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Tag Archives: Fifty Curious Questions

We Call Upon The Author To Explain

The Eric Hoffer Book Award is one of the top and most prestigious American literary awards for independent books. Last Monday (May 14th) the results of the 2018 Book Award were announced.

I am delighted to reveal that my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions, made its way through a packed field to be named as a Category Finalist. If nothing else, it is gratifying to know that a quirky piece of English whimsy written firmly in a tongue-in-cheek style has transferred successfully across the Atlantic.

The book is available in all formats via


There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Eighty

Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

Being Jewish, a woman in academia and living in Austria in the 1930s weren’t the best cards to be dealt with in life and so it proved for the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, nuclear scientist, Lise Meitner.

Born in Vienna, Lise was only the second woman to be awarded a degree in Austria. To further her studies she moved to Berlin where she met Otto Hahn and found a position – a cupboard next to a lab and working as a guest without remuneration – at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. It was only when she was offered a paid position elsewhere that her position at the Institute was regularised. In 1917 she and Hahn discovered a new element, protactinium.

In the 1920s and 30s the race was on to find an element heavier than uranium and it was to this problem that Meitner and Hahn applied their not inconsiderable grey cells. They noticed that whenever they put a neutron on to a heavy Uranium neutron, as you do, they ended up with something lighter. Whilst Hahn carried out the experiments it was Lise who came up with the explanation for this phenomenon and realised the import of what they had discovered. The answer was what we now term nuclear fission. What was happening was the neutron was splitting into two parts, unleashing a phenomenal amount of energy in the process. It was this energy which was harnessed to produce nuclear bombs.

By this time, 1938, the Anschluss had occurred and, sensibly, Lise had made good her escape to Sweden. Now that he had the rational explanation to the phenomenon that they had observed, Hahn wrote up the findings and published a paper, ignoring the contributions that Lise had made and, in fact omitting her altogether. Some kindly souls argue that the omission was due to political pressure exerted because of the race and gender of Hahn’s accomplice. Whether this was the case or whether Hahn just grabbed the glory for himself, we will never know. To add salt to the wound, in 1944 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Hahn alone for the discovery of nuclear fission.

Not unsurprisingly, Lise was royally pissed off. She wrote, “I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.”  Worse still, she was horrified to find that the first use of nuclear fission was to make an atomic bomb and was devastated when the Enola Gay dropped its load on to Hiroshima.

To complete her air-brushing from history, the apparatus that was used to carry out the experiments that led to the discovery of nuclear fission was displayed in Germany’s leading science museum for 35 years without mentioning Lise’s name and role in the experiment.

Lise continued with her researches after the war and helped produce one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors and during the course of her career published some 128 articles. It was only in the mid-1960s that the enormity of her contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission was recognised. Posthumously, in 1992, she had an extremely radioactive synthetic element named after her, Meitnerium (atomic number 109) named after her and at least the Periodic Table bears testament to her brilliance.

Lise, for your contribution to the discovery of nuclear fission being air-brushed out of history, you are a worthy inductee.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone

There Ain’t ‘Alf Some Clever Bastards – Part Seventy Nine

Cecilia Payne (1900 – 1979)

The stars I see twinkling at night on the few occasions they are not hidden by clouds are a constant source of wonderment to me. Those of a more enquiring mind might wonder what they are made of and a few, a very few, would take the trouble to find out. One such is the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, the British-born astronomer and astrophysicist, Cecilia Payne.

But her contribution to our understanding of stars which should have assured her a stellar career was for decades hidden under the penumbra of male chauvinism that pertained in the groves of academe at the time. Cecilia was a bit of a brain-box and read botany, physics and chemistry at Newnham College in Cambridge in the early 1920s but she did not get a degree as the University only started awarding them to the fairer sex in 1948. She did, however, listen to a lecture by Arthur Eddington which sparked her nascent interest in astronomy.

Winning a scholarship, Cecilia moved to the United States in 1923 and enrolled in the graduate programme run by Harvard College Observatory, specifically established to encourage women to study there. She was encouraged to write a doctoral dissertation and in 1925 Cecilia became the first woman to receive a PhD from Radcliffe College, which is now part of Harvard, for her dissertation, entitled A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars.

And some contribution, it was too.

