Weird science facts, May 9-May 22

The Twitter #weirdscifacts from May 9 – May 22 are below the fold!

57. May 09: In 1504, Colombus used a lunar eclipse to frighten Jamaican natives and keep his stranded crew fed. Talk about the power of science!  Columbus, stranded and faced with a hostile native populace, knew of an upcoming lunar eclipse.  He threatened to take away the moon, and the initially skeptical natives quickly changed their tune when it disappeared!

58. May 10: de Broglie’s 1924 doctoral thesis on wave-particle duality was so “out there” the committee sent it to Einstein to judge. Despite initial skepticism from his committee, de Broglie’s idea of matter waves was quickly shown to be a fundamental piece of the puzzle for understanding quantum mechanics.

59. May 11:  While as Los Alamos, Feynman was an amateur safecracker — usually by testing the factory settings which weren’t changed!

60. May 12: Arabic scientist Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) reportedly faked insanity to get out of a civil service job. There’s uncertainty about whether al-Haytham was faking insanity or actually insane, and whether he had one bout or two bouts of “insanity” to escape menial employment.  The second time, however, apparently landed him under house arrest.

61. May 13: Volta, developer of the modern battery, developed a “pistol” c. 1776 that was fired by electricity sent 30 miles by wire. It is actually quite hard to find this reference outside Wikipedia, as “Volta’s pistol” is a term that is more commonly used to describe another invention of Volta!  I did confirm this demonstration from another source; it was an early precursor to the telegraph.

62. May 14: Heaviest known living organism: “Pando”, a 6000 ton clonal colony of quaking aspen trees.

63. May 15: Michael Faraday (c. 1839) did experiments on electric eels in which he tested their shocking ability by zapping himself.

64. May 16: 1964: Jack Barnes & his 9-year-old son were hospitalized after intentionally testing the sting of an unknown jellyfish. This one has always blown my mind: researchers suspected that an unknown species of jellyfish was responsible for seasonally-related drowning deaths.  After some time, Barnes managed to get a tiny, nearly invisible, unknown jelly in a bucket.  He decided to sting himself to test it, and asked for volunteers to also do it.  Along with a lifeguard, Barnes’ young son agreed, and Barnes let him!  The three ended up in excruciating pain for some time, but had confirmed the source of the mystery deaths.

65. May 17: The paper by Maiman announcing the first working laser was rejected by Physical Review Letters in 1960. It’s always worth remembering that peer review is a flawed system; PRL must be rather embarrassed by this oversight.

66. May 18: Prior to 1200 C.E., “goose” barnacles were commonly thought to be the embryonic form of actual geese!

67. May 19: First description of working (albeit impractical) steam engine by Hero of Alexandria, c. 70 C.E.

68. May 20: Gregor Mendel was refused admission to Imperial University c. 1850 because his math skills didn’t impress Christian Doppler. I’m constantly fascinated by the number of connections that can be made between extremely famous scientists even before they were famous.

69. May 21: Darwin’s dad published a paper on optics (1786)!

70. May 22: Referring to his estimate of the Earth’s age, Darwin once referred to Lord Kelvin as an “odious spectre”. Despite how bad it sounds out-of-context, Darwin was really lamenting how the strength of Kelvin’s evidence haunted the theory of evolution.  Evolution clearly required the Earth to be hundreds of millions of years old, at least, but the most accurate estimate of the age of the planet according to physics at the time was Lord Kelvin’s, which was at most 100 million years.  Kelvin’s estimate was considered so authoritative that it plagued Darwin everywhere he went.  Kelvin’s estimate, based on the rate of cooling of an originally molten Earth, was eventually shown to be inaccurate due to the presence of convection in the Earth’s interior and heating due to radioactivity.

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2 Responses to Weird science facts, May 9-May 22

  1. Thony C says:

    In 1504, Colombus used a lunar eclipse to frighten Jamaican natives and keep his stranded crew fed.

    He used a pirate edition of Regiomontanus’ Ephemerides, originally published in Nürnberg, to do so.

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