It’s that time of week again: the Twitter #weirdscifacts for August 15 to August 28 are below the fold!
155. Aug 15: One of the oddest-named mathematical theorems: the hairy ball theorem. Not as filthy a theorem as it sounds! It is really a theorem that states that it is impossible to comb hair on a completely hair-covered spherical surface without leaving a cowlick. This theorem of topology actually has a number of implications in scientific research; for instance, it recently was mentioned in connection with the Pancharatnam phase in optics.
156. Aug 16: Father of modern chemistry, Lavoisier, was guillotined during the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution in 1794. Though we like to think of science as being above politics, scientists are not. Lavoisier was one of the unfortunate victims of the French Revolution.
157. Aug 17: Leo Szilard (1898-1964) conceived the idea of the nuclear chain reaction in part due to a 1913 novel by H.G. Wells. The novel in question is titled The World Set Free, and is also known as The Last War. In it, Wells describes a world devastated by atomic weaponry. I’ll be discussing this novel in an upcoming blog post!
158. Aug 18: First systematic book on math of probability was Cardano’s 1526 book on gambling, which included a section on cheating.
160. Aug 20: While working at Los Alamos, Richard Feyman would drum in remote areas at night and became known as mysterious “Injun Joe”. Nobody knew who the mysterious drummer was, but everyone could hear the drums at night. It was perhaps not unreasonable for folks to assume it was due to some Native American drummer.
161. Aug 21: Lewis & Clark dismissed native reports about the ferociousness of Grizzly bears — until one chased them 80 yds before death. Though they were initially curious about this new type of bear, a number of harrowing encounters quickly fatigued the exploration group. Lewis eventually wrote: “I find the curiosity of our men with respect to this animal is pretty much satisfied.”
162. Aug 22: Mathematician Sophie Germain “rescued” Gauss by asking a French general to check on him when they invaded his German home. Gauss was unaware, until that incident, that his correspondent was a woman; he was amazed and very encouraging to her. I discuss the incident in more detail in an earlier blog post.
163. Aug 23: St. Petersburg paradox: gambling game where the avg winnings are infinite, but you’ll lose if you play. This is simultaneously an example that demonstrates how paradoxical results arise when working with infinity, and also an example that demonstrates how a simple “average” of a statistical process can lead to very misleading results.
164. Aug 24: In later life, Michael Faraday worked at debunking spiritualism, even designing a device to test psychic “table shaking”. He developed a device that, in essence, could measure the amount of physical input provided by the psychic participants. With the device in play, the amount of table shaking dropped to nothing.
165. Aug 25: (via @ferrisjabr): the tripod fish! Any biologist who has read H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds is immediately and understandably critical of the use of tripodal war machines — tripods are a very unstable walking platform. However, the tripod fish demonstrates that the tripod does have its use in nature. Described on Wikipedia here and a video can be seen here.
166. Aug 26: The mysterious disappearance of Italian nuclear physicist Ettore Majorana (1938).
168. Aug 28: The mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Katharina, was tried for witchcraft in 1617 (she was released). Early scientists were lonely beacons of rationality in a world of irrational fears and superstitions.