There is a rash of ‘Amazing Facts / Believe-it-or-not’ type programs popping up on TV, which cover the unusual, outlandish and utterly absurd. And, like this column, they deal purely in scientific facts, so it would be churlish not to share some of these pearls of wisdom with those folks without DStv.

Duck Calls

The World Championship Duck Calling Contest takes place every Thanksgiving weekend in Stuttgart, a small town in Arkansas.

Contestants can be of any age, and since 1936 intrepid duck-callers from across the USA and Canada schlep into Stuttgart to claim the prestigious title of World Champion. Apparently, this achievement is highly regarded and often catapults winners into ‘a career in the outdoor industry’ – whatever that means. Poacher, maybe?

Competitors must perform a 90-second quack routine behