The Truth Is Out There. WAY Out There.

July 14, 2000

For those of you without basic cable, or who may simply be unfamiliar with the term, cryptozoologists are scientists who search for animals whose existence is disputed, such as the Himalayan yetis or the New England mothmen. The term combines "zoology", which is Greek for "study of life", and "crypto", which is Greek for "load of crap".

Whether you believe ’em or not, you have to admire cryptozoologists. These are, mostly, intelligent, dedicated people, willing to sacrifice money, reputations, and even friends in order to prove that the evidence of Bigfoot’s existence is "inconclusive." These are people whose careers consist of being featured in tongue-in-cheek documentaries on basic cable (and PBS in its trashier moments). And in some cases these are people who are willing to ignore all scientific evidence and instead take at face value the unverifiable report of a couple of drunk fishermen.

Admittedly, cryptozoologists were responsible for finding the Vietnamese pseudo-oryx, but they haven’t gotten a clear picture of a Jersey Devil, found a Patagonian ogopogo skeleton, or gotten Champy to come up for a big hunk of fishbait and a photo op. They haven’t even figured out how the vicious, tragophilic chupacabra, indigenous to Central American folklore, made it all the way to Moscow, although some suspect it may have been disguised as a first-class airline passenger.

Admittedly, some of these scientists do work at MIT, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, whose tuition rates are so high partly because it lets cryptozoologists "borrow" (or "destroy") equipment. And those documentaries can be pretty interesting, especially when the scientists are one day away from incontrovertible proof that a giant reptile is living in a cold Northern lake that’s barely able to sustain a small population of minnows, or when the brontosaurus is only a half mile away. Of course that’s when the funding runs out. Even the most dedicated scientist can’t be bothered to walk a half mile without funding. Then it’s time to pack up the broken equipment and head back to MIT to work on other projects, such as a camera that doesn’t jiggle wildly and underexpose everything.

Cryptozoologists are always secure in the knowledge that, next year, they’ll be able to return to the same spot with even more valuable equipment, which they’ll unfortunately drive over in the parking lot.

Enjoy this week’s offerings.

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

"Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer."

One student replied:

"You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building."

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case. The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer which showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought.

The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use.

On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

"Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer."

"Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper."

"But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T=2 pi sqroot (l / g)."

"Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up."

"If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building."

"But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’."

The student was Niels Bohr, the only person from Denmark to win the Nobel prize for Physics.

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