Monday, 31 March 2008

WRONG: Glass is a liquid

Observing church windows, many people have noticed that ancient panes are thicker at the bottom than at the top, leading them to believe that glass has “flowed” downward with imperceptible slowness.


Medieval glaziers lacked the technology to make perfectly flat panes. Their methods, which involved spinning flattened, blown spheres, produced sheets of glass that were slightly thicker at one end. The heavier end was placed at the bottom of the frame simply because it’s more stable that way. The best medieval English glass was made from Lyme Regis sand and burned kelp. As was the typical medieval English peasant's lunch.

When glass is heated beyond its melting point, it becomes a liquid (because, well, that’s what melting means). Its molecules slide all over the place in disarray. As it cools, its viscosity increases, making it harder for the molecules to line up in an orderly, crystalline form. Compare this with water, the viscosity of which does not increase as much when its temperature lowers – at the freezing point, it crystallises into ice. (Water does do some weird things in extreme conditions, though. Look at this and this.)

The resulting hodge-podge of glass molecules is an “amorphous solid” – the molecules are bound tightly together, but not in a formal structure. Having said that, amorphous solids can flow – but for glass to slip in the way perceived in old windows would take millions of years and a great deal more heat than the average cathedral boiler provides.

WRONG: Money is printed by the government

The Royal Mint at Llantrisant, South Wales (or “the hole with the mint in it”, as more than one disappointed visitor has called it) issues about 1,500 million British coins per year, which sounds like a lot till you realise that up to 6.5 billion 1p coins alone have gone missing since they were introduced in 1971. Though owned by the Government, the Royal Mint is a business – it made over a million pounds in profit in 2006-7 by also making coins and blanks for foreign countries, including France, Belgium and Austria. Presumably not Argentina though.

Notes are a different matter entirely. Bank Of England notes are made exclusively in Loughton, Essex by a division of De La Rue plc, a company that prints money for 150 countries. While the Bank of England is the only bank currently licensed to issue notes (in England - see here for a list of others), this wasn’t always the case. In 1921, the last private bank entitled to do so, Fox, Fowler & Co of Somerset, merged with Lloyds and lost its privileges.

At the Bank of England’s Mutilated Notes Department in Leeds, they use high-speed sorting machines to remove from circulation any notes that are falling apart, dirty or counterfeit, and £15million worth of notes annually are removed. They used to be burned as heating fuel for the Loughton offices, but these days they are shredded there and in Leeds and used as landfill, fuel or compost.

In America, on the other hand, shredded dollars are turned into construction materials or enterprisingly sold back to tourists as bags of “shreddies” at the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington DC.

In China, “hell” bank notes – not legal tender, except in the underworld – are burned as a way of getting money to your deceased relatives. While the workings of the infernal economy remain shrouded in mystery, the fact that these notes are available in denominations of up to $8billion indicates that the Lord Of Hell needs to get a tighter rein on inflation. Such is the problem of smoke pollution on religious festival days that the Bank Of Taipei has introduced Bank Of Hell credit cards.

WRONG: The British Isles have only one monarch

First, some definitions:

• The British Isles are a collection of islands off the north west shoulder of Europe: together they all belong to or are dependent on either the United Kingdom or the Republic Of Ireland.

• Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles and is home to England, Scotland and Wales. Ireland is the next biggest. Others include the Scilly Isles, the Isle of Wight, the Hebrides, Orkney, Shetland, Anglesey and the Isle of Lundy off the coast of north Devon, which is home to 30 people and a flock of feral goats.

• The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the proper name for the political entity ruled by Queen Elizabeth. It includes Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but not the Crown Dependencies of the Isle Of Man and the Channel Islands. And if you think the Channel Islands means Guernsey, Jersey and a couple of others, you've forgotten Alderney, Sark, Herm, Jethou, Brecqhou, Lihou, the Minquiers group, the Ecréhous, the Dirouilles, the Pierres de Lecq, the Casqets and Burhou.

