Interesting Anecdotes #1

For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved playing Trivial Pursuit.  While certainly not a test of intelligence, it is a fun way to claim bragging rights for knowing the largest amount of truly useless information.  Like the world’s largest landlocked country.  Or Woodrow Wilson’s Vice-President.  Or the actor who played Mike Brady.

While there’s a time and place for in-depth, nuanced analysis, there’s also something extremely satisfying about impressing (or, more likely, annoying) your friends with snappy, smart sounding facts.  In that spirit, I’ve decided to try a semi-regular post of the most interesting anecdotes I’ve gleaned from whatever non-fiction book I happen to be reading.

The following tidbits all come from Sam Kean’s wonderful The Disappearing Spoon.  The book was essentially a collection of intriguing, sort-of-related stories based around the periodic table of the elements.  Any scientist, historian, or Jeopardy buff will get a true kick out of this book.  There’s nothing boring in these pages, but there were some stories that stuck out.  Here they are in no particular order.

  • Taking the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to it’s logical extremes creates some weird stuff.  The principle states that, as the certainty of a particle’s velocity increases, the certainty of it’s position decreases.  So, take a group of atoms and make them so cold that their velocity approaches zero.  This is, in essence, near-certainty about the particle’s velocity.  Following the Uncertainty principle, the particle’s positions are then utterly indeterminate.  At this point, the atoms would then swell, merge into each other and become one giant singularity of an atom called a Bose-Einsten Condensate.  Einstein predicted this in 1924 and immediately dismissed it as too bizarre to actually occur.  But, in 1995, two scientists at the University of Colorado created a massive rubidium marshmallow atom.
  • In an ingenious attempt to hide two solid gold Nobel Prizes from Nazi Stormtroopers, Gyorgy Hevesy managed to dissolve them in a jar of nitric and hydrochloric acids.  When the Nazi’s ransacked the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, they could find nothing of value and left the orangish jar untouched on a shelf.  When Hevesy returned in late 1945, the jar was still there.  He precipitated out the gold and the Swedish Academy recast the two medals for Max von Laue and James Franck.
  • The longest, non-technical word in the Oxford English Dictionary is “pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.”  It’s the disease people get in their lungs from inhaling microscopic volcanic silicon dust.  What makes the word interesting is that doctors don’t actually consider this a real disease and the word itself was coined in 1935 to win a puzzle contest.
Try dropping that one into conversation today.
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5 comments

    1. No problem, this book was full of them. As for it being a ‘dip-in-dip-out’ book (great name!), it’s tough to put down once you get started. I couldn’t put it down.

  1. This book sounds like it is right up my alley. I will add to my TBR. I love stories about science and how people got stuff all figured out. Although I must agree with you that the cover art leaves a bit to be desired. 🙂

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