10 Facts that Sound Completely Unrealistic, but are Actually True

In this age of information, we are constantly bombarded with astounding claims that try to convince us of things that might or might not be true in reality. While many of us do spend a minute or two to verify them, these claims, even false ones, more often than not still survive in the world of the Internet. One such example is the claim that astronauts of Apollo 11 were required to sign customs declaration after landing which was debunked on NASA’s Facebook page. Despite many such claims circulating on the Internet, we did manage to find some facts that sound completely unrealistic but are actually true.

1. In 1987, American Airlines saved $40,000 by removing one olive from every salad served to their first class passengers. 

Olives
Image Source: K’m

Getting rid of something redundant is one of the many ways companies cut their costs and improve efficiency. In one such example, American Airlines found that while many of their passengers do eat their salads, most of them ignore the olives. Robert Crandall, who was the head of the airlines back then, decided to forego serving the olives saving tens of thousands.

In a similar move, Southwest Airlines decided in 1994 not to print their logo on their rubbish bags saving $300,000 annually. United Airlines removed refresher towels for short-distance flights and also grapefruit juice, which was less popular than orange juice, from its bar menu saving a total of 200 million dollars. (1, 2)

2. Drowning, not thirst, is the leading cause of accidental deaths in the Sahara Desert, or any other desert in general. 

Flash Floods in Libyan Desert
Image Source: Syed Wali Peeran

Though deserts often invoke pictures of extreme heat and lack of water to the mind, they are not strangers to rains and flowing streams known as arroyos and wadis. These streams are dry throughout the year except when it rains. Unfortunately, rains in deserts are sudden, infrequent, and heavy often resulting in flash floods. One of the storms in the Sahara delivered a record 44 millimeters of rain in just three hours, and large storms there are capable of delivering up to one millimeter of rain per minute.

As deserts don’t have the kind of water drainage present in places with regular rains and the rains fall too quickly for the dry, clay-like soil to absorb, there is an excessive amount of water overflow. The sandy deserts pose a different kind of threat: quicksands and sandstorms. When the sand becomes saturated with water, it becomes a semi-liquid substance that is difficult to escape. If it’s not the rains, it’s the sand itself that drowns the people. Sandstorms can reach as high as 1.6 kilometers (0.99 miles) and can be devastating. (1, 2)

3. If you could fold a newspaper in half 103 times, it would be thicker than the width of the observable universe. 

Assume that it is possible to fold a paper in half 103 times and that you are using a copy paper which is one-tenth of a millimeter thick. Folding it once would make the thickness 0.1 x 2 or 0.2 millimeters, twice would make it 0.1 x 22 or 0.4 millimeters, thrice is 0.1 x 23 or 0.8 millimeters, and so on.

If you fold it seven times the thickness will be 0.1 x 27 or 128 millimeters, or the size of a book with 128 pages. If you fold it 10 times, it will be as wide as your hand. If you fold it 23 times, the thickness is 0.1 x 223 millimeters or 0.8 kilometers.

The numbers start getting unbelievable as you go higher. Fold it 30 times, and you are in space 107 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Fold it 42 times (439,804 kilometers), and you are past the moon which is only 384,400 away. Fold it 51 times (225 million kilometers), and you are half way to Jupiter (588 million kilometers) or way past the Sun (149.6 million kilometers).

If you fold it 83 times, the thickness is 967 million kilometers or 102,226 light-years. and that’s wider than the Milky Way which is 100,000 light-years across. Now, if you can manage to fold it 103 times, you will reach a thickness of one billion quadrillion kilometers and that is 107 billion light-years while the observable universe is 93 billion light-years across. (1, 2)

4. In a room with 23 people, there is a 50% chance of two of them having the same birthday. If there are 70 people, it increases to 99.9%. 

Birthday Problem
Image Source: Sander van der Wel

The birthday problem or the birthday paradox is a probability theory that determines the chances of two people having the same birthday among a certain number of people. According to English mathematician W.W. Rouse Ball, the problem was first discussed by Harold Davenport who was known for his extensive work on number theory.

The birthday problem is based on the mathematical principle known as the pigeonhole principle which states that if n objects are to be put in m containers, and n is a bigger number than m, then it follows to reason that at least one container will have more than one object.

Since there are only 366 possible birthdays, including February 29,  and assuming that each day of the year has an equal chance of being a birthday, 50% probability is reached with 23 people and it just requires 70 people to reach 99.9% probability. A 100% is reached when there are 367 people. The birthday paradox is used in a cryptographic attack known as the birthday attack which uses the same model to reduce the complexity in finding ways to circumvent security. (source)

5. In 1956, a man who witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s assassination shared his experience on a TV game show known as I’ve Got A Secret

On February 9, 1956, 96-year-old Samuel James Seymour appeared on an episode of the CBS TV panel show despite his failing health and a large swollen knot he received after falling down a flight of stairs. The program included rounds of guessing games in which the panel would try to find out the contestant’s “secret.”