The Isle of Man’s Head of State is the Lord Of Mann (note the second “n”), a title held at present by Queen Elizabeth. However, in 1405 King Henry IV granted the kingdom of Man to Sir John Stanley and his descendants. In 1504, King Thomas III of The Isle Of Man renounced his throne in favour of the title “Lord”, but the royal line is alive and well and claims de jure sovereignty. He’s called David Howe. You can cheer on King David Of The Isle Of Man at his website.

As well as Ireland, the UK and the Crown Dependencies, the British Isles also include the little-known principality of Sealand. In 1967, Major Paddy Roy Bates occupied the abandoned WWII sea fort of HM Fort Roughs, six miles off the coast of Suffolk (they were international waters until 1987), renamed it Sealand and appointed himself His Royal Highness Prince Roy.

No nation officially acknowledges Sealand’s independence, but it was the site of a “war” when, according to its sovereign, German and Dutch citizens attempted a coup in 1978. Sadly, the nation was brought to its knees by a fire in 2006, but you can help them rebuild their fragile economy by becoming a Lord or Lady of Sealand for just £19.99.

EDIT: There's someone else at it now – Stuart Hill has claimed the island of Forvik in Shetland as a Crown Dependency, independent of the UK, on the basis of an ancient marriage settlement.

Friday, 28 March 2008

WRONG: The Wright Brothers were the first men to fly

Popular legend paints the Wright brothers as a pair of eccentric bicycle-shop owners from the Ohio backwoods whose persistence and hard work paid off when they became the first to achieve controlled, powered flight. But the legend is wrong. Wilbur was actually born in Indiana.

It’s also possible that someone else achieved manned flight first.

The principles of flight have been known for centuries, if not totally understood until the early 1900s. Leonardo Da Vinci famously attempted to design a helicopter in the 15th century that required four men to turn a giant, lightweight “screw” that would, he thought, bore its way into the air. Long before Leonardo, however, the first pilot was a Moorish scientist called Abbas Ibn Firnas. In 875CE, at the age of 65, he jumped off a mountain near Cordoba in a glider of his own design. Prefiguring Wile E Coyote by a thousand years, he failed to give much thought to his landing: he crashed and seriously injured his spine.

In the 19th century, the science of gliding was refined by pioneers like George Cayley. (He also invented caterpillar tracks in 1825, about a hundred years before there were motorised vehicles around to use them.) It was him we have to thank for fixed wings, separate means of propulsion and stabilising tailplanes. In 1853 he published details of a glider in which his coachman flew several hundred yards at Brompton Dale, Yorkshire. Reputedly the coachman’s first words on landing were, “Sir George, I wish to give notice."

The Wright brothers achieved powered flight in 1903. Two years earlier, however, Gustave Whitehead was reported by The Bridgeport Herald as flying 800 metres in the romantically named “No 21” at Fairfield, Connecticut. Eyewitnesses later signed depositions to attest to this, but evidence for the flight – and the few subsequent flights claimed by Whitehead – is slim and controversial. There are no photographs.

While we're on the subject of aviation, we should all give a small ripple of applause to the late Dame Barbara Cartland, aviation pioneer. Despite what you saw Rory McGrath claim on QI, she didn't invent the glider, but in 1984 she won the Bishop Wright Air Industry Award for piloting the first aeroplane-towed glider airmail in 1931. Towed gliders had been tested before, but it took a romantic novelist with clown-face make-up to come up with the idea of long-distance flights.

One final note – if you think gliders are unique to the air, you should be aware that entirely unpowered underwater gliders are now in use by scientists in the Caribbean. (For research purposes, you understand…) Thermal differences in the ocean cause reservoirs of wax to expand and contract inside the vehicles, powering pumps which generate forward movement by altering the glider’s buoyancy.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

WRONG: Baths drain in different directions either side of the equator

Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis was the French mathematician who gave his name to the effect that the earth’s rotation has on large-scale fluid dynamics. And if you think that means he didn’t know how to party, he also wrote a mathematical treatise on billiards[1].

