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!

Wednesday Wonders: A busy day in space

Happy New Year! And happy first day of spring!

Wait, what… you say those things aren’t today, March 25th? That the latter was six days ago and the former was almost four months ago?

Well… you’d be right in 2020, but jump back in history to when the Julian calendar was still around, and things were dated differently. This led to the adoption of the new Gregorian calendar, but since it was sponsored by the Pope, not everyone switched over right away. Long story short, Catholic countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy adopted it immediately in 1582. Protestant countries held out, so that places like England (and the colonies) didn’t switch until 1752.

That was also when England moved New Year’s day back to January 1, which is itself ironic, since it was the Catholic Church that moved the day from then to March 25 at the Council of Tours in 567, considering the prior date pagan, which was probably accurate, since the Romans had moved New Year’s from March to January 1st when they deified Julius Caesar after his assassination.

The practical reason for switching calendars was that the Julian calendar lost 11 hours a year, which added up fast, meaning that entire extra months had to be added between years to set things right again. The Gregorian calendar is much more accurate, although about 2,800 years from now it will have lost a day.

By the way, the religious reasoning for picking March 25th is that it was the Feast of the Annunciation, meaning the day that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary to let her know that she was going to get knocked up by god — although it doesn’t get mentioned canonically until a century after the ol’ calendar switch-a-roo.

Anyway, the math isn’t hard to do. March 25th is exactly nine months before Christmas. And in strictly astronomical terms, the former is the first day of spring and the latter is the first day of winter. Just psychologically, the Vernal Equinox, which is now closer to the 19th or 20th, is the better New Year’s Day option because it’s when days start to get longer than nights, vegetation starts to grow anew, and nature awakes from its slumber.

Note: Your mileage in 2020 may vary.

It’s kind of ironic, then, that today marks the birth of a German astronomer and mathematician, Christopher Clavius, who was instrumental in doing the calculations necessary to figure out how much in error the Julian calendar had become, and then to come up with a calendar to fix it and a method to transition.

This is where the Catholic Church came into it, because Easter, being a moveable feast based on the Julian lunar calendar, had been slipping later and later into the year, threatening to move from the spring to summer. Clavius’s job was to bring it back toward the vernal equinox.

He succeeded to the degree of accuracy noted above — only a day off in 3,236 years. Not bad. This was also when New Year’s Day went back to January 1st, per the old Roman style, and while this is attributed to Pope Gregory XIII, I can’t help but think that Clavius had a hand in implementing the change.

I mean, come on. You’re handed a chance by the most powerful person in the western world at the time to move a major holiday off of your birthday so that your day is finally special on its own? Who wouldn’t do that given the power?

Good ol’ Chris did make other discoveries and get some nice presents, like a crater on the moon named after him, as well as the moon base in the movie 2001.

Still, even if the equinox did move away from March 25, the date still keeps bringing special things for astronomers. It was on this day in 1655 that the Dutch physicist and astronomer Christiaan Huygens discovered Saturn’s largest moon, Titan,

Huygens also has another time connection, though. Where Clavius gave us a calendar accurate to over 3,000 years, Huygens gave us a clock that was the most accurate for the next 300 years. His innovation? Put a pendulum on that thing and let it swing. He literally put the “tick tock” in clock.

Why was this possible? Because the swing of a pendulum followed the rules of physics and was absolutely periodic. Even as friction and drag slowed it down, it would cover a shorter distance but at a slower pace, so that the time between tick and tock would remain the same.

The pendulum itself would advance a gear via a ratchet that would turn the hands of the clock, and adding kinetic energy back into that pendulum was achieved through a spring, which is where that whole “winding the clock” thing came in. Tighten the spring and, as it unwinds, it drives that gear every time the pendulum briefly releases it, but thanks to physics, that pendulum will always take the exact same time to swing from A to B, whether it’s going really fast or really slow.

Back to Huygens’s discovery, though… Titan is quite a marvel itself. It is the second largest natural satellite in our solar system, taking a back seat (ironic if you know your mythology) only to Jupiter’s Ganymede. It is half again as big as our own Moon and 80% more massive. It’s even bigger than the planet Mercury, but only 40% as massive, mainly because Mercury is made of rock while Titan may have a rocky core but is mostly composed of layers of different forms of water-ice combined with ammonia, and a possible sub-surface ocean,

Titan also has a thick, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, the only other atmosphere in the solar system besides Earth’s to have so much nitrogen in it. In case you’re wondering, Earth’s atmosphere is almost 80% nitrogen — OMG, you’re breathing it right now! But this also makes the aliens’ Achilles heel in the movie Mars Attacks! kind of ridiculous, since the whole deal was that they could only survive in a nitrogen atmosphere. We have that, Mars doesn’t. Mars is mostly carbon dioxide, but not even much of that. But don’t get me started.

Despite all that, it’s still a fun film.

And Titan, next to Jupiter’s moon Europa, is one of the more likely places we might find life in our solar system.

One final bit of March 25th news in space for this day: In 1979, OV-102, aka Space Shuttle Columbia, was delivered to NASA. It was the first shuttle completed, and its delivery date, after a flight that had begun on March 24th, came four years to the day after fabrication of the fuselage began. Sadly, it was also the last shuttle to not survive its mission, so there was a strange sort of symmetry in that.

While I warned you about the Ides of March, the 25th should be full of nothing but anticipation, even in a plague year. It’s a date for exploration and discovery, whether out into the cosmos, or within the confines of whatever space you’re in right now. Make good with what you have, create all you can, and take advantage of our wonderful technology to share and connect.

After all, that’s what worked for Clavius and Huygens. They worked with the tech they had, then networked once they had an idea, and look how well that worked out.

Hint: It worked out very well, for them and for us.

Image Source: Titan, by NASA.