Ground zero after the first test of a nuclear weapon, July 16, 1945. Observers set up betting pools on the outcome, including these possibilities:
- It would be a dud
- It would destroy the state of New Mexico
- It would ignite the atmosphere and incinerate the planet
Physicist I.I. Rabi won — he predicted a blast equivalent to 18 kilotons of TNT.
Flames conduct electricity. Forest fires near high-voltage transmission lines can actually discharge them to the ground.
When you kiss someone, you have to turn your head to one side to avoid mashing noses.
Psychologist Oner Güntürkün found that people favor turning to the right over the left by a 2:1 ratio.
If you’ve taken introductory psychology you know Rubin’s vase, which illustrates the principle of figure and ground: In the image on the left you can see two faces, or you can see a vase, but you can’t see both simultaneously.
A number of people have noticed the same thing in Canada’s modern flag, adopted in 1965 (below). Is this a symbol of Canada’s proud natural heritage or of two people bickering?
And what does that say about Canada?
The average American has 1 chance in 3,000 of being struck by lightning during his lifetime.
On Aug. 27, 1883, the sound of gunfire was reported by the coast guard on Rodriguez Island in the Indian Ocean.
It wasn’t gunfire. It was the “death cry” of Krakatoa, 3,000 miles away in Indonesia — the loudest sound in recorded history.
Light travels about one foot per nanosecond.
Americans measure distance in football fields and stones’ throws.
Finns measure it in poronkusema (literally, “passing of water of reindeer”). One poronkusema is the distance a reindeer can pull a sleigh between stops to urinate. It’s 8-10 kilometers, or about five miles.
Need a velocity measure? Poronkusemaa kuukaudessa (poronkusemas per month) is about 0.0289252 meters per second, or 40 feet per hour. Evidently things don’t move fast in Finland.
There’s no such thing as a brontosaurus. Eager to claim a new species during the competitive “bone wars” of the 1870s, Yale paleontologist Othniel Marsh slapped a mismatched skull, tail and feet onto an incomplete apatosaurus skeleton he’d found in Wyoming.
Amazingly, the error persisted until 1975, leaving a confusing slew of brontosaurus references on everything from postage stamps to Flintstones reruns. Don’t believe them.
“With the prospect of coal becoming as rare as the dodo itself, the world, we are told by scientists, may still regard with complacency the failure of our ordinary carbon supply. The natural gases and oils of the world will provide the human race with combustible material for untold ages — such at least is the opinion of those who are best informed on the subject.”
– Glasgow Herald, quoted in Scientific American Supplement No. 717, Sept. 28, 1889
Madagascar’s elephant bird died out around Shakespeare’s time.
So it’s a little weird that two eggs were found in Western Australia in 1930 and 1993.
Did they float there? No one knows.
When he received the first duck-billed platypus from Captain John Hunter in Australia, naturalist George Shaw thought it was a hoax. “Impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practised some arts of deception in its structure,” he wrote in the journal Naturalist’s Miscellany.
Surgeon John Knox agreed: “Aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practised on European adventurers … the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art.”
From a Scientific American account of a Thai earthquake on May 13, 1848:
During the shock, there spontaneously came out of the ground a species of human hairs in almost every place — in the bazaars, in the roads, in the fields, and the most solid places. These hairs, which are pretty long, stand upright and adhere strongly to the ground. When they are burned, they twist like human hairs and have a burned smell which makes it to be believed that they are really hairs; they all appeared in the twinkling of an eye during the earthquake. The river of Chantibun was all rippling, and bubbles rose to the surface, so that the water was quite white. It is thought that these hairs may have been produced by electricity.
Similar “hairs” have been reported after other Asian earthquakes. Some have been identified as fibers from the hemp palm Chamaerops fortunei, a native tree. Others remain unexplained.
Are we getting smarter? IQ scores around the world have been going up by about three IQ points per decade.
Suggested reasons include improved nutrition, smaller families, better education, and the stimulating modern environment, but no one really knows what’s causing it.