The Coriolis effect is the reason weather systems spin anti-clockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the south. As air circulates north and south between areas of high and low pressure in a more-or-less straight line, the earth moves underneath it. From the moving perspective of someone on the earth, large-scale weather systems in the air appear to rotate, though this is really a result of the shape of the earth and the movement of the observer.

But none of this has anything to do with your plughole.

Water does not spin one way down the plug hole in the northern hemisphere and another in the south. This is a myth, reinforced by cheeky types who, for a small fee, will “demonstrate” the effect at the equator using sleight of hand. You may remember a guy getting away with this on Michael Palin's Pole To Pole. If you’ve noticed that your bath has a tendency to always drain itself one particular way, it’s due to the shape, angle and design of your plug hole and its position relative to your taps. Baths, sinks and toilets drain far too quickly, and are much too small – thousands of miles too small - for the relatively minuscule influence of the earth’s movement to have any visible effect. That doesn’t mean you can’t be impressed by the collapse of a chaotic flow of water into a relatively stable vortex, however, whichever way it spins.

[1] Théorie mathématique des effets du jeu de billiard, Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis, 1835

Saturday, 22 March 2008

WRONG: A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on

Verbal contracts probably aren’t what you think they are – the term actually covers any agreement made in words, spoken or written. (You can have non-verbal contracts. For example, a visit to the dentist involves an implied – but unspoken and unwritten – contract to pay him or her for the agony provided.) What people usually mean by the phrase is oral contracts, which can be worth a great deal of paper, as Texaco discovered to their cost in 1985.

The oil giant had its eye on Getty Oil, the company that made legendary billionaire J Paul Getty famous. J Paul’s son Gordon had made an oral deal to sell the business to Pennzoil, but reneged when Texaco offered a better price. The courts agreed with Pennzoil that Texaco had interfered unfairly, and awarded the Pennsylvania company $11.1 billion, the biggest-ever settlement at the time. Texaco began bankruptcy proceedings and were only rescued when Pennzoil agreed to settle for $3 billion. (Getty, meanwhile, suffered not at all for being a cheeky swine.)

Oral contracts are just as binding as written ones, but harder to enforce if one party is willing to perjure themselves to deny the agreement took place. If both sides acknowledge the substance of the conversation, however, then by law they are obliged to honour it (unless they settle, of course – ie they both agree to drop it, usually as a result of money changing hands).

Defining the substance of an oral contract is problematic too, however – the creator of social networking website Facebook was sued by his college roommates, who claimed he reneged on a deal to work with them on their similar site. The judge said “dormroom chit-chat does not make a contract." (Under UK law, the “chit-chat” would have had to qualify as an “intention to create legal relations”.) The reason people generally prefer written contracts – and the reason written contracts have such tortured language – is so that both sides can, in theory, be under no illusions about what they are agreeing to. Though anyone who’s waded through the small print of any financial product would have cause to disagree.

WRONG: America is the most obese nation on Earth

Make no mistake, Americans are fat. Back in 2002, 24 per cent of Mississippi’s residents were clinically obese (having a body mass index of 30 or above). That’s nearly a quarter of them qualifying as dangerously fat. According to the American Obesity Association, 127 million Americans are “overweight”, half of them again are “obese” and 9 million are “seriously obese”. And that’s the AOA talking – they know their lard.

Yet despite being the home of Hardee’s $2.69 Country Breakfast Burrito, which contains three days’ recommended fat intake in a single serving, America is not only not the fattest nation in the world, it’s not even in the top five.

According to the World Health Organisation, the following are the worst offenders:

1. Nauru
2. Tonga
3. Federated States Of Micronesia
4. The Cook Islands
5. Niue

All of them are in the South Pacific, where the relative cheapness of imported junk food has had a disastrous effect on public health.

Nauru is both the fattest nation on earth and its smallest independent republic. It's also brilliantly weird. Some 13,000 citizens inhabit eight square miles of land, most of which is uninhabitable thanks to decades of phosphate mining. this is phosphate. With the phosphate resources running out, in the late 1980s, the government ploughed a large portion of the economy into a West End musical called Leonardo, A Portrait Of Love, a floparoo which closed before its backers’ charter flight even made it to London.

