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Science
Status: Highly questionable
A company called Aquiess, led by David Miles, claims to have developed technology that can bring rain to drought-ridden areas. Sounds a bit dubious to me, but Miles has managed to convince some farmers in Geelong, Australia that this is the real deal. The farmers have hired him on the agreement that they'll pay him if it rains. So if it doesn't rain, they remain out of luck. And if it does rain, they're going to pay some guy for something that is probably due to natural causes. According to the Aquiess homepage the technology somehow works via blasting weather systems with electromagnetic pulses:
oceanic rainfall is sought from outside the sovereign territory of the Commonwealth of Australia, and drawn into the desired regional target utilizing licensed resonance technology.
Oh, and it can prevent hurricanes too:
weather downgrade capability (W-V) is the aquiess program, involving remote weather observation, algorithms, software and hardware systems utilized to target severe weather patterns via pulses which act to de-intensify those patterns.
Chris Sounness, a climate specialist for the Department of Primary Industries, issued a press release recently blasting the Aquiess weather modification claims, calling them a cruel hoax and saying that:
"Leading climate researchers across Australia confidently state that resonance technology is not based on any peer-reviewed science. The current duping of farmers builds hopes and if it doesn't rain, causes anguish."
But Aquiess seems to have its supporters in the government, such as federal Member for Mallee John Forrest who has stated that:
"Whoever in the department signed that press release should be tarred and feathered... If David Miles is right he'll be a hero. I'm behind him 100 per cent and I've had a gut full."
Personally, I think the farmers would be better off praying for rain like the residents of Lubbock are doing. At least that's free.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Sun Jul 30, 2006
Comments (6)
Status: Prank
Here's a slight variation on the old dihydrogen monoxide prank. The director of the Waterfront Park in Louisville, Ky placed signs around the fountains warning people of dangerously high levels of hydrogen in the water:
It seems authorities, tired of swimmers splashing around in the fountains and leery of the possibility of bacteria developing in the water, were hoping the public would be scared away by the foreboding signs — even though there was nothing amiss. David Karem, executive director of the Waterfront Development Corp., said he had the signs made in the hopes that a lack of understanding of the chemical makeup of water and the association of hydrogen to dangerous weapons such as the hydrogen bomb would keep the fountains people-free... Unfortunately for Karem, the hot summer days and a few good students have him fighting what he knows might be a losing battle.
I figure it's only a matter of time before someone sues him for emotional distress caused by the signs.
Categories: Pranks, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Jul 20, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Scholarly debate
Last weekend Philadelphia celebrated the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's electric kite experiment (in which he flew a kite during a thunderstorm and proved that lightning was a form of electricity). They did so despite the fact that many believe the experiment was a hoax... that it never happened. The Philadelphia Inquirer provides a summary of this debate.

The main proponent of the electric-kite-hoax theory is Tom Tucker, author of Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and his Electric Kite Hoax. (I noted the publication of his book back in 2003 when it first appeared in print.) Tucker points out that a) "Franklin did not publicize the kite flight until four months later, and then only with a passing mention in the Pennsylvania Gazette"; b) Franklin would have been very stupid to perform such an experiment because it could very easily have killed him; and c) Franklin was a known trickster and a great self-publicist who would not have been above taking credit for something he never did. Defenders of Franklin argue that all of Tucker's evidence is circumstantial. Personally, I'm inclined to believe the hoax theory. I think that Franklin would have been too smart to try such a deadly experiment. But, of course, it's the kind of thing historians can argue about until they're blue in the face. Ultimately there's no definitive evidence to prove that Franklin did or did not perform the experiment.

