Smoke on the Water

I was supposed to attend a family BBQ today, but it was canceled because of rain.

I should have known it would be. I had already read this news about how weekends attract bad weather.


The most comprehensive weather study ever has confirmed what we all suspected - the weather really is worse at weekends.

Meteorologists at the University of Karlsruhe evaluated 6.3 million pieces of climate data from across Europe between 1991 and 2005.

Their conclusion: On weekends the weather is worse than on weekdays.

But even if the weather had been good, we would have suffered from this campfire phenomenon. As we are told in The Complete Book of Fire by Buck Tilton:

Q: Why does the smoke from a campfire seem to blow into your face no matter where you sit or how many times you change position around the fire?

A: Your body blocks the flow of fresh air drawn to the flames. You are then creating a low air pressure area with your body and the warm smoke moves toward the lowest air pressure. With no wind, no matter where you sit in relation to the fire, the smoke will be drawn toward you.

Sometimes you just can't win....

Posted By: Paul - Sun Sep 14, 2008 - Comments (3)
Category: Entertainment, Family, Food, Science, Weather

World D

Here's another strange book I purchased but have not yet read. The real author is Joseph K. Heydon, using the pen-name of Hal Trevarthen. Time has swallowed up all details related to Heydon and his book, leaving us only with the text itself.

Here's the description from the amazingly ugly dustjacket.

Here's the title page, followed by a sample of the actual bafflegab inside.

image Posted By: Paul - Thu Sep 11, 2008 - Comments (11)
Category: Aliens, Eccentrics, Government, Inventions, Literature, Books, Science Fiction, Writers, Nature, New Age, Paranormal, Pop Culture, Science, Psychology, Self-help Schemes, Foreign Customs, 1930s, Yesterday’s Tomorrows

The Mighty Powers of Hagfish Slime

My high-school pal Sherry Mowbray, who grew up to be a top-flight biologist, points me with glee to this video illustrating how powerful is the slime secreted by the awesome hagfish.

Posted By: Paul - Wed Sep 10, 2008 - Comments (11)
Category: Animals, Science, Experiments, Body Fluids

Guess the Scientist!

What famous Victorian-era scientist does this passage describe? (Follow the "extended" link for the answer.)

He suffered from incessant retching or vomiting, usually brought on by fatigue; and from painful bouts of wind that churned around after meals and obliged him to sit quietly in a private room until his body behaved more politely. Reading between the lines, his guts were noisy and smelly. "I feel nearly sure that the air is generated somewhere lower down than stomach," he told one doctor plaintively in 1865, "and as soon as it regurgitates into the stomach the discomfort comes on." He was equally forthright with his cousin...: "all excitement & fatigue brings on such dreadful flatulence that in fact I can go nowhere." When he did go somewhere, he needed privacy after meals, "for, as you know, my odious stomach requires that."

He also had trouble with his bowels, frequently suffering from constipation and vulnerable to the obsession with regularity that stalked most Victorians. He developed crops of boils in what he called "perfectly devilish attacks" on his backside, making it impossible to sit upright, and occasional eczema. There were headaches and giddiness. He probably had piles as well.

More in extended >>

Posted By: Alex - Sun Sep 07, 2008 - Comments (2)
Category: Medicine, Quizzes, Guess the Scientist, Science

One Touch of Homer Makes the Whole World Kin

In this NEW YORK TIMES article from today, scientists reveal their latest findings about which brain cells are excited during the recall of memories, and how closely memory tallies with literally re-enacting the events. And they use a tantalizing example:

After briefly distracting the patients, the researchers then asked them to think about the clips for a minute and to report “what comes to mind.” The patients remembered almost all of the clips. And when they recalled a specific one — say, a clip of Homer Simpson — the same cells that had been active during the Homer clip reignited. In fact, the cells became active a second or two before people were conscious of the memory, which signaled to researchers the memory to come.

Why is Homer Simpson singled out as the test case? Obviously because the human brain has specific neurons that emulate or actually induce and compel Homer-Simpson-style behavior.

And there in a nutshell you have the whole basis for ninety-nine percent of the contents of WEIRD UNIVERSE.

Posted By: Paul - Fri Sep 05, 2008 - Comments (13)
Category: Celebrities, Science, Experiments, Psychology, Stupidity, Television, Husbands, Cartoons

Follies of the Mad Men #22

[From Newsweek for September 25 1950.]

Pure jittery brainbuzz in a handy grenade-shaped shaker.