Throwing bad money after worse, in the 1990s the island became an off-shore money-laundering haven for Russian gangsters, and processed as much as US$70billion through its 400 banks (not bad for eight square miles). This behaviour qualified Nauru as the first “rogue state” under America’s 2001 Patriot Act.

It now makes its money housing asylum-seekers on behalf of the Australian government.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

WRONG: Scottish banknotes are legal tender

The following banks issue notes in the British Isles (not counting the Channel Islands and the Isle Of Man):

• Bank Of England
• Bank Of Scotland
• Royal Bank Of Scotland
• Clydesdale Bank
• Bank Of Ireland
• First Trust Bank
• Northern Bank
• Ulster Bank

It’s a source of endless frustration to Scottish and Northern Irish people travelling in England that shopkeepers will often inspect their perfectly valid non-Bank Of England notes and reject them as funny money. Yet the shopkeepers have a point, albeit a misguided one, because the notes aren’t legal tender anywhere, even in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The confusion arises from a misunderstanding of the term "legal tender". It means, very specifically, payment that may not be legally refused in the settlement of a debt. In restaurants and taxis (for example) where a service has been provided in advance of payment – therefore incurring a debt – the restaurateur or driver must accept legal tender. In England and Wales, that's Bank Of England notes, but in Scotland and Northern Ireland only coins are legal tender.

So where does this leave the Scottish and Northern Irish tenner if they’re not even legal tender at home? The good news is that currency can be anything you and a shopkeeper (or other service provider) agree on. If Mr Bun the baker takes a fancy to your Peruvian 10 Nuevo Soles note (and who wouldn’t, with that fetching portrait of aviator José Quiñones Gonzáles on the front?) then he can take it in exchange for that cream horn you have your eye on. It’s between you and him, and the law doesn’t come into it. Similarly, Scottish and Northern Irish banknotes are quite rightly accepted by most businesses in England as currency.

For the record, David Brent was wrong: stamps are not legal tender.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

WRONG: There are ten commandments

Exodus Chapter 20 tells the story of how Moses went up the mountain and spoke to God. Paraphrasing God for reasons of brevity, here are his edicts:

• Much like Chesney Hawkes, I am the one and only.
• If I catch you worshipping idols I’ll take it out on you, your children, your grandchildren and their children too.
• It’s my name, don’t wear it out.
• Don’t work on the seventh day. (God takes an impressive 94 words to say this in the King James bible)
• Be nice to your parents.
• Don’t go murdering anyone.
• Or cheating on your spouse.
• Or stealing.
• Or lying at anyone else’s expense.
• And no coveting, cheeky!

So far, so familiar. God goes on to list a number of recommended punishments (including death for cursing one’s parents and a limitless fine for the somewhat specific crime of bringing about a premature birth by fighting too near a pregnant woman and accidentally hitting her). He then writes this “testimony” on two tablets with his divine finger and gives them to Moses.

Moses later breaks the tablets in rage when he sees the Israelites cavorting with a golden calf and returns to God with two fresh ones. God says he’ll write them out again, but when he reiterates the commandments, not only does he insist this time that Moses take dictation, but the commandments themselves are significantly different.

Again, paraphrasing:

• Destroy everyone else’s altars. You’re not allowed to worship any other gods, because I’m so jealous that my name is Jealous. (Really: “For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God”)
• Don’t make any “molten gods”.
• Keep the feast of unleavened bread.
• “All that openeth the matrix is mine”. (Meaning all firstborn – except humans, even when they dress up as Neo and Trinity ill-advisedly and donkeys – should be sacrificed to God.)
• Don’t work on the seventh day. (God only uses 22 words this time.)
• Observe the feasts of Weeks, First-Fruits and Harvest.
• No yeast in your sacrifices, please.
• And don’t leave the Passover sacrifice till morning.
• The first fruits are mine.
• Don’t boil a kid (as in young goat) in its mother’s milk. (Oddly God doesn’t continue, “for verily it will taste like shit”.)