The first to question was panelist Bill Cullen who, taking into account Seymour’s age, quickly figured out that the secret was indirectly connected to the Civil War and was of political nature involving an important political figure. Another panelist Jayne Meadows guessed that the political figure was Lincoln and that Seymour had witnessed the assassination.

Abraham Lincoln and Samuel J. Seymour
Image Source: Alexander Gardner, Denise Gill

On the night of April 14, 1865, five-year-old Seymour went to see Our American Cousin in Ford’s Theater with his father’s employer’s wife. They sat across the balcony from the one Lincoln was in, and Seymour saw him waving and smiling at people. Suddenly they heard a shot fired and a scream from the President’s box.

Seymour didn’t witness the actual assassination but saw Lincoln slumped forward in the seat and the assassin John Wilkes jumping off the balcony. He said that he was at first concerned about Wilkes who fell out of the balcony as he did not know Lincoln was shot or that it was Wilkes who did it. Seymour died two months after his appearance on the show. (source)

6. Pigeons, both male and female, produce milk to feed their hatchlings. 

The milk produced by pigeons and doves is known as “crop milk,” and unlike mammalian milk, it is a pale-yellow, semi-solid substance. Crop milk is extremely high in protein and fats, more than the amounts seen in cow or human milk. But, just like mammalian milk, contains antioxidants and immune-enhancing factors.

During the first week, the adults stop feeding to keep the milk free from seeds which the squabs or baby pigeons or doves won’t be able to digest. In the second week, the parents introduce a small portion of seeds softened by crop milk, and by the third week, completely softened, adult food is introduced. Flamingos and penguins also produce a substance similar to crop milk to feed their young. (source)

7. Humans used to hunt animals by simply chasing them until they were exhausted. Humans are the most efficient endurance runners in the world and can outrun any animal given enough distance. 

Le Moustier Neanderthals by Charles R. Knight
Image Source: Charles R. Knight

Though most animals can run faster than humans at short distances, using endurance running or long-distance running as a hunting strategy is only seen among humans and a few animals such as grey wolves, African wild dogs, lungless spiders, and spotted hyenas.

Running expends a lot of energy and also increases body temperature. But, in order for the body to function normally, it needs to lose the heat which animals do by panting and humans by sweating. Sweating, and having relatively no hair on the body, acts as an effective means for thermoregulation and gives humans an edge over animals while running, with the exception of horses.

Endurance Running
Image Source: Fanny Schertzer

Persistence hunting is still practiced by hunters and gatherers in Sahara Desert, Kalahari Desert, and Northwestern Mexico. Scientists hypothesize that bipedalism in humans was a result of endurance running by hominins who would have found it difficult to catch prey over only short distances. (source)

8. The largest star’s radius is about the same as the distance from the center of the Sun to Jupiter.

VY Canis Majoris and Jupiter's Orbit
Image Source: Anynobody

The pulsating, red, hypergiant VY Canis Majoris was first observed on March 7, 1801, by the French astronomer Jérôme Lalande. Further observations found that the star has been dying since 1850 and so was described as the “crimson star.” With a radius between 1,800 to 2,100 times that of the Sun and almost 500,000 times the luminosity of the Sun, it is one of the most luminous and largest stars ever discovered up to now. The star is so massive that if it was put at the center of the Solar System, its outer surface would extend beyond the orbit of Jupiter and even Saturn according to some estimates. (1, 2)

9. A quarter of all animal species are beetles.

Coleoptera at the Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde Karlsruhe, Germany
Image Source: H. Zell

While there are over 36,000 species of vertebrates including the 9,040 species of birds and 4,000 species of mammals, scientists believe there are as many as 1.5 to 10 million species of invertebrates with some estimates reaching even 30 million. Of all the animals species, 75% are insects. With 400,000 to 500,000 species, the beetles make 40% of all known insect species and 25% of all known animal species. (1, 2)

10. No one can actually determine the length of any coastlines because as the unit of measurement gets smaller, the length becomes infinite. 

Richardson Effect or Coastline Paradox
Image Source: wikipedia

Also known as the coastline paradox, the phenomenon was first observed by Lewis Fry Richardson, an English mathematician, physicist, and psychologist, who decided to find out a relation between the probability of two countries going to a war and the length of their border. However, when he collected the data, he found that there is considerable variation between each published length.

As can be seen from the above image, the length of Britain’s coastline increases as the length of the ruler decreases. It is easy to suppose that at some point it would stop and that you could measure the true length of the coastline, but Richardson proved that the measured length of coastlines, or any such natural features for that matter, increases as the unit of measurement becomes smaller because of their fractal-like properties.

 

Koch Snowflake Fractal
Image Source: Leofun01

Fractals are curves that increase in complexity as you look closer, and their “true length” always goes to infinity. They are found everywhere in nature, and some of the examples include river networks, snowflakes, mountain ranges, animal color patterns, ocean waves, blood vessels, and flowers. (source)

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