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I was planning on taking a hiatus from posting until February, but this one is too good to pass up. Thanks to everyone who emailed me about it.

Back in the 1970s Elaine Murphy noticed an unusual condition, Guitar Nipple, described in the British Medical Journal. She suspected it might be a hoax, which inspired her to invent a similar bizarre condition, Cello Scrotum, which she detailed in a letter to the journal. She got her husband to send the letter in his name.

Thirty years on the couple noticed someone had referenced their report, and so they decided it was time to come clean.

Coincidentally, there is a medical condition called Violin Deformity. It's the name plastic surgeons use to describe excessively wide hips.

And, of course, the Murphys were not the first scientific spoofers. I've reported previously on one Dr. Egerton Yorrick Davis who wrote a letter to Medical News back in 1884 describing "an uncommon form of vaginismus". He claimed to have treated a couple who became locked together during intercourse as a result of a vaginal spasm. The letter was a hoax, and its true author was Sir William Osler.

I'll begin regular posting again on Monday.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Jan 29, 2009
Comments (15)
A NY Times article about the biology of deceit notes that among primates there's "a direct relationship between sneakiness and brain size." It offers this story:

chimpanzees or orangutans in captivity sometimes tried to lure human strangers over to their enclosure by holding out a piece of straw while putting on their friendliest face.
“People think, Oh, he likes me, and they approach,” Dr. de Waal said. “And before you know it, the ape has grabbed their ankle and is closing in for the bite. It’s a very dangerous situation.”

Apparently dolphins are also capable of deceit:

After dolphin trainers at the Institute for Marine Mammals Studies in Mississippi had taught the dolphins to clean the pools of trash by rewarding the mammals with a fish for every haul they brought in, one female dolphin figured out how to hide trash under a rock at the bottom of the pool and bring it up to the trainers one small piece at a time.

My cat is definitely capable of deception. Sometimes she'll pretend to be sleeping, but when you walk by her, Whack!, she gets you with her paw.
Categories: Animals, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Dec 23, 2008
Comments (10)
Thanksgiving is approaching, which means the "turkey makes you tired because it has high levels of tryptophan" urban legend shall once again be heard at tables throughout America. Baylor College of Medicine dietitian Rebecca Reeves debunks this legend in an interview with the Houston Chronicle:

Q: So the tryptophan in turkey doesn't make you sleepy, right?

A: I am not sure how (that) gained wide acceptance. The urban legend is that the tryptophan in turkey is what makes you sleepy on Thanksgiving. Yes, the amino acid tryptophan is present in turkey, and in certain doses it can make you sleepy. But in reality, you'd need to eat an entire 40-pound turkey to get enough tryptophan to make a difference.

But her explanation of why people actually get tired after Thanksgiving dinner raises more questions in my mind than it answers:

Q: So why do people take a nap on the couch?

A: It's probably more due to alcohol. Or it could be that you got up that morning early to travel. Or it's been a long, beautiful day, and you're just tired. I hate to even mention this, but I've seen claims that because you're increasing your carbohydrates, you're increasing your blood sugar, maybe this could lead to sleepiness. But I'm not sure I agree with that.

Why is she doubtful that increasing carbohydrates (and thereby increasing blood sugar) can make you tired? She doesn't offer an explanation. Wikipedia offers a good summary of the "increased carbohydrates makes you tired" theory, and it sounds reasonable to me (more reasonable than the theory that the drowsiness is all due to having had a few beers, or the fact that it's been "a long, beautiful day"):