If you allow that the “molten gods” and “seventh day” rules are common to both sets, then that still adds up to eight extra commandments – and they are the ones Moses wrote on the stone tablets that he then took down the mountain and stored in the Ark of the covenant.

If you don’t believe me, check Exodus chapter 34, or, if you have access to the giant secret US Government warehouse, look for yourself.

WRONG: The royal family's surname is Windsor

The German George I was the first of the Hanoverian line in Britain. That line, however, may not be inherited by a woman, so on Victoria’s accession to the throne, it passed to her uncle, the Duke Of Cumberland, and the royal dynasty took the altogether fruitier name of the House Of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, after Victoria's husband, Prince Albert. In 1917, the family changed it to Windsor, after the castle, when wartime anti-German sentiment made it sensible for them to distance themselves from the land of the sausage.

In 1960, however, twelve years after the Queen married Prince Philip, she decreed that her descendants’ surname would be Mountbatten-Windsor, though the dynasty remains the House Of Windsor. Mountbatten is an invention of Philip’s own – it’s the Anglicised version of his mother’s family name. Though why he felt uncomfortable with Battenberg is anyone’s guess.

Most of Elizabeth’s descendants have titles that preclude surnames – such as “Charles, Prince of Wales” – but crucially, the name Mountbatten-Windsor applies on the few occasions that they legally require one. Princess Anne, for example, entered Mountbatten-Windsor in the marriage register at her wedding in 1973.

On the subject of royal trivia, the Queen doesn’t need a passport, as they are issued in her name. The same doesn’t apply for the rest of the royal family, though Prince Charles will be entitled to throw his away if he becomes king. It’ll probably not be top of his To Do list, though.

The Queen does have a driving license, on the other hand, but only because she applied for it before taking the throne. It expired when she turned 70, but as she was Queen by then she didn’t need to reapply.

The Queen’s official title is Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

Among other titles and ranks, she is also
• The Lord of Mann
• The Duke of Lancaster
• The Duke of Normandy
• Chieftain of the Braemar Gathering (of Highland games)
• Colonel-In-Chief of the Ghana Regiment of Infantry
• Freeman of the Royal Borough Of Windsor And Maidenhead
• Honorary Fellow Of The Royal College Of Surgeons
• Paramount Chief of Fiji
• The White Heron of the Maoris
Seigneur of the Swans

As well as being Queen of the United Kingdom she’s the queen of fifteen other realms, including:

• Belize
• Canada, even the French bits
• Grenada, one of the few islands Columbus actually did find
• Papua New Guinea
• Tuvalu, the least populated country in the world other than Vatican City

WRONG: Your heart is on the left side of your chest

Despite the fact that you can more readily feel your heart on the left side of your chest than on the right, it is actually in the centre, between your lungs and behind the breastbone. The left ventricle, however, is stronger and bulges out slightly to the left, meaning that your heartbeat is on the left side. Unless, of course, you’re one of the fewer than 1 in 10,000 people born situs inversus, where your organs are in the opposite position to the norm.

While the symptom most people associate with a heart attack is crushing pain in the chest, it’s been suggested that up to 20 per cent of mild heart attacks go more or less unnoticed. And not to imply that hearts aren’t important, but in 2006, 65-year-old Canadian Gerard Langevin was fitted with an artificial pump (the Thoratec Heartmate™ II) after severe heart failure and by all accounts lives a happy cyborg life despite not having a pulse or measureable blood pressure.

If that sounds impressive, in January 2008 Dr Doris Taylor’s team at the University of Minnesota stripped dead rats’ hearts of all their cells using detergents to leave only a protein structure. (That’s not the impressive part.) They replaced the dead cells with live ones harvested from newborn rats and, incredibly, regrew the organs and brought them to life outside of a body. It is unrecorded whether Dr Taylor maniacally shrieked “It’s ALIVE!” when the first heart pumped.