Steve April 2, 2021
did-you-know?-mathematician-sophie-germain-‘borrowed’-an-identity

By Alexander McNamara and Matt Hambly

Sophie Germain

In the city of Paris, 1794, French mathematician Sophie Germain swerved the École Polytechnique’s ban on women by assuming the identity of a male student who had left. She was able to conduct her studies by taking over his lecture notes and submitting work under his name, only to be rumbled when a professor demanded to meet this young scholar whose work had suddenly improved so dramatically. Luckily for her (and for mathematics), he was sufficiently enlightened to encourage her further, and in 1816 she became the first woman to win a prize from France’s Royal Academy of Sciences.

World Autism Awareness Day is recognised on 2 April

An autistic boy playing with little car toys

Megapress / Alamy

In 2007, to highlight the issues faced by autistic people around the world, the United Nations General Assembly signed a resolution that 2 April every year would be recognised as World Autism Awareness Day.

Autism is a condition that influences how people perceive the world, which can affect communication and understanding of social stimuli. However, understanding of autism has been skewed by an overly medical focus, says Anna Remington, head of the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London, in a 2018 interview with New Scientist. Autism, says Remington, can bring extra abilities and the differences it produces could just represent diversity.

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Preserving snakes in brandy funded one scientist’s research

Maria Sybilla Merian on the 500 Deutsche mark note

Naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian was well into her 50s when she set sail for South America, spending two years studying wildlife in Suriname. To recoup her costs, she preserved crocodiles, iguanas and snakes in brandy to sell to rich collectors. She was a meticulous observer, and during her trip she recorded the habits and life cycles of insects, devising a classification system still admired today. She has six plants, nine butterflies and two beetles named after her.

Triassic dinosaurs weren’t very big

The Triassic period

Mohamad Haghani / Alamy

The Triassic period started 252 million years ago after the Permian-Triassic extinction event, and in the 50 million years before the next extinction event, huge reptiles evolved and ruled the planet. One particularly fearsome species known as the rauisuchians stretched 9 metres from nose to tail with teeth like steak knives. However, the dinosaurs that existed at the time were much smaller creatures, many not much bigger than a cow. Though they were lacking in stature, some had some unusual features, like Tanystropheus, with a neck twice as long as its body.

We can maintain relationships with only around 150 friends

What is Dunbar’s number?

Clare Jackson / Alamy

Although the number of friends on your Facebook profile might be a long way north of 500, there is a natural upper limit to the number of people you can maintain a stable social relationship with. This is known as Dunbar’s number, and it plays out in many more situations than you might realise. For example, historically it was the average size of English villages, the ideal size for church parishes, and the size of the basic military unit, the company.

There is also a correlation between primate brain size and the size of their social groups. Extrapolate this relationship to the size of a human brain and guess where that leads us? Yes,  around 150 social contacts.

Mount Everest’s summit would be 2 kilometres underwater at the ocean’s deepest spot

How deep is the Mariana trench?

Alexmumu/Getty Images

At its deepest point, in an area known as the Challenger Deep, the Mariana trench plunges to a depth of 10,984 metres (36,037 feet) below sea level. This is roughly the same distance below the waves that commercial airliners fly above them, and if Mount Everest were to start at the ocean’s lowest point, at 8849 metres it would still be more than 2000 metres below the surface.

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