Odd one out: The science of exceptions

Jan 31, 14 • 5enses, Guide22 Comments

Illustration from the 12th page of a Dutch edition of “The Ugly Duckling.” By Theodorus Hoytema, 1893. Public domain.

February is a month of exceptions.

All months have at least one full moon … except certain Februaries. All months begin and end on different days of the week … except certain Februaries. And all months straddle five seven-day weeks … except certain Februaries.

These anomalies are easy to explain, but they still appear in violation of the rules responsible for establishing them — namely, those of the Gregorian calendar.

So too in life, sombunall seemingly bizarre phenomena are actually extrapolations of the conditions under which they were established. In other cases, unexplainable occurrences are often indications that you’re using the wrong models to assess them. That’s how exceptions drive exploration and innovation.

Want to make sense of life’s little Februaries? Science has you covered.

The information in this guide was gleefully garnered from scientific studies and data. It reflects generalizations, and, in some cases, generalizations about generalizations. Take exception to that? You can track down the original research using the information here.

You experience the world through sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Why not single out your five senses to explore exceptions?




Although it’s been proven that women are better at discriminating among colors than men, both sexes see the same world through the same colored lenses. That’s because we’ve all got similar sets of cones —  photoreceptors in the back of our eyes — that respond to red, green, and blue … except certain women.

A genetic mutation gives an estimated 12 percent of women a fourth type of retina cone. It’s possible that, instead of seeing the 1 million colors that people who have trichromatic vision see, they could discern 100 million colors. Research has been inclusive, though, save for the work of Gabriele Jordan, a Newcastle University neuroscientist who documented the first woman with tetrachromatic vision in the July 2010 issue of Journal of Vision. That woman is affectionately referred to as cDa29 in the literature.



Unless you’re of a certain age or went to the same public high school as me, you’re no doubt aware that there are four states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. Yup, that’s all of them … except for the other ones.

A quick tour of the all-venerable Wikipedia reveals that there are a dozen-odd states of matter. Some are more familiar than others, like superfluidity, a state in which matter behaves like a fluid with zero viscosity. There’s also dark matter, a we-don’t-really-know-what-it-is-but-we’ll-give-it-a-name substance that makes up about 25 percent of the universe. (Dark energy makes up about 70 percent.) There’s also something called degenerate matter.

If you’re really interested in this, you’re going to have to brush up on esoteric physics. To wit, “Like atoms, excitons — bound pairs of electrons and electron holes — can form a Bose-Einstein-condensate-like state with superfluidic properties below a critical temperature.” That’s from a March 2012 paper from University of California researchers published in Nature. And, truth be told, that quote’s from the editor’s summary. And this state only happens near absolute zero, so you wouldn’t want to touch anything going through it.



Auditory hallucinations aren’t all that uncommon. According to some estimates, 10 percent of the population hears voices from time to time. Hearing music that isn’t there appears fairly common, too — even some hearing impaired and deaf people do it. (The condition is called Musical Ear Syndrome.) The music is always familiar to the person hallucinating it … except for a certain woman.

In the first such case on record, a 60-year-old woman was able to reproduce musical hallucinations that she herself couldn’t identify, but others could, according to a paper by Danilo Vitorovic and José Biller of Loyola University Chicago in the July 2013 issue of Frontiers in Neurology. And it wasn’t just the music: According to the study she was able to “retrieve lyrics to (a) certain extent of non-recognizable songs.”

The authors propose that we all may have musical memories that are present but not retrievable. Then again, anyone who’s ever watched “Name That Tune” already knew that. Incidentally, did that show have a theme song?



Whether you’re a human, a hummingbird, or a Hungarian tarsza, you probably find the smell of fresh flowers appealing. There’s a reason for that: Flowers smell sweet to attract potential pollinators who (inadvertently) aid in their reproduction. Still, flower sex aside, you might as well stop to smell the proverbial roses … except for the ones that smell like rotting flesh.

Both the Titan Arum (Amorphophallus titanum) and Rafflesia arnoldii bear the nickname corpse flower, and justifiably so. Corpse flowers, along with a handful of others dubbed carrion flowers, emit odors that smell like rotting flesh. Their odor attracts scavengers like flies and beetles who (again, inadvertently) help them reproduce. Stink lovers make good pollinators, too.



Aside from the taste of food, its smell, appearance, plating, and the atmosphere in which you eat it can all affect the way it tastes. Still, the only surefire way to make most foods taste stronger is to add salt … except for bread.

By altering the texture of bread — specifically, by making it fluffier with more pores — you can make it taste saltier without adding a single grain of salt. At least, that’s the result of a study by German scientists published in the October 2013 issue of the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. This texture trickery works because, basically, fluffy bread yields salt more easily. Or, to put it in the words of the study’s abstract: “A significantly faster sodium release from the coarse-pored bread compared to the fine-pored bread (constant sample weight) was measured in-mouth and in a mastication simulator.”

This isn’t the first time altering the texture of a food has increased its perceived saltiness without increasing the amount of salt on it. Similar research has already been conducted with cheese and gels. In fact, according to those studies, it’s possible to decrease the amount of salt in those foods while increasing their perceived saltiness.


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