It’s called the Flynn effect, after New Zealand political scientist who discovered it.
“Finally I am becoming stupider no more.” — Mathematician Paul Erdös, suggested epitaph for himself
The land regions of Mars can be distinguished from the seas by their ruddy color, the seas being greenish. But here, perhaps, you will be disposed to ask how astronomers can be sure that the greenish regions are seas, the ruddy regions land, the white spots either snow or cloud. Might not materials altogether unlike any we are acquainted with exist upon that remote planet?
The spectroscope answers this question in the clearest way. You may remember what I told you in October, 1876, about Venus, how astronomers have learned that the vapor of water exists in her atmosphere. The same method has been applied, even more satisfactorily, to the planet of war, and it has been found that he also has his atmosphere at times laden with moisture. This being so, it is clear we have not to do with a planet made of materials utterly unlike those forming our earth. To suppose so, when we find that the air of Mars, formed like our own (for if it contained other gases the spectroscope would tell us), contains often large quantities of the vapor of water, would be as absurd as to believe in the green cheese theory of the moon, or in another equally preposterous, advanced lately by an English artist — Mr. J.T. Brett — to the effect that the atmosphere of Venus is formed of glass.
– Richard A. Proctor, St. Nicholas Magazine for Boys and Girls, November 1877
The sum of the numbers 1 through 10 is 55.
The sum of the numbers 1 through 100 is 5,050.
The sum of the numbers 1 through 1,000 is 500,500.
Thinking they had found a Viking settlement, a team of experts spent months in 2003 excavating a platform of slabs in Marion Garry’s garden in Fife, Scotland.
They finally realized it was a patio from the 1940s.
Archaeologist Douglas Speirs admitted to ignoring an old television remote found during the dig.
“Looking back now,” he said, “that probably wasn’t the best approach.”
In the sixth century A.D., the Maya astronomers of Central America determined the length of the solar year to be 365.242 days.
The true length, established by modern astronomers, is 365.2422 days.
When a candle is burnt so long as to leave a tolerably large wick, blow it out; a dense smoke, which is composed of hydrogen and carbon, will immediately rise. Then, if another candle, or lighted taper, be applied to the utmost verge of this smoke, a very strange phenomenon will take place. The flame of the lighted candle will be conveyed to that just blown out, as if it were borne on a cloud, or, rather, it will seem like a mimic flash of lightning proceeding at a slow rate.
– Alfred Rochefort, Healthful Sports for Boys, 1910
Bill Gates is always being called an insect — now someone has called an insect Bill Gates.
Meet Eristalis gatesi, the “Bill Gates flower fly,” an insect found only in the Costa Rican forest. The epithet honors Gates’ contributions to dipterology.
After he’d been stung by almost everything, entomologist Justin O. Schmidt created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a four-point scale comparing the overall pain of insect stings:
- 1.0 – Sweat bee: “Light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm.”
- 1.2 – Fire ant: “Sharp, sudden, mildly alarming. Like walking across a shag carpet and reaching for the light switch.”
- 1.8 – Bullhorn acacia ant: “A rare, piercing, elevated sort of pain. Someone has fired a staple into your cheek.”
- 2.0 – Bald-faced hornet: “Rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door.”
- 2.0 – Yellowjacket: “Hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. Fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue.”
- 3.0 – Red harvester ant: “Bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail.”
- 3.0 – Paper wasp: “Caustic and burning. Distinctly bitter aftertaste. Like spilling a beaker of hydrochloric acid on a paper cut.”
- 4.0 – Pepsis wasp: “Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair drier has been dropped into your bubble bath (if you get stung by one you might as well lie down and scream).”
- 4.0+ – Bullet ant: “Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail in your heel.”
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)
Robert Wallace had a noble impulse when he discovered a new species of monkey in Bolivia’s Madidi National Park. Rather than name the species after himself, he would auction off the naming rights to raise money for the park.
The marketers of the world are not so noble: $650,000 changed hands and the new species was named after an Internet casino. It’s officially called the “GoldenPalace.com Monkey.”