Aired: 6 October 2014 at 6.30pm, BBC Radio 4
Curator: Phill Jupitus
Steering Committee: Jimmy Wales, Kees Moeliker and Helen Keen
Founder of Wikipedia
Jimmy ‘Jimbo’ Wales is the co-founder and promoter of Wikipedia; the largest repository of information that there has ever been. With entries on more than 20 million subjects looked at by more than 450 million people per month, Wikipedia is one of a handful of Internet successes that have significantly changed our lives. It is one of the five most visited websites worldwide and yet it is not-for-profit, and as Wales said of it:
'Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing.'
Time magazine named him in its 2006 list of 'The 100 Most Influential People in the World'.
Jimmy Wales was born in Huntsville, Alabama, one of four children whose father managed a grocery store. Their mother was a teacher in the tiny primary school run by their grandmother, where the Wales children were pupils. He was left to his own devices for much of his education and he spent a lot of time reading the World Book Encyclopaedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica.
After school came a degree in finance, then a Master’s at the University of Alabama and plans for a Ph.D., but he didn’t see it through. Instead he joined a futures and options trading firm in Chicago, making enough money to keep him comfortable for some years and learning in his spare time to write computer code. He dabbled with creating an early form of web portal called Bomis but then returned to his first love, encyclopaedias. This time he did it online, first with a project called Nupedia.
Nupedia involved entries being reviewed by experts but this proved to be very time consuming. Wales recollects attempting to write a Nupedia article on Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert C. Merton, but being too intimidated to submit his first draft to the prestigious finance professors who were to peer review it, even though he was comfortable with the subject matter. He says that this was the moment he realised that Nupedia wasn’t going to work.
He was then introduced to Wikis, pages that can be edited by anyone, and Wikipedia was born.
He is married to Tony Blair’s former diary secretary, Kate Garvey.
The whole thing about Wikipedia is that it works on a radical assumption, which is that mostly people are okay.
Kees Moeliker is the chief curator of the Natural History Museum, Rotterdam, and ‘European Bureau Chief’ for The Annals Of Improbable Research magazine.
A keen twitcher, when he was just 13 years old he sighted the first Egyptian goose ever seen in the Rotterdam area. He studied biology and geography, and - as a student - got deeply involved in the population-ecology study of the House Sparrow.
Following a succession of jobs including assistant-butcher, English teacher in Istanbul, nature guide in Costa Rica and biology teacher at several high schools, he was appointed education officer at the Natural History Museum, Rotterdam, in 1989. As an ornithologist his main achievements are the rediscovery of ‘long lost’ birds such as the Black-chinned Monarch on the remote Moluccan island of Boano and Bruijn’s brush-turkey on the Papuan island of Waigeo.
Flying mammals also interest him. He collected and subsequently described a new subspecies of fruit bat endemic to the remote West-Papuan island of Boo. Closer to home, he secured and preserved the remains of the ‘Domino Sparrow’ that was shot in the Netherlands in November 2005 after it threatened to ruin a domino-toppling world record attempt. The bird’s dramatic death caused public outrage. The mounted specimen is now an ‘icon of Dutch culture’, and one of the museum’s most remarkable pieces.
In 2007, alerted by a medical report about the local decline of the pubic louse, Moeliker campaigned to collect and preserve ‘the last of the pubic lice’ for the collection of the Natural History Museum where specimens of Phthirus pubis were lacking.
In 1995 he was the first person to witness and write a paper about homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. In 2003, his publication earned him an Ig Nobel biology prize. Since then ‘the duck guy’ has appeared annually on stage at the Ig Nobel prize ceremony in Boston and is a regular performer during the annual Ig Nobel Tour of the UK. He leads the celebrations for Dead Duck Day on June 5th every year, usually with a ceremony held underneath a plaque on the window where the unfortunate duck met its demise.
Besides his work on birds, bats, natural history and improbable research, he is an avid collector of (top quality) binoculars.
The pubic louse is found in pubic hair, but may also live in eyelashes.
One louse has made it onto the Red List of Endangered Species (the pygmy hog sucking louse - Haematopinus oliveri).
Some biologists think that co-extinction - where the extinction of one species causes that of another - is the most common form of biodiversity loss.
A genetic analysis of pubic lice suggests the parasites were transferred between early humans and gorillas about 3.3 million years ago. It is far more likely that early humans caught the lice from sleeping in abandoned gorilla nests than from having sex with gorillas.
Pubic lice do not have feet.
Between 2002 and 2010, 335 people visited A&E in America with injuries related to pubic hair grooming.
