Monday, June 14, 2010

Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev, Most Prolific Mother Ever?

The Guinness Book of World Records 2004 edition describes Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev, the wife of a Shuya, Russia peasant, as the most prolific mother ever. According to Guinness, Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev (who was apparently
too busy breeding to protest history's failure to record her first name) gave birth to 69 children, including 16 pair of twins, 7 sets of triplets, and 4 sets of quadruplets.

Before jumping on the bandwagon and endorsing the story that Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev is the most prolific mother ever with 69 live births, skeptical readers might note that her alleged feat took place during the 1700s. Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev is said to have lived from 1707 to 1782.

Skeptics might also notice that Guinness Book of World Records claimed in 1983 that a Chilean woman with 58 children was the world's most prolific mother. After Mrs. Leontina Espinoza of Chile died, a police investigation determined that this most prolific mother had lied, adding 42 extra offspring to her actual tally of 16. The Chilean government determined that Leontina had concocted the story of giving birth to 58 children in order to obtain government provided food assistance.

Beyond the fact that Guinness Book of World Records apparently failed to detect Leontina's lie when publishing her name as the world's most prolific mother, how could the world record producer claim 58 children was a record for most prolific mother in 1983 if a Russian peasant had produced 69 children in the 1700s?

Belated discovery of Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev, perhaps?

Interest in the identity of the world's most prolific mother heightened with Michelle Duggar's announcement a little more than a week ago that she is pregnant with her 19th child.

The Guinness Book identification of Vassilyev as the most prolific mother in history has been repeated across the internet. But does this claim bear the indicia of reliability?

According to Wikipedia, the occurrence of triplets before ovary-stimulating drugs became available was 1:8000, with higher order multiples even rarer.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

1. Stonehenge

Of all the world’s famous monuments, none has gained as much of a reputation for pure, simple mystery as Stonehenge. Stonehenge has been inspiring debate among scholars, scientists, and historians since the Middle Ages. Located in the English countryside, the landmark is believed to date back to 2500 BC, and consists of several mammoth pieces of rock arranged and piled on top of one another in what appears at first to be a random design. The site is surrounded by a small, circular ditch, and is flanked by burial mounds on all sides. Although the rock formations that still remain are undoubtedly impressive, it is thought that the modern version of Stonehenge is only a small remnant of a much larger monument that was damaged with the passing of time, and it is largely believed that the building process was so extensive that it could have lasted on and off for anywhere from 1500 to 7000 years.

The Mystery

Stonehenge has become renowned for puzzling even the most brilliant researchers, and over the years the many gaps in the history of its construction, the nature of its use, and the true identity of its builders have become known as “The Mystery of Stonehenge.” The Neolithic people who built the monument left behind no written records, so scientists can only base their theories on the meager evidence that exists at the site. This has led to wild speculation that the monument was left by aliens, or that it was built by some eons-old society of technologically advanced super-humans. All craziness aside, the most common explanation remains that Stonehenge served as some kind of graveyard monument that played a role in the builders’ version of the afterlife, a claim that is backed up by its proximity to several hundred burial mounds. Yet another theory suggests that the site was a place for spiritual healing and the worship of long dead ancestors.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Jellyfish is world's only "immortal" living things

The turritopsis nutricula species of jellyfish may be the only animal in the world to have truly discovered the fountain of youth. 

Since it is capable of cycling from a mature adult stage to an immature polyp stage and back again, there may be no natural limit to its life span. Scientists say the hydrozoan jellyfish is the only known animal that can repeatedly turn back the hands of time and revert to its polyp state (its first stage of life). 

The key lies in a process called transdifferentiation, where one type of cell is transformed into another type of cell. Some animals can undergo limited transdifferentiation and regenerate organs, such as salamanders, which can regrow limbs. Turritopsi nutricula, on the other hand, can regenerate its entire body over and over again. Researchers are studying the jellyfish to discover how it is able to reverse its aging process. 

Because they are able to bypass death, the number of individuals is spiking. They're now found in oceans around the globe rather than just in their native Caribbean waters.  "We are looking at a worldwide silent invasion," says Dr. Maria Miglietta of the Smithsonian Tropical Marine Institute. 

Bryan Nelson is a regular contributor to Mother Nature Network, where a version of this post originally appeared.

2. The Great Sphinx of Giza

Sphinxes are massive stone statues that depict the body of a reclining lion with the head and face of a human. The figures are found all over the world in different forms, but they are most commonly linked with Egypt, which features the most famous example in the form of the Great Sphinx of Giza. Incredibly, the statue is carved out of one monolithic piece of rock, and at 240 feet long, 20 feet wide, and 66 feet tall, it is considered to be the biggest monument of its kind in the world. Historians largely accept the function of the Sphinx to have been that of a symbolic guardian, since the statues were strategically placed around important structures like temples, tombs, and pyramids. The Great Sphinx of Giza appears to be no different. It stands adjacent to the pyramid of the pharaoh Khafra, and most archeologists believe that it is his face that is depicted on that of the statue.

The Mystery
Despite its reputation as one of the most famous monuments of antiquity, there is still very little known about the Great Sphinx of Giza. Egyptologists might have a small understanding of why the statue was built, but when, how, and by who is still shrouded in mystery. The pharaoh Khafra is the main suspect, which would date the structure back to around 2500 BC, but other scientists have argued that evidence of water erosion of the statue suggests that it is much older and perhaps even predated the dynastic era of the Egyptians. This theory has few modern adherents, but if true it would mean the Great Sphinx of Giza is even more mysterious than previously believed.

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