Thursday, 30 August 2012

World of (Spoil)sport - Part 4

Have you seen this one?

A whale's penis is called a dork.

Really? Is that true?

Then please show me where this 'fact' is recorded other than on 'cool facts' type websites. I'd like to see it.

This is another of those 'uberfacts' or 'cool facts' that I read regularly. I'm told that it appears on over 10,000 websites. And yet, as far as I can see, there's absolutely no evidence of it being true.

There's a fairly comprehensive deconstruction of this 'fact' here where urban myth-buster David Emery points out that 'dork' has only been in use since the 1960s and is probably a politer form of 'dick' in the same way that the Irish use 'feck'. He also took the time to contact whale scientists and marine biologists who stated that they have never seen the word used to mean 'whale penis'.

However, and with no disrespect to David Emery, I wanted to know for sure for myself. After all, if 10,000+ websites are getting it wrong then there is the possibility that David's webpage isn't kosher either. So I spoke to several staff at London's Natural History Museum and guess what? They don't call it a dork either.

The most interesting part of this particular story is how people cling to the 'fact' despite the weight of evidence against it. If you read the comments on David's webpage, many people claim to have read the fact in books when they were at school. However, no one seems able to cite their source. Surely someone can provide a starting point for investigations? It is quite possible that there are books out there that claim that a whale's penis is called a dork. If so, it would be interesting to see what sources these books quote.

It sounds to me like a case of 'creeping fox terrier syndrome' (see here) with maybe a dash of 'false authority syndrome' (see here). In other words, an author has repeated a fact without checking its origin and has succeeded in passing on an urban myth and, because it's now in a book, people believe it must be true.

But, putting all that aside, it does seem odd to give a special name to one species of animal's penis. The only other case of this I know is that camel penises are supposedly called 'dudes'. However, as the only places I've ever seen that fact listed are uncorroborated websites and chatrooms, I am extremely dubious (the fact that 'dudes' is also claimed to be the correct name for the hairs on an elephant's arse just compounds the silliness).

But I'm happy to be proved wrong if you know different.

More spoilsporting action soon.

A century of words for the man of the century

You may have heard the story about philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal who, when penning a letter to some Reverend Fathers, wrote: 'I'm sorry this is such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one'.

It's a quote that turns up frequently and often ascribed to others, including Winston Churchill, Cicero, Mark Twain, Voltaire, Albert Einstein, Marcel Proust and Oscar Wilde. However, it was Pascal who made the comment in his Lettres Provinciales (1656-1657), no. 16. He actually wrote: 'Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte' ('I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short'). What he was saying, of course, is that it's easy to ramble on; it takes effort to be succinct.

The reason I mention it is that yesterday evening I was invited to write 100 words on Neil Armstrong for today's edition of the London Evening Standard newspaper. One hundred words. It sounds a lot but it really isn't. How could I encapsulate what I feel about Armstrong and his achievements in so few words? It took me an hour of editing, culling and re-writing to arrive at something that summed up what Armstrong meant to me ... with a little bit of humour added in (I can never write anything that's 100% serious).

So here they are; my 100 words for Neil Armstrong. Sorry it took so long to explain; I didn't have time to write a short explanation.


Imagine this job description: ‘You will be required to sit on top of 3000 tons of explosives and steel and be blasted across 250,000 miles of freezing vacuum to the Moon. You will plant a flag, grab some rocks, and fly home. You will receive standard US Navy pay for the duration of the trip. The computer that will help you calculate the journey has less processing power than a musical birthday card.’ Would you take the job? Neil Armstrong did. And he did it solely to expand the frontiers of human knowledge. That’s why he should never be forgotten.

(100 words)

Monday, 27 August 2012

An Improbable Plug

If you're in or around London on the 30th September, do consider popping along to the Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, Holborn, to watch the World's Most Improbable Event.

To celebrate the launch of my good chum Marc Abrahams' new book This is Improbable, a great big bunch of scientists, comedians, writers and TV/Radio presenters (including me) are going to turn up and regale you with tales of the weirdest fringe science; what Marc would call 'Science that makes you laugh, then think'. You'll learn all sorts of fascinating stuff about the velocity of ejected penguin poop, the efficacy of cola contraceptives, digital rectal massage as a cure for hiccups, and 'Farting as a defence against unspeakable dread'. No, really.

