WTF Fun Fact 13544 – What Darwin Ate

You might assume that Charles Darwin, the famed naturalist, was a vegetarian since he was so enamored with living creatures, but he was just the opposite – in fact, Darwin ate some of his discoveries.

During his journey on The Beagle, he indulged in an array of exotic meats – from puma, which he found “remarkably like veal in taste,” to armadillos and iguanas.

His curiosity even led him to taste the bladder contents of a giant tortoise. Darwin’s palate wasn’t just adventurous; it was scientific. He was known for eating specimens he was studying and trying to describe scientifically.

Modern Biologists Follow Suit

This gastronomic curiosity didn’t end with Darwin. Many modern scientists continue to eat their study subjects, either out of convenience (as with those researching edible plants and animals like trout or blueberries) or driven by sheer curiosity. From bluegill and sea urchin to more peculiar choices like beetles and cicadas, the range of their dietary experiments is vast.

Notably, Richard Wassersug, while conducting a study on the palatability of tadpoles in the 1970s, had graduate students (bribed with beer) taste but not swallow various tadpole species. This experiment, now impossible to conduct due to ethical restrictions, showed that easy-to-catch tadpoles often tasted worse. Wassersug himself described the taste of toad tadpoles as “astonishingly bitter.”

The Drive Behind Why Darwin Ate an Unusual Diet

The motivation behind these gastronomic explorations varies. Sometimes it’s an academic pursuit, as in Wassersug’s study. Other times, it’s a quest to manage invasive species, turning them from pests into menu items. Sarah Treanor Bois, during her Ph.D. research on invasive plants, attended a cook-off featuring dishes made from invasive species like nutria and bullfrog legs. Eating invasives is not just about satiating curiosity but also about drawing attention to ecological problems.

However, the most common reason cited for these unusual diets is pure scientific curiosity. Robert Thorson, a geologist, once tasted 30,000-year-old meat from a giant steppe bison found in permafrost. His verdict? It was stringy and flavorless, with a “pungent rankness.”

Scientists’ Gastronomic Adventures

Why are scientists so inclined towards tasting their research subjects? Mark Siddall, a leech expert, believes it’s about familiarity. Just as an omnivore eats chicken, beef, or pork, scientists consume what they’re familiar with. To a biologist, an organism they’ve studied extensively may not seem so different from regular food. Richard Wassersug views it as a part of being a naturalist. To fully understand and connect with nature, one must engage all senses, including taste.

It’s not just about curiosity but also about a sense of community and perhaps a bit of competitiveness among scientists. The stories of Darwin and others set a precedent, and many modern scientists feel compelled to follow in their footsteps, driven by peer or ‘beer’ pressure.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Dining Like Darwin: When Scientists Swallow Their Subjects” — NPR

WTF Fun Fact 13571 – Pythagorean Theorem Before Pythagoras

Did you know there was a”Pythagorean” Theorem before Pythagoras?

When one hears the term “Pythagorean Theorem,” the image of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras often comes to mind. And while this mathematical statement holds a significant place in geometry, its origins might surprise many. Contrary to popular belief, evidence suggests the theorem’s knowledge existed 1,000 years before Pythagoras’s birth, with the Babylonians as its early proponents.

Pythagoras: The Man Behind the Name

Pythagoras’s reputation extends far beyond the realm of mathematics. His name adorns many geometry textbooks, and the theorem itself exists under several monikers like Pythagoras’ Theorem and notably Euclid I 47. With over 371 proofs attributed to this theorem, eminent figures, including a young Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, and even US President James A. Garfield, have delved into its intricacies.

But for a man with such a renowned theorem attached to his name, little concrete information exists about Pythagoras. Most details that historians possess come from sources written centuries after his time, many of which paint him in an almost divine light, leading to debates about their historical accuracy.

Historical accounts align on a few aspects: Pythagoras was born around 569 BC in Samos, Ionia, and established a unique school in present-day Crotone, Italy. This institution, named the Semicircle of Pythagoras, was a blend of religious and scientific study. While it delved deep into subjects like philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, it also treaded mystical terrains where numbers held divine significance.

