Happy Holidays! Nearing completion of a full year of facts! Read on to learn what this strange leech-based device was designed to do.
341. (December 7). Starfish Prime, a 1962 space nuclear test, blew out power lines & lights 900 km away in Hawaii! This test was done, in essence, simply to see what would happen! We learned some good science from it, though that was not really the military’s goal.
342. (December 8). Sigmund Freud — proponent of cocaine! Most people know Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but he was also very big on cocaine. His ideas on this haven’t aged well, obviously, but that’s consistent with the fact that his ideas on psychology haven’t aged well, either.
343. (December 9). Only one species of cactus is naturally occurring outside the New World: Rhipsalis baccifera. Apparently the New World is the true origin place of cacti, but migratory birds may have brought this one species to Africa.
344. (December 10). Largest known diamond in the universe: 10 billion trillion trillion carats! Diamonds are, basically, just pieces of carbon that have been subjected to intense head and pressure, the sort of conditions that can arise in the heart of a star.
345. (December 11). The mysterious disappearance of Italian nuclear physicist Ettore Majorana (1938). A strange case, to be sure. In recent years, the Italian government seems to have come to the official conclusion that Majorana deliberately went into hiding in South America, possibly to avoid working on atomic weapons for fascists, though nobody is certain of this.
346. (December 12). Ferrofluids — fluids that react to magnets! Below is a video showing how strange ferrofluids can be — the spikes that form is essentially the result of the fluid following the path of magnetic field lines! I have worked with ferrofluid before, and it is mesmerizing, though incredibly messy.
347. (December 13). The mother of astronomer Johannes Kepler, Katharina, was tried for witchcraft in 1615. A sad story of ignorance and persecution. It is notable that Kepler himself defended his mother in court.
348. (December 14). Neutron discoverer Chadwick was imprisoned in Germany during WWI — and participated in a prison scientific society. He was able to perform experiments using improvised materials such as “radioactive toothpaste.” He would not discover the neutron until 1932.
349. (December 15). Benford’s law: Many real-world data sets have first digits that are distributed non-uniformly. This is quite mind-boggling at first glance. You would expect that the least significant digit in a set of data would be more or less random, but it turns out that “1” occurs roughly 30% of the time.
350. (December 16). Mathematician Euler (1707-1783) delayed publication of a result to let the younger Lagrange publish first & get credit. Euler was an incredibly prolific researcher, and definitely didn’t need to publish his result first, but it is very touching that he was willing to give a boost to a talented newcomer. This is an example for modern scientists to emulate.
351. (December 17). In late 1800s, leeches were thought to be weather-sensitive & inspired a forecaster: The tempest prognosticator. Pictured at the beginning of the post! This prognosticator was based on the idea that certain creatures can sense impending storms: the agitated leeches would trigger the ringing of a bell. The inventor claims to have had great success with the device, though there are definitely more reliable methods these days.
352. (December 18). The Darwin’s bark spider can build webs that can span across rivers. These webs have been measured at 25 meters across, though the spider that produces them is 1.5 centimeters in size! Apparently the female spins the web and lets air currents carry her across the river to complete the first link.
353. (December 19). Biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) also illustrated biology-themed Christmas cards! In fact, this is evidently how Haeckel’s career as a biological illustrator began. You can see a big collection of these cards online here; I reproduce one image below.
354. (December 20). Dircks and Pepper: A Tale of Two Ghosts. This is, of course, a link to my extensive blog post from last week!
355. (December 21). Botanist David Douglass died in 1834 when he fell into a pit trap & was crushed by a bull. Science can be dangerous business, and many scientists have met horrible fates while out in the field. Douglass’ end may be one of the strangest, however.
356. (December 22). Panda bears… uh… “perform” better when they’re given porn to watch. Pandas are notoriously bad at getting around to reproduction, and the females are fertile for an extremely short period of time. Researchers have found that video and audio of pandas having sex helps motivate the males to get to work!
357. (December 23). Bioluminescent microorganisms can make waves and the wake of ships glow! Watch the video below! During World War II, such glowing water was used by pilots not only to navigate safely in darkness but also to target enemy ships.
358. (December 24). “Timothy” the tortoise — born c. 1844, died 2004! Tortoises can be very, very, old. She — yes, Timothy was misgendered for decades — was already full grown when the U.S. Civil War began, and died about the time that the iPhone entered development.
359. (December 25). Nobel scientists born on Christmas: A.O.R. Windhaus, Chem 1928, G. Herzberg, Chem 1971, E.A.F. Ruska, Phys 1986! Not particularly “weird” as “weird science facts” go, but I wanted a Christmas-specific fact here!
Tune in next week for the final edition of Twitter weird science facts, as I complete a full year of facts!