The Mars Effect

When French psychologist Michel Gauquelin set out to determine whether astrology was valid, he found a curious anomaly.

His analysis showed that sports champions are more likely to be born when Mars is in the fourth quadrant. Examples include Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Tiger Woods and Venus Williams.

It’s called “the Mars effect.”

Walking Tall

“Man is the noblest work of God!” roared Mark Twain. “Well now, who found that out?”

Consider the case of Oliver the chimpanzee. Oliver liked to stand upright instead of knucklewalking like his peers, and his keepers noticed that his face was flatter than other chimps’, who tended to avoid him.

That’s all the impetus they needed. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s Oliver was paraded through a succession of theme parks, zoos and promotions, billed as a missing link or even a “humanzee,” or human-chimp hybrid, and confined for seven years in a cage that measured only 7 by 5 feet.

It all came to nothing. In 1996, when Oliver was old, blind, and arthritic, University of Chicago geneticist David Ledbetter checked his chromosomes and discovered he was just an ordinary ape, albeit one who preferred to walk upright.

It’s still possible that Oliver belongs to a rare subspecies of chimps who resemble humans … but after that treatment, would he take that as a compliment?


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.

Figure and Ground

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?

Pull Over

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.

“The Fuels of the Future”

“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