Category Archives: Curiosities of Nature

You say “Hippopotamuses”, I say “Hippipotamus”

Apparently, a herd of hippos derived from animals kept by deceased drug cartel lord Pablo Escobar have been running amok in Colombia for something like two decades1. Unfortunately, I could not find any references to extinct South American members of the Hippopotamidae family. So, this cannot be considered an accidental experiment2 in rewilding.

The multiple articles that have sprung up (no reputable news organization could ignore this story) have heightened the focus on a key question of grammar. What is the plural of hippopotamus. In terms of authority, we have disagreement, with the Oxford University Press voting for hippopotamuses, “The Smartest Man in the World” comedian Greg Proops arguing on behalf of  hippopotami, and would-be Internet language scholars suggesting hippopotamoi from the Greek.

What should the plural of hippopotamus be? Continue reading

Tortoise vs Hare, but in a vacuum this time

We all know how gravity is supposed to work. Without air resistance, a feather and a bowling ball (the standardized materials for all gravitational tests) should accelerate toward the center of the Earth at the same rate, thus striking the ground at the same time. Humans have tested this. It works.

Although we know this thing, it is so far removed from our daily experience that it is still stunning to watch it happen. This fundamental principle is nicely illustrated in this video from the BBC. The video also nicely shows how amazed a roomful of individuals who know how the experiment will work can be when the experiment works exactly as expected.

That is why we need the scientific method to rigorously test hypotheses and incrementally build our knowledge of how the universe works. Our day-to-day experience of and intuition about the world is extremely valuable, but also extremely deceptive.

For the record, the tortoise vs hare in a vacuum race I alluded to in the title would be incredibly inhumane and disappointing, in addition to having no winner – unless, UNLESS we had the tortoise and hare race in spacesuits. Why aren’t we racing animals in spacesuits?

HT: Jared Heidinger

Deep Pterosaur Breaths

I cannot begin tell you how excited my children will be to learn that scientists think* giant pterosaurs may have breathed in a similar way to crocodilians when they get home from school today. Read Brian Switek’s explanation of the newest research at National Geographic Phenomena.

*Geist, N. R., Hillenius, W. J., Frey, E., Jones, T. D. and Elgin, R. A. (2014), Breathing in a box: Constraints on lung ventilation in giant pterosaurs. Anat Rec, 297: 2233–2253. doi: 10.1002/ar.22839

Science for the People: Cosmology is Hard

sftpThis week, Science for the People is talking about the mindbending science trying to understand the inner workings of the Universe. Astrophysicist Ethan Siegel returns to discuss the BICEP2 experiment, and its search for the fingerprints of cosmic inflation. And they’ll talk to theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta about his book The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know about the All-There-Is, which explains the history and concepts of cosmology using the 1,000 most common words in the English language.

*Josh provides research help to Science for the People and is, therefore, completely biased.

The Palette of Dunloe

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Gap of Dunloe (County Kerry, Ireland); Photo Credit: Josh Witten (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In 2011, we took the family to County Kerry in Ireland for Easter (I was working at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK at the time). One of the highlights of the trip was walking at the Gap of Dunloe. The gorse was in full bloom, providing a bright contrast to the greens, greys, browns, and blues of the landscape.

We didn’t really do much. Just walked. And looked. Among all the wonderful mornings we have had as a family, that morning at the Gap of Dunloe is a stand out. Afterward, the kids fell asleep in the car and we took a leisurely drive around the Ring of Kerry.

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cropped-dunloe-vintage-fp-banner-trans-3 Since Mike and I founded The Finch & Pea, we’ve slowly and steadily made superficial changes to the site’s style, without getting away from our original “online science pub” idea. We still love the concept; but we (by which I mean me) like to fiddle with things. So, over a series of incremental changes, we’ve changed quite a bit – as you can see from looking at our various site headers.

Maybe it is the approaching winter and shortening days. Maybe it is the pessimistic feeling that our Internet home is a bleak Mad Max wasteland roamed by gangs of sociopaths, pock-marked by outposts of civilization. Maybe I was procrastinating. Whatever the reason, we decided to brighten up some of the colors around the joint, while still being recognizable and feeling like home. We wanted to keep the same general theme to our site colors, but draw the updated versions from nature.

Gap of Dunloe (County Kerry, Ireland); Photo Credit: Josh Witten (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Gap of Dunloe (County Kerry, Ireland); Photo Credit: Josh Witten (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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