60 species with an evolutionary lineage that can be traced back to a common ancestor that originated in the Jurassic.
It’s also important to note that the giant lacewing is only “giant” in relation to other lacewings, which are smaller. The specimen Skvarla found has a wingspan of about two inches.
So, this isn’t some massive bug that’s been missing since the days of the dinosaurs, or even one that’s been missing at all. You can still find it in the western US. But the species has been considered extirpated—that is to say, regionally extinct—in most of the country since 1950. If you look at the map of their recorded sightings, in the 1800s you see a few on the east coast, and in the early 20th century there are a handful around the midwest, but by the mid century the only citings are way out west. It’s not entirely clear why this happened, but most experts say that increased light pollution and invasive species drove them out.
Not only was Skvarla’s specimen from Arkansas—hundreds of miles east of any member of this species found for more than half a century—but he casually scooped it up from the facade of a Walmart in an urban area of Fayetteville. And this was way back in 2012.
After that thrilling discovery via Zoom, Skvarla analyzed the bug’s DNA to confirm its identity. The big question now is whether there are more of them around. It’s possible that the Ozark mountains have some pockets of hitherto unknown giant lacewing populations. It’s also possible, as Fisher has pointed out to the press, that the bug just hitchhiked on a cross-country Walmart truck.
FACT: Corpse wax is a thing in Elden Ring and the real world
By Jess Boddy
Last year, the masterpiece of a video game Elden Ring came out. I’ve been streaming it on Twitch basically ever since, and I’m still uncovering lore and secrets—many of which are science adjacent.
Something that the developer of Elden Ring, a company called FromSoftware, is very good at, is world building and lore. They tell these very deep, complex stories just through the environment—first in games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne, and now with Elden Ring. You’ve gotta explore the worlds they make and read item descriptions to understand what the heck is going on. It’s so rewarding and frankly, really fun to play games like that, kind of unraveling their stories one piece at a time. And Elden Ring is by far the most MASSIVE—there are like 10 different plots in Elden Ring that all kind of spin together in one way or another. And one of those stories has to do with corpse wax.
There’s one area of the game called Leyndell, Royal Capital. As the name suggests, it’s this big city kind of in the middle of the map. And as you explore the city, it’s clear some kind of tragedy went down there. And many of the buildings are totally sealed shut… but around some of the doorways, this orangey yellow, ooey-gooey substance is oozing out. The first time I saw it, I was like… I want to eat this. It looks like when you leave a fruit roll up in the car and it like melts. It looked delicious. Of course, the Elden Ring ooze is probably not delicious, because that was corpse wax.
In real life, corpse wax is a thing that happens when a body SHOULD decompose, but it has a little too much moisture and very little or no oxygen. That is the perfect formula for a process called saponification to occur. Basically, anaerobic bacteria, the kind that don’t need oxygen to live, will go to town on a corpse’s body fat, and help set off a bunch of chemical reactions that turn that fat into a soapy, waxy substance called adipocere – aka, corpse wax. It starts off all ooey gooey, and then turns hard and brittle. That can actually kind of seal off the corpse, preserving it! Which is kind of an archeologist’s dream!
To hear all about how corpse wax in Elden Ring connects to real-life corpse wax mummies, check out this week’s episode of Weirdest Thing.