Wednesday Wonders: Fooled by famous frauds and fakes

It’s April 1st, but given the state of the world at the moment, I would hope that everyone refrains from any kind of pranks or jokes today in honor of the occasion. Instead, let’s look at five times in the past that scientific types have passed off a fake as reality.

I’ll take it in (mostly) chronological order.

The Mechanical Turk

In 1769, Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungray, invited her trusted servant, Wolfgang von Kempelen, to a magic show. Von Kempelen knew his physics, mechanics, and hydraulics. The empress wanted to see what he’d make of a stage illusionist.

In short, he was not impressed, and said so in front of the court, claiming that he could create a better illusion. The empress accepted his offer and gave him six months off to try.

In 1770, he returned with his results: An automaton that played chess. It was in the form of a wooden figure seated behind a cabinet with three doors in front and a drawer in the bottom. In presenting it, von Kempelen would open the left door to show the complicated clockwork inside, then open a back door and shine a lantern through it to show that there was nothing else there.

When he opened the other two doors, it revealed an almost empty compartment with a velvet pillow in it. This he placed under the automaton’s left arm. The chess board and pieces came out of the drawer, and once a challenger stepped forward, von Kempelen turned a crank on the side to start it up, and the game was afoot.

Called the Mechanical Turk, it was good, and regularly defeated human opponents, including Benjamin Franklin.  and Napoleon Bonaparte — although Napoleon is reported to have tried to cheat, to which the Turk did not respond well.

Neither its creator nor second owner and promoter revealed its secrets during the machine’s lifetime, and it was destroyed by a fire in 1854. Although many people assumed that it was actually operated by a human and was not a machine, playing against it did inspire Charles Babbage to begin work on his difference engine, the mechanical precursor to the modern computer.

In the present day, a designer and builder of stage illusions built a replica of the Turk based on the original plans, and watching it in action is definitely uncanny.

Moon-bats and Martians!

This is actually a twofer. First, in August 1835, the New York Sun ran a six part series on discoveries made by the astronomer John Herschel on the Moon. The problem: The press flat out made it all up, reporting all kinds of fantastical creatures Herschel had allegedly seen and written about, including everything from unicorns to flying bat-people, all thanks to the marvel of the fabulous new telescope he had created. When Herschel found out about it, he was not pleased.

The flipside of this came sixty years later in 1895, when the astronomer Percival Lowell first published about the “canals of Mars,” which were believed to be channels of water that ran into the many oceans on the planet.

In reality, they were just an optical illusion created by the lack of power of telescopes of the time. This didn’t stop Lowell, though, and he went on in the early 19th century to write books that postulated the existence of life on Mars.

Of course, Lowell was not trying to perpetrate a fraud. He just had the habit of seeing what he wanted to see, so it was more self-delusion than anything else.

The Cardiff Giant

This would be Cardiff. The one in New York, not the capital of Wales. The year is 1869. The “giant” was a petrified 10-foot-tall man that had been dug up on a farm belonging to William C. “Stub” Newell. People came from all around to see it, and that did not stop when Newell started charging fifty cents a head to have a look. That’s the equivalent of about ten bucks today.

The statue was actually created by George Hull, who was a cousin of Newell’s. An atheist, Hull had gotten into an argument with a Methodist minister who said that everything in the Bible had to be taken literally. Since the Bible said that there had been giants in those days, Hull decided to give him one, and expose the gullibility of religious types at the same time.

Cardiff, after all, wasn’t very far from where Joseph Smith had first started the Mormon religion, and that sort of thing was not at all uncommon in the area during the so-called Second Great Awakening.

Although a huge hit with the public to the point that P.T. Barnum created his own fake giant, the Chicago Tribune eventually published an exposé with confessions from the stonemasons. That didn’t seem to make one bit of difference to the public, who still flocked to see the statues. Hull and his investors made a fortune off of the whole adventure.

Piltdown Man

Less innocuous was a hoax that actually sent a couple of generations of anthropologists and evolutionists down the wrong path in tracing the ancestry of humans. In 1912, Charles Dawson, an amateur archaeologist, claimed to have discovered the fossilized remains of a hitherto unknown human species in Piltdown, Sussex, England.

The key part was that while the skull had a human-like cranium, it had an ape-like mandible, or lower jaw. In other words, having traits of both species, it could easily have been the long-sought “missing link,” a transitional form that provides the evolutionary bridge between two species.

