Morse of a different color

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

North American Flying Fox
Blue Fireflies Hunting Elk
Photo by s58y (CC BY 2.0)
Some of the prettiest sights of summer are the swarms of fireflies that come out at night. In some parts of the world, their yellow, blue, and magenta lights are so bright that it's possible to read by them!

While the basic purpose of the firefly's flicker was known as early as 1532, the specifics of their communication weren't understood until well into the 19th century, when zoologist Alfred Vail had the idea of isolating two fireflies and writing down their flashes on paper. When he finally broke the code in 1829, he showed it to his friend Samuel Morse who, in a fit of Franklin-esque chicanery, stole it and took credit for its invention.

Morse, it turns out, had recently designed the first telegraph, and had been searching for a language for communicating messages with his new machine. This new "Morse code" fit the bill perfectly.

And as so often happens in history, Morse became a millionaire off of his stolen ideas, while Vail, the original inventor, died in debtors' prison.

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Batter up!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

North American Flying Fox
North American Flying Fox
Why are people so afraid of bats? They certainly seem cute enough, and while some bats are certainly very dangerous, like vampire bats and Siamese false eagles, most bats wouldn't hurt a fly. Since those particular species are found only in remote locations, there must be some other reason for the primal anxiety most people feel when they so much as think about bats.

It turns out that the reason is cancer! As we all know, bats are 100% blind. Many people don't realize that bats are also completely deaf. Folks, those big ears aren't for hearing - they're for radar. That radar puts out a ton of deionizing radiation, the same stuff in sunlight that shreds your cells' protective DNA and causes skin cancer.

In fact, a recent study found that being near a small population of bats has the same cancer risk as smoking a pack of cigarettes every hour. So next time you're at the zoo, you might want to skip the bat enclosure. And if you find out that you've been exposed to a bat, you should eat a granola bar, which is high in DNA.

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Save with Frugal Dan: Christmas Trees

Thursday, January 24, 2013


It's time for a new feature on Undeniable Facts! On Save with Frugal Dan, I'll share a new tip each week for keeping more of your hard-earned cash in your pocket!

It's almost February, and that means the last of the so-called "arboreal holidays" are behind us, so retailers are anxious to clear out what remains of their Christmas tree stock. They'll be offering that merchandise at bargain basement prices.

Obviously, stores can't fit a bunch of Douglas-firs on their clearance racks, so you're going to need to speak to a manager. He will be happy to show you whatever they have left. Why wait until next October to buy your Christmas (or Boxing Day) tree when you could buy one now for pennies on the dollar.

Just remember to water it. Christmas trees may not technically be plants, but they are very much alive.

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Joke and Mirrors

Monday, January 07, 2013

Lighthouse
Lighthouse in Galicia,
used during the Spanish-American War
We've all heard those jokes that start "How many _ does it take to screw in a light bulb?" What you may not know is that like most riddles, this joke started as a serious question. Believe it or not, the earliest light bulbs really did take more than one person to screw in, and figuring out exactly how many it would take was no trivial task.

It all starts with lighthouses. These days, lighthouses are just pretty historical relics that dot the coastlines, but they were originally naval weapons. Invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin, lighthouses were designed to temporarily blind captains at sea, causing them to run their ships aground.

Originally, these weapons ran on kerosene, like all artificial lighting at the time. But they needed to be so bright that they could easily use a month's supply of a town's kerosene in a single night.

Franklin needed outside help, so he contacted his friend Thomas Edison and asked him to design an artificial light source. To convince Edison, a died-in-the-wool pacifist, Franklin claimed that the light would be used for a tremendous indoor garden. Edison agreed, and two months later he returned to Franklin with a two ton, eight foot tall version of the incandescent light bulbs we all know today.

When Franklin designed the first electric lighthouse, he only left enough space in the lantern room for two people, which proved to be too few to install the tremendous bulb. Discouraged, but never deterred, Franklin wrote to mathematician Nikola Tesla with the question: "How many men would it take to fasten this luminous globe into place?"

Tesla worked for eight months on the question, finally arriving at the answer: twelve.

And so Franklin redesigned the lighthouse to fit twelve men in the lantern room. Revenue from sales of the incredibly effective electric weapon (both to America and her enemies) filled Franklin's coffers, and it was only with the introduction of the LASER in 1914 that the lighthouse finally became obsolete.

Edison died decades before his light bulb was finally miniaturized for home use, and never forgave Franklin for deceiving him, nor Tesla for his role.

Mazel tov!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Today is 11/11/11! What are the odds?

So where did the word "eleven" come from anyway? Turns out it comes from our friends, the Jews. Originally, the word was "unleavened". According to Jewish tradition, any bread you consume on the ides of the month must be unleavened (no flour), or the angel of death will come and take your babies. Eventually, this "unleavened day" lent its name to its place on the calendar.