I will not bore you with the details – the precise findings and analytical processes that she used go way above my head – but in essence Cecilia concluded that whilst the stars shared the same elements to be found in the Earth, hydrogen, by a factor of one million, and to a degree helium was the most abundant element in stars and by extension the Universe. Later astronomers were to call her work “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”.  But Cecilia’s problem was that she had made her discovery in 1925 and it flew against the then received wisdom that the composition of sun and the stars was no different from that of the Earth.

The villain of the piece, Henry Norris Russell of Princeton University, now enters our story. He was assigned the task of reviewing Cecilia’s dissertation. Because the findings were contrary to the commonly accepted theories he declared them “clearly impossible” and Cecilia, bowing to the pressure exerted by the eminent professor, amended her conclusions and stated that the calculated abundances of hydrogen and helium were “almost certainly not real.

But something about Payne’s conclusions intrigued Russell and he conducted his own investigations, concluding four years later in 1929, in a short paper, that the principal constituent of the sun and starts was hydrogen. Russell magnanimously acknowledged Payne’s contribution but in popular and academic circles he was recognised as the person who established this ground-breaking fact.

Cecilia spent most of her career studying stars but was forced by the conventions of the time to accept low paid, low grade academic positions. It was only in 1956 that she was able to break through the glass ceiling when she was appointed a professor at Harvard.

To add to the irony, Cecilia was awarded the Henry Norris Russell Prize for her contributions to astronomy in 1976. She was typically phlegmatic, commenting at the time, “the reward of the young scientist is the emotional thrill of being the first person in the history of the world to see something or to understand something.

For discovering the composition of the sun and stars and being ignored, Cecilia, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Clever Bastards by Martin Fone which is now available on Amazon in Kindle format and paperback. For details follow the link

For more enquiring minds, try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone


Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Three

Do woodpeckers suffer brain damage?

One of the distinctive sounds to be heard in the garden of Blogger Towers is the drilling of a woodpecker as it tries to dislodge insects from within the bark of one of the nearby trees. It has always struck me that there must be easier ways for them to get their food. After all, each time they strike the tree their beaks and head undergo forces of between 1,200 and 1,400 G, over fourteen times the force that would give a human concussion.

According to the ever popular journal Plos One, a team of scientists, led by Peter Cummings, from Boston University School of Medicine, carried out some research into the brains of woodpeckers, using exhibits from the Field Museum and Harvard Museum of Natural History. The tell-tale sign for brain damage, in human brains at least, is the build-up of tau protein around our axons. Normally, tau protein wraps around the axons, giving them protection and stability while preserving their flexibility. Too much of it, though, disrupts the ability of the neurons to communicate, causing no end of problems with some of the brain’s functions relating to our emotions, cognitive powers and our ability to move.

In what is thought to have been the first detailed examination of woodpecker brains, the little grey cells were removed from a number of exhibits and the amount of tau protein was compared with that to be found in the brains of Red-winged Blackbirds. Now, of course, the woodpeckers in question may have been particularly stupid, having allowed themselves to be caught and end up in a museum’s glass case, but the researchers found that there was considerably more tau protein in their brains than in the blackbirds.

Is this indicative of brain damage?

Frustratingly, the researchers are not prepared to commit; all Cummings was prepared to say was “We can’t say that these woodpeckers definitely sustained brain injuries, but there is extra tau present in the woodpecker brain.” It is dangerous to assume that what is good for humans must also be the case for other forms of animal life so a bit more research is needed, I guess.

Empirically, though, as woodpeckers have been around for 25 million years and nature evolves – a controversial contention, I know – you would think that they would have developed mechanisms to prevent injurious damage to their bodies. And it seems they have. Researchers have previously established that woodpeckers have particularly thick neck muscles which serve to diffuse the blow when their beak strikes the wood. They also have a third inner eyelid which prevents their eyeballs from popping out.

In 2012 scientists from Beijing’s Beihang University and the Wuhan University of Technology carried out a more detailed examination of the thick bone that surrounds and cushions the woodpecker’s brain, details of which were reported in Science China Life Sciences. It appears that their brains are surrounded by a spongy bone plate made of tiny beams or rods called trabeculae. This provides a protective layer around the brain. Similarly, their beaks contain these same trabeculae. It is thought that the beak deforms during impact, absorbing the impact rather than sending it onwards towards the brain.

So the answer is probably no. Makes sense, I suppose.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty Two

Do your ears grow as you get older?

Ears are wonderful things.