Interestingly, much of what the Pythagoreans discovered was attributed directly to Pythagoras, making it a challenge to distinguish between the man’s actual contributions and those of his followers.

The True Pioneers of the Theorem Before Pythagoras

Long before Pythagoras established his school, the Babylonian civilization flourished in Mesopotamia, an area corresponding to modern-day Iraq. Nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, this civilization left behind a wealth of knowledge inscribed on clay tablets.

These tablets revealed a society that maintained meticulous records, especially in astronomy, arts, and literature. And among these records lies concrete evidence that Babylonian mathematicians had discovered and even proven the Pythagorean Theorem a millennium before Pythagoras was born.

The Babylonians recorded intricate problems and solutions on clay tablets. Among the myriad of tablets, the Plimpton 322 stands out. Dated to around 1800 BC, this tablet lists Pythagorean triplets—sets of three integers that fit the theorem we often attribute to Pythagoras. These inscriptions show that the Babylonians knew the relationship between the sides of a right triangle a millennium before Pythagoras.

For the Babylonians, mathematics wasn’t just theoretical. They saw and used its practical applications. Pythagorean triplets, for example, found use in land measurements, construction, and even astronomy. Their buildings and their celestial predictions show a deep understanding and application of their mathematical discoveries.

How did this profound understanding travel through time? Some historians believe that the mathematical concepts of the Babylonians might have reached neighboring civilizations through trade routes. While the exact path remains unclear, the Greeks, including Pythagoras, could have indirectly absorbed this knowledge.

While the Pythagorean Theorem remains a Greek mathematical cornerstone, its roots delve deep into Babylonian soil. As students and scholars alike marvel at this theorem, they should remember and honor the Babylonians, the original pioneers who first saw the harmony in a right triangle’s sides.

 WTF fun facts

Source: “Pythagoras: Everyone knows his famous theorem, but not who discovered it 1000 years before him” — Journal of Targeting, Measurement and Analysis for Marketing

WTF Fun Fact 13377 – Tu Youyou and the Nobel Prize

Tu Youyou is a Chinese scientist and pharmaceutical chemist whose groundbreaking work in the discovery of artemisinin revolutionized malaria treatment. Her contributions have had a significant impact on global health, saving countless lives. Interestingly, she sought (and found) the award-winning compound in the corpus of Ancient Chinese Medicine.

According to the Nobel Prize website (cited below): “She is the first mainland Chinese scientist to have received a Nobel Prize in a scientific category, and she did so without a doctorate, a medical degree, or training abroad.”

The training of Tu Youyou

Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China, Tu’s interest in medicine may have started after she had to miss two years of school after a bout of tuberculosis.

Tu’s interests eventually landed her at Beijing Medical College. There, she studied pharmacology – a modern science – but with a traditional backbone. At college, she learned how to classify medicinal plants and extract their active ingredients in order to learn more about their chemical structure. She would do this with many of the thousands of plants in the ancient Chinese medical handbooks.

Tu Youyou went to work at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1955, after graduation.

She was first asked by the Chinese government to help find a treatment for malaria during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese soldiers were dying in droves because the disease had become resistant to the standard treatment – chloroquine. But this posed a global health threat. She joined the battle against the disease after Chairman Mao Zedong launched a project called Project 523 in 1967.

Discovering a new malaria treatment

In 1969, Tu became the head of Project 523 and traveled to Hainan Island in southern China. She had to leave her two young children behind for three years to study the disease in its deadly habitat.

After she returned, the scientific work began.

In Beijing, Tu and her team were facing a difficult situation. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested for their potential use in anti-malarial drugs, but none worked. That’s when they returned to the ancient Chinese medical text.

A reference to sweet wormwood (known as Artemisia annua) would turn out to be the key. She had identified it for its ability to help with “intermittent fevers” – a key symptom of malaria. It had been used in China around 400 AD.

