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10 Offbeat Stories You Might Have Missed This Week (6/23/18)

by Radu Alexander
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The weekend is upon us, so this marks a good opportunity to review the stories that made headlines over the last seven days. If you’re all caught up on the important stuff, read on for the stories that might have slipped through the cracks.

They say dead men tell no tales, but that didn’t ring true this week. Napoleon, Michael Jackson, Stephen Hawking, Christopher Columbus, and even Otzi the Iceman were all in the news.

Featured image credit: BBC News

10 Stephen Hawking Tribute Sent Into Black Hole

Photo credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

On June 15, the memorial service for Professor Stephen Hawking took place, during which his ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey next to Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. The European Space Agency (ESA) had its own unique way of honoring the astrophysicist, whose extensive work on black holes led to the discovery of a new kind of thermal radiation that bears his name. Around the same time as the memorial service, the ESA beamed a musical tribute directly into a black hole.

The six-minute piece was crafted by Greek composer Vangelis. Besides the music, the track also includes Hawking’s iconic synthesized voice offering a message of peace and hope.

The tribute was beamed from the ESA ground station in Spain toward black hole 1A 0620-00, which is part of a binary system with an orange dwarf star. It should arrive in approximately 3,500 years, at which point it “will be frozen in by the event horizon.”[1]

9 Michael Jackson’s Former Elephant Escapes Zoo

During the 1990s, Ali the bull elephant resided at Michael Jackson’s outlandish Neverland Ranch. He seemingly retired from the spotlight in 1997, when the animal left the estate and was moved to the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in Florida. Now Ali has made headlines once more after he escaped his enclosure and went for a stroll through the zoo.[2]

Perhaps “escape” is too strong a word for what actually happened. Someone accidentally left his gate open, and the plucky pachyderm simply walked out. He didn’t make it far. Ali was in the courtyard behind the elephant and giraffe barn when his keepers arrived and lured him back into his enclosure with some tasty treats. All in all, the smooth criminal was back in his pen within 20 minutes, before he had the chance to run into any of the guests visiting the zoo.

8 New Record On A Penny Farthing

Photo credit: Mark Beaumont

Scottish cyclist Mark Beaumont holds multiple long-distance cycling records, most notably for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle. He recently added a new accomplishment to his list by breaking a 127-year-old British record for the longest distance traveled in an hour on a penny farthing.

While there were many curious designs in the early days of cycling, the penny farthing is remembered today as the quintessential old-timey bicycle, with the giant wheel in the front and the small one at the back.

The previous British record was set in 1891 at the same Herne Hill Velodrome in South London where Mark Beaumont beat it by riding 35.3 kilometers (21.9 mi) in an hour.[3] Unfortunately for the Scottish cyclist, he ended up just 265 meters (870 ft) short of actually beating the world record, set by American rider William Rowe in 1886.

The 35-year-old athlete said that riding the penny farthing was “one of the most off-the-wall challenges” he’d ever attempted, but he didn’t specify if he plans to retry it in the future and go for the world record.

7 AI Takes On Humans In Debates

Back in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue computer made waves when it beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov at his own game. Now, the company is back in the headlines, as its new AI took on champion debaters in a professional competition and argued to a draw.[4]

The artificial intelligence, dubbed Project Debater, faced off against Noa Ovadia on the subject of publicly funded space exploration and Dan Zafrir on the value of telemedicine. The AI argued in favor of both points but, like its human opponents, did not know about the chosen subjects in advance. Instead, it had access to a data bank containing hundreds of millions of articles, which it used to form its arguments and rebuttals.

The rules were similar to those of a normal competition. Debaters had to present a four-minute opening statement followed by a four-minute rebuttal and a two-minute summary. Judges unanimously agreed that Project Debater had a worse delivery than its human counterparts. Sometimes, it would repeat the same argument using different words or change clauses mid-sentence or simply say lines that didn’t sound natural. However, the audience also believed the AI to be more persuasive in its second debate against Zafrir.

6 World Cup Rocks Mexico

Photo credit: Reuters

The World Cup is underway, and already, it has provided football fans with multiple surprising moments. Perhaps none were greater than when Mexico defeated perennial favorite Germany in their opening match. The celebrations of Mexican supporters in Mexico City were so raucous that they could have triggered two “artificial” earthquakes, as measured by the Institute of Geological and Atmospheric Investigations (IIGEA).

Sensitive sensors registered tremors at two locations in the Mexican capital just a few seconds after Hirving Lozano scored the game’s only goal. According to IIGEA, they were caused by football fans jumping up and down. Their statement was soon reported by media outlets around the world.

Not so fast. Mexico’s governmental agency, the National Seismological Service (SSN), issued a report contradicting the original findings. They said that, indeed, there were two minor earthquakes in the area, but not as close to one another as initially indicated. The first occurred about an hour before the goal, while the second happened half an hour afterward. They were ascribed to typical seismological activity within the Basin of Mexico and not to jumping football fans.

SSN officials attributed the false positive to one or more people at the IIGEA seismological station jumping in celebration and interfering with the instruments.[5]

5 Napoleon’s Hat Sold At Auction

June 18 marked 203 years since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, heralded by the French emperor’s unequivocal defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. To honor the occasion, auction house De Baecque sold a hat worn by Napoleon at the famous battle for over $400,000.