The "grandfather of louse research" is Henry Ewing. He once pulled lice from a spider monkey at the National Zoo in Washington DC and let it suck blood from his own arm. It promptly died, suggesting that lice were so exquisitely adapted to their host they could not survive on another species.
Head lice from geographical areas where the population has dark skin or dark hair, have more pigment than head lice from areas with a population of lighter skin and blond hair. It’s for camouflage, of course.
The total number of parasites to live on humans is unknown, but even if you just take worms, there are 342 known species living in humans.
The human body hosts 100 trillion (mostly benign) bacteria. Every body hosts at least 10,000 different species, contributing up to five pounds to body weight.
One of the most common parasites in Africa is the guinea worm which can grow 3 feet long and can only be removed by attracting it to wrap itself around a stick before slowly winding it out. Some think that this procedure is the origin of the Rod of Asclepius, the thing that signifies medicine.
The live duck mounted the dead duck...I said, 'Something's wrong here.' One is dead, one is alive...Both are of the male sex. Homosexual necrophilia.
Jack Parsons was one of the most important people in the development of rocketry in the United States. All solid rocket fuel work today is essentially a modification of Parsons’s work. He was also a noted occultist.
Marvel Whiteside ‘Jack’ Parsons was born in Los Angeles on the day that Charles Taze Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, announced that the apocalypse would begin - October 2nd 1914. He was bullied at school and supposedly started invoking Satan at the age of 13.
Parsons worked with a group of rocket scientists at the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory, California Institute of Technology (GALCIT), which would later become NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. Before each experiment, Parsons would invoke the spirit of Pan, the horned god of fertility.
Parsons obtained seven patents for solid and liquid fuels that would form the basis of NASA’s space missions. He was often called as an explosives expert to courtroom trials.
One of Parsons’s lectures inspired a young Ray Bradbury.
Parsons and his wife became part of OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis), a masonic-styled organisation under the leadership of Aleister Crowley. Parsons became second only to Crowley called himself the Antichrist.
In 1942, Parsons and his wife Helen moved into a huge house in Pasadena. Police were called on a number of occasions, with accusations of sodomy, sex orgies etc, but Parsons used his standing as an eminent rocket scientist in defence.
One of Parson’s aims was to create a Moonchild, a “little man” who would be “more powerful than all the kings of the world’ and who, it was hoped, would bring on the apocalypse.
After divorcing Helen, Parsons encouraged his new love, Betty (sister of first wife Helen) to take other lovers. She then set up a contract with L Ron Hubbard and Parsons to pool their earnings. But it was a con and Parsons was left penniless.
On Jun 17 1952 Parsons accidentally knocked over an extremely volatile mixture. He stretched to catch the concoction which blew off his entire right forearm, broke his other arm and both legs, blew a hole in his jaw and was heard up to a mile away. Parsons died 37 minutes later, saying “I wasn’t done.” His mother committed suicide immediately after hearing the news.
In 1972, the International Astronomical Union honored parsons by naming a crater on the “dark side” (i.e. the far side) of the moon after him.
Helen Keen is an award winning comedy writer and performer. She began her career by winning the first Channel 4 New Comedy Writing prize, and wrote material for various established TV and radio shows. As a performer she toured the country with Robin Ince and Prof. Brian Cox as a guest of the Uncaged Monkeys (the live version of Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage which she has also appeared on several times). Helen was later appointed the first Comedian in Residence at Newcastle University's Centre for Life Science Village.
In August 2013 she compered the first ever live comedy night at CERN - Large Hadron Comedy. The event was webcast and attracted CERN’s largest international on-line audience since the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson.
Her first solo stand up show It Is Rocket Science (co-written with Miriam Underhill) was picked up by BBC Radio 4 and has so far had three critically acclaimed series. Series 2 won the 2013 WISE Media Award.
As an only child, Helen had lots of imaginary friends. She was also ‘selectively mute’ as a child and had speech lessons that she says made her sound unduly posh – she comes from just outside Hull. However, her accent has helped her to ‘blag’ posh jobs, working at the Royal Academy of Arts and Sotheby’s.
She was also very anxious as a child and was banned by her parents from watching anything scary – even Scooby Doo. She still claims to have never seen a horror movie but tried to watch Ghostbusters a while ago and was ‘really freaked out by the bit where Rick Moranis got possessed by a dog’. Despite this, she was a zombie extra in Shaun of the Dead. ‘I was out for a run on Ealing Common when they ‘scouted’ me & asked me to be a zombie. I don’t think that reflects all that well on my athletic prowess’.
We can be optimistic about the odds of finding - eventually - a planet with some sort of life on it, or that could at least support life as we know it...