Beware of putting anything in your mouth that comes from a company named "International Minerals & Chemical Corporation."

Posted By: Paul - Wed Sep 03, 2008 - Comments (2)
Category: Business, Advertising, Food, Inebriation and Intoxicants, Science, Technology, 1950s

Chocolate Teapots

Back in 2001, Simon Bradshaw and his colleagues published a tongue-in-cheek article in Plotka analyzing the utility of a chocolate teapot. They were inspired by the phrase (common in the UK) that something is as "useful as a chocolate teapot." Their conclusion was that chocolate teapots are indeed not very useful since they leak everywhere, and therefore they "serve as an excellent baseline of uselessness against which to compare other, similarly dysfunctional, items."

The article became a minor classic of scientific humor. (Yeah, science humor tends to be a bit nerdy) and was replicated by other researchers.

More recently, the Naked Scientists (authors of Crisp Packet Fireworks) decided that the problem was that the teapot was too thin. If you make the chocolate thick enough, it'll hold the hot water and brew tea. But how thick? Two centimeters proved to be enough. They note:
When chocolate melts it doesn't become totally liquid immediately, it remains quite viscous. Unless you apply a fairly large force to the melted chocolate, it seems to sit there. Chocolate is also mostly made of fat, which is a good thermal insulator (whales use blubber as a form of insulation). This means that the molten chocolate near the hot water protects the less molten chocolate below it, insulating it from the heat of the water. Also, it takes a significant amount of energy to melt chocolate, so it will take a significant amount of time to move heat into the solid chocolate, thus slowing its melting.

The main structural design defects were the lid, which melted, and the spout, which collapsed after the tea was poured.

Posted By: Alex - Wed Sep 03, 2008 - Comments (1)
Category: Food, Science

Do pets make you snore?

A recent study published in the journal Respiratory Research found a correlation between growing up with dogs and snoring as an adult. The authors found the correlation after giving a questionnaire about snoring frequency to 16,190 randomly selected men and women. The other factor associated with habitual adult snoring was growing up in a large family. The authors conclude:

exposure to a dog as newborn, and growing up in a large family appear as possible risk factors for snoring in adulthood. We speculate that these factors may enhance inflammatory processes and thereby alter upper airway anatomy early in life causing an increased susceptibility for adult snoring.

Their theory sounds rather unlikely. After all, correlation does not equal causation. I grew up with a dog, and I don't snore. But then, my family wasn't very large either. (Thanks to KT Jayne!)

Posted By: Alex - Tue Sep 02, 2008 - Comments (1)
Category: Pets, Dogs, Science

Help Zimbardo Study Helping

Dr. Phil Zimbardo, famous for conducting the Stanford Prison Experiment which revealed how quickly average college students will embrace the roles of sadistic prison guards and passive prisoners, and most recently author of The Lucifer Effect, is now turning his attention to helping behavior. From the hero workshop blog (via boing boing):

The goal is to discover how individuals perceive the behavior of helpfulness.
The first step is to conduct a survey with as many participants as possible. That’s where you come in. The survey takes about 30 minutes and can be found at

I took one look at the length of time and thought, "30 minutes! I don't want to take a survey for that long!" I'm basically unhelpul and selfish. But this made me realize that the only people taking the survey will be those that are more helpful than most. It'll be a biased sample.

Zimbardo and his co-researchers are very smart people, so I'm sure they realize this. I'm guessing that the real purpose of the survey may be to find out how many people actually take it, versus how many visit the link. That could provide a quick snapshot of how many helpful people there are on the internet. (Thanks to Joe Littrell!)

Posted By: Alex - Wed Aug 27, 2008 - Comments (1)
Category: Science, Experiments, Psychology

Cow Compass

New evidence of the hidden talents of cows. Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that cows have some kind of built-in compass that allows them to align themselves along a north-south axis while grazing in fields. The researchers found this out by studying thousands of satellite photos of cows from all over the world.

But another scientist noted, "the study is based entirely on correlations. To demonstrate conclusively that cattle have a magnetic sense, some kind of experimental manipulation will eventually be needed." That sounds like a bizarre experiment waiting to happen!

Posted By: Alex - Tue Aug 26, 2008 - Comments (4)
Category: Science, Cows

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Who We Are
Alex Boese
Alex is the creator and curator of the Museum of Hoaxes. He's also the author of various weird, non-fiction, science-themed books such as Elephants on Acid and Psychedelic Apes.

Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.

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