Turning nature into medicine

Through meticulous experimentation, Tu Youyou and her team successfully isolated a compound from Artemisia annua that demonstrated potent anti-malarial properties. She named this compound artemisinin. It was very successful in killing malaria in laboratory tests.

After lab tests came clinical trials, which were also successful. The great thing about artemisinin was that it helped kill malaria while minimizing the development of resistance to the medication. Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which combine artemisinin derivatives with other anti-malarial drugs, have since become the gold standard in malaria treatment worldwide.

Tu Youyou’s groundbreaking discoveries earned her numerous accolades and recognition. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the first Chinese scientist to receive this prestigious honor. Her contributions have had a profound impact on global health, particularly in regions heavily burdened by malaria.

Tu Youyou’s impact on the future

Artemisinin and its derivatives have transformed malaria treatment and played a crucial role in reducing the mortality rate of this deadly disease. Their widespread use has significantly contributed to the decline in malaria-related deaths worldwide. Tu Youyou’s work continues to inspire scientists, researchers, and healthcare professionals in the ongoing fight against malaria.

Despite the remarkable success of artemisinin-based therapies, challenges remain in the battle against malaria. The emergence of drug resistance, particularly in Southeast Asia, underscores the need for ongoing research and innovative approaches to combat this persistent global health issue. Scientists continue to study artemisinin and explore novel drug combinations to stay ahead of the evolving malaria parasite.

 WTF fun facts

Source: Tu Youyou – The Nobel Prize website

WTF Fun Fact 12696 – Uranus’ Original Name

Uranus – everyone’s favorite planet. Or maybe when you hear the name, you instantly roll your eyes knowing that someone’s about to make a terrible joke.

Either way, many of us know that Uranus is the ancient Greek version of the god of the sky and heavens (and it’s technically pronounced ou-ra-nos, though some people even insist it’s urine-us rather than u-anus). But whatever. The point here is that the planet was originally named George.

And not just George, the Georgium Sidus (or Georgian moon/moon of George).

Until English astronomer William Herschel discovered the bright light was a planet in 1781, everyone assumed it was just another star, or perhaps a comet. The object had been seen before and was recorded in John Flamsteed’s catalog of stars (as “34 Tauri, the 34th star of Taurus the Bull”).

The Herschels were an incredible family of amateur astronomers. William’s sister, Caroline, may have been even more talented, and people knew it! In fact, Maskelyne wrote about the important role played by amateur astronomers right after Caroline discovered her first comet. (Caroline even got a job updating Flamsteed’s catalog of stars, the Historia Coelestis Britannica.)

Another fun fact? In the 1800s (and long before and shortly after), science could hardly be done without a rich person’s funding. Herschel wasn’t even considered to be a professional astronomer at the time – he also fell into the ranks of an “amateur.” In fact, the official Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyne, still had to confirm it was a planet before it could be declared one. Even then, it was until astronomer Johann Elert Bode double confirmed it that the object was accepted by a planet by the scientific community (which is how you make it really official, not just “royal official”).

According to NASA, its mistaken identity as a star is understandable. The planet is extremely far from the sun and moves incredibly slowly (so much that half of it is plunged into ice-covered darkness for 21 years at a time). So you’d have to watch the object for decades to notice it even acts like a planet – that’s the kind of dedication required! It’s pretty much invisible to us now because of the light pollution the Earth emits.

But back to the George – Uranus thing.

William Herschel really wanted royal patronage (aka money) to fund his endeavors. So in order to gain favor with King George III, he used his fame as the person who discovered the first new planet since antiquity to advocate for the name George.

But George didn’t exactly fit with the naming scheme astronomers had going on at the time, which was all mythology-based. So in the end, it was Bode who got his way, naming the planet Uranus.

Of course, Herschel got the credit and the benefits that followed. And now we all get to tell Uranus jokes until the end of time (but it’s Bode we have to thank for that). – WTF fun facts

Source: “Venus Meets a Planet Named George” — NASA