The size of Spider-Man’s feet, the sound of (very old) music and what the Romans actually did for us: 24 things we learned this year

It’s been a very busy year at the University of Cambridge. If you don’t have time to read about everything we’ve discovered this year, then here are just a few of our highlights.

1. Baboons, like the British, like to queue

Baboons learn about food locations by watching those around them. But getting access to the food depends on the complex hierarchies of a baboon troop, and those lower down the pecking order can end up queuing for leftovers.

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2. Sometimes, people are given unlimited curry in the name of science

Chicken korma with nan bread (Patrick Talbert)

Researchers gave volunteers an all-you-can-eat buffet of chicken korma with three options manipulated to look and taste the same, but in which the fat content provided 20% (low), 40% (medium) and 60% (high) of the calories. They found that people who carry a particular genetic variant ate more of the high fat food — even though they said they all tasted the same.

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3. You can fossilise a pickled brain

A tiny brown pebble, found by an amateur fossil hunter in Sussex, is the first known example of fossilised brain tissue from a dinosaur. The specimen, which likely belonged to a dinosaur similar to the Iguanodon, was so well-preserved because it was ‘pickled’ in an ancient swamp.

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4. Spider-Man would need size 145 shoes to climb a wall

Spider Man (Credit: Clara Jordan)

By studying geckos, the largest animals able to scale smooth vertical walls, scientists say that a human would need unmanageably large sticky footpads in order to walk up a wall like Spider-Man — shoes in European size 145 or US size 114.

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5. The real North-South divide is in how we pronounce ‘scone’…

Regional diversity in dialect words and pronunciations could be diminishing as much of England falls more in line with how English is spoken in London and the south-east, according to results from the English Dialects App. But how you pronounce ‘scone’ still depends on where you live.

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6. …Though we still don’t know how a wolf would pronounce it

Wolf (Credit: Alexandre Alacchi)

The largest ever study of howling in the ‘canid’ family of species — which includes wolves, jackals and domestic dogs — showed that the various species and subspecies have distinguishing repertoires of howling — “howling dialects”.

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7. Nobody really knows what happens to an embryo after day seven

Human embryo in the absence of maternal tissue at day 10 (Credit: Zernick-Goetz lab, University of Cambridge)

Growing embryos in a lab is not easy, and until this year no one has been able to get past day seven. But our researchers managed to solve this problem this year — and it’s opened up a debate about whether we should extend the legal limit for embryo research beyond the current 14 day limit.

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8. You can arrange 128 tennis balls 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 different ways

Tennis balls (Credit: Atomic Taco)

The answer to a bewildering physics problem could help us understand issues ranging from predicting the formation of deserts, to making artificial intelligence more efficient. Or it could be a very boring practical for an unlucky student.

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9. The answer to Monty Python’s “What have the Romans ever done for us?” is “Spread parasites”.

The Romans may have brought us sanitation, but rather than making us healthier, they helped increase the spread of intestinal parasites such as whipworm, roundworm and Entamoeba histolytica.

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10. One day, we might all be living in cities made of bone…

The lovely bones (Credit: Charlie Young)

Just because we can build our cities out of steel and concrete, does that mean we should? Is it time we looked at entirely new ways of building cities? Engineers working in biomimetics — literally ‘copying life’ — are constructing samples of artificial bone and eggshell that could be used as medical implants, or even be scaled up and used as low-carbon building materials.

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11. …And in wooden skyscrapers

Vanishing point (Credit: Paul Bica)

Building skyscrapers out of timber could have a variety of potential benefits, the most obvious being that it is a renewable resource. Wooden buildings might even be cheaper and faster to build — and much lighter than their concrete equivalents.

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12. Elvis Presley helped eradicate polio in the USA

Back in the 1950s, public health campaigners recruited the King of Rock ’n’ Roll to help raise awareness of the importance of vaccination against polio. A little less conversation and a little more vaccine, perhaps?

