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

by Radu Alexander
fact checked by Jamie Frater

With another week in the history books, it is time, yet again, to look back at some of the quirkier stories that made the news over the past few days. If you would also like to catch up on the serious happenings of the world, click here.

It’s been a busy week for space enthusiasts. First, there was talk of exomoons and new dwarf planets, and here, you can find out about the Death Comet and how to buy dirt from Mars. We also have two curious tales about people who unknowingly possessed large fortunes. Staying in the financial realm, we also look at the most expensive whisky in the world and the Robin Hood banker.

10 How To Buy Martian Dirt

If you ever wanted to purchase Martian soil, the University of Central Florida (UCF) is selling a substitute for $20 per kilogram plus shipping.[1]

A team of UCF astrophysicists developed a standardized method for creating simulants of Martian dirt. This kind of resource is vital for research into conditions on Mars, particularly concerning growing food in Martian soil.

The mixing method can mimic soil from various cosmic objects such as planets, satellites, or asteroids, assuming you have the right recipe. At the moment, the team is working on an accurate simulant of Moon dirt.

The technique was presented in a paper published in the journal Icarus. Therefore, people could use it to create their own Martian soil at home, if they want, although it will probably be more accurate if they order it from UCF. The team says they already have 30 pending orders, including one for half a ton of dirt for the Kennedy Space Center.

9 Re-Evaluating The Maya

Back in February, scientists from Tulane University used lidar (light detection and ranging) technology to penetrate the thick jungles of Northern Guatemala. They announced the discovery of thousands of ancient Mayan structures stretching over dozens of previously unknown cities. Now, those researchers finished a comprehensive report of their findings and published it in Science.

Scientists uncovered 61,480 structures. Of the 2,100 square kilometers (810 mi2) mapped in the survey, 362 square kilometers (140 mi2) consisted of terraces and modified agricultural terrain, 952 square kilometers (367 mi2) were farmland, and 106 square kilometers (41 mi2) consisted of causeways which connected urban centers to each other and to defensive earthworks.[2]

Past thinking suggested that the Mayan civilization in Northern Guatemala mostly consisted of small city-states loosely connected to each other. The latest findings demand a complete re-evaluation of the subject. It appears the area was home to a thriving society which consisted of large cities that supported anywhere between seven and 11 million people during the Mayan Late Classic Period from AD 650 to 800.

8 The FBI Agent And The House Of Doom

An FBI agent was injured after being shot from a booby-trapped wheelchair on a property in Oregon.

On September 7, several law enforcement officers were called to the home of 66-year-old Gregory Rodvelt (pictured above) in the small town of Williams. They were there at the request of the real estate lawyer tasked with selling the place after Rodvelt was forced to forfeit the property.

It seems that Rodvelt placed several traps before leaving. He was charged with assault for injuring the agent, and court documents described the event as a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. Perhaps most telling was a circular hot tub which was turned on its side and rigged to roll over anyone who triggered a tripwire.[3] Also inside were spike strips and the wheelchair that injured the FBI agent.

The makeshift trap consisted of a wheelchair fitted with shotgun ammo and other items that caused an explosion when a person stepped on a fishing line. An X-ray found a shotgun pellet in the officer’s leg.

Although Rodvelt has been in jail in Arizona since April 2017, he was released this August for a few weeks to prepare for the property forfeiture. Presumably, that is when he rigged all the traps.

7 A Drink With A Hefty Price Tag

Photo credit: PA

A bottle of Macallan scotch set a new record for most expensive whisky in the world after it sold at auction for £848,000.

The bottle was a Macallan Valerio Adami 1926, an exceedingly rare batch of which only 12 bottles were produced.[4] It was sold at the Bonhams Whisky Sale in Edinburgh, although the identity of the buyer has not been disclosed.

The whisky was distilled in 1926. It then sat in a vat for 60 years before being bottled. Macallan then commissioned pop artists Valerio Adami and Peter Blake to design custom labels for 12 bottles each.

The previous record for most expensive whisky was set earlier this year at another Bonhams auction in Hong Kong—also for a bottle of Macallan Valerio Adami 1926. At the moment, we are unsure how many of these rare vintages still remain. At least one is known to have been opened and drunk, while another is believed to have been destroyed in an earthquake in Japan seven years ago.

6 Math Mystery Starts Spirited Squabble

Photo credit: Gert-Martin Greuel

Over the last ten days or so, the world of mathematics has been all abuzz with the idea that one of math’s greatest mysteries might have been solved. Fields Medalist and Abel Prize winner Sir Michael Atiyah claims to have found a solution for the Riemann Hypothesis.[5]

First proposed by German mathematician Bernhard Riemann in 1859, his eponymous hypothesis simply states that “the zeros of the Riemann zeta function which lie in the critical strip must lie on the critical line.” In English, the conjecture implies results regarding the distribution of prime numbers.

Most mathematicians believe the hypothesis to be correct. So far, whatever calculations have been done into the matter haven’t found any errant zeros that contradicted it. However, the true challenge is finding something called the “prime pi” function—an equation to find the number of primes less than a given number.

So has Atiyah solved this 159-year-old math mystery? It is too early to tell. He first outlined his approach during a lecture in Germany on September 25. When he has his solution ready, he will circulate it within the mathematics world. Actually verifying his proof can take months, even years. Many mathematicians are skeptical.

If Atiyah is correct, he will not only earn some serious bragging rights but also $1 million, courtesy of the Clay Mathematics Institute for solving one of their “Million Dollar Problems.”

