Weird science facts, December 15-December 21

Here are the Twitter #weirdscifacts for December 15th through December 21st!

277. Dec 15: Thomas Midgley Jr., disabled engineer & chemist, died in 1944 when he was strangled by his self-designed bed pulley system. This one is as tragic as it is bizarre.  Midgley was an incredibly successful researcher who was granted over a hundred patents.  His legacy, however, also includes the development of lead additives in gasoline and CFCs.  Late in life, he contracted polio, which left him disabled.  He developed a system of pulleys to help others lift him from bed, but became entangled in the device one day and was killed by it.

278. Dec 16: The cosmic microwave background radiation was first interpreted in 1964 as pigeon droppings in sensor. Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson developed a sensitive cryogenic microwave sensor for radio astronomy observations.  When they detected an unexpected amount of noise in their measurements, the prime candidate was the large amount of pigeon droppings that had accumulated in the sensor horn.  Further investigation found the effect to be real, and what they had measured was background radiation left over from the Big Bang!

279. Dec 17: The tarantula hawk wasp, which hunts tarantulas for dinner. (Recommended by @tobascodagama, who has a strong dislike of wasps!)

280. Dec 18: A clock that tells time with flowers, by Linnaeus! Different flowers open at different times of day; Linnaeus (1707-1778) suggested that one could construct a “clock” of flowers that would indicate the time based on what was already opened.

281. Dec 19: Bioluminescent microorganisms can make the wake of ships glow; has been used to target ships in war and land on carriers! (See, for instance, the excerpt in this book.)

282. Dec 20: In 1861, astronomer Simon Newcomb got a U.S. Naval Observatory job because many Confederate sympathizers left their jobs.

283. Dec 21: In 1955, astrophysicist Margaret Burbidge posed as her husband’s assistant to work at the men’s only Mt. Wilson Observatory. Burbidge is another woman who made very important contributions to physics but who is relatively unknown.  She was one of the researchers who solved the problem of stellar nucleosynthesis, the method by which all the heavier elements are generated in the stars by nuclear reactions.  She was not allowed to get a fellowship at Mt. Wilson, which was men’s only at that time, but by posing as her husband’s assistant she was able to log time in the observatory in his name.  The ruse was eventually found out, and Margaret and her husband were allowed to continue at the observatory, albeit living in a separate cottage!

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3 Responses to Weird science facts, December 15-December 21

  1. Lowell says:

    Calculating the dielectric response of pigeon poop to radiation in the microwave, now that’s an inspiring problem. I was actually thinking about this event on Monday of this week (along with working on problem 3 of the final for OPTI 6101) and couldn’t recall the engineers names, but I knew they were working for Hell’s Bells at that time.

  2. Thanks for sharing my debilitating phobia with the world. If that’s not the Christmas Spirit, I don’t know what is! 😉

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