The Winners of the 2014 Platypus Awards


This story originally appeared in print in the October 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

Consider the platypus. It’s a venomous mammal that lays eggs. It has a duck bill, a beaver tail, and otter feet. The platypus is an outlier: the sole living member of its genus. When the first specimen was sent to scientists, they thought it was a hoax.

The platypus is the Captain Planet of the animal kingdom: a force that combines these various heroic traits into something even more universe-defying than the sum of its parts. For all these reasons, it’s the animal we feel best embodies our new series of innovation awards.

The Platties honor ideas that are interdisciplinary: a bit duck, a bit beaver, a bit otter. These are the new ideas and innovations that made us do a double take. At first, we wondered whether they could be real. And when they proved to be, it wasn’t just the little idea, but the little idea’s enormous potential that delighted us.

This year, we honor innovations that use sound, twisting it in unexpected ways. The academics and artists you’ll meet below are changing how we relate to one another, to other species, to our environment, to our own bodies, and to our dinner. They’re working in the borderlands where traditional disciplines collide and where new disciplines are born.

How Fluid Dynamics of Mosh Pits Will Help Herd Cats

Jesse Silverberg has spent a lot of time in mosh pits. A metalhead turned Cornell University physicist, Silverberg was at a 2008 DevilDriver show with his girlfriend when he noticed a familiar pattern in the hordes of bodies colliding before him. They looked and behaved a lot like the gas molecules in his lab. This prompted Silverberg and fellow physicist Matthew Bierbaum to wonder: Could physical laws describe rowdy human behavior? They found an ample petri dish in all the mosh-pit videos available on YouTube. In studying them, they found that mosh pits behave like granular material. Each discrete particle can move independently on its own, but taken as a whole, stress makes the entire mass act more like a solid. “Mathematically, you really can describe people with these physical laws,” says Silverberg, who’s continuing to analyze concert footage with Bierbaum in hopes of developing safety protocols that could be used to manage large crowds, preventing injuries and even saving lives. [PDF]

How Entertaining Animals Can Spread Empathy

What kind of tunes would tickle a donkey's fancy? Laurel Braitman found an answer while working on a project that’s changing the way we relate to our furry friends—and maybe even one another. Braitman, a science historian with a PhD from MIT, was researching animal psychology in 2009 when she stumbled across a Victoria-era music journal featuring a series of concerts that had been performed expressly for animals. Intrigued, she decided to modernize the concept. “This all came out of the idea that we’re not the only creatures to have taste, preference, and personality,” she says. Humans tend to think about animals in certain contexts: as pets, zoo attractions, or dinner. Braitman’s project asks us to think differently. What might be going on in animals’ brains? Her research explores how individual animals with psychiatric conditions deserve individualized treatment and not simply blanket care and prescriptions. Ultimately, her project is about empathy, something we all could use. “Nothing exposes the limits of the human imagination more than imagining what it is like to be someone else,” Braitman writes. “Particularly if that someone else is nonhuman.” To date, Braitman’s concert series has included performances for distressed sea lions, bison, and gorillas. Thanks to her, these lucky creatures get to enjoy being entertained instead of having to entertain us—and at the same time, we’re getting to know and understand them a little better. As for Mac, the miniature donkey Braitman raised? Turns out he’s soothed by Afrobeat and Nina Simone.

How Harnessing the Power of Jet Engines Could Generate Quiet 

As a grad student in electrical engineering, Stephen Horowitz found himself in a pickle that’s probably only familiar to other students of electrical engineering: how to power tiny, hard-to-reach sensors deep inside a jet engine. If there’s one thing all of us know about jet engines, it’s that they’re impossibly loud—160 decibels, which is 40 decibels beyond the level that drives most people to cover their ears. What if, Horowitz thought, there was a way to capture all that noise pollution and turn it into a power source? After all, “waves are waves,” Horowitz says. His invention takes acoustic waves and converts them into electricity using piezoelectric materials. The idea isn’t new. Pierre Curie was meddling with piezoelectricity as far back as 1880, harnessing energy from the charge that certain ceramics and crystals produce when they vibrate. But Horowitz’s jet engine application is novel. “It might not be much,” Horowitz says of the power produced, but that extra drip of electricity “can be the one thing that can make or break an application.” Not only can it power technology without extra wiring or batteries, but it could also someday reduce noise pollution overall by enabling quieter factories and jet engines.