Even today, the military leader is widely associated with the bicorn hat, which he preferred to wear side-on to be more easily recognizable. Napoleon is believed to have owned around 120 of these hats, with 12 in service at any particular time. Only 19 of them are still around today, and most of them are in museums.

Even so, it was not expected for this particular hat to fetch a high price due to its deterioration. The auction house believed it would be sold for under $50,000, but it eventually went for over $405,000.[6] The winning bid went to an unnamed French collector of historical memorabilia.

In 2014, a similar hat was auctioned off from the collection of Monaco’s royal family. It was in much better condition and was bought by a South Korean collector for $2.4 million.

4 The Tools Of The Iceman

Photo credit: Reuters

Despite being 5,300 years old, the world’s most famous iceman is still teaching us things. A team from the Department of Archaeology, Fine Arts and Landscape in Florence, Italy, performed a thorough analysis on all the tools that Otzi had on him that fateful day when he was mortally wounded by an archer. The goal was to establish, as much as possible, the complete life cycle of each tool from raw material to abandonment.

Among the tools analyzed were a dagger, two arrowheads, endscraper, borer, flake, and antler retoucher. They showed that Otzi was a man who liked to stay on the move, as the stone used to make the tools came from various areas of the Trentino region tens of kilometers apart. This was also indicated by the stylistic elements of the tools, which displayed features typical of both the Northern Italian and the Swiss Horgen cultures.

The tools were old and worn and bore signs of repeated sharpening. Most of them were on their way out, which suggests to archaeologists that Otzi couldn’t find a new source of chert. The iceman wasn’t a knapper but showed medium skill when it came to maintaining his instruments. Some of them had been resharpened and reshaped shortly before his death. Otzi was also right-handed, based on wear traces on the tools.[7]

3 Everybody Poops: Sloth Edition

Imagine if every time you pooped, you had to endure pains similar to childbirth and placed your life in mortal danger. That is the plight of the sloth. Rebecca Cliffe, biologist at Swansea University in Wales, observed and noted the bizarre ritual that this animal has to go through every time it defecates.

A sloth’s metabolism is very slow. It can take up to a whole month for some meals to get digested. That is why the sloth only poops once a week. Even though this animal spends most of its time in trees, it will only defecate on the ground. During this time, it is extremely vulnerable to predators.

Once on terra firma, the sloth does a little “poop dance” to dig a small hole.[8] What follows is a violent and agonizing event, as the constipated sloth can push out up to a third of its body weight. Cliffe reported being able to see the stomach physically shrink during defecation. Once the ordeal is over, the sloth does another little dance to cover the hole, and it’s back up the tree for another week.

The one mystery that still puzzles researchers is why the sloth would go through all this effort and danger instead of simply dropping it from the canopy. One hypothesis put forward in 2014 claimed this was due to a sloth-moth symbiotic relationship. The sloth defecates at the base of the tree to give moths a place to lay their eggs. In turn, moths live in the sloth’s fur and fertilize algae it uses for camouflage.

Cliffe doesn’t subscribe to this idea. Instead, she believes it has to do with sex. Specifically, it alerts other sloths that there is a willing partner waiting up in the treetops.

2 The Columbus Letter Mystery

Photo credit: Tony Gentile/AP

Treachery is afoot in the Vatican. The Apostolic Library managed to regain a significant letter written by Christopher Columbus more than 500 years ago. Vatican officials were shocked to discover that the copy they had in their possession was a forgery but, with the help of the US government, managed to secure the original. They still have no idea who made the fake or how they swapped it for the genuine article.

In 1493, Columbus wrote a letter to King Ferdinand of Spain detailing his first impressions of the Caribbean islands. It became quite popular and was translated into Latin and entered circulation. Today, around 80 copies still exist. The one owned by the Apostolic Library was printed in Rome in 1493 and bequeathed to the Vatican in 1921.

That document was certainly genuine. However, in 2011, an expert identified the copy currently in the Apostolic Library as a forgery. The author remains a mystery.

Homeland Security found the original following a seven-year investigation and returned it to the Vatican last week. A collector bought it “in good faith” from a New York dealer for $875,000 in 2004.[9] At the moment, it is unknown if officials are continuing the investigation, possibly trying to track the first sale of the letter to uncover the forger.

1 Scientists Discover ‘Naked’ Primeval Life Form

A recent study published by the Royal Society describes a newly discovered primordial creature which could elucidate the origins of an extinct animal family called Chancelloriidae.

The chancelloriids appeared over half a billion years ago during the Cambrian explosion. However, all species went extinct, and their lineage came to an evolutionary dead end. These curious creatures were first discovered a century ago. Since then, they have resisted classification, as scientists are unsure where exactly they belong in the tree of life.

A team of researchers from the Universities of Leicester and Oxford and the Chinese University of Yunnan discovered the fossil of a new chancelloriid. They named it Allonnia nuda and described it as being “naked” due to its remains being able to hide in plain sight. They further speculate that due to its unusual appearance, it is possible that more specimens are currently sitting undetected in fossil collections.

The chancelloriid was tube-shaped, had a few tiny spines, and was up to 50 centimeters (20 in) in length. The pattern of body growth suggests a link to modern sponges.[10] Scientists have long argued that this group should be classified as sponges, although others have dismissed the similarities as superficial. One of the study’s coauthors, Dr. Tom Harvey, feels like this new discovery strengthens the argument in favor of this classification.


Read more offbeat stories you might have missed from June 17, 2018 and June 9, 2018.

fact checked by Jamie Frater