Largest Organism

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.

A Land-Dwelling Blue Whale

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.

“The 1729 Anecdote”

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.”

Found Poetry

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,
Iambically runs.

Pioneer Plaque

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.

The Forer Effect

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.”