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Science Sunday: Fools for Science

Some of the best April Fool's Day pranks and hoaxes have been based in science and math. Discover magazine fooled numerous readers with its April 1999 article by Tim Folger about the recently discovered bigon particle, which appears and disappears within millionths of a second—and is the size of a bowling ball. And Google has become well known for its annual hoaxes, such as last year's Gmail Motion Beta, a program enabling you to control Gmail with body gestures.

Fake discoveries and inventions have sucked in the public as far back as 1878, when the New York Graphic announced Thomas Edison's new device that could convert soil into cereal and water into wine. Newspapers across the U.S. gullibly reprinted the story as fact.

Other pranks are pulled off to make a point, such as the article in the April 1998 New Mexicans for Science and Reason newsletter, NMSR Reports, in which Mark Boslough reported that the Alabama  legislature had passed a law rounding the value of pi to 3, in keeping with the Bible. Boslough's parody was a dig on New Mexico's school board and legislative support for teaching creationism in schools. But soon it spread through cyberspace, and the Alabama legislature received hundreds of calls protesting the new "law."

And RealClimate.org was clearly parodying the ridiculousness of climate change denial in its 2007 April Fool's Day article, "The Sheep Albedo Feedback," claiming that a researcher at New Zealand's Institute of Veterinary Climatology had discovered that global warming was caused by the decline in New Zealand's sheep population. White sheep reflect sunlight, so fewer sheep equals more radiation absorbed by the ground. Then the warmer the climate, the lower the demand for wool sweaters, leading to even fewer sheep and more warming, or "runaway sheep-albedo feedback."

One of the most entertaining hoaxes was the the BBC's footage of newly discovered flying penguins on King George Island, purportedly filmed for inclusion in their Miracles of Evolution series. Monty Python's Terry Jones as host of the segment should have been a clue that this was a mockumentary, and the name of the filmmaker, Prof Alid Loyas (an anagram for April Fool's Day), was another.

Discoveries of new species are a particularly popular hoax. Even the prestigious journal Nature got in on the act in 1999 with an online article by Henry Gee on the origin of birds. In it, Gee refers to the discovery of Smaugia volans bones, a T-rex-like dinosaur believed to have flown, with signs of fire exposure on the skeleton. (Hint: Smaug is the dragon from The Hobbit.)

In April 1995, Discover magazine featured a story on the hotheaded naked ice borer, discovered by Dr. Aprile Pazzo (ahem). The creature, found in Antarctica, had a bony plate on its head that it could heat up to quickly bore through ice. It would melt the ice beneath a penguin, causing it to sink. The six-inch borers would then consume it. Apparently, the magazine received more mail about this article than it had ever received before, with some people quite pissed off.

The Orlando Sentinel, in 1984, ran an April Fool's Day story by Dean Johnson about the Tasmanian mock walrus, which was four inches long, purred like a cat, used a litter box, and ate cockroaches. The paper ran an image of the creature (actually a naked mole rat) and pictures of people protesting the government for not allowing the creature to be bred in the U.S. The paper and pet stores received numerous inquiries about the walrus, and even a Tasmanian paper had to run an article debunking it.

The British journal Veterinary Record published “Some Observations on the Diseases of Brunus edwardii (species nova)” in April 1972. A series of case studies demonstrated various conditions and treatments for the animal, which was found in 63.8 percent of UK households. For example:

Case 5: A 16-year-old bear with an asymmetrical expression and obvious emotional disturbance, found at the back of a cupboard. After the removal of superficial dust, the coat condition was seen to be good, but the animal had a permanent squint, due to careless replacement of the right eye with a shoe button. Tracing of the case history revealed that this bear had suffered recurrent unilateral ocular prolapse, which had progressed to total rupture of the filamentous orbital attachments, and loss of the eye. It was hoped that a new owner might be found for this animal, and that with a newly-matched pair of eyes his expression and psychological state might improve.

Fake inventions are another common April Fool's Day hoax, from Burger King's left-handed Whopper (designed to drip from the right side) to the Daily Mail's FatSox, which sucked fat from a person as they sweated (using a patented nylon polymer called FloraAstraTetrazine). In 1965, the BBC interviewed a professor who had invented Smellovision, which could transmit aromas to viewers. He demonstrated by cutting onions and brewing coffee on set, and several people called in to say they could smell them both as though they were there with him.

In 1999, the April edition of the tech/business magazine Red Herring announced the invention of telepathic tweeting by Yuri Maldini, a computer genius who had supposedly developed encrypted communications systems for the U.S. Army. Reader letters came pouring in from people interested in learning more or purchasing the technology.

And of course, we can't forget the astronomy contribution to making people feel foolish. My favorite is from (who else?) the BBC. On April 1, 1976, astronomer Patrick Moore told BBC Radio 2 listeners that at 9:47 a.m., Pluto would align with Jupiter in a way that would momentarily weaken Earth's gravity. If they jumped up at this exact minute, they would feel as though they were buoyant. The station was soon flooded with calls from people eager to describe their experiences, as well as from one guy who demanded compensation because he hit his head on the ceiling when he jumped.

These are just a fraction of the April Fool's Day pranks related to science, and no doubt many more new ones will come out today. Many of them rely on the audience’s lack of scientific literacy and critical thinking skills, and some seem to be no different from claims people and companies make all the time. I can totally see FatSox, for example, being a real product. Not a real working product, but I don’t know that I would have pegged that one as a joke had I seen it advertised. And with the bizarre legislation being considered and passed in many U.S. states these days, Alabama changing the value of pi to match the Bible’s doesn’t seem as far fetched as I’d like it to be.

April Fool’s Day pranks, particularly those based in science (and its evil twin pseudoscience), shine an uncomfortably hilarious light on how easily conned we all can be.

Image credits: Discover magazine; NMRS Report; RealClimate.org; Dean Johnson/Orlando Sentinel; Blackmore, Owen, and Young; Charles Shields.

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Melanie Mallon

Melanie Mallon

Melanie is a freelance editor and writer who just moved to a small town outside Minneapolis with her husband and two young kids. When not counting how often the words "pride," "liberty," and "freedom" are used in local business, road, and pet names, she spends her time wrangling commas, making colon jokes, and raising her two kids to be critical thinkers. She is the managing editor of Skepchick Events, a Grounded Parents admin, and a Skepchick contributor. You can find her on Twitter as @MelMall, on Facebook, and on Google+

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