How Recycling Trash Into Instruments Can Engineer Hope

Cateura is a tiny Paraguayan slum built on a landfill—and a place where children make melodies out of trash. In 2006, environmental cleanup specialist and former orchestra leader Favio Chávez had an epiphany that would end up creating a better future for scores of poor South American youths. He was already helping clean up their land. What if he also could improve their lives with music? Chávez enlisted Nicolás Gómez, a trash collector who fashions instruments out of refuse, and founded La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados Cateura (“The Recycled Orchestra”). The pair gave local kids instruments like a violin made from glue canisters, forks, and recycled wood; a horn created from a tin water pipe and bottle caps; or a cello fabricated from oil cans and leftover wood. Then, Chávez taught them how to play. The feel-good story cast a spotlight on the squalid conditions the band members live in, leading to a surge of donations. The benefits for the hundreds of kids who have cycled through the program? Improved self-esteem, higher marks in school, and a better life than their parents and grandparents ever had growing up. “Music isn’t going to change or fix all problems, but through the orchestra, they can find stability they don’t have in their family and communities,” Chavez told People in 2013. Even in the ugliest conditions, beauty still finds a way to be heard.

How Space-Age Sonic Beams Will Smooth Operations

Tractor beams are straight out of science fiction—remember the stream of light the Starship Enterprise used to tug space objects? Well, a group of scientists has figured out how to make a real one—using sound as the pulling force.

The discovery carries potentially profound implications for the human body. The inventors, Christine Demore, an ultrasound engineer at Scotland’s University of Dundee, and Patrick Dahl, an undergrad assistant in physics at Illinois Wesleyan University, who started by creating a field of intersecting acoustic waves in a water-filled chamber. When they manipulated the waves to hit a small triangular object inside the chamber, they found they could lure the object toward them. The discovery parrots the acoustic tweezers invented in 2012 by a team at Penn State. Like real tweezers, the gizmo can move objects—specifically, cells. Unlike real tweezers, it uses acoustic waves to alter each cell’s path. We’re talking only a matter of centimeters here, so right now the tractor beam’s most exciting applications remain on a small scale: our insides. This technology could help avoid more invasive procedures and direct treatments exactly where they need to be, potentially even limiting the damage of chemotherapy.

How High-Pitch Tones Will Demolish Diets

As the old adage goes, you are what you eat. As it turns out, you hear what you eat too, at least according to a growing body of research that shows how sound affects our taste buds. The upshot: Imagine a world in which we could sweeten food without sugar and reduce epidemics like diabetes and obesity (and, in turn, health-care costs) simply by piping certain sounds into our ears. Not convinced? Just ask Caroline Hobkinson, a food artist who teamed up with the University of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory on an experiment that tested sound-based taste modulation on diners at the London eatery House of Wolf. The Oxford team had previously determined that high notes tend to enhance sweetness and low ones bring out bitters. No one’s quite sure why, but one theory is that the brain has a tendency to “match” perceptions across the senses. (In more pronounced cases, this is what causes synesthesia.) To demonstrate the effect for the public, House of Wolf offered a bittersweet chocolate toffee cake pop served with a telephone number. Diners were invited to dial one for sweet or two for bitter, prompting a high-or low-frequency sound. “It makes me laugh because it works every time,” Hobkinson told The Guardian, “and people say, ‘Oh! That’s so weird!’” The lesson to be learned? If you’re looking to reduce your sugar intake and lead a healthier life, keep those low, lumbering tones on full blast. The tuba never sounded so good.