It has been demonstrated in both animal models and in humans that ingestion of a meal rich in carbohydrates triggers release of insulin. Insulin in turn stimulates the uptake of large neutral branched-chain amino acids (LNAA) but not tryptophan (trp) into muscle, increasing the ratio of trp to LNAA in the blood stream. The resulting increased ratio of tryptophan to large neutral amino acids in the blood reduces competition at the large neutral amino acid transporter resulting in the uptake of tryptophan across the blood-brain barrier into the central nervous system (CNS). Once inside the CNS, tryptophan is converted into serotonin in the raphe nuclei by the normal enzymatic pathway. The resultant serotonin is further metabolised into melatonin by the pineal gland. Hence, these data suggest that "feast-induced drowsiness," and in particular, the common post-Christmas and American post-Thanksgiving dinner drowsiness, may be the result of a heavy meal rich in carbohydrates which, via an indirect mechanism, increases the production of sleep-promoting melatonin in the brain.
Categories: Food, Science, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sun Nov 23, 2008
Comments (12)
University of Memphis psychologist Rick Dale used a Nintendo Wii in an experiment to show that the human brain is wired to believe before it doubts. I don't think this is a new finding. It makes sense that the brain has to assume all incoming info is true, in case a quick reaction is needed. For instance, it wouldn't be wise to stand around debating with yourself whether the tiger leaping out of the jungle is real or fake. Doubt, therefore, takes second place in the brain's hierarchy of information processing. Which is one reason (among others) why people fall for hoaxes.

The particular design of Dale's experiment (via Silicon Republic):

Participants in the experiment used the Wiimote to answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to questions such as ‘Can a kangaroo walk backwards?’ The results showed that it took longer for participants to decide that a statement was false, rather than true.

In many cases, the cursor travelled first toward the yes, and then curved over to no.

For the researchers, this indicated two things. Firstly, the body was in motion before the cognitive processing was completed.

Secondly, the participants really wanted to believe most of the statements were true, even though they decided quickly that some of them were not.
Categories: Psychology, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Nov 17, 2008
Comments (3)
My doctoral dissertation was partially on the subject of the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. I never finished writing the dissertation, but I did spend a LOT of time researching the moon hoax, and I always thought that it would make a great subject for a general-interest book -- using the moon hoax as a window on New York City and America in 1835.

Turns out I waited too long. Someone beat me to it. Matthew Goodman has recently come out with The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York (published by Basic Books). From the book description:

Told in richly novelistic detail, The Sun and the Moon brings the raucous world of 1830s New York City vividly to life—the noise, the excitement, the sense that almost anything was possible. The book overflows with larger-than-life characters, including Richard Adams Locke, author of the moon series (who never intended it to be a hoax at all); a fledgling showman named P.T. Barnum, who had just brought his own hoax to New York; and the young writer Edgar Allan Poe, who was convinced that the moon series was a plagiarism of his own work.
An exhilarating narrative history of a city on the cusp of greatness and a nation newly united by affordable newspapers, The Sun and the Moon may just be the strangest true story you’ve ever read.

So now I'll have to go to Plan B: the moon hoax of 1835 as the setting for a science fiction novel. One of these days I might get around to that.
Categories: History, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 06, 2008
Comments (3)
A very strange astronomical rumor is circulating:

Coming October 17, 2008 the sun will rise continuously for 36 hrs (1.5 days). During this time the US countries will be dark for 1.5 days.
It will convert 3 days into 2 big days. It will happen once in 2400 yrs. We're very lucky to see this. Forward it to all your friends.

This rumor appears to have come from India, so it means to say that the sun will rise for 36 hours over India, and the Americas will be dark for the same amount of time. Not that this makes the rumor any less nonsensical. The only way for this rumor to come true would be if the earth stopped rotating. Let's all hope that doesn't happen.

David Emery has already debunked this. He found that, "During a one-month period from mid-August to mid-September 2008, over 15,000 postings containing the phrase 'the sun will rise continuously for 36 hours' appeared on the Internet." He also theorizes that "the perpetrator(s) of the hoax put a great deal of effort into disseminating it."
Categories: Email Hoaxes, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Sep 29, 2008
Comments (48)
I couldn't resist linking to this piece from The Onion:

A steady stream of devoted evolutionists continued to gather in this small Tennessee town today to witness what many believe is an image of Charles Darwin—author of The Origin Of Species and founder of the modern evolutionary movement—made manifest on a concrete wall in downtown Dayton...

