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image Here's a guy who has fallen a long, long way down. Back in 2002 Jan Hendrik Schön was the soft-spoken boy wonder at Bell Labs, thought to be on a fast-track for a Nobel Prize. He had apparently solved the problem of how to construct a transistor out of a single molecule, which is like the holy grail for building a super-powerful nano-computer. But then his career collapsed when it turned out that 16 out of 21 of his published papers contained bogus data. Remarkably, as investigators studied his articles more carefully, they realized that he had used one particular chart in totally different contexts in a variety of his papers (would it have really killed him to whip up some new fake charts in excel?). Now Schön's alma mater in Germany has stripped him of his doctorate. Ouch. Talk about kicking a guy when he's down.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Jun 11, 2004
Comments (5)
Back in October 2001 the prestigious Journal of Reproductive Medicine published an article titled "Does Prayer Influence the Success of in Vitro Fertilization–Embryo Transfer?" (the journal appears to have removed this article from its server). The apparent answer to the question posed in the title was 'Yes!' In other words, empirical research appeared to demonstrate that praying could help infertile women conceive. So tough luck if you were an infertile atheist. But a recent article in The Observer reveals that this prayer study was nothing more than a sham. The author of the article, Daniel Wirth, is a serial con-artist, now living under house arrest in California, who possesses no scientific credentials whatsoever. It boggles the mind why the JRM ever published something like this. As Bob Carroll of the Skeptic's Dictionary points out, never mind that the research was fraudulent. The entire premise of it was self-contradictory. He notes:
If prayer works by influencing God to influence the outcome of an experiment, then God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time. If God can interfere with the laws of nature at any time, then no controlled, double-blind study can be sure of the meaning of whatever outcome results. Any result could be the result of direct influence by God. In other words, the assumption the study is based on is self-defeating. No science at all would be possible if God could be interfering with the laws of nature at will. Science requires a backdrop of lawfulness in Nature in order to discover any causal connection between anything and anything else.
Categories: Birth/Babies, Religion, Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Jun 11, 2004
Comments (1)
A June 8 press release from Purdue University announced that one of its professors, Louis De Branges, has proven the Riemann Hypothesis (don't ask me what that is). This isn't just of academic interest because there's a $1 million prize that'll go to the first person who proves it, so the announcement has gotten some media coverage. The press release cautions that the professor's proof hasn't yet been peer-reviewed, but states that De Branges has posted the proof on his web page so that everyone can see it. But the MathWorld site notes that "both the 23-page preprint cited in the release (which is actually from 2003) and a longer preprint from 2004 on de Branges's home page seem to lack an actual proof. Furthermore, a counterexample to de Branges's approach due to Conrey and Li has been known since 1998. The media coverage therefore appears to be much ado about nothing." (via Gene Expression)
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Jun 10, 2004
Comments (1)
image If I just saw this picture randomly out of context, I'd swear it was fake. After all, I've never in my life seen clouds that look like that. But according to the Astronomy Picture of the Day site (which I trust), the picture is real. They're Mammatus Clouds that appeared over Monclova, Mexico. Apparently such clouds sometimes form in turbulent air near thunderstorms.
Categories: Photos/Videos, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue Jun 08, 2004
Comments (12)
image Head for the hills. The end of the world is near. For the past month conspiracy-theory sites have been all abuzz with the latest scare story: that a comet surrounded by a cloud of dust is going to hit the Earth this month and trigger an end-of-the-human-race scenario.

Word of the approaching comet was first leaked on the internet by someone using the screen name 'Aussie Bloke,' who claimed to be an Australian astronomer. You can look at some of his posts over at (thanks to Marco Langbroek for sending the link). They make pretty dramatic reading. For instance, here's where he describes the effect that the cometary impact will have:

"There will be several impacts of differing sizes spread over the globe. The bombardment will last a week or so at most. The largest fragment will rock the planet and the smaller ones will wipe out a city here or there depending on where they come down. There WILL be quakes and firestorms and major flooding of coastlines due to ocean impacts. will be much like the movie 'deep impact' only worse."