The first so-called missing link, Java Man, had been discovered twenty years prior to Dawson’s. Unlike Dawson’s Piltdown Man, Java Man, now known as homo erectus, has been accepted as a legitimate transitional form between ape and man.

Dawson’s downfall came after the discovery of more transitional forms and improved testing methods that authenticated many of these. When researchers finally turned their attention back to the original Piltdown Man fossils, they determined that the skull was only about 500 years old, the jaw, only a few decades. Both had been stained to simulate age.

In 1953, they published their findings, which were reported in Time magazine, but the damage had been done, setting back anthropological studies, because more recent, legitimate discoveries were doubted because they conflicted with the fake evidence.

It seems likely that Dawson was the sole hoaxer. What was his motive? Most likely, he wanted to be nominated to the archaeological Royal Society, but hadn’t yet because of a lack of significant findings.

In 1913, he was nominated because of Piltdown, proving yet again that it’s possible for a fraud to profit — if they’re white and connected.

Vaccines and autism

We’re still feeling the repercussions of this fraud, which was first perpetrated in 1998 by a researcher named Andrew Wakefield. This was when he published results of studies he carried out which, he said, showed an undeniable link between childhood vaccinations, particularly measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism.

In Wakefield’s world, “undeniable link” meant “cause and effect,” and a whole bunch of parents proceeded to lose their minds over the whole thing. We’re still dealing with the fallout from it today, with diseases like measles and whopping cough — which should have been eradicated — suddenly causing mini-epidemics.

Eventually, when they could not be replicated, it came out that Wakefield had flat-out falsified his results, and his papers and findings were withdrawn and repudiated by medical journals.

What was his motive for falsifying information without any regard for the lives he endangered? Oh, the usual motive. Money. He had failed to disclose that his studies “had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies.”

But, as with Piltdown Man, we’re still seeing the effects and feeling the damage a generation later. This is why now, more than ever, we need to rely on actual scientific findings that have been replicated through peer review instead of rumors, myths, or memes.

Happy April 1st!

Momentous Monday: Backwards and in high heels

The famous astronomer Herschel was responsible for a lot of accomplishments, including expanding and organizing the catalog of nebulae and star clusters, discovering eight comets, polishing and mounting mirrors and telescopes to optimize their light-gathering powers, and keeping meticulous notes on everything.

By being awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and being named an honorary member thereof, holding a government position and receiving a salary as a scientist, Herschel became the first woman to do so.

What? Did you I think I was talking about the other one? You know — the only one most of you had heard of previously because he discovered Uranus. Oh, and he had that whole penis thing going on.

Caroline Lucretia Herschel, who was William’s younger sister by eleven years and was born on this day 270 years ago, did not have a penis, and so was ignored by history. Despite the honors she received, one of her great works, the aforementioned expansion of the New General Catalogue (NGC), was published with her brother’s name on it.

If you’re into astronomy at all, you know that the NGC is a big deal and has been constantly updated ever since.

While she lacked William’s junk, she shared his intellectual curiosity, especially when it came to space and studying the skies. It must have been genetic — William’s son John Herschel was also an astronomer of some repute — and it was his Aunt Caroline, not Dad, who gave him a huge boost.

She arranged all of the objects then in the NGC so they were grouped by similar polar coordinates — that is, at around the same number of degrees away from the celestial poles. This enabled him to systematically resurvey them, add more data about them, and discover new objects.

Caroline was not the first woman in science to be swept under history’s rug by the men. The neverending story of the erasure of women told in Hidden Figures was ancient by the time the movie came out, never mind the time that it actually happened. Caroline was in good company.

Maria Winckelmann Kirch, for example, was also an astronomer, born 80 years before Caroline and most likely the first woman to actually discover a comet. But of course history gave that honor to her husband, Gottfried Kirch, who was thirty years her senior. However, Herr Kirch himself confirms in his own notes that she was the one who found it:

“Early in the morning (about 2:00 AM) the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before, I had observed a variable star and my wife (as I slept) wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing, she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me, and I found that it was indeed a comet… I was surprised that I had not seen it the night before”. [Source]

Maria’s interest and abilities in science came from a person we might think of as unlikely nowadays: a Lutheran minister, who happened to be her father. Why did he teach her? Because he believed that his daughter deserved the same education any boy at the time did, so he home-schooled her. This ended when Maria lost both of her parents when she was 13, but a neighbor and self-taught astronomer, Christoph Arnold, took her on as an apprentice and took her in as part of the family.