Despite the enthusiasm the so-called "Darwin Smudge" has generated among the evolutionary faithful, disagreement remains as to its origin. Some believe the image is actually closer to the visage of Stephen Jay Gould, longtime columnist for Natural History magazine and originator of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, and is therefore proof of rapid cladogenesis. A smaller minority contend it is the face of Carl Sagan, and should be viewed as a warning to those nonbelievers who have not yet seen his hit PBS series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.

Still others have attempted to discredit the miracle entirely, claiming that there are several alternate explanations for the appearance of the unexplained discoloration.

"It's a stain on a wall, and nothing more," said the Rev. Clement McCoy, a professor at Oral Roberts University and prominent opponent of evolutionary theory.

(Thanks, Big Gary!)

Previous pareidolia humor:
Toast appears on Jesus Christ
Jesus face in ozone hole
Categories: Pareidolia, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 10, 2008
Comments (6)
Not to be outdone by Christian fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists have come out with their own anti-evolution treatises. Among the most prominent of these is the Atlas of Creation by Harun Yahya. It's a long work (and more is on the way) consisting primarily of page after page of examples showing that modern-day species can be found in the fossil record. This is supposed to demonstrate that evolution hasn't occurred.

Volume 1 contains the example of the Caddis Fly. The illustration in the book shows the modern-day fly in the foreground. Circled in red in the background is the fossil analogue, preserved in amber. (No, they don't look similar to me either).



But look again at the modern fly. Skeptics noticed it had a steel hook coming out the bottom of it. In fact, it's not a Caddis fly at all. It's a fishing lure created by Graham Owen. Harun Yahya lifted the image (right) from Owen's site, apparently not realizing it wasn't a living creature, and pasted it into his book. Other fishing lures by Owen are scattered throughout the Atlas of Creation.

You can download the entire text of the Atlas of Creation, free of charge, from Yahya's site. So I did, but I couldn't find the Caddis fly in there. (It's supposed to be in Vol 1, p 244). I'm assuming Yahya must have removed it. However, I did notice that in Part 2 of the pdf (page 282 of the text) the Mayfly has a steel hook coming out of its belly. (Thanks, Jona!)
Categories: Animals, Photos/Videos, Religion, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Jul 24, 2008
Comments (6)
I was working in my backyard this weekend, when I turned over a rock and discovered this creepy-crawly. Anyone have an idea what it is? I wasn't about to mess with it. Looked like it had a stinger on its tail.



Update: Thanks to Robin Bobcat for identifying it as a Jerusalem Cricket. According to the San Diego Natural History Museum: "this nocturnal cricket is actually non-aggressive and possesses no poison glands, although its jaws can inflict a painful bite." Even if it's non-poisonous, I'm glad I stayed away from it. And it's still out there in my backyard somewhere.
Categories: Animals, Science
Posted by Alex on Sun Jun 29, 2008
Comments (24)
Thanks to everyone who emailed me about the Uncontacted Brazilian Tribe hoax that's now making headlines (and is already noted in the forum). I was at the library all yesterday, so I didn't have a chance to post anything.

Anyway, to summarize: Last month the Brazilian government released photographs of an "uncontacted" tribe living in the Amazon. At the time I noted it would be very strange for a tribe to be truly uncontacted, and sure enough this week brings the revelation that anthropologists have known about the tribe's existence for almost one hundred years. From the Guardian:

It has now emerged that, far from being unknown, the tribe's existence has been noted since 1910 and the mission to photograph them was undertaken in order to prove that 'uncontacted' tribes still existed in an area endangered by the menace of the logging industry. The disclosures have been made by the man behind the pictures, José Carlos Meirelles, 61, one of the handful of sertanistas – experts on indigenous tribes – working for the Brazilian Indian Protection Agency, Funai, which is dedicated to searching out remote tribes and protecting them.

