Friday August 22, 2014

Sometimes implausible is true


Frequently I use this column as a space for debunking myths, pseudoscientific products and misleading advertising. This week, I thought I would turn that on its head and write about some popular ideas that, at first glance appear to be absurd, but are actually true.

1. From the time Pluto was discovered until it was demoted from planet status, it did not even complete one orbit of the sun.

The former ninth planet from the sun was discovered in February 1930 and demoted in August 2006. Not only is it true that during that period it did not travel around the sun, it did not even make a third of the trip. The frequency of Pluto’s orbit is around 250 Earth years.

There are a couple of  other things about Pluto that don’t seem quite right, but are also true. Sometimes Pluto is actually closer to the sun (and us) than Neptune is. Planetary orbits are elliptical so there are times when Pluto passes inside Neptune’s orbit.

From 1979 to 1999 was the last time. Interestingly, Pluto was still considered a planet at that time so it was the eighth planet during those two decades.

This inevitably brings up the question of whether they could collide. The answer to that is a simple no, at least not in any predictable future. Pluto’s orbit is inclined at 17 degrees to the eliptic (the plane defined by Earth’s orbit) which means even if they arrived at the intersection of their two orbits at the same time, they would not be anywhere near close enough to collide. Furthermore, they are in what astronomers call resonance orbits with Neptune completing three trips for every one of Pluto’s. The closest they every come to one another is two billion kilometres.

2. Mammoths roamed the Earth at the same time the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt was being built.

We tend to think of these ice age behemoths as being wholly prehistoric. When I was growing up popular notion was that mammoths were extinct by about 12,000 years ago. That put their extinction squarely in the period of our stone age ancestors, long before the invention of writing, architecture and the rise of the great ancient civilizations.

Indeed, by 10,000 years ago, mammoths had disappeared from continental Eurasia and North America, but a small sub-population continued to thrive on a small island off the coast of Siberia until around 1650 B.C.

The Wrangel Island woolly mammoths, therefore, were around when the wheel was invented (3500), when the Mayan calendar started (3114), when the Great Pyramid   was completed (2560) and when Stonehenge was completed (~2000).

3. Less time passed between the extinction of Tyrannosaurus Rex and appearance of humans than between the extinction of Stegosaurus and appearance of T. rex.

I love finding these kind of relative timeframes because it helps me appreciate the vastness of time and just how impressive the reign of dinosaurs was.

Popular culture tends to give the impression that the all the famous dinosaurs species kind of roamed around at the same time, but the age during which this diverse group of animals were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates was an exceptional 135 million years.

Stegosaurus, in fact, was not even one of the earliest members of the clade Dinosauria. Its range was 155 to 150 million years ago while T. rex appeared 67 m.y.a., 83 million years later. T. Rex was gone by 66 m.y.a.  

Molecular evidence now suggests Homo, the genus to which we modern humans belong, appeared 2.3 to 2.4 m.y.a.

4. If you could double your money ever day and started with one cent, you would be a millionaire in a month.

From my background in science I know a little bit about exponential growth and decay, but even so, I had to test this one. Everyone I asked agreed that it seems really implausible you could start with something so small and turn it into something so large in just 30 days.

This can quickly be proven using a formula, but it’s much more fun to work it out day by day. Halfway through the month, it looks like your skepticism is going to pay off because on the 15th you only have $163.84.

It doubles really quickly from there, though. You don’t even need a 31-day month. In fact, February (not even a leap-year February) will do the trick.

By the 28th your penny has grown to $1,342,177.28. Now, if only I could figure out how to double my money every day.



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