J.B.S. Haldane’s “four stages of acceptance” of a scientific theory:
- This is worthless nonsense.
- This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view.
- This is true, but quite unimportant.
- I always said so.
From Bespin to Yavin, the “Star Wars Hit Probability Equation” predicts the outcome of any battle:
n is the number of “bad guys,” x is the number of “good guys,” and J is the number of Jedi present (if any).
The equation reads, “The probability of a bad guy hitting his target is equal to the inverse of all bad guys present plus the cube of the number of good guys present (plus one) plus the number of Jedi present (plus one) to the 10th power.”
So the presence of a good guy reduces the bad guys’ accuracy, and having even one Jedi present is bad news for the Empire.
Earth is the only planet not named after a god.
Dates of first domestication:
- Sheep, goat, pig: 8,000 B.C.
- Cow: 6,000 B.C.
- Horse: 4,000 B.C.
- Donkey, water buffalo, honeybee: 4,000 B.C.
- Chicken, cat, llama: 3,500 B.C.
- Silkworm: 3,000 B.C.
- Camel: 2,500 B.C.
Dogs, by far, are man’s best friend. Some estimates put them with us as early as 150,000 B.C. It’s thought that scavenging wolves grew less fearful of humans, and we found they could help with hunting and warn us of approaching enemies. “To his dog, every man is Napoleon,” wrote Aldous Huxley. “Hence the constant popularity of dogs.”
Why do landmasses “sag” toward the south pole, as on the Sherwin-Williams paint logo? In 1973 Ormonde de Kay Jr., a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, proposed a “theory of continental drip”:
“Let’s look at the world map. Africa and South America … are textbook examples of drip, with their broad tops and tapering lower extremities. But so is North America, with Baja California and Florida dangling down at its sides, and Greenland, too, clearly shows the characteristics of drip.”
“What causes continental drip? A few possible explanations come to mind: some palaeomagnetic force, for example, unsuspected and therefore undetected, centered in massive, mountainous Antarctica and perpetually tugging at the lower hems of land masses. Or drip might somehow be the result of the Earth’s rotation, or of lunar attraction. One conclusion, however, would seem inescapable: contrary to the teachings of science, but as every schoolchild has always known, north really is up, and south down!”
A monkey has one chance in 19,928,148,895,209,409,152,340,197,376 of correctly typing the first 20 letters of Hamlet (ignoring punctuation, spacing, and capitalization).
And Hamlet contains more than 130,000 letters.
German arithmetician Zacharias Dase (1824-1861) once multiplied two 100-digit numbers in his head. It took him 8 hours 45 minutes.
Karl Gauss estimated that even a skilled mathematician, using pencil and paper, would require fully half that time.
What’s the largest living thing in the world? It depends:
- Savannah elephants get up to 26,400 pounds, and of course some land dinosaurs were far larger.
- In the ocean, the blue whale can reach 100 feet and weigh 150 tons. It’s thought to be the largest animal that’s ever lived.
- There’s a fungus in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest that fills 2,200 acres, but technically it’s not one individual organism.
- Likewise, there are some stands of aspens that grow from one gigantic root system. One covers 200 acres and weighs an estimated 6,600 tons.
- Australia’s Great Barrier Reef stretches for 2000 kilometers — it’s not a single creature, but it’s certainly the world’s largest “superorganism.”
- The overall winning candidate is probably this tree, California’s “General Sherman.” It’s 274 feet tall and 36 feet thick at the base, with a trunk volume of 1,487 cubic meters.
The largest bacterium ever discovered, by the way, is Thiomargarita namibiensis — it grows to 0.75 mm in diameter, which means you can see it with the naked eye. Eww.
In 1878, paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope discovered the partial vertebra of a new species of dinosaur near Morrison, Colo. It was in poor condition but enormous, 7.8 feet high.
If it really existed, that would make Amphicoelias fragillimus the largest dinosaur ever discovered, up to 200 feet long and weighing as much as 185 tons, the equivalent of a land-dwelling blue whale.
Cope packed up the vertebra and sent it by train to a New York museum, but apparently it crumbled into dust on the way. All that remain are Cope’s description and a line drawing. Oh well.
“This coffee plunges into the stomach … the mind is aroused, and ideas pour forth like the battalions of the Grand Army on the field of battle.” So wrote Balzac, who wrote for up to 15 hours a day wired on black coffee.
If anything, he was ahead of his time. Today we drink more than 400 billion cups of coffee every year, making it the world’s most popular beverage. It’s second only to oil as the world’s largest traded commodity.
So, is it safe to consume that much of anything? Well, yes and no.
Generally, one dose of caffeine is 100 mg. That’s what you’d get in one shot of espresso, 5 ounces of coffee, or 2.5 cans of soda. The lowest dose that’s ever killed someone is 32 times that — and that was delivered intravenously. Even with strong coffee, you’d have to drink 3 cups an hour for 100 hours even to come close to killing yourself.
But that’s not all that can happen. At lower doses you might develop “caffeinism,” a condition that mimics mental illnesses ranging from anxiety and bipolar disorder to schizophrenia and psychosis.
(And that’s just humans. Dogs, horses and parrots have much more trouble metabolizing caffeine, and it hits spiders harder than even LSD, marijuana, benzedrine and chloral hydrate, as you can see here.)