As well as opening up the world of sound for those blessed with the sense of hearing – that is another story – they provide us with something to which we can attach our spectacles. In Chinese physiognomy, large ears are a sign of longevity. As I grow ever older I get this unshakeable feeling that the size of my ears is increasing. The consensus seems to be that old men have big ears and so for those of us with an enquiring mind this prompts the question: Do ears really grow larger with age and, if so, is it a phenomenon restricted to men?

The starting point for our investigation into the lughole is a paper published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in 1995, entitled Why do old men have big ears? In this fascinating monograph a general practitioner from Bromley in Kent, James Heathcote, recounts a survey he and three of his doctor colleagues conducted into the size of men’s ears in 1993. The doctors measured the ear sizes of 206 men of aged 30 and over and analysed the results. They calculated that ears grew at an average of 0.22 millimetres a year or, to put it another way, around a centimetre every 50 years. Frustratingly, the worthy medics didn’t hazard a guess as to why this may happen.

But it seems that the British investigation only tells half a story, having concentrated exclusively on the male sex. For an understanding of what happens with the ears of the fairer sex we need to look elsewhere.

A paper, reprinted in the BMJ in 1996 entitled Correlation of Ear Length with Age in Japan details the findings of some physicians working in care homes in Japan where they measured the ears and height of some 400 adult patients of both sexes.  Their findings revealed a significant correlation between the length of your ear and age, confirming Heathcote’s findings, and that there is an even greater correlation when adjusted for height – across both sexes.

An Italian study in 1999, conducted by VF Ferrario and others, measured the ears of groups of males and females in age categories 12 to 15, 19 to 30 and 31 to 56. What they discovered was that ear dimensions were significantly larger in males than females and that there was a significant effect on their size with age with larger ears found predominantly amongst the ageing population.

A more exhaustive study was conducted in around 2006 was conducted by a team of Germans from the Freie Universitat Berlin, led by Carsten Niemitz, based upon some original original research carried out in 1959 by Montacer-Kuhssary. The team found some 1448 photographs of ears of people of all ages ranging from new-born children to adolescents to adults and old codgers up to the age of 92. Each of the photographs was subjected to fifteen different sets of measurements.

What the team found was that “in all parameters where post adult growth was observed, female ears showed a lesser increase than those of men. Moreover the extent to which older men have bigger ears than younger males is greater than the extent to which the size of older women’s lugholes exceeds those of younger females.

But the fact is that women’s ears grow with age as well. Perhaps the reason why we don’t notice this phenomenon is because they often wear their hair in styles which cover the ears.

They also found that noses grow with age but not at the rate of ears – perhaps the Pinocchio effect of those shaggy dog stories the elderly are so fond of telling. There is no certainty as to why ears grow; possibly it is due to the loss of elasticity in the skin and the effect of gravity. Who knows?

Glad to have uncovered the truth on that one, though.

If you enjoyed this, why not try Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone which is now available via

Bee Stunts Of The Week

What is it with men and bees? In my latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – how’s that for a gratuitous plug? – I call for volunteers to extend the experiments into the calibration of the intensity of bee stings on various parts of the human anatomy. It seems that the call to arms is being answered, if these stories I stumbled upon this week are to be believed.

First we have Juan Carlos Noguez Ortiz, a worker on a honeybee farm in Ontario in Canada, who smashed the Guinness World Record for sitting in a sealed dome while more than 100,000 bees crawled over his face and neck. He endured the ordeal for 61 minutes beating the previous best of 53 minutes 34 seconds hands-down. Defying bee-lief, he claimed only to have suffered a couple of stings.

Less fortunate was Kiwi, Jamie Grainger, who accepted a bet for NZ$1k to help towards paying for his forthcoming nuptials by positioning his bare backside atop a hive of bees. Grainger, a serial risk taker who once accepted a NZ$500 bet to eat a slug, sat there for 30 seconds, was stung numerous times but claims it was the easiest money he had ever earned. It’s going to be one hell of stag do, is all I can say.

There’s nowt so queer as folk”, said a spokesman for the bee community.

Position Of The Week

My latest book, Fifty Curious Questions – now available via Amazon and all good booksellers (there is a distinction) – seeks to answer some of those maddening questions that life throws up. One that escaped my attention was: Which is the most dangerous sexual position for men?

Fortunately, the improbably named International Journal of Impotence Research, a flop if there ever was going to be one, has come up with the answer, reporting the results of some research conducted in Brazil into the circumstances which led to penile fracture in 90 victims. The answer, it appears, is doggy style. Men aged between 20 and 30 are most likely to suffer this injury because of their fitness and firmer erections. Eighteen unfortunates fractured their penises in the UK last year, according to the ever helpful NHS.

