Naming Rights

Some paleontologists have a sense of humor. When Jenny Clack of the University of Cambridge discovered a fossil amphibian in the bed of an ancient swamp, she named it Eucritta melanolimnetes.

That’s Greek for “the creature from the black lagoon.”

The Loneliest Number?

In most lists of numbers, the leading digit 1 occurs about 30 percent of the time.

That’s Benford’s Law, named for the American physicist Frank Benford. It’s surprising, but it’s true, and it applies to most statistics relating to society and the natural world, from street addresses to the lengths of rivers.

It can even be used to detect fraud. When people make up lists of numbers, they tend to use too few leading 1s.

Great Moments in Science

In 1994, 17-year-old Boy Scout David Hahn decided to build a nuclear breeder reactor in his backyard shed in Michigan. He gathered radioactive material from smoke detectors, camping lanterns, clocks and gunsights, hoping to transform them into fissionable isotopes in a hollowed-out block of lead.

He should have stuck to homework. The experiment started to emit toxic levels of radiation, and he was trying to dismantle it when the police found him and brought in the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. To his mother’s dismay, her property was declared a Superfund hazardous materials cleanup site, and the shed was moved to Utah and buried as low-level radioactive waste.

On the bright side, Hahn made Eagle Scout.


In 1979 University of Minnesota psychologist Thomas J. Bouchard studied a pair of twins, Jim Lewis and Jim Springer, who had been separated at birth. Here’s what he found on interviewing them at age 39:

  • Both men had had first wives named Linda, divorced them and married women named Betty.
  • Lewis named his first son James Alan; Springer named his James Allan.
  • Both named their dogs Toy.
  • Both had worked as gas station attendants and for the same hamburger chain.
  • They drove the same type of car and bought the same brands of cigarettes and beer.
  • They regularly took annual vacations at the same Florida resort.
  • Both disliked baseball but enjoyed stock-car racing and woodwork.
  • Both gained and lost weight at the same age, bit their fingernails compulsively and had had a minor heart attack.
  • Both suffered from migraines.

“Our findings continue to suggest a very strong genetic influence on almost all medical and psychological traits,” Bouchard said. After an extensive study of separated twins, he concluded that shyness, political conservatism, dedication to hard work, orderliness, intimacy, extroversion, conformity, and a number of other social traits are largely heritable.

Surf and Turf
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The coelacanth, a prehistoric fish, was thought to have died out 65 million years ago — until a museum curator noticed one in a South African fish catch in 1938.

When a second specimen appeared in 1952, prime minister Daniel François Malan exclaimed, “Why, it’s ugly! Is this where we come from?”

Point Nemo

If you want to be really, really alone, head for 48°52.6’S 123°23.6’W in the South Pacific Ocean. That’s “Point Nemo,” the point in the ocean farthest from any land. You’ll be in the middle of 22,405,411 square kilometers of ocean, an area larger than the entire former Soviet Union.

The point on land farthest from any ocean is at 46°16.8’N 86°40.2’E, outside the Chinese city of Urumqi, in the Dzoosotoyn Elisen Desert. It’s 1,645 miles from the nearest coastline.