And, as always, there’s no accounting for craziness. Jason Allen, a student at a North Carolina community college, died after swallowing almost 90 pills — about 18 grams of pure caffeine. That’s the equivalent of about 250 cups of coffee, a gallon and a half of espresso, or 22 gallons of Mountain Dew. That’s a serious all-nighter.
On Dec. 17, 2004, Alexis Lemaire computed the 13th root of a 100-digit number in his head.
He gave the correct answer — 45,792,573 — in 3.625 seconds.
The Indian mathematical prodigy Srinivasa Ramanujan showed an almost supernatural facility with numbers. British mathematician G.H. Hardy once visited him in the hospital:
I had ridden in taxicab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavorable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”
“Every positive integer,” remarked J.E. Littlewood, “is one of Ramanujan’s personal friends.”
William Whewell was a giant of 19th-century science, but he may have missed his true calling. Someone pointed out that his classic Elementary Treatise on Mechanics contains the following poetic sentence:
And hence no force, however great,
can stretch a cord, however fine,
into a horizontal line
that shall be absolutely straight.
Then again, maybe not: Whewell quietly changed the wording in the next edition.
Max Beerbohm noticed a similar happenstance in the first edition of his collected works:
‘London: John Lane, The Bodley Head
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.’
This plain announcement, nicely read,
A sunset on Mars. A day on the Red Planet is almost the same length as one on Earth: 24 hours, 39 minutes, 35.244 seconds.
355/113 is sometimes referred to as “not pi, but an incredible simulation.”
It yields 3.1415929.
A message in a bottle: This plaque, intended to identify us to alien civilizations, just left the solar system aboard Pioneer 10. It’s now the most distant man-made object in the universe.
It’ll be eons before it’s found, and even then we’ll have to wait while the aliens try to figure it out. It took us centuries just to understand our own Egyptians’ hieroglyphics; the figure above baffled even some human scientists.
But maybe that’s a good thing, some say. Hungry aliens could see it as a map — and a menu.
Does this describe you?
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
If you said yes, you’ve been had. The description was assembled from random horoscopes by psychologist B.R. Forer in 1948. He found that if you give someone a vague, mostly positive personality description, and tell him it’s tailored specifically to him, he’ll rate it as highly accurate. It’s called “the Forer effect.”
“Outer space is no place for a person of breeding.” — Lady Violet Bonham Carter (1887-1969)
Average human lifespan, by era:
- Neanderthal: 20 years
- Neolithic: 20 years
- Classical Greece: 28 years
- Classical Rome: 28 years
- Medieval England: 33 years
- End of 18th century: 37 years
- Early 20th century: 50 years
- Circa 1940: 65 years
- Current (in the West): 77-81 years
Today the average Zambian dies at age 37, the average Japanese at age 81.
Albert Einstein said, “You cannot beat a roulette table unless you steal money from it.” He might have been surprised. Roulette wheels have subtle flaws, and in this technological age a sophisticated observer can make some serious money:
- In 1873, British engineer Joseph Jaggers hired six clerks to study the wheels at the Beaux-Arts Casino in Monte Carlo. One wheel showed a clear bias, which Jaggers exploited to the tune of $325,000.
- As early as 1961, mathematician Claude Shannon had built a wearable computer to find likely numbers.
- By the late 1970s, a group of computer hackers known as the Eudaemons were frequenting casinos wearing computers in their shoes.
- In the early 1990s, Gonzalo Garcia-Pelayo used a computer to analyze the roulette wheels at the Casino de Madrid. He won more than $1 million over a period of several years.
- In 2004, a group in London was using a special laser cameraphone and microchip to predict a ball’s path, a technique called sector targeting. They won £1.3 million.
In both of the latter two cases, the casinos mounted legal challenges — and lost. If you’re not influencing the ball, the courts ruled, you’re not cheating. Modern casinos monitor their wheels to keep them as random as possible, but the long-term odds favor the engineers.
At full power, a space shuttle’s engines generate as much energy as 23 Hoover Dams.
Most people know that Yellowstone National Park is geologically active, but few realize that it sits atop a gigantic volcano. No one knows when it will blow next, but past eruptions have been huge, up to 2,500 times the size of Mount St. Helens in 1980. Today that would kill millions and change the worldwide climate catastrophically.
For now, we just have to wait — the problem is far too big for today’s engineers to tackle.
The scientific name of the moon is “the moon.”
Abbreviations used in prescriptions:
- a.c. (ante cibum) – before meals
- ad lib. (ad libitum) – use as much as one desires; freely
- alt. h. (alternis horis) – every other hour
- c (cibos) – food
- D.A.W. – dispense as written
- dc, D/C, disc – discontinue
- e.m.p. (ex modo prescripto) – as directed
- ex aq – in water
- h.s. (hora somni) – at bedtime
- L.A.S. – label as such
- N.K.A. – no known allergies
- noct. (nocte) – at night
- NPO, n.p.o. (non per os) – nothing by mouth
- p.c. (post cibum) – after meals
- p.o. (per os) – by mouth or orally
- s.a. (secundum artum) – use your judgement
- sig – write on label
- s.o.s., si op. sit (si opus sit) – if there is a need
Napoleon Bonaparte described medicine as “a collection of uncertain prescriptions the results of which, taken collectively, are more fatal than useful to mankind.”