Seeing Stars

Copernicus, that learned wight,
The glory of his nation,
With draughts of wine refreshed his sight,
And saw the Earth’s rotation;
Each planet then its orb described,
The Moon got under way, sir;
These truths from nature he imbibed
For he drank his bottle a day, sir!

— From “The Astronomer’s Drinking Song,” in Augustus De Morgan’s Budget of Paradoxes, 1866

Skeptics’ Prizes

The International Zetetic Challenge offered a prize of 200,000 euros to “any person who could prove any paranormal phenomenon.” It ran for 15 years, starting in 1987.

Magician James Randi has offered $1 million to anyone who can show evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event, under test conditions agreed to by both parties.

Both prizes have gone unrewarded.

Wrist Compass

If you wear an analog watch, you can use it as a compass:

Hold it flat in the palm of your hand, with the hour hand pointing in the direction of the sun. The point midway between the hour hand and the figure 12 is due south.

(In the Southern Hemisphere, point the figure 12 toward the sun. The midpoint between the 12 and the hour hand points north.)

Decibel Levels

Decibel levels:

  • 0 – Threshold of human hearing (with good ears)
  • 10 – Human breathing at 3 meters
  • 30 – Theater, with no talking
  • 40 – Residential area at night
  • 50 – Quiet restaurant
  • 60 – Office or restaurant
  • 70 – Busy traffic at 5 meters
  • 80 – Vacuum cleaner at 1 meter; curbside of busy street
  • 90 – Loud factory, heavy truck at 1 meter
  • 100 – Pneumatic hammer at 2 meters; inside a disco
  • 110 – Accelerating motorcycle at 5 meters; chainsaw at 1 meter
  • 120 – Rock concert; jet aircraft taking off at 100 meters
  • 130 – Threshold of pain; train horn at 10 meters
  • 140 – Rifle being fired at 1 meter
  • 150 – Jet engine at 30 meters
  • 180 – Rocket engine at 30 meters
  • 250 – Inside a tornado
  • 1,000 – Eruption of Krakatoa

Schopenhauer wrote, “The amount of noise which anyone can bear undisturbed stands in inverse proportion to his mental capacity.”

Cat as Coauthor

Physicist J.H. Hetherington had already typed up a physics paper in 1975 when he learned of an unfortunate style rule: Physical Review Letters does not accept the pronoun we in single-author papers.

Hetherington didn’t want to retype the paper — this was before word processors had become widespread — so he added his cat as a second author (“F.D.C. Willard,” for “Felis Domesticus Chester Willard.”)

“Why was I willing to do such an irreverent thing? Against it was the fact that most of us are paid partly by how many papers we publish, and there is some dilution of the effect of the paper on one’s reputation when it is shared by another author. On the other hand, I did not ignore completely the publicity value, either. If it eventually proved to be correct, people would remember the paper more if the anomalous authorship were known. In any case I went ahead and did it and have generally not been sorry. Most people are amused by the concept, only editors, for some reason, seem to find little humour in the story.”

Chester is believed to be the only cat who has published research in low-temperature physics. “When reprints arrived, I inked F.D.C. Willard’s paw and he and I signed about 10 reprints which I sent to a few friends,” Hetherington later recalled. “The story has now been told many times and my wife can add that she sleeps with both authors!”

Simpson’s Paradox

Baseball is a game of statistics, but numbers can be deceiving. It’s possible for one batter to outperform another in both halves of the season and still receive a lower batting average:

First Half Second Half Total Season
Player A 4/10 (.400) 25/100 (.250) 29/110 (.264)
Player B 35/100 (.350) 2/10 (.200) 37/110 (.336)

This is an example of Simpson’s paradox, a mathematical quirk that arises occasionally in social science and medical statistics.

Quine’s Typewriter

Harvard philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine typed all his work on an old 1927 Remington typewriter. He had customized it by replacing the 1, !, and ? keys with specialized mathematical symbols.

Someone once asked him how he managed to write without using a question mark.

“Well, you see,” he replied, “I deal in certainties.”