5 Gender Reveal Party Gone Wrong

Photo credit: KGUN

April 23, 2017, was supposed to be one of the happiest days in the life of Dennis Dickey. The 37-year-old border patrol agent from Tucson, Arizona, had a gender reveal party to share the sex of his baby with his friends and family. However, he inadvertently caused a massive fire which spread over tens of thousands of acres of land, causing millions of dollars in damages.

As gender reveal parties are increasing in popularity, expecting parents are going to greater lengths to make sure their festivities are memorable. Dickey certainly accomplished this.

The border agent used Tannerite explosive targets. The company sells certain products specifically designed for gender reveal parties—the targets explode in a cloud of blue or pink powder. When Dickey shot his target, it started a fire.

To his credit, Dickey immediately alerted authorities and confessed his deed. However, it still took hundreds of firefighters about a week to get the fire under control. By then, it had burned down 47,000 acres of land.

Last Friday, Dickey pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor violation. He was given five years of probation and ordered to pay $8 million in restitution.[6] It remains to be seen how much of that will come out of his pocket.

4 Embezzle From The Rich And Give To The Poor

Another interesting sentence was passed down in Italy, where the “Robin Hood” banker was given two years for stealing roughly €1 million and giving it to the poor. However, since it was his first offense and he didn’t pocket any of the money, he struck a plea bargain that will see him avoid any time in prison.

The story started in 2009. Gilberto Baschiera was the bank manager in the small town of Forni di Sopra. The financial crisis caused desperate people to look for loans, even though many of them did not qualify. To help those in need, Baschiera took small amounts of money from his rich clients and put them into the accounts of the poor so that they would be eligible for credit.[7]

Of course, his customers were grateful and promised to repay the money quickly, but some of them didn’t. After seven years, Baschiera’s employers found the discrepancies in the accounts, and the Robin Hood banker was turned over to the authorities. By then, there was around €1 million missing that his clients hadn’t paid back.

The bank manager might have been given a lenient sentence by the Italian courts, but he still lost his job and his house. Looking back, Baschiera says he doesn’t think he would do it again, as the price he paid was too high.

3 The Penniless Billionaire Ice Cream Vendor

Last month, Pakistani Muhammad Abdul Qadir was brought in for questioning by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA). They were slightly curious how a poor ice cream salesman who made a mere 500 rupees a day and lived in a slum had over 2.3 billion rupees in his bank account.[8]

In 2014, an account with the State Bank of Pakistan was opened in Qadir’s name. It was closed in 2015, and all the money was withdrawn, totaling 2.3 billion Pakistani rupees, or around $18.6 million. The icecream vendor claims he first found out about this in September, when the FIA came knocking. While the account was opened with a valid copy of his identity card, Qadir insists he could not have signed for the transaction because he cannot write. He also took FIA officials on a “tour” of his home to show his meager lifestyle, bereft of billions.

It would appear that Qadir was a pawn in a massive money laundering ring that could potentially involve former Pakistan president Asif Ali Zardari. The FIA are investigating at least 77 other similar bank accounts used to launder hundreds of millions of dollars in dirty money.

As for Qadir, his story spread and made his life even harder. Neighborhood people keep taunting the “penniless billionaire,” and rumors of his wealth might make him a target for kidnappers.

2 The World’s Most Expensive Doorstop

Photo credit: KARE

A Michigan farmer was shocked to discover that, for decades, he had been using a $100,000 meteorite as a doorstop.

According to the unnamed owner, he first gained possession of the space rock in 1988, when he bought a farm in Edmore. The previous proprietor, also unaware of its value, used the rock to prop a door open and gave it away when he sold the farm. Curiously, the original owner knew it was a meteorite. It landed on his property back in the 1930s, when he was young, and he dug it out of its crater.

The new owner left the farm after a few years, but, unlike his predecessor, he took the meteorite with him. For 30 years, he mostly used it as a doorstop, occasionally giving it to his children to take to school for show and tell. He heard stories of people finding and selling meteorites for a living and finally decided to see how much his was worth.

Central Michigan University geologist Mona Sirbescu was stunned when she was presented with the rock. At 10 kilograms (22 lb), it was the sixth-largest recorded find in Michigan history and worth up to $100,000.[9] It was 88.5-percent iron and 11.5-percent nickel. At the moment, the Edmore meteorite is looking for a permanent home, with both the Smithsonian and a mineral museum in Maine showing interest.

1 The Death Comet Returns

Photo credit: NAIC-Arecibo/NSF

Asteroid 2015 TB145 will be making a return to Earth. It is more popularly known as the “Death Comet” due to its surface features having an eerie resemblance to a skull.

The space rock was first detected in 2015 by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Fittingly, the skull-shaped asteroid was spotted on October 30, just in time for Halloween. This year, the timing didn’t work out as well, as the Death Comet won’t reach its closest approach until November 11. Even then, it will pass Earth at a distance of 40 million kilometers (25 million mi).[10] This is significantly farther away than the 482,000-kilometer (300,000 mi) pass it did three years ago.

Astronomers believe the rocky visitor is a dead comet, meaning that is has made enough passes around the Sun to burn off all its volatiles. Astronomers say there is no chance of the Death Comet colliding with our planet, although it is still classified as “potentially hazardous” due to its size and proximity to Earth. The rock has a diameter of just over 600 meters (2,000 ft), so it will not be visible to the naked eye. It won’t make another flyby until 2088.


Read more offbeat stories you might have missed from September 29, 2018 and September 22, 2018.

fact checked by Jamie Frater