Author: Alan Bellows

Alan Bellows is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Fluid Identity

When a caterpillar enters the chrysalis stage, it is not merely sprouting wings to become a moth or butterfly. Enzymes inside the chrysalis completely dissolve the entire caterpillar—brain, organs, and all—into a nutrient-rich slurry of protein. Only a few cells remain alive. Once the caterpillar has self-digested, an alternate section of DNA inside the few remaining living cells is expressed, and the cells use the nutrient soup to multiply and develop the new organism. In essence the animal is a chimera; the caterpillar lives and dies, and an entirely new organism emerges from its remains.

Astonishingly, in spite of the radical liquefication of the original organism and its entire nervous system, some memories survive the transition. Researchers at Georgetown University have found that they can train caterpillars to avoid particular odors by associating them with a mild electric shock. After these trained caterpillars metamorphosized into moths they continued to avoid the shock-associated odors, demonstrating some kind of as-yet-inexplicable memory retention from the larval stage.

The Voyager Golden Record Experience

Happy Halloween! This has nothing to do with Halloween.

In 1977, in response to a fortuitous alignment of the outer planets of our solar system, NASA launched space probes Voyager 1 and 2 to tour the outer planets and transmit photographs back to Earth. In that capacity the Voyagers were spectacularly successful, sending tens of thousands of images of planets and moons back to Earth via radio. Both probes passed beyond the orbit of Pluto in the late 1980s, and they continue on toward interstellar space traveling at approximately 37,000 mph (almost 60,000 kph). They continue to transmit data back to Earth, and are expected to do so until around 2025, when their radioisotope thermoelectric generators will be exhausted, and unable to power any instruments.

In 40,000 years or so, Voyager 1 will pass within 1.6 light-years of the star Gliese 445, and at around the same time Voyager 2 will be within 1.7 light-years of the star Ross 248. If either of these systems happen to be home to an advanced alien civilization, there’s a chance they will detect and retrieve one of our plucky nuclear space robots.

In anticipation of the possibility of such proxy contact, NASA mission designers affixed a message from humanity to the side of each probe in the form of a phonograph record. These gold-plated copper records each contain an identical compilation of sounds and music from all over the Earth, as well as analog-encoded images. In the event that one of the probes is ever discovered by an intelligent alien species, the included instructions will hopefully allow them to decode the sounds and sights of our civilization.

We at Damn Interesting have put together an online simulation of what an alien civilization might see and hear upon decoding one of the records, assuming that their seeing and hearing abilities are similar to our own. For the best experience, a laptop or desktop screen size is recommended. We share these sounds and images under the “fair use” exception to copyright law due to the historical significance of the media. You can launch the interactive now, or read on for more background and technical detail.


Ten Minutes in Lituya Bay

In 1952, geologist Don Miller was conducting a petroleum investigation in the region surrounding the Gulf of Alaska when he encountered a vaguely disquieting geological anomaly. While surveying a remote fjord known as Lituya Bay, Miller found that the dense, mature forest that surrounded the bay ended abruptly hundreds of feet upslope of the water. There was some vegetation growing below the distinct line, but it was all upstart grasses, saplings, and such. It was clear that at some point in recent history, an unknown, massive force had scraped the shores clean, and the vegetation was only beginning to reclaim the land.

There was no evidence that a fire had passed through—none of the surviving trees were charred, nor were the few remaining tree stumps. Instead, it appeared that the trees had been bent and twisted away by some powerful lateral force. The damage resembled a “trimline” like those left behind when a glacier recedes, exposing a line of bare rock alongside vegetation, but there was no glacier in a location that would account for it. A tsunami could also theoretically cause such destruction, but the boundary was much farther upshore than any tsunami in recorded history. Upon investigating further, Miller discovered other, older trimlines around the bay, suggesting that the destructive event had occurred multiple times prior, each a few decades apart. This was not typical bay behavior.

Miller interviewed some people familiar with the area, and heard tales of “cataclysmic floods” and such. He sliced samples from the trees along the edge of the old growth and saw signs of blunt trauma. He left Alaska still contemplating hypotheses, and he ended up writing a paper putting forward some possibilities. But the origin of the distinct damage would remain a geological mystery until five years later, when humans had the unsought opportunity to witness the cause of the terrifying phenomenon firsthand.