For women, if this incident which came to my attention this week is anything to go by, it may be deciding their respective positions in a three-some. Two women were discussing the point when one of them toppled 10 feet from the balcony of a house in the German town of Bad Breisig. She broke bones in her feet and legs. Her friend (or rival) rushed down the stairs to help her, slipped and broke bones in her arms and neck. Both had a stay in hospital whilst the chap, presumably, was left wondering why they were taking so long.

A good book and cup of cocoa seems the safest option.

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty One

What happens when three Christs meet?

For a confirmed agnostic the world of religion is a confusing and mystifying place. There are so many faiths competing for our attention that the obvious question is how do you know you are backing the right horse. Of course, there is just the chance that there is an omnipotent being up there who has control over your immortal soul and being a cautious sort of chap, I don’t want to find that out when it is too late to mend the errors of my ways. I have a fond image of representatives of all the major religions crowding around my death-bed intoning their own versions of their creed simultaneously, rather like a DJ sound system clash in a reggae club in the late 70s.

The bedrock of the Christian faith is monotheism – one God, one Jesus etc. Over the last millennium or so groups have formed eagerly anticipating the second coming of Christ, all to be sorely disappointed, at least as far as we know. From time to time some deluded soul pops up claiming to be the reincarnation of Christ. For the enquiring mind, the obvious question is what would happen if two or more so-called Christs met each other. Fortunately, we have a clue from a rather bizarre experiment conducted by psychologist, Milton Rokeach, in 1959.

The starting point is to gather a number of schizophrenics who think they are Christ. Rokeach got his hands on three, Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel and Leon Gabor, and forced them to live together at the Ypsilanti State Mental Hospital in Michigan. As for methodology, he chose to replicate the apparently successful technique adopted several years earlier where two women who believed they were both the Virgin Mary were put together and one of them as a result of them chatting together realised the extent of her delusional behaviour, was cured and discharged. But men, it would seem, are made of sterner stuff.

As you might expect, when they first met each other, the three Christs argued as to who was the real deal. Arguments became heated and on occasions, instead of a cheek being turned, blows were traded. Over time, though, the three patients began to tolerate each other and to prefer each other’s company. Each developed an elaborate explanation as to why the others were not the real McCoy. Clyde believed that his companions were dead and that they had been taken over by robots, whereas Leon and Joseph thought that their comrades were either crazy or had been duped. Leon came nearest to the truth by recognising that they were in a mental institution so the others, although, interestingly, not he, must be crazy. Rokeach tried to manipulate Leon’s behaviour by taking over the character of his imagined wife – an episode which caused Leon great emotional distress.

Rokeach abandoned the experiment in 1961 without curing the patients of their delusions or even getting any useful insights into the nature of schizophrenia. Towards the end of the experiment, none of the men showed the remotest interest in resolving the question as to who was the real Christ and, in fact, would go out of their way to avoid any conversational topic which might have strayed, however inadvertently, into matters religious. Anything for a quiet life!

The person who displayed the most delusional behavioural characteristics was Rokeach himself who seemed to relish playing the role of God in trying to manipulate his patients’ behaviour. Over time he realised how unethical his experiment was and in his 1981 edition of his book, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, he wrote, “while I failed to cure the three Christs of their delusions, they had succeeded in curing me of mine – of my God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives”.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Thirty

Why do shoe laces keep coming undone?

When I was a small boy one of the rites of passage was to be able to demonstrate the ability to tie up one’s own shoe laces. It was a tricky business and required great perseverance and phenomenal powers of concentration. Eventually I cracked it and have never looked back since. These days, with Velcro fastenings and the penchant for wearing trainers without laces it is less of a vital accomplishment and, I’m sure, we will all be the poorer for that.

When you think about it, though, and I have the luxury of being able to, tying shoe laces is a rather odd and inefficient way of making sure that your shoes stay on your feet. Invariably, the laces work loose and at some point in the day you find that you have to bend down and tie them up again. I find round laces the worst and when I buy a pair of shoes, try to avoid them. For the enquiring mind the obvious question is why do shoe laces, however well tied, work loose of their own accord.

Fortunately, some research carried out by Oliver O’Reilly, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California Berkley and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society may provide the clue to understanding this conundrum. As often is the case, the starting point was to take a couple of PhD students who were rich and uncool enough to own a pair of lace ups. They were asked to sit on a chair and swing their legs and stamp their feet. What they found was that these tow actions independently do not cause the laces to loosen. However, it is when you combine these two actions that trouble begins.

A runner was put on a treadmill and their actions were filmed using a slow-motion camera. What the scientists found was that when running, the foot strikes the ground with a force that is seven times that of gravity. As the fabric of the shoe squashes down on impact with terra firma, extra lace is freed at the top of the shoe, causing the knot to loosen imperceptibly. The trailing leg causes the free ends of the laces to move backwards and forwards, resulting in them being tugged outwards. The knot loosens causing a reduction in the friction which is holding the knot in place and eventually the free ends lengthen and the knot unravels.

It doesn’t happen all the time, the scientists say, but once the tension holding the knot decreases as a result of the movement of your feet, you will soon be bending down to tie your laces up again. It seems that some types of knot are more prone to coming undone than others. I use a granny knot but the tests conducted by O’Reilly show that these knots are five times more likely to come undone than a square knot. With a square knot you cross the end that is in your right hand behind the one in your left rather than passing the ends of the bow and knot over each other.

I doubt whether I will be able to obliterate a process that has been hardwired into my subconscious for over half a century. I find double knots help immeasurably but at least I now know why my shoe laces come undone. Perhaps I should invest in some slip ons.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links

Motivated By Curiosity And A Desire For The Truth – Part Twenty Nine


The vomit-drinking doctor, Stubbins Ffirth (1784 – 1820)

One of the problems of having an enquiring mind and natural curiosity is that at times you have to temper it. The risk is that your passion becomes all-consuming and it takes you down routes that most sane people would not contemplate. The advance of science and human knowledge requires researchers with undaunted courage and perseverance. But some can take it too far as the curious tale of an American doctor, Stubbins Ffirth, shows.

Yellow fever was a major problem in the United States in the late 18th century – an outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 had killed several thousand people – and understanding the disease and, more importantly, finding a cure for it was the number one priority. The popular theory around at the time was that the disease was spread by what was known at the time as miasma or bad air. Ffirth was having none of it. The bee in his bonnet – or perhaps it should be mosquito as the cause of yellow fever was eventually attributed to the pesky insect in 1900 – was to prove his theory that the fever was not contagious and he went to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate the veracity of his thesis.

As with most scientists, the starting point was to experiment on animals. Ffirth’s first experiment involved some black vomit collected from some poor yellow fever patients, some bread and a small dog. The latter was confined to a room and fed bread soaked in the vomit. Alas for the scientist but, perhaps fortunately for the dog, it took a shine to the unusual repast and after three days became so fond of it that it would eat the vomit without the accompanying bread. Abandoning that experiment, Ffirth injected vomit into the jugular veins of assorted dogs and cats. The results were inconclusive – one dog died within ten minutes while others remained perfectly healthy.

Undaunted, Ffirth decided that the only thing for it was to dispense with the lower orders of the animal kingdom and experiment on Homo sapiens – and who better than himself? He wrote of his first experiment, “On October 4th 1802 I made an incision in my left arm, midway between the elbow and wrist, so as to draw a few drops of blood. Into the incision I introduced some fresh black vomit…a slight degree of inflammation ensued, which entirely subsided in three days, and the wound healed up very readily”. He injected the vomit of yellow fever patients into various parts of his body with no real effect.

Thinking he was really on to something he devised even more extreme experiments, including frying three ounces of vomit in a pan and inhaling the steam and sitting in a small, enclosed closet inhaling six ounces of steaming vomit. Still no real effect. So the next stage in the experiments was to “take half an ounce of the black vomit immediately after it was ejected from a patient and diluting it with an ounce and a half of water, swallowed it”. The concoction tasted slightly acidic but it neither caused nausea or pain. Undaunted, he pressed on drinking several doses of vomit, often undiluted. But still there was no effect.

The lengths that Ffirth had gone to convinced him that his thesis was correct. His inability to contract the disease even after ingesting copious amounts of body fluids from fever patients was proof enough. He published his findings in A Treatise on Malignant Fever; with an attempt to prove its non-contagious non-malignant Nature in 1804. But he was wrong. It was also subsequently demonstrated that the vomit and other bodily fluids he ingested were from victims who had passed their contagious state. Who’d have thought that? Instead of being a medical, great Ffirth had to make do with being known as the vomit-drinking doctor.

If you enjoyed this why not check out Fifty Curious Questions by Martin Fone. Available now. Just follow any of the links