Update: Since Captain Al pointed out that the kite experiment wouldn't be deadly with some simple safety modifications, let me clarify exactly what Tucker's argument is. Tucker notes that Franklin had been sending the British Royal Society reports about his electricity experiments, but that these reports were being marginalized, mainly because the members of the RS regarded him as an uncouth American. So Tucker suggests that Franklin, frustrated at how he was being treated, sent the RS a report of the deadly electric kite experiment as a joke. It was basically the scientific equivalent of giving them the finger... suggesting that they go fly a kite in a thunderstorm. Franklin knew, and the RS members knew, that doing so could be fatal. But when the report reached France, people there took it seriously. So Franklin, knowing a good PR opportunity when he saw it, played along and began claiming that he really had done the experiment. That's the jist of Tucker's argument.
Categories: History, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Jun 21, 2006
Comments (26)
Status: Apparently True
Tom Robinson, a mild-mannered professor of Accounting living in Florida, has been identified as a descendant of the fierce Mongol warlord, Genghis Khan. When informed of his ancestor, Robinson expressed admiration for the Mongol leader, but has not yet indicated any plans to begin a campaign of raping and pillaging.

Although it sounds odd, the science behind the claim seems valid enough. It stems from a 2003 genetic study that identified Genghis Khan as the common ancestor of 8 percent of Asian men. A British company, Oxford Ancestors, searched its client database to find more matches with Genghis Khan and identified Tom Robinson as one of his descendants. He is the first man of European or American background to be so identified. Here's how the match was made:
The link is revealed by the Y chromosome, a packet of DNA that determines male sex, which is passed down from father to son. Men who share a Y chromosome are invariably descended from the same man at some point in the past, and the accumulation of mutations can be used to date the common ancestor. Women do not have a Y chromosome, so they cannot be tested in the same way, although millions are likely also to be descended from the warlord.
The Mongolian embassy is going to be holding a reception in Robinson's honor next month. Like I said, the science seems sound enough, but the entire article about this guy reads like an extended advertisement for Oxford Ancestors, which is now inviting the general public (men only) to submit DNA samples to find out if they too are descended from Genghis Khan. It'll cost you only £195.
Categories: History, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed May 31, 2006
Comments (16)
Status: Myth
image According to Wikipedia, the Casimir Effect (which is real) is "a physical force exerted between separate objects, which is due to neither charge, gravity, nor the exchange of particles, but instead is due to resonance of all-pervasive energy fields in the intervening space between the objects." The effect is best observed with things such as parallel plates of metal in a vacuum.

Another example often used to illustrate the effect is that it can be seen operating on ships lying close together in a strong swell because "waves with wavelengths longer than the distance between the ships would be suppressed in the space separating them. This could perhaps pull the ships together."

But Nature.com reports that former NASA scientist Fabrizio Pinto has challenged this notion. The claim about the Casimir Effect acting on ships apparently traces back to a 1996 article by Dutch scientist Sipko Boersma, who came across a statement in an 1836 nautical book warning that "two ships should not be moored too close together because they are attracted one towards the other by a certain force of attraction." Pinto found a copy of this 1836 book and discovered that it was talking about ships moored in a calm sea, not in a strong swell. But Pinto is suspicious even of this claim. Nature reports:
Pinto says he hasn't found any real evidence for the effect, in either sailing or scientific literature. Naval architect Jason Smithwick of Southampton University says he has never heard of such an effect. "I could imagine how it might possibly happen, but it would take a very specific set of circumstances," he told news@nature.com. "It's nothing that naval architects have ever worried about." Pinto thinks that the whole tale is symptomatic of physicists' approach to the history of their subject. "Physicists love lore about their own science," he says. "There are other stories that are unfounded historically."
Nature lists a few of these other popular (but false) stories that physicists like to tell, including the claim that Galileo proved objects fall at the same speed by throwing things off the leaning tower of Pisa, or that Newton was inspired to discover the law of gravity after an apple fell on his head.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Sat May 06, 2006
Comments (6)
Status: anti-counterfeit technology
Last year I posted about a group of MIT students who created an Automatic Scientific Paper Generator, capable of creating "random Computer Science research papers, including graphs, figures, and citations." One of the papers created by this program was accepted for presentation at the World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics. To stop something like this happening again, researchers at the Indiana University School of Informaics have invented an Inauthentic Paper Detector. It's supposed to be able to tell whether a paper has been written by a human or a machine. The researchers write: "The main purpose of this software is to detect whether a technical document conforms to the statistical standards of an expository text... We are trying to detect new, machine written texts that are simply generated not to have any meaning, yet appear to have meaning on the surface."