According to Aussie Bloke, there's not much time to get your affairs in order because the dust cloud will begin to reach us tomorrow (June 8), and the first impact will occur on June 18.

Now it seemed pretty easy to dismiss some random guy calling himself Aussie Bloke, but then he decided to reveal his true identity. He said that he was Dr. Grant Gartrell, and sure enough there definitely is a fully credentialed Australian astronomer by that name... who has published articles about meteors and cometary impacts. But unfortunately (or fortunately, rather), that Dr. Grant Gartrell completely denies any knowledge of this 'Impact in June' stuff. In fact, he's been retired from astronomy for quite a while and now spends his time running a blueberry farm, not tracking comets.

It looks like the entire 'Impact in June' hysteria has actually been an elaborate hoax designed to poke fun at the conspiracy nuts. One clue that it was all a joke can be found in the evidence that was presented. For instance, one poster noted that you could tell the comet was approaching because "fireballs have increased significantly over the last several weeks and are happening EVERYWHERE." He then noted that a fireball was seen near Grover's Mill, New Jersey (scroll about a third of the way down the page). Grover's Mill, of course, is where the Martians supposedly landed during the 1938 War of the Worlds Panic Broadcast.
Categories: Conspiracy Theories, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Jun 07, 2004
Comments (8)
A couple of people have sent me links to this meteor hoax that the AP fell for. The AP reported that a meteor about the size of a small car hit near Olympia, Washington early this morning. Its source for this story was one Bradley Hammermaster, supposedly an Astronomy professor at the University of Washington, who called in a report of the meteor to Seattle's KIRO radio. The AP later had to admit that, "No one by the name of Hammermaster is known to the astronomy department, and the description given by the caller to the station of the object... was clearly bogus." However, it does appear that there really was meteor activity over Washington state, but nothing the size of a small car has been found. This hoax reminds me of a similar hoax perpetrated by the newspaperman Joseph Mulholland back in the 1890s. Mulholland claimed that a meteor had fallen in western Pennsylvania, but he also went on to claim, more dramatically, that it had set fire to much of the surrounding country.
Categories: Journalism, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu Jun 03, 2004
Comments (2)
image The cicadas have returned, and with them the rumor that researchers at Johns Hopkins University will pay up to $1000 for specimens of rare blue-eyed cicadas. Unfortunately, the rumor simply isn't true. In fact, no researcher at Johns Hopkins even studies cicadas, let alone insects, though back in 1947 the university did employ a Biologist, William D. McElroy (who later moved out to UC San Diego), who announced that he would pay kids twenty-five cents for every 100 fireflies they could catch. McElroy was always criticized for this by people who said that he was somehow contributing to the depletion of the firefly population, though I doubt the kids ever made a dent in their numbers. (via David Emery).
Categories: Animals, Science
Posted by Alex on Tue May 18, 2004
Comments (0)
image A remarkable photograph reveals archaeologists unearthing a massive (and when I say massive, I mean massive... we're talking a 50-foot behemoth here) skeleton at a site in Saudi Arabia. Of course, the Saudi military is keeping this all very hush, hush. The public couldn't handle knowing about such a remarkable discovery. If you get your news from The New Nation, 'Bangladesh's Independent News Source,' you might think this was an actual piece of news. But of course, it's totally false. The picture comes from a Worth1000 photoshop contest. The original, undoctored source of the image was a Cornell-sponsored dig of a mastodon in New York. Somehow the picture escaped into the alternative reality of email, accompanied by a bogus caption claiming that the picture was taken in Saudi Arabia, etc., etc. Apparently The New Nation received this email (forwarded to them from an anti-Muslim group that takes it upon itself to hoax Muslim papers) and fell for it hook, line, and sinker. The historically minded will note the long-standing popularity of Giant hoaxes, going all the way back to the 18th century where we find Commodore Byron's tales of Patagonian Giants, or the amazing popularity of giants, such as the Cardiff Giant, in the 19th century. (via Liquito and Apothecary's Drawer)