Getting back to Hidden Figures, though, one of the earliest “computers,” as these women of astronomy were known, was Henrietta Leavitt. Given what was considered the boring and onerous task of studying a class of stars known as Cepheid variables, she actually discovered something very important.

The length of time it takes a Cepheid to go through its brightest to darkest sequence is directly proportional to its luminosity. This means that if know the timing of that sequence, you know how bright the star is. Once you know that, you can look at how bright it appears to be from Earth and, ta-da! Using very basic laws of optics, you can then determine how far away the star is.

It’s for this reason that Cepheids are known as a “standard candle.” They are the yardsticks of the universe that allow us to measure the unmeasurable. And her boss at the time took all the credit, so I’m not even going to mention his name.

And this is why we have The Leavitt Constant and the Leavitt Telescope today.

No, just kidding. Her (male) boss, who shall still remain nameless here because, “Shame, shame,” took all of the credit for work he didn’t do, and then some dude named Edwin Hubble took that work and used to to figure out how far away various stars actually were, and so determined that the universe was A) oh so very big,  and B) expanding. He got a constant and telescope named after him. Ms. Leavitt… not so much.

There are way too many examples of women as scientific discovers being erased, with the credit being given to men, and in every scientific field. You probably wouldn’t be on the internet reading this now if no one had ever come up with the founding concepts of computer programming, aka “how to teach machines to calculate stuff for us.”

For that, you’d have to look to a woman who was basically the daughter of the David Bowie of her era, although he wasn’t a very dutiful dad. He would be Lord Byron. She would be Ada Lovelace, who was pretty much the first coder ever — and this was back in the days when computers were strictly analog, in the form of Charles Babbage’s difference and analytical engines.

The former was pretty much just an adding machine, and literally one that could only do that. So, for example, if you gave it the problem “What is two times 27,” it would find the solution by just starting with two, and then adding two to it 26 times.

The latter analytical engine was much more like a computer, with complex programming. Based on the French Jacquard loom concept, which used punched cards to control weaving, it truly mimicked all of the common parts of a modern computer as well as programming logic.

Basically, a computer does what it does by working with data in various places. There’s the slot through which you enter the data; the spot that holds the working data; the one that will pull bits out of that info, do operations on it, and put it back in other slots with the working data; and the place where it winds up, which is the user-readable output.

The analytical engine could also do all four math operations: addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

An analog version of this would be a clerk in a hotel lobby with a bunch of pigeonhole mail boxes behind, some with mail, some not. Guests come to the desk and ask (input), “Any mail for me?” The clerk goes to the boxes, finds the right one based on input (guest room number, most likely), then looks at the box (quaintly called PEEK in programming terms).

If the box is empty (IF(MAIL)=FALSE), the Clerk returns the answer “No.” But if it’s not empty (IF(MAIL)=TRUE), the clerk retrieves that data and gives it to the guest. Of course, the guest is picky, so tells the Clerk, “No junk mail and no bills.”

So, before handing it over, the Clerk goes through every piece, rejecting that above (IF(OR(“Junk”,”Bill”),FALSE,TRUE), while everything else is kept by the same formula. The rejected data is tossed in the recycle bin, while the rest is given to the guest — output..

Repeat the process for every guest who comes to ask.

Now, Babbage was great at creating the hardware and figuring out all of that stuff. But when it came to the software, he couldn’t quite get it, and this is where Ada Lovelace came in. She created the algorithms that made the magic happen — and then was forgotten.

By the way, Bruce Sterling and William Gibson have a wonderfully steampunk alternate history novel that revolves around the idea that Babbage and Lovelace basically launched the home computer revolution a couple of centuries early, and with the British computer industry basically becoming the PC to France’s Mac. It’s worth a read.

Three final quick examples: Nettie Maria Stevens discovered the concept of biological sex being passed through chromosomes long before anyone else; it was Lise Meitner, not Otto Hahn, who discovered nuclear fission; and, in the ultimate erasure, it was Rosalind Franklin, and neither Watson nor Crick, who determined the double helix structure of DNA.

This erasure is so pronounced and obvious throughout history that it even has a name: The Matilda Effect, named by the historian Margaret Rossiter for the suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage.

Finally, a note on the title of this piece. It comes from a 1982 comic strip called Frank and Ernest, and it pretty much sums up the plight of women trying to compete in any male-dominated field. They have to work harder at it and are constantly getting pushed away from advancement anyway.

So to all of the women in this article, and all women who are shattering glass ceilings, I salute you. I can’t help but think that the planet would be a better place with a matriarchy.