You can see the full list of speakers, and book tickets, on the Conway Hall website here.

It's only a tenner. And it's going to be a grand afternoon out.

World of (Spoil)Sport - Part 3

A new bit of debunking for you, inspired by a 'fact' bot that throws random and occasionally inaccurate content onto Twitter. As it did today with this one:

A baby platypus is called a puggle.

I would love a baby platypus to be called a puggle. But it isn’t. And that’s a shame because it’s a much better name than ‘baby platypus’.

There are three distinct types of mammal. Firstly, there are the placentals. They're the largest group and they include you, me, whales and apes, bats and cats, bears and anteaters, and any other mammals that give birth to live, fully-developed young. Baby placentals are given all kinds of names: cubs (bears, tigers); pups (seals, dogs), kittens (cats, rabbits), calves (whales and cows). Hares have leverets, llamas have crias, pigs have piglets, horses have foals, goats have kids, sheep have lambs, hedgehogs have hoglets and chinchillas have tureturles etc.. There's a lot of variety in the names there.

The second type of mammal is the marsupial. They also give birth to live young but they are in a tiny, near-foetal state. The young marsupial spends a great deal more time in the mother's pouch than in the womb. Rather unimaginatively, every kind of baby marsupial - whether it be a koala, wallaby, bandicoot, numbat or extinct thylacine - is called a Joey.

The third kind of mammal is the monotreme and they lay eggs. There are only three types of monotreme remaining: the platypus and two species of echidna. And, according to various official sources - including an email conversation I had with a mammals chap at the Australian Natural History Museum a few weeks ago - baby monotremes are simply called 'baby’ platypus or echidna.

So where did this puggle business come from?

The name 'puggle' seems to have become attached to monotremes because baby echidnas bear a striking resemblance to a US soft toy called a 'puggle' that first appeared in the 1970s. The 'puggle' was manufactured by Mattel (the same people who make Barbie and Hot Wheels toy cars) and was part of a range of toys that tied in with a series of Lost Forest books written by ex-rocker Billy Thorpe and set in the Australian Outback. They probably cemented the name in the minds of young Australian kids and it spread.

But, sadly, no matter what the reason is, or no matter how many websites report it as a fact, 'puggle' has never been officially recognised as the name for a baby monotreme. Nor, incidentally, has the equally popular 'platypup'. But that doesn’t mean that the name can’t be officially recognised, of course. The fact that so many websites (including at least wildlife park) erroneously quote this as 'fact' may give it some gravitas. And, after all, the evolution of language is dictated by popular use. If a sufficient weight of people start to use the word, it will end up in the dictionary.

The only opposition I can foresee is from owners of mixed breed pug/beagles, which are known affectionately as puggles. Here's one now (see below). Awww. There are lots more at

Now there's a 21st century phenomenon for discussion ... when did mongrels start getting their own pseudo-breed brand names? 'Crossing breeds, adding a fanciful name, and charging outrageous sums for these dogs (labradoodles can cost up to U.S. $2,500) is a recent trend that's only taken off in the last decade,' says Allan Reznik, editor-in-chief of Dog Fancy and Dog World, based in Irvine, California. 'It's indicative of a society that loves labels. Having a dog that is part spaniel and part poodle isn't enough — it has to be a cockapoo.' There are lots of these designer dogs now: puggles, labradoodles, shih poos, yorkipoos, goldendoodles, schnoodles, yorkie tzus etc. The labradoodle is one of the oldest and appeared in the 1970s in Australia, having been specially bred by Don Evans as a low allergy guide dog for Guide Dogs Victoria (which is why poodles feature so often in the creation of designer dogs). According to another breeder Evans 'loved his dogs but he bred everything and anything', so there were undoubtedly more than labradors and poodles involved in the production of the original labradoodles. However, modern breeders are now working hard to establish a uniform look to the dog so that it can be accepted as a proper breed. Beverley Manners from Victoria has spent the past 15 years carefully archiving genetic and health records for all of her dogs. Her goal is to refine the breed to predetermine coat, colour, size, and temperament.

