Bored or High? #3: Panda death

One of my favourite diagrams of all time comes from a paper in Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology The title of the paper does little to warn of the horrors within:

Remains of Holocene giant pandas from Jiangdong Mountain (Yunnan, China) and their relevance to the evolution of quaternary environments in south-western China

Peek into the abstract however and you may begin to see where this is going:

Two subfossil partial skeletons of male giant pandas were recovered, along with remains of 16 other mammalian species, from a natural sinkhole on Jiangdong Mountain… The bones represent a natural accumulation of mostly large mammals (>30 kg), which had fallen accidentally into the sinkhole.

The authors illustrate this accidental falling through the medium of cartoon, providing 7 beautifully illustrated panels. I reproduce the panels separately below; the full diagram is a lot to take in all at once.

The diagram starts out by setting the scene for you. Note the depth gauge.


Panel 1 depicts this lovely Panda having the time of its life in some yummy, dense bamboo. But oh no! Look out Mr. Panda!


Panels 2 and 3 show our poor Panda falling to its untimely death. I can’t help but wonder, what was it thinking as it fell?


In panel 4, nature takes its gruesome course…


…and in panels 5 & 6 our cute, cuddly, and very much dead panda reaches its final resting place.


Let’s just let that sink in for a moment…



Bored or High? #2: walking on water

Speaking not at all from personal experience, I can picture the following study being conceived in a smokey lounge in the shoddy digs of some second year physics students. “Like, dude, imagine if there was a bit less gravity on Earth, and we could walk on water, and stuff”… Also this. And so it is that a group of Italian researchers,1 set up a study to figure out how much gravity needs to be relaxed before humans can walk on water, a feat ordinarily “precluded by body size and proportions, lack of appropriate appendages, and limited muscle power.” These researchers had access to some serious kit, because not only did they “use a hydrodynamic model to predict the gravity levels at which humans should be able to run on water”, they also tested the model using a reduced gravity simulator, like so.

The model they used had been expounded to explain how the rather awesome Basilik Lizard runs on water:

The conclusion?

The results showed that a hydrodynamic model of lizards running on water can also be applied to humans, despite the enormous difference in body size and morphology.

Good to know.

  1. According to the UNODC, Italy has the 7th highest use of cannabis in the world. Just saying. See

Bored or High? #1: string theory

The traditional conception of academics is one of visionary researchers, pioneers, people pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. Presumably the people doing this kind of research never get bored, and certainly would not need the assistance of mind-altering drugs to put them in their special place, right? Apparently not. A great number of published papers seems to evidence boredom and/or illicit substance use in the academe.1

This should come as no surprise. Academia can be tedious: hours spent in front of a computer screen/in the lab, endless bureaucracy, and a never-ending teaching schedule could all contribute to a general sense of boredom. Beyond boredom, we all know that academics suffer disproportionately from mental illness, though I will save that discussion for a more serious post. Given the high prevalence of recreational drug use, it is a fair assumption that a good number of great academic minds have been altered with substances of questionable legality, in addition to the standard caffeine and alcohol. Indeed, the famous Penguin diagrams in physics resulted from a combination of beer, bravado and recreational drugs.

The idea for this recurring series is that I will present you with a paper/study that could have been conceived out of boredom or under the influence of drugs. The question is, which is it? Take a look, have a think, and get on the tweets to let me know – @academiaobscura. Feel free to use the hashtags #BoredOrHigh, #AdvancingKnowledge, or make up your own.

#1: String theory

No no, not the string theory, but a theory, about string. Actual string. Yep, Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith from the University of California put some string in a box and shook it up a bit to see how it knots. Why, exactly? Well, because while

it is well known that a jostled string tends to become knotted… the factors governing the “spontaneous” formation of various knots are unclear.

Riiight. They found, incredibly, that “complex knots often form within seconds”. Like this:

String, before and after tumbling

String, getting knotted

The researchers analyzed the knots using mathematical knot theory (is that really a thing?!).


Mathematical Knot Theory

The full paper, ‘Spontaneous knotting of an agitated string’ can be downloaded here.


  1. OK, before anyone gets in a huff, I am, of course, writing tongue-in-cheek here. Nothing here should be taken as implying that I accuse particular academics of using drugs. Please don’t sue me, I have no money.