On page 11 of your book The Straight Dope, you mention that Russian scientists are trying to clone a mammoth from preserved cells. Sorry, but this story originated as an April Fools’ joke in Technology Review magazine, published at MIT. A student in a science writing class submitted a convincing but entirely bogus account of the first successful mammoth cloning. This supposedly produced two male “mammontelephases”–hybrid animals that were half-mammoth, half-elephant. The TR editors were tickled and ran the piece in their April 1984 issue.
Despite a multitude of clues, e.g., the comical name given to the Russian in charge of the project (“Dr. Sverbighooze Nikhiphorovich Yasmilov”), the silly cartoon accompanying the piece, and, most obvious of all, the April 1 dateline, the story was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and sent out via its syndicate service. It eventually appeared in Family Weekly, a Sunday supplement carried in over 350 U.S. newspapers. Technology Review and MIT spokespersons were then obliged to explain the concept of April Fools’ Day to baffled journalists from around the world.
MIT students have a long history of pranks. In 1968 they carried buckets of snow to a shower stall in a dorm and called the Boston Herald Traveler. They told the reporter that steam from a hot shower had mixed with cold air coming in an open window to produce snow. The story made page one and was picked up by a wire service. Then there was that stunt at the Harvard-Yale game in 1982 . . . –Brian Leibowitz, Cambridge, Massachusetts
I’ll admit the Chicago Tribune isn’t exactly run by Einsteins, Brian, but let’s not be so quick to dismiss this cloning stuff. A specimen of the woolly mammoth really was discovered in Siberia in 1977. In 1980 Soviet scientists said they were trying to clone a live animal from the preserved cells, but a year later they conceded the attempt had been a failure. The grain of truth is what made the Technology Review spoof so convincing.
I see how they bottle beer, but how do they get beer into cans? –Peter Cholak, Madison, Wisconsin
First they put the beer in, then they put the top of the can on. I swear, you must be the only person in Wisconsin who’s never taken a brewery tour.
Reliable sources have informed me of the LSD-like properties of nutmeg. Eat sufficient quantities, they say, and you trip. One dude told me he washed down about 15 grams with OJ and a Skor bar and when he woke up, he was high. I followed the formula dutifully and nothing happened. What’s the dope? –James Como, Bronxville, New York
Elvis, Aerosmith, and now nutmeg. If you post-baby boomers are tired of this ancient history, don’t blame me–you’re the ones who keep bringing it up. According to Hal Morgan and Kerry Tucker, authors of a book called Rumor! (a splendid volume, if not quite as grand in scope as More of the Straight Dope), nutmeg does have hallucinogenic properties, if you eat enough. The high lasts about 24 hours. Unfortunately, the side effects include nausea, dehydration, and generalized body pain. Stick to Jim Beam.
Does an airplane have a lighter load after the passengers have consumed their rubber chicken and plastic vegetables? –R.C., Evanston, Illinois
Some of the mail I get these days is just unbelievable. Food doesn’t cease to exist merely because somebody swallowed it, beanbrain. The only time a plane’s mass decreases is if something gets dumped out or falls off, e.g., an engine, a cabin superstructure, etc. Next time ask something a little more challenging, like whether, if a passenger tosses a baseball into the air, the plane’s weight decreases by the weight of the baseball (5 to 5 1/4 ounces, for you sticklers). Amazing answer on request.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.