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.”

Human Life Expectancy

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.

Roulette in the Age of Science

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.

Yellowstone Caldera

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.

Prescription Abbreviations

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.”