In a 2004 article in National Geographic magazine, it states that 'In order to make the leap from a lowly mutt to a pure breed officially recognised by the American Kennel Club (AKC), the breed must satisfy a number of criteria. There must be at least 300 Labradoodles within the USA and distributed among at least 20 states. The dogs must have a National Breed Club demonstrating interest, and there must be at least a three generation pedigree; three generations of Labradoodle-to-Labradoodle matings. The new breed must also have predictable characteristics and fulfill a specific purpose.' That makes the labradoodle, for the moment anyway, a work in progress. But the breeds we know and recognise today all went through the same process, which is how the wolf - through selective breeding - became a myriad of different dog breeds of all shapes and sizes. It's an extraordinary fact that dogs as different as chihuahas, bulldogs, great Danes and Newfoundlands can all interbreed; they are all the same species. Doggy DNA is incredible pliable and their appearance can be extremely modified in just a few generations.

All of which brings us back to the puggle. There's a curious parallel here between the dog breed and the name for a baby monotreme; if both achieve a certain saturation point - enough examples of 'purebred' dogs and enough people use the name so that it becomes common usage - then 'puggle' will be accepted as a correct term.

But, for the moment anyway, neither has any official status. 


National Geographic Magazine - 'What's a labradoodle? Designer dog or just another mutt?'

Sunday, 26 August 2012

To Infinity and Beyond ... please

I was sad to read yesterday of the death of Neil Armstrong, the first human to have set foot on another world. But I was even sadder this morning to see comments like this on Twitter (via @thepoke):

Have we really got to a stage, in just a couple of generations, where kids really don't know about astonishing, world-changing events that happened just 43 years ago? How can any First World citizen with access to a telly and the internet and libraries not know who Neil Armstrong is?
I was eight when Armstrong stepped off the Eagle's ladder and fluffed the immortal line, 'That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for Mankind'. In UK time, it happened in the middle of the night but my parents couldn't have stopped me staying up to watch it if they'd tried. All my schoolfriends watched it too, as did an estimated 500 million people worldwide; the highest viewing figures of any event in the history of TV. This was 1969 of course; the TV was black and white and video recorders only existed at the BBC. The idea of having one in your home was science fiction. Even cassette recorders were a few years away so Dad recorded the event on an old reel-to-reel tape recorder with a squeaky Cornish eight-year old providing the intro: 'My Daddy's going to tape record the landing', and occasional observations and comments (I really must get the recording off my mother and see if I can get it converted to CD or MP3). I still remember the thrill of watching those ghostly, grainy pictures as Neil and Buzz stepped onto the surface of the Moon. What an amazing adventure. 
We seem to have lost that sense of excitement here in the cynical 21st century. It bugs the Hell out of me that every time I read of some extraordinary new advance, or some new planned expedition, almost immediately there's a barrage of killjoys who pipe up with 'But what's the point of that? We could spend the money on hospitals and cancer research etc.' Now, I'm not for an instant suggesting that we shouldn't fund hospitals and cancer research etc. In fact, I find it genuinely disgusting that research into disease prevention is so poorly funded that they have to rely on charity. However, there is more to life than mere utility. If we'd taken that same attitude to the recent Olympic Games in London, we would have been poorer for it. I'm not a sports fan at all and barely watched the event, despite its extensive coverage, but I reckon it was money well spent just to see the UK, for once, happy and united and proud.
There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that during the Second World War, Winston Churchill’s finance minister suggested that Britain should cut arts funding to support the war effort. Churchill’s response was: “Then what are we fighting for?” Even if that story isn't true, it's known that Churchill argued to keep the theatres open and was determined that we should not give up the things that make us joyous and proud. When the direc­tor of the National Gallery, Ken­neth Clark, sug­gested that the paint­ings in the National Gallery should be sent from Lon­don to Canada, Churchill said, “No. Bury them in caves and cel­lars. None must go. We are going to beat them.” And it's certainly true that he argued with the transport planners to allow enough capacity on the trains to deliver flowers to the cities so that 'the ladies could be cheered up'.