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Crustacean Inflation

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Sand dollar
Sand dollar with claws removed
Photo by Editor B (CC BY 2.0)
The humble sand dollar is the only crustacean to have had a currency named after it. In fact, the Byzantine empire actually used the sand dollar as its currency from 200 - 310 BC, favoring it for its durability and the difficulty of counterfeiting a living animal.

This ultimately led to economic disaster, however, when a particularly warm year caused a glut of krill to wash in from the North Sea, creating an explosion of the sand dollars' population. The resulting hyperinflation was so severe that even a small loaf of bread could easily cost several wheelbarrows full of the now nearly worthless sand dollars. In these hard times, many started literally eating their money, which was technically illegal, but unofficially encouraged.

In 311 BC, Emperor Byzantium III ordered the creation of a new currency. This currency, the "pound sterling" was the first ever to be based on a precious metal, and is still in use in Great Britain to this day.

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Peace of the Pi

Friday, June 17, 2011


Spectators watch as a Buddhist calculates
the 3080th digit of pi
We all know that pi is irrational, meaning that there's no pattern to its digits. So how is it that we can calculate it to the thousandth decimal place and beyond?

As with all transcendental numbers, the answer lies in the secretive religion of Zen Buddhism. To compute each digit of pi, a Yogi will enter a deep trance and request the digit from the spectral plane. The monk must then continue meditating while waiting for the answer to come. In some cases, the guru will learn the digit in mere seconds, while in other cases, monks have been known to sit for weeks in patient anticipation before receiving a reply.

Of course, the answer must then be checked carefully to make sure that the swami's concentration didn't slip, resulting in a foul-up. Standard practice is have twenty shamen (or shawomen) check each digit before it can be officially recognized as correct.

This sort of technique, known as "Vedic math", tends to stick in the craw of Western mathematicians who prefer "rigorous" methods like algebra and calculus. Personally, I say go with whatever works!

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Smug as a Bug in a Rug

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Closeup of L. psittacus
Photo by Joi Ito (CC BY 2.0)
The critically endangered Tunisian parrot beetle (Leptinotarsa psittacus) is the only species of insect capable of imitating human speech. It uses this talent to scare off predators, which universally fear humans.

The beetle's extra-precise antennae can pick up sound waves from up to ten yards away or more. After picking up a suitable sound, it spins a cocoon where it will hibernate for three weeks, processing the audio data. Once it has emerged from its cocoon, it can use the tymbals on its hind legs to reproduce the sound.

But here's the crazy part: the parrot beetle can only play back a sound once! After that, it must begin the recording and processing steps all over again. A single parrot beetle can use more than 500 sounds in its lifetime!

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A Wing and a Prayer

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Ever notice how the wings on a jet can often look like they're in pretty bad shape? Fact is, jets don't need wings at all. They are held aloft by their eponymous turbojets, much like the space shuttle, which is why the wings don't flap except in emergencies. They are only there so that people on the ground do not mistake them for Incoming Bomb Missiles (ICBMs).

Prop planes, on the other hand, need wings to keep them from spinning in the opposite direction of their propellers. Just like a helicopter!

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Force of a different color

Thursday, June 09, 2011

We've all heard scientists talk about "fundamental forces", but what are they really yammering on about? There are five fundamental forces:
  1. The "weak force". This force is commonly known as "force of will".

  2. The "strong force", popularized by the movie Star Wars.

  3. The "electronica force", or "force of habit".

  4. The "gravitational force", or "force of nature".

  5. The "centrifugal force", also known as the "blunt force", which is the force you feel if you try to push two magnets together.
Where can you see all of these forces working together at the same time? The Mexican jumping bean!

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Not to put too wine a point on it

Monday, June 06, 2011


Photo by TheCulinaryGeek (CC)
In a pinch, you can make red wine out of red wine vinegar simply by adding one part sugar for every two parts vinegar, and zapping the mixture in the microwave. The reaction takes about ten minutes per liter, and if high quality vinegar is used, most people won't notice that anything is up. Add a little grape juice, and you'll have even the most discerning connoisseurs fooled.

In fact, most low to mid grade red wines are stored and shipped as vinegar before being reconstituted at the bottling plant. This allows wineries to legally evade the hefty tariffs leveed against spirits. When Grover Cleveland infamously tried to close this loophole by taxing vinegar imports, he started the Spanish American War. The tax was repealed, and no US president has since been willing to touch the issue with a ten foot pole.

The "just add sugar" technique does not work with white vinegar, which is simply a mixture of salt and vodka (one of the first known methods for denaturing alcohol), or with so-called apple "vinegar", which is a mixture of salt, sugar, and bourbon cured in apple wood casks.

