Posts filed under “Science & Nature”


Dear Dr. Boli: This fancy-pants toothpaste from the organic drug store says it contains activated charcoal. How do they activate charcoal? —Sincerely, A Man Reconsidering the Notion of Putting Black Toothpaste on His Toothbrush.

Dear Sir: Modern charcoal is usually activated by entering an activation code supplied by the manufacturer, which allows the charcoal to be activated by central servers. This precaution is necessary to prevent the chaos that would ensue if everybody could make charcoal without purchasing it from a reputable manufacturer. In the old days, of course, the activation code had to be sent by telegram, on receipt of which the manufacturer would dispatch a courier to the customer’s address with the activation key. It was a dangerous business being a charcoal activation courier, as they were frequently waylaid by miscreants who would stop at nothing to obtain the keys. For this as for at least one other reason (viz., the Magazine you are reading now), we may be grateful that we live in the age of the Internet.


In spite of centuries of ecclesiastical tradition, no one in France can say exactly what an abbé is.

Three copies of the Book of Common Prayer always appear in each pew at the Third Assembly of God Church on Bracket Street just before the service every Sunday, no matter how vigilant the ushers attempt to be.

Until the advent of social media it was not known that fish crows in Smyrna, Delaware, call in exact synchronization with fish crows in Ahoskie, North Carolina.

Zoologists studying the behavior of common groundhogs (Marmota monax) have been forced to entertain the possibility that the creatures can bilocate.

Traveling due east from Grundy, Virginia, places the traveler in West Virginia, and no one knows why.


Meliponine bees, though stingless, defend themselves very effectively with sarcasm.

In a fascinating example of a symbiotic relationship, the Likwangbala lightning bug cannot attract a mate unless it is followed at a suitable interval by the Likwangbala thunder beetle.

Monarch butterflies actually have a republican form of government.

Xingu army ants practice a sort of husbandry, raising and tending a particular species of aphids to serve in their brass bands.

The intricate aerial dance of gnats can be fatally disrupted by playing ragtime music on a banjo nearby.

After exhaustive studies of their aerial maneuvers, entomologists have determined that dragonflies are big showoffs.


Dr. Boli is in the habit of leaving no stone unturned when there is information to be sought. Most of the time he finds potato bugs, but now and then he does stumble across the thing he was looking for. In this case, he has found a German translation of the book Regnum Congo, Hoc est Vera descriptio regni Africani, quod tam ab incolis quam Lusitanis Congus appellatur (The Kingdom of Congo; that is, a True Description of the African Kingdom, Which by the Natives as Well as by the Portuguese is Called Congo), from which he took the de Bry brothers’ illustration of a Zebra two days ago. The German translation uses the same cuts, and the owner did in fact have them hand-colored. Unfortunately the text that described the Zebra was in the vernacular language of the colorist, so he was able to follow the description explicitly. Still, the result, you will certainly agree, is striking.


Behold the zebra. No animal is so easily recognized today; every child of four can point out a zebra in a book.

But suppose you had never seen a zebra. Suppose you had only heard a description of it. You have been told that it is a striped horse; that the stripes are black and white and brown; that they are arranged on the side of the animal proceeding from the back down toward the breast in hemicycle fashion; that the head and legs are striped as well. This is not a bad description of the zebra (except, arguably, for the brown stripes; but zebras do come in multiple patterns).

Now you are told to draw a zebra from that description. What will you come up with?

Well, this, of course.

This is how the zebra was imagined by the celebrated de Bry brothers for a book about the Congo in 1598. Given the information they had to work with, it is not at all a bad guess.

Now, many owners of luxury illustrated books in the Renaissance had the engravings hand colored. Suppose you were given the assignment of coloring this engraving. You have only the engraving to work from. The description of the animal is on the same page, but it is in Latin, which is Greek to you. How will you color it?

First, of course, you will shade the landscape with light watercolor washes, like this:

Zebra (1598) colored reduced

So far the results are typical. But we have avoided the problem. What are we to do with the zebra? We know only what we see in the engraving, and we have to imagine what the colors might be.

Under these conditions, Dr. Boli can imagine only one outcome:



From Dr. Boli’s Scientific Journal.

“Peer-Reviewed for Your Protection.”

Although Dr. Boli himself contributed much in the early stages of the work (a private trans-Atlantic cable having been laid for the telegraphic correspondence involved), it was really Charles Darwin who earned the title of father of the theory of Natural Selection. Nevertheless, Dr. Boli has continued the work more actively than his friend Darwin, being deceased, has been able to do; and furthermore, whereas many other researchers have been content to examine Evolution from a merely historical perspective, Dr. Boli has concentrated his attention on practical applications.

It has long been the dream of every self-described “nutritionist” to discover the perfect human diet: the regimen that will lead to optimum health and longevity. This can only be achieved by discovering the foods that human beings were adapted to eat.

A brief explanation will suffice. Natural selection, that marvelously efficient mechanism of creation, ensures that every creature is perfectly adapted for consuming the food that best sustains it. Thus, for example, hummingbirds have long bills perfectly adapted to probing the nectar-bearing spurs of sweet flowers; anteaters have snouts and tongues perfectly adapted to rooting out ants; herring gulls have beaks perfectly adapted to snatching bags of potato chips from unwary beachgoers; and so on. Each creature is necessarily endowed not only with the equipment for consuming its perfect food, but also with the instinct to seek that food.

Nature creates nothing in vain; everything has a purpose. It is clear, then, that the human sense of taste must have its purpose, and that that purpose must be to identify for us which foods we ought to eat and which things are not in fact food. This is the astonishingly simple solution to the problem that has baffled nutritionists for generations. Pure reason shines its light where countless ridiculously contrived studies and metastudies have only deepened the darkness.

To eat a perfect diet, we must eat exclusively food that tastes good.

As an illustration, observe the following two lists:

Things that taste good:

Fresh blueberries
Yunnan tea
Stilton cheese
Stayman apples
Rhone wine
Home-grown tomatoes
Whole-grain bread

Things that don’t taste good:

Sewing machines
Plastic bags
Light bulbs
Aluminum siding

Now observe that we could, without altering the lists at all, change the headings above the lists to “Things That Are Healthy to Eat” and “Things That Are Not Healthy to Eat.” The correspondence is perfect. Things that taste good are things that are healthy to eat. It follows, of course, that the things that taste best are the healthiest to eat.

The Darwin Diet, which Dr. Boli has named for his fondly remembered friend, consists, therefore, in making use of the adaptations by which Natural Selection has ensured the survival of our species. To follow the Darwin Diet, one must restrict one’s food intake to things that taste good, ruthlessly rejecting everything that does not taste good. By this entirely natural method the body may be brought to the peak of health.

Much more work remains to be done. The principle has been established, but Dr. Boli will not rest until he has been able to compile a list of the things that, according to this revolutionary discovery, are healthiest for the body. He has an Ethiopian restaurant on his research schedule this evening, and an Italian bakery tomorrow morning, and he will be keeping careful notes.


From the Wikipedia article on “Elf”:

From a scientific viewpoint, elves are not considered objectively real.[2]

2. Hall (2007), pp. 8–9, 168–69.

One likes to imagine this very careful wording and accompanying citation as the result of a three-month edit war which finally sent a Wikipedian looking for a reliable up-to-date reference that explicitly stated that elves are not real and explained exactly what was meant by “not real.”