There is more to life, much more to being human, than merely staying alive. There is art and science and discovery. And there's that sense of excitement and adventure that we once had as a species; the thing that drove us to explore new lands, build new machines, find new species. The space programme is hugely important; never forget that it led to the development of many new areas of science and medicine. It's pretty much true that you wouldn't have that iPod or that digital clock or that halogen cooker if it wasn't for people like Neil Armstrong pushing the limits of human endeavour. The MRI, the electric heart pump and voice controlled wheelchairs are just some of the medical advances that came from the space programme. There are many, many more.

Thanks to a billion billion happy accidents and advantageous mutations, we humans have become the amazing, self-aware, inquisitive beings that we have. We are very possibly the only such beings in the entireity of the universe or universes. The Moon Landings infected the whole world with a sense of wonder; they made us feel good. What a tragedy - no, what a crime - it would be to squander that spirit of enquiry and lust for adventure.

Oh, by the way, the Moon landings did take place - sorry to disappoint all you conspiracy theorists. It was a space 'race', if you recall. This was the height of the Cold War - US astronaut Frank Borman once described the Apollo Missions as 'just a battle in the Cold War' - and only seven short years after the Cuban Missile Crisis (if you don't know who Neil Armstrong is, you'll be completely lost by now - google it). The Russians and the Americans were at each other's throats and Apollo was being tracked every inch of the way by the Kremlin. They'd have kicked up an almighty stink at any hint of trickery or fakery. That said, I'm happy to concede that many of the photographs might have been doctored for clarity and to rub Comrade Brezhnev's nose in it.

So if you meet someone today who doesn't know 'who the fuck Neil Armstrong is', put them right. We must never forget who he was, what he did and what the Moon landings represented. 

Let's go to Mars. Let's colonise the Moon. Let's climb the highest mountains. Let's plumb the deepest ocean depths. Let's find ways to cure disease and conquer old age. Let's all find ways to live together in peace and enlightenment.

That's the vision that Neil Armstrong and Apollo were part of.


Saturday, 25 August 2012

Water Wigs

Some hilarious H2O Hairpieces from photographer Tim Tadder. They were made by capturing the exact moment that a water bomb hit a bald guy's head. Wonderful stuff. See a larger selection on Tim's portfolio page here.

World of (Spoil)Sport - Part 2

Here's another of those old chestnuts that still turns up on websites of fascinating ‘facts’.

If a flea were scaled up to the size of a man, it could jump over a skyscraper.

Oh really? Let's look at that one.

The largest species of flea, Hystrichopsylla schefferi (the mountain beaver flea), can grow to 10mm (around 3/8ths of an inch) for females and 6-7mm for the male (around quarter of an inch) but this is exceptional. Most species get no larger than 3.3mm (1/8th of an inch) in length and many are much smaller.

The average flea can jump approximately 197mm (7¾ins) vertically and a distance of 330mm (13ins) horizontally. Many sites claim that the flea can jump vertically ‘150 times its own body length’. That would, therefore, indicate a flea of 1.3mm in length. Mathematically, therefore, a flea that is scaled up to be 1.82m (6ft) tall could also jump vertically 150 times its length, which is around 274.3m or 900ft. Impressive eh? Possibly … but it is only going to get ‘superflea’ over the shorter skyscrapers. It wouldn’t clear the Empire State Building (381m or 1,250ft), or the Eiffel Tower (320m or 1,050 ft) or even the London Shard (309m or 1,020ft). There are 137 skyscrapers worldwide that are over 274.3m or 900ft tall and hundreds of other man-made structures like TV masts and broadcasting towers that are way over 304.8m or 1000ft high ... so the myth is already crumbling.

But this is all academic anyway as the laws of physics would prevent any such thing from occurring. It’s all a matter of scaling.


Imagine that you run a dice factory. Each die measures 10mm by 10mm by 10mm and each one weighs 1g. The dice are packed in boxes 100mm by 100mm by 100mm. Therefore, you can fit 1000 dice in each box by having 10 layers, each made up of 100 dice arranged in 10 rows of 10. But look what’s happened as we’ve scaled up: The box is only 10 times taller, 10 times wider and 10 times deeper than a single die. However, the box now weighs 1000 times more than a single die. As things get bigger, their weight increases to match their volume, not their size. So if we scaled up a flea by a factor of just 10 we’ve now got a flea that’s 10 times longer, fatter and taller but which weighs 1000 times more than it did. And a 1.3mm flea scaled up by a factor of 100 would still be only 130mm in length but would weigh a million times more than a normal flea.