I tested the Inauthentic Paper Detector by having it analyze the last couple of entries I've written. It told me: "This text had been classified as INAUTHENTIC with a 38.4% chance of being authentic text." I guess this confirms the theory that the real Alex drowned in Loch Ness back in September 2004 and was replaced by replicant Alex. (via New Scientist)
Categories: Identity/Imposters, Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Apr 28, 2006
Comments (15)
Status: Undetermined
microwave experiment I've posted before about theories that microwaved food is bad for you, but this is slightly different. Some guy has posted pictures of his granddaughter's science fair project in which she tested the effect microwaved water would have on a plant. The result: the plant died. (Yes, the water had been cooled before she watered the plant with it.) But the plant given water that had been boiled on a stove did just fine. So what does this prove? That microwaved water is toxic? Not necessarily. The guy notes:

We have seen a number of comments on this, such as what was the water in the microwave boiled in. The thinking is that maybe some leaching took place if it was in plastic. It was boiled in a plastic cup, so this could be a possibility. Also it was not a double blind experiment, so she knew which was which when watering them. On top of that she was wanting the microwaved ones to do poorly, and although most scientists would dismiss the idea, it is possible that her thoughts toward each plant had an effect as well. Bottom line is, the results are interesting, and duplicate the results that others have reported (try Googling '"microwaved water" plants') more experiments need to be done with better controls and as a double blind study. But this was a simple 6th grade science fair project, and was never intended to be anything more than that. The plants were genetically identical, they were produced from graphs from the same parent plant, so that variable can be eliminated.

Intriguingly, the Straight Dope (a source I usually trust) has written an article about the controversy over microwave cooking, and he notes that scientists actually do not fully understand the chemical changes that take place when food is microwaved, and so there may indeed be some kind of "microwave effect." He notes a 1992 Stanford study that found microwaving breast milk mysteriously reduces its infection-fighting properties, as well as studies that have found that microwaves can accelerate certain chemical reactions. He writes: "'One suggestion,' a bunch of chemists wrote recently, 'is that this is some form of 'ponderomotive' driving force that arises when high frequency electric fields modulate ionic currents near interfaces with abrupt differences in ion mobility.'" He doesn't attempt to explain this theory.

I would repeat the girl's experiment myself, but everything I try to grow mysteriously dies, so there wouldn't be much point. (via The Greener Side)
Categories: Food, Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Apr 21, 2006
Comments (100)
Status: Fake
image Dave forwarded me this email he received (which, he noted, was dated April 1, so it seemed a bit suspicious to him). The subject line of the email reads: DEEP-SPACE PHOTO: EP_4277. The text reads: The subject of this photo is a very rare one indeed - taken by NASA with the Hubble space telescope. This is the only documented existence of a binary king galaxy in our known universe.

Astronomy is definitely not my expertise. I wouldn't even be able to find the Big Dipper on a clear night. So although I know what a binary galaxy is (two galaxies orbiting each other), I have no idea what a 'binary king galaxy' is. (A google search pulls up nothing for the term.) I was able to find out that the Hubble space telescope has photographed binary galaxies. For instance, see this BBC article from 1999. But the 1999 image of a binary galaxy looks nothing like the image in Dave's email. So is the picture Dave sent really a Hubble space telescope image of the only binary king galaxy known to astronomers? I have no idea.

