There is a farmer who is unhappy with the milk production from his dairy farm. To rectify this, he writes to the local university asking for advice. A theoretical physicist responds to the request and visits the farm. He then takes many measurements such as the size of the cow and proceeds to do some calculations. After finishing all of this, he tells the farmer: “I have a solution, but it only works for spherical cows in a vacuum.”
The point of the joke is that in science, models are frequently used to simplify reality. Because there are infinite amounts of variables, it is impossible to predict anything unless the scenario is simplified through certain assumptions and removal of factors. For example, many physics principles make assumptions such as not accounting for air resistance. Occam’s razor states that if you shave away all the complex details, the simplest answer remains. But perhaps we oversimplify some things?
For decades, there have been case reports by farmers who found mysteriously dead cattle with strange, surgically precise wounds. Strangely, these corpses were split open and most of their soft organs (e.g. eyes, tongues, intestine, genitals) had been removed. Even stranger, the corpses were completely drained of blood.
The mysterious, mutilated cattle corpses set off a diverse range of conspiracies of what could have caused such a bizarre phenomena. The most popular theories included: alien experimentation (explaining the surgical precision and lack of blood and organs), sacrifice by cults, vampires and the El Chupacabra (a mythological vampiric beast).
Cattle mutilation became so well-known that during the 70’s, it was properly investigated by the FBI. Of course, no evidence was found of aliens and vampires. As with most supernatural phenomena, cattle mutilation could be logically explained by science.
It was found that the cattle had simply died of natural causes, with no foul play involved (other than the occasional psychopaths attacking cattle). But how could natural death cause the surgical wounds, the missing organs and lack of blood? The answer is obvious when one thinks of what happens to animals after they die.
Scavengers such as foxes and buzzards often feast on decomposing corpses, cleanly removing the soft organs before they rot away (organs are the first to spoil). As scavengers usually bite into the corpses, this does not explain the clean wounds. This phenomena is due to insects also feasting on the corpse – a key part in putrefaction. Insects prefer softer tissue such as organs and ragged wounds, so after the insects are finished, wounds often look extremely clean. Also, putrefaction of tissue leads to massive gas production, causing bloating. Once this reaches a peak, the cattle corpse bursts like a balloon, causing clean tears in the abdomen. Lastly, the flies that were involved in cleaning away organs lay eggs, which hatch into maggots. Maggots immediately eat away the dead flesh and organs, even sucking up the blood that pooled at the bottom of the corpse. All of these factors combined results in what appears to be a mysterious alien bovine autopsy.
Although this may sound crazier than Chupacabras, the theory was actually tested in 1979 by a sheriff who kept receiving complaints about cattle mutilation. He took a dead cow, left it on a field and filmed it for 48 hours. The video clearly showed each step described above, proving that cattle mutilation was simply Mother Nature’s cruel, vicious way of returning a corpse back to the soil.