Its muscles, meanwhile, have only got 100 times bigger in length, breadth and height. Suffice to say, people who are much more clever at maths than I am have worked out that a six feet tall flea would weigh enough to ensure that it couldn’t jump any higher than you or me.

Incidentally, scaling works the other way too. If you dropped a flea from the roof of a building 100 feet high, it would probably survive the fall. However, if you jumped from the same building, you’d be chutney. Here’s why: If you divide an animal's length, breadth, and height by a factor of 10; its weight is reduced to a thousandth of its original weight, but its surface area i.e. the side that’s facing downwards, only by a hundredth. So the smaller it gets, the higher its surface area becomes in relation to its weight. After a while, air resistance begins to be a more powerful factor than the pull of gravity.

The only fact we can say is true is that, if fleas built their own flea-sized skyscrapers, they could probably jump over them.

Friday, 24 August 2012

World of (Spoil)Sport

My profound apologies for the lack of bloggage this past week. I've been exceptionally busy writing lots and lots of content for the QI website, which is being hugely improved and updated soon. And I've been researching for the next few episodes of The Museum of Curiosity which starts recording in a fortnight. It'll go out on BBC Radio 4 in October.

I've also been doing some promotional work for my new book and, during the course of writing a piece about the Olympics, I found myself chin-scratching over several 'facts' that appear time and time again on the internet; facts that are, frankly, wrong. For instance, I found a number of sites that claimed:

If the Olympics were held on the Moon, high jumpers could jump over a bar 48 feet high!

Well, actually, no. No they couldn't.

The figure of 48 feet is based on the premise that if the High Jump record is currently 2.45m (8ft) and the Moon is 1/6th Earth gravity, then we should be able to jump six times higher. That means a height of around 14.7m (48ft). But actually, it’s not quite as simple as that.

If a 6ft tall person jumps over a 8ft bar, they’re not actually jumping 8ft. They’re only jumping around 5ft. Much of a High Jumper's clearance is achieved by body position. In any jump, twist or somersault you do, your body rotates around your centre of gravity, which is around where your navel is; about halfway up your body. In the case of our 6ft jumper, that’s around 3ft. And because their navel is already 3ft from the ground, they need only jump 5ft to get their centre of gravity over the 8ft bar.

The men’s world record for the High Jump was set in 1993 by Javier Sotomayor, who is 6ft 5ins tall. So the highest that he jumped was actually somewhere around 5ft. On the Moon, therefore, he'd jump around 30ft.

The women’s record is 2.09m (6ft 10ins), set by Stefka Kostadinova in 1987. She is 5ft 11ins tall. Therefore, she can jump around 3ft 9ins, which would give her a Moon jump of somewhere between 22 and 23 ft. The best most of us can manage is 2ft to 3ft. Therefore, we would jump significantly less - around 12 to 18ft - depending on our strength to weight ratio, height and fitness.

Then, of course, we’re not taking into account the weight of our spacesuits. The NASA A7L EVA suit worn by the Apollo astronauts consisted of 21 layers of different materials plus oxygen supply and water circulation system. It weighed a staggering 91kg (200lbs) or just over 14st. Of course, on the Moon, that would be around 15kg (33lbs) or 2st 3lbs. Things wouldn’t be much improved by building a dome on the Moon to play the Olympics inside. While gravity would remain at 1/6th, air pressure from the artificial atmosphere would offer slight resistance. Plus, the climate control would need to cope with the fact that temperatures on the Moon fluctuate between 120ºC (248ºF) by day to -150ºC (-238ºF) at night.

Yes, I know. I'm a killjoy and a spoilsport. Sorry. But I do like things to be accurate and - despite the crippling handicap of my CSE Grade 5 Maths qualification - I think these figures are right. If they aren't please let me know.

You wait until tomorrow when I pull an oft-told story about fleas to pieces ...

