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A vivid new telling of the herring farts / Soviet sub history

The story of how the sound of herring expelling gas through their rear ends became mistakenly taken, by Swedish government officials, as evidence of invading Soviet submarines, gets a new, beautifully stylish telling in a new episode of the RadioLab podcast:

Red Herring

It was the early 80s, the height of the Cold War, when something strange began happening off the coast of Sweden. The navy reported a mysterious sound deep below the surface of the ocean. Again, and again, and again they would hear it near their secret military bases, in their harbors, and up and down the Swedish coastline.

After thorough analysis the navy was certain. The sound was an invasion into their waters, an act of war, the opening salvos of a possible nuclear annihilation.

Or was it? …

Magnus Wahlberg and Håkan Westerberg, the scientists who discovered that the supposed submarines were in fact herring were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, together with a group of scientists in Scotland and Canada who had independently been researching the ways of herring. The prize centered on the biology of the discovery.

The submarines aspect of the story was top secret at that time, and only years later was revealed to the public. The first public presentation of the submarine facts happened at an Ig Nobel event at the Karolinska Institute in March 2012, with Magnus Wahlberg and Håkan Westerberg, aided by a dead herring, demonstrating the biological mechanism that produces the sound.

That Ig Nobel Prize

The 2004 Ig Nobel Prize for biology was awarded to Ben Wilson of the University of British Columbia, Lawrence Dill of Simon Fraser University [Canada], Robert Batty of the Scottish Association for Marine Science, Magnus Whalberg of the University of Aarhus [Denmark], and Hakan Westerberg of Sweden’s National Board of Fisheries, for showing that herrings apparently communicate by farting.

Here are the research studies produced by the two groups, cited when the prize was awarded:

Sounds Produced by Herring (Clupea harengus) Bubble Release,” Magnus Wahlberg and Håkan Westerberg, Aquatic Living Resources, vol. 16, 2003, pp. 271-5.

REFERENCE: “Pacific and Atlantic Herring Produce Burst Pulse Sounds,” Ben Wilson, Robert S. Batty and Lawrence M. Dill, Biology Letters, vol. 271, 2003, pp. S95-S97.

Magnus Wahlberg has since done several other public talks about the incident. Here’s a TEDX talk he gave in 2012:





Improbable Research