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13. We’ve been at war for even longer than we thought

Detail of hands of in situ skeleton. Position suggests they had been bound.

Our archaeologists found the fossilised bones of a group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were massacred around 10,000 years ago in Kenya. They have provided unique evidence of a violent encounter between clashing groups of ancient hunter-gatherers, and suggests that even late Stone Age foraging societies went to war.

Evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare

14. If your pub serves wine in large wine glasses, you’re more likely to be drunk by the end of the night

Credit: BMC Public Health

Selling wine in larger wine glasses may encourage people to drink more, even when the amount of wine remains the same, according to a study which found that increasing the size of wine glasses led to an almost 10% increase in wine sales.

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15. Sand dunes can sing

Sarah sand dune sunset (Credit: David Rosen)

When solids flow like liquids they can make sand dunes sing. As grains of sand slide down the side of certain dunes, they create vibrations that can be heard for miles around. The dunes are alive with the sand of music!

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16. Your Labrador can’t help being fat — it’s genetically programmed to be greedy

Miss Mischief (Credit: Marc Dalmulder)

Scientists found a genetic variation associated with obesity and appetite in Labrador retrievers that may explain why Labrador retrievers are more likely to become obese than dogs of other breeds. For each copy of the gene carried, the dog was on average 1.9kg heavier

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17. There’s a very special cuckoo called Disco Tony

Disco (Credit: Patrik Nygren)

He is grey with a yellow ring around his eyes, he’s travelled over 5,000 miles and he is a cuckoo. But this is not just any cuckoo — this is Disco Tony. He is one of a very special group of birds whose every move is being monitored.

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18. Einstein might have got it wrong (assuming the universe contains at least five dimensions)

A wise man is astonished by everything (Credit: Todd Huffman)

Just days after the first detection of gravitational waves, first predicted by Einstein, was announced, our scientists found out that the great man might have got some things wrong. It involves a really big donut.

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19. The Clangers would have sounded like jet engines when they were feeling frisky

How is a mouse like a jet engine? The answer is in the way they make sound. Mice court one another with ultrasonic love songs that are inaudible to the human ear, making unique high frequency sounds using a mechanism that has only previously been observed in supersonic jet engines.

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20. A German scholar stole a thousand year old piece of music from our Library in the 1840s. (We’ve got it back and we now know how it sounds.)

After some detective work and painstaking research, the 11th century ‘Cambridge Songs’ were performed for the first time in 1,000 years back in Easter.

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21. Artificial intelligence might help you get over your fear of spiders without you even noticing

Spider (Credit: Brian Tomlinson)

Using a combination of artificial intelligence and brain scanning technology, researchers believe they can erase our fears without having to expose us to the very things we’re scared of (which for many turned out to be 2016).

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22. People in Peterborough lived on stilts during the Bronze Age

Over the past year, Must Farm in the Cambridgeshire fens has yielded Britain’s largest collections of Bronze Age textiles, beads and domestic artefacts. Together with timbers of several roundhouses, the finds provide a stunning snapshot of a community thriving 3,000 years ago — little wonder it’s been dubbed the ‘Pompeii of the fens’.

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23. We might actually be turning the tide on dementia (but only in men)

Credit: Mikael Kristenson

The so-called dementia ‘tsunami’ might not be inevitable after all. The UK has seen a 20% fall in the incidence of dementia over the past two decades, according to our researchers. This has led to an estimated 40,000 fewer cases of dementia than previously predicted — but mainly in men.

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24. You can learn A LOT about the brain just from reading Peter Pan

Peter Pan (Credit: Otterbein University Theatre & Dance)

JM Barrie had a deep understanding of the science of cognition — and was decades ahead of his time in identifying key stages of child development, apparently.

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To find out more about how Cambridge’s ideas and innovations have shaped the world over the past 800 years, see “Dear World… Yours, Cambridge”.

To read more about the latest research from the University of Cambridge, please visit our website.