Categories: History, Photos/Videos, Science
Posted by Alex on Thu May 13, 2004
Comments (0)
You may know Stephen Hawking as the brilliant theoretical physicist and best-selling author of A Brief History of Time. But did you also know that in his spare time the man is a gangsta rapper? Perhaps you're familiar with his album, A Brief History of Rhyme. Hawking's other career as a 'lyrical terrorist' is lovingly explored on this fan site, MC Hawking's Crib. Yeah, it's a hoax, but it's amazingly detailed, even including MP3 samples of Hawking's songs. (And thanks to Bill Boldt for gently pointing out to me my initial misspelling of 'Mic').
Categories: Entertainment, Science, Websites
Posted by Alex on Thu Apr 29, 2004
Comments (3)
image Back in January I posted an entry about what I called the Almost Great Dragon Hoax. It described a tiny dragon that had been found in a jar of formaldehyde in a garage in Oxfordshire. Supposedly the dragon had been created in the nineteenth century by German scientists trying to hoax their British counterparts, but the joke had been spotted by the British and placed in the trash... only to be recovered from there and end up years later in the Oxfordshire garage. Now it turns out that the dragon is actually of a much more modern origin. BBC News is reporting that author Allistair Mitchell created the story about the dragon as a publicity stunt in order to convince a publisher to publish his book, Unearthly History. It worked, because he just signed a deal with Waterstone. The dragon itself was built by Crawley Creatures, professional model makers. (Thanks to everyone who sent me links about this story).
Categories: Advertising, Science
Posted by Alex on Mon Mar 29, 2004
Comments (1)
I didn't think there was anyone left who hadn't heard this joke already. It's the one about the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide, a chemical found in many toxic substances and often used as an industrial solvent. Sounds scary, but dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, simply the scientific name for water, or H2O. Apparently the city council of Aliso Viejo, California hadn't heard the joke before, because they were about to ban the use of styrofoam cups because dihydrogen monoxide was used in their production. Luckily someone clued them in before they embarrassed themselves even more. Their one comfort is that they're not the only ones to fall for this joke. Last year disc jockeys in Olathe, Kansas warned listeners on April 1 not to drink water because it contained dihydrogen monoxide. Over 150 terrified people then phoned up the city's water superintendent to ask about this dangerous substance, prompting the superintendent to describe the radio station's prank as a terrorist act.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Sun Mar 14, 2004
Comments (3)
image In 1953 Bernard Kettlewell performed a set of experiments that proved that predation by birds was responsible for the peppered moth population changing from mostly white to mostly black. The reasoning was that industrial pollution had caused the barks of trees to turn dark. Therefore black moths resting during the day on the darkened trunks of trees had a selective advantage over white moths, because the birds could see the white moths more easily and prey on them. Kettlewell released both white and black moths into the wild and demonstrated that the black moths survived at a higher rate in the polluted areas. Now you can duplicate Kettlewell's experiment with the Evolution of the Peppered Moth Science Kit, available from Boreal Laboratories. There's just one problem. Some are beginning to say that the case of the peppered moth may be one of the biggest cases of scientific fraud of the twentieth century, up there with the Piltdown Man. You see, moths tend not to rest on tree trunks during the day; their main predators are bats, not birds; and anyway, birds see more in the UV range than people do, so what looks camouflaged to us may not look so to a bird. Given this, how did Kettlewell achieve his suspiciously perfect results? Rumors of fraud are in the air. Kettlewell definitely still has his defenders, but if his experiments do end up in the Science Hall of Infamy, then those science kits are going to be collector's items.
Categories: Science
Posted by Alex on Fri Mar 12, 2004
Comments (4)
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