Update: Thanks to Brian T. who found the original image, lacking the 'binary king galaxy,' on the Hubble website, thereby proving that the above image is a fake. Now the question is, why did someone fake this? If it's a joke, I don't get it.
Categories: Photos/Videos, Science
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 19, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Hoax reported as news
Peter Frost has an article in the current issue of Evolution and Human Behavior in which he argues that the trait for blonde hair evolved 10,000 years ago in northern Europe because men found blonde women to be attractive--and because there were more women than men, the women had to compete for the men. (I'm simplifying his argument a lot.) But I'm not bringing this up to make a point about Frost's article. Instead, I'm bringing it up because the London Times discusses his article and concludes with this observation:

Film star blondes such as Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Sharon Stone and Scarlett Johansson are held up as ideals of feminine allure. However, the future of the blonde is uncertain. A study by the World Health Organisation found that natural blonds are likely to be extinct within 200 years because there are too few people carrying the blond gene. According to the WHO study, the last natural blond is likely to be born in Finland during 2202.

They're referring, of course, to the story of the WHO Blonde Report, which was revealed to be a hoax back in 2002. The gene for blonde hair is not actually disappearing, nor did the WHO ever sponsor such a study. Did the Times not realize it was a hoax, or did the reporter slip this in as a joke?
Categories: Journalism, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Feb 28, 2006
Comments (32)
Status: Real
I've received quite a few emails about the following story, presumably because it seems like something lifted from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks. A family in Turkey contains five siblings who have apparently never learned how to walk on their feet. They still walk on all fours, with the weight of their upper bodies supported by their wrists (wrist walking, as opposed to knuckle walking, which is what apes do). You can check out a video of one of these wrist walkers on the website of Turkish researcher Uner Tan.

image image

The case of these wrist walkers is far too widely reported to be a hoax. Apparently there's even a BBC documentary about them in the works. Scientific interest in them stems from the light they might shed on a long-standing debate about how humans evolved the ability to walk upright. Were humans knuckle walkers (like other primates) or wrist walkers before they started walking on two feet?

There's also debate about whether these Turkish siblings are merely suffering from a form of brain damage and never learned how to walk upright (this theory is argued by a team of British researchers... their paper is at the top of the list of articles), or are the siblings a case of reverse evolution (the Turkish researcher Uner Tan is arguing this). Whatever the case may be, none of it seems to be a hoax.

World Science has a couple of informative articles about the controversy (article 1, article 2).
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 27, 2006
Comments (19)
Status: Urban Legends
LiveScience.com has a list of the 20 Most Popular Myths in Science. Included in the list are classics such as these:

It takes seven years to digest gum.
Hair and fingernails continue growing after death.
A penny dropped from the top of a tall building could kill a pedestrian.
Humans use only 10 percent of their brains.
You get less wet by running in the rain.
Eating a poppy seed bagel mimics opium use.


Oddly enough, they also throw a few strange-but-true items into this list of myths, such as these:

Chickens can live without a head.
Yawning is "contagious".
Categories: Science, Urban Legends
Posted by Alex on Sat Feb 18, 2006
Comments (17)
Status: Real
image Zkato wants to know if the fossil of fighting dinosaurs found on the website of the Nakasato dinosaur Center is real. The fossil does sound a little too good to be true:

One Protoceratops, a herbivorous (plant-eating) dinosaur, perished in the struggle with a carnivorous theropod, Velociraptor. After their death 80 million years ago, both skeletons were fossilized, then finally unearthed in 1971 in fully articulated forms without having been smashed.

However, not only is it real, it's one of the most famous fossils in the world. It was found in Mongolia in 1971, and was exhibited in 2000 at the American Museum of Natural History. An episode of Discovery Channel's Dinosaur Planet included a computer-graphic reconstruction of the struggle between the protoceratops and the velociraptor. The fighting dinosaur website seems to be circulating around right now because someone linked to it on digg.com.

The big mystery is how the two dinosaurs managed to get buried alive while fighting. Dinosaur Planet's theory is that "the animals were most likely fighting on a rain-soaked sand dune which collapsed preserving them mid-battle." Or they could have gotten stuck in a sudden sandstorm. A few other theories are outlined in a post on cryptozoology.com.
Categories: Animals, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Jan 30, 2006
Comments (12)
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