So the hoax was to describe the tribe as "uncontacted." But it's not that much of a hoax. It's not like the tribe members are actors (as was alleged to be the case with the Tasaday), or are popping over to their local Starbucks every day to get some coffee. The tribe (it seems) truly is living very close to nature and has had hardly any contact with the modern world.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Jun 24, 2008
Comments (6)
With the price of gas going through the roof, there's been a lot of interest in alternative fuel supplies. For instance, various schemes to use water as a fuel have been getting renewed interest. But a new idea (at least, new to me) is the Diesel Tree. This is a tree that directly produces diesel fuel. All you have to do is tap the tree (just as you would tap a maple tree for its syrup), then fill up your tank with the oil, and you're good to go. From treehugger.com:

the Brazilian Copaifera langsdorfii, to use its botanical name, can be tapped not unlike a rubber tree, but instead of yielding rubbery latex it gives up a natural diesel. According to the nurseryman selling the trees, one hectare will yield about 12,000 litres annually.
Once filtered—-no complex refining required, apparently—-it can be placed straight into a diesel tractor or truck. We read that a single Copaifera langsdorfii will continue to produce fuel oil for an impressive 70 years, with the only negative being that its particular form of diesel needs to be used within three months of extraction.

You can also check out this video on YouTube in which an Australian farmer who's growing Diesel Trees is interviewed. He admits it "sounds like a fanciful concept," but insists it's real. There are also articles in the Sydney Morning Herald and ABC.net.au.

As odd as the idea sounds, Diesel Trees do appear to be real. Here's the wikipedia article about them. They simply produce a plant oil pure enough that diesel engines can run on it. The Alaska Science Forum notes:
Though not likely to become a significant source of diesel fuel in temperate climates, in the tropics Cobaifera plantations might produce as much as 25 barrels of fuel per year. Still, Cobaifera relatives in the same genus, Euphorbia, are producing 10 barrels per acre in northern California.

It would be pretty cool to be able to fill up your car directly from a tree in your backyard.(via geoisla)
Categories: Exploration/Travel, Free Energy, Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Jun 06, 2008
Comments (4)
I recently received a nice letter from a reader in England:

Dear Mr. Boese,
I have enjoyed the Museum of Hoaxes greatly. I do not know if you want any more examples, but if not just throw this away.
The Veterinary Record is the weekly journal of the Veterinary Profession, and I did the index for 36 years. So on 1st April 1972 I met some observations on the diseases of Brunus edwardii (Species Nova), Vet. Rec. (1972) 90, 382-395. It reads like a perfectly authentic scientific paper though the illustrations give the game away. So I suppose it does not really qualify as a hoax. I understand that the British Library had some difficulty with the classification! But the authors had great fun doing it. If you would be interested to see the text I will send you a photocopy. I am not a vet but a librarian, understandably retired at 92! With all good wishes for 2008.
Yours sincerely,
M.M. Raymer

After debating whether or not to throw away her letter (of course not!), I decided to drive up to UCSD, where I hunted down the Veterinary Record (UCSD has a complete run of it), and made a copy of the article.

The article does describe, in a dry, scientific fashion, the diseases of Brunus edwardii, which is described as a species "commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America." The article warns that: "Pet ownership surveys have shown that 63.8 percent of households are inhabited by one or more of these animals, and there is a statistically significant relationship between their population and the number of children in a household. The public health implications of this fact are obvious, and it is imperative that more be known about their diseases, particularly zoonoses or other conditions which might be associated with their close contact with man."

The pictures do give the joke away:



For months afterwards the correspondence section of the Veterinary Record was dominated by letters about Brunus edwardii. A few readers were outraged by it, such as A. Noel Smith who wrote:

I have been practising veterinary medicine for the past 12 years or more "across the pond" and my Veterinary Records arrive a month or more late. However, I still open them with interest and read what is going on "at home". April 1st's edition thoroughly soured my interest. How three members holding sets of impressive degrees can waste their time writing such garbage in a journal that is the official publication of the B.V.A. is beyond my comprehension, as is your effrontery to publish it under "Clinical Papers".

But most of the correspondents loved it. It proved so popular that it was eventually published in a special edition by Whittington Press.

Anyway, thanks to M.M. Raymer for the reference.
Categories: Animals, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 30, 2008
Comments (14)
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