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Footnote: A day or two after I wrote this post, I came across this excellent little guest blog on the Scientific American website by astrobiologist Dr David Warmflash (great name!). It's all about gymnastics on the Moon and worth a read.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Binding agreement

As I promised when I ran the 227 competition back in May, the prize for teh winning entry would be a beautifully hand-bound copy of my first book, Joined-Up Thinking. I commissioned award-winning bookbinder and restorer Amanda Slope to create a totally unique copy with leather bindings, a gold embossed spine and covered in glorious hand-made papers. And here it is:

I'll be presenting it to the winner, Mo McFarland, on Friday. More competitions coming up soon. But you need to be pledging on the book to be eligible. Just by doing so you'll automatically be in the draw to win this painting of the ancestral Constable Colgan.

Go pledge now!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

What's another year ... ?

Hello all. I do apologise for the sparsity of recent blogposts and Twitter silence. It's been a busy time with various events and projects vying for my attention. It's also been a time of self-reflection which resulted in me given my lifestyle a damned good seeing to. Nearly a month on from when I wrote this blogpost, I am a stone lighter, have got my eating habits under control and feel 100% healthier and happier. My hair is also 7 inches shorter. Maybe that accounts for some of the weight loss.

I'm also a year older as today is my 51st birthday.

The 11th of August isn't an especially auspicious date but it's the only birthday I have so I have to make do. I share it with Enid Blyton, Alex Haley, Joe Jackson, Hulk Hogan, Ashley Jensen, Jah Wobble, comic book artist Jim Lee and Ian McDiarmid, the chap who played Palpatine/The Emperor in Star Wars. In 3114BCE, it was the date that the Mayan Long Calendar began; the one that a few ill-informed conspiracy loons say predicts the end of the world in December this year (the great thing about End of the World nutjobs is that, if we really do all go down the cosmic plughole, they don't get to be all smug and 'I told you so' about it). The 11th august 1968 marked the last working day for the last ever steam train operated by British Rail. Other than that, it's a pretty unremarkable date. Famous deaths on this day include Peter Cushing in 1994, Jackson Pollock in 1956, Hamnet Shakespeare (Will's lad) in 1596, and the excellently named Wilfred the Hairy in 897. It is the feast day of Saints Attracta, Gaugericus, Susanna, Taurinus of Évreux, Tiburtius, Chromatius, Clare of Assissi (patron saint of telephones, laundry and eye diseases), Philomena (sterility, lost causes and virgins), and Fiacre (VD sufferers, haemorrhoids, and taxi cab drivers). So that's nice.

When I was born, Mars was the closest it had been to the Earth in centuries (a fact my late father would often use as a good reason to suggest that I originated 'elsewhere') so it's rather splendid that the Curiosity Mars Rover managed to land safely on the Red Planet just a few days before my birthday. My birth was also marked by showers of meteors. And, indeed, when I stepped outside at Midnight last night to see the International Space Station pass overhead, I was delighted by the many meteors I saw. What a lovely way to see in my 52nd year on this incredibly special planet.

So, what's happening in the year to come? I plan to get ever smaller for a start. I still have a staggering six stones (84lbs or 38.10kg) to lose but I did have over 100lbs to lose so I'm well on my way. No fad diets or starvation either. This is sensible eating, understanding food and more exercise. It's not rocket science.

I'm going to be doing some more research/writing for the fifth series of The Museum of Curiosity soon. I thoroughly enjoyed working on episode one, which was recorded in July. The other five episodes are being recorded in September and it'll be great working with Jimmy Carr and John Lloyd again plus all of the fantastic guests that producers Rich Turner and Dan Schreiber have lined up. Beyond that, there's some work for QI and I'll be doing several talks. Plus I've been asked to be a speaker at next year's QEDCon in April. This year's was excellent by all accounts - sadly I couldn't go as it clashed with the Ig Nobel Prizes British Tour of which I was a part. So I'm really looking forward to that. I may even do my first stint at Edinburgh next year too. I've been writing and developing a show for a year or so now and I reckon it's just about ready. I'll do a few dry runs later this year to test the water.

Then, of course, there's the new book. It seems to be stuck on 33% but, then again, nothing seems to be moving on Unbound at the moment due to the Summer holidays. But I'm a third of the way there and, rest assured, once the kids are back at school and people are looking towards Christmas, I'll be whoreing my junk around like a $10 hooker.

A year older but no change there then.