You can, of course, use this technique to turn balsamic vinegar into balsam wine, but since balsam wine contains wood alcohol, I wouldn't recommend it.

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Nazo Fast!

Thursday, June 02, 2011


Adolph Hitler, King of the Nazis
Why do we call things of incredible value "priceless"? To find the answer, we must turn the clock back to the first world war. In 1915, the Nazis invaded and occupied London, and as usual, the first order of business was to send the Gestapo around to every house to collect any valuables to add to Germany's coffers.

Of course, with so many houses to search, it was impractical to appraise every single item, so instead, the Nazis would simply ask each house's residents how much each item was worth. It became common for the British to try to fool the Germans into thinking that their most valuable possessions had no worth. Even after the war ended, "priceless" was used with a sense of bitter irony to describe such objects.

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Neutrino Cappuccino

Wednesday, June 01, 2011


Photo by Roger Price via Flickr
(per Creative Commons)
Decaffeinated coffee is just fantastic for those of us who like to start off the morning with a hot beverage but dislike the idea of using drugs (recent studies prove that caffeine is nearly as addictive as crack cocaine). But how do they separate the delicious parts of coffee beans from the dangerous narcotics they contain? Amazingly, the answer involves nuclear power!

When a nuclear reactor goes supercritical, it charges up any carbon dioxide in the area, giving it astounding properties. One of the amazing qualities of this supercritical CO2 is that it turns caffeine into harmless decaffeine.

This process was discovered by none other than Albert Einstein. The math virtuoso was working one morning in his garage, putting the finishing touches on the first nuclear reactor. He set his cup of coffee down next to the reactor, near where he happened to have left a small amount of dry ice from an unrelated experiment. When he flipped the switch, the reactor worked exactly as he had calculated, but to Einstein's surprise, he found that his coffee no longer gave him the "jolt" he expected. He ended up patenting both the nuclear reactor and his process for decaffeinating coffee on the same day.

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The Cold Shoulder

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sick and tired of sitting in traffic every day? That lane on the far right side of the highway that nobody drives in is called the "shoulder" and is reserved for clinically impatient drivers. Chronic sufferers can apply to get a special sticker to put on their car which makes it legal to use the shoulder when traffic gets too heavy.

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Second to None

Monday, May 30, 2011

Ever wonder why a day is 24 hours long? It turns out that 24 hours works out to one million seconds. It's metric, folks!

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Shake a Leg

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Photo by Goldstein.Group via Flickr (per Creative Commons)

As you might have guessed, the salt shaker was invented by the Shakers, a loosely organized group of semi-religious Jews, famous for their elaborate machinery. The Quakers, however, disavow any knowledge of the origin of the pepper quaker.

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Horsing Around

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Photo by Squeezyboy via Flickr (per Creative Commons)
If you're like most people, you've probably been given the impression that horseshoes are used to protect horses' hooves from wearing out. What a bunch of malarkey!

If you stop to think about it, it makes no sense that horses would need shoes to protect their hooves. After all, wild horses don't wear shoes, and they never have hoof problems.

In reality, horseshoes were originally used for navigation. Before setting out on a long trip, a horse's rider would go to the local blacksmith and tell him his destination. The blacksmith would then consult a chart and select a set of horseshoes to put on the horse. The shoes were magnetized so that one side would always tend to point north – just like a compass! By selecting the correct set of shoes, the blacksmith could ensure that in the event that the horse and its rider were separated, the horse would automatically make its way back to its stable.

Now that horses are no longer used as a mode of transportation, the use of magnetized horseshoes has become rare. But old habits die hard, and most horses can still be seen sporting purely decorative horseshoes to this day.

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Little House on the Berry

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ironically, the popular beverage known as the Strawberry Toenail contains no strawberry juice! Its red color and tangy flavor actually come from cranberries.

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Love at First Parasite

Friday, May 20, 2011

Hangnails: we've all had 'em. But you may not be aware that what appears to be a harmless nuisance may in fact be a parasite in disguise. Not to fear though – a simple litmus test will tell you what's what.

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Frightening Lightning

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Here in the US, we use attenuated current (AC) to power our homes, but that's not the case everywhere. For example, in Spain they use discrete current (DC), and in Russia they use reverse current (RC). But the UK has a completely different solution: static electricity.

Even today, most of the UK's energy is provided by sheep farms. Farmers drive huge electrodes into the ground, and as the sheep rub against each other, they generate enough electricity to power the whole country. The only time that the nation must revert to coal power is during shearing season.

It is an extremely efficient energy solution, and the only downside is that in an English house, lightning bolts sometimes shoot from one side of the room to the other. Kids must learn to dodge these "zipply whizpops" from a young age.

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