Titan the Bolts

On 18 September 1980, an Air Force airman was conducting routine maintenance high in the missile silo at a Titan II nuclear launch complex in Arkansas. In the course of his work he lost his grip on a large ratchet socket, and it tumbled into the depths of the silo. After falling approximately 80 feet it impacted one of the nuclear missile’s propellant tanks, causing a small rupture and leak.

After assessing the severity of the leak, Air Force personnel decided to evacuate the facility. Within the hour they decided to also evacuate nearby civilian residents. Early the following morning, just after the last two airmen emerged from the silo, the fuel-saturated atmosphere inside exploded, blowing the 740-ton launch door 200 feet into the air. One of the two men who had just emerged died of injuries sustained in the blast, the other was injured. The missile’s nuclear warhead was found about 100 feet from the launch complex’s entry gate, but very fortunately its safeties were intact and there was no loss of radioactive material, nor localized atomic devastation.

Rather than repairing the launch complex—estimated at $225,322,670—the Air Force decided to bulldoze surrounding soil, gravel, concrete debris into the hole and retire the site. On 18 February 2000, Titan II Missile Launch Complex 374-7 Site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Unpresidented Situation

Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington
Gilbert Stuart Williamstown Portrait of George Washington

The framers of the United States Constitution explicitly forbade the United States from granting titles of nobility in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8, also known as the Title of Nobility Clause. Hence, shortly after winning independence, when it came time to decide how to refer to their leader George Washington, there was considerable controversy.

Senators desired a title that would endow George Washington with prestige when signing treaties and meeting foreign dignitaries. The Senate contemplated such options as “King Washington”, “His Elective Majesty Washington”, “Chief Magistrate Washington”, and “His Highness Washington.” The House of Representatives, on the other hand, rejected such pretentious titles as ill-suited for the “the nature of our Government.” They desired a simple title to curtail the ego of the republic’s leader.

Following weeks of argument, the Senate finally accepted the House’s tentative suggestion of “President,” a decidedly undistinguished term which theretofore referred to someone who presided over meetings like the foreman in a jury or a moderator in a debate. The Senate made it clear that they objected to the title and agreed only as a temporary measure. They intended to re-open the discussion when time permitted.

Today over 140 countries refer to their chief executive as “President.” As of 2016, 226 years after the debate, the US Senate has still not formally endorsed the title.

Law Suit

In 1993, in an effort to avoid bad press, a zoo in Toluca, Mexico sought to quickly and quietly replace a gorilla that had died under their care. A group of officials from Mexico, including Victor Bernal, the director of zoos and parks for the interior state of Mexico, toured zoos in the Miami area inspecting potential replacements. Upon identifying their ape of choice, the officials paid $92,500 for the animal, in clear violation of trade laws. The deal included false permits from an illicit primate dealer in Miami. The officials were told to expect delivery of the animal the following Monday.

At the Opa-Locka airport in Florida, the trio of smugglers took possession of one (1) large cage stamped “Live Animal” which contained one (1) gorilla. But Bernal and his two accomplices soon discovered that the Americans had sent the wrong species of ape. This cage contained a human—a US Fish and Wildlife agent diabolically disguised in a gorilla suit. The smugglers and their party were promptly arrested for trafficking in endangered primates.

Poster Child

In 1935, Sonne ins Haus (The Sun in the Home) was one of the few magazines allowed to circulate in Nazi Germany. The illustrated magazine was largely devoted to publishing photos of German families, including one issue whose cover featured the “the most beautiful Aryan baby,” a photograph which came to represent the Nazi ideal for years to come.

The trouble was that the pictured baby was Hessy Levinsons, the child of Jewish parents. The Levinsons had hired a photographer to take pictures of their baby in 1934, and Nazi officials had subsequently asked many of the country’s photographers to submit their ten best baby photos. They selected the photograph of Hessy to become the Nazi poster child, unaware that the child did not at all fit the “Aryan” definition. When Hessy’s parents realized what had happened, they kept quiet out of fear of reprisal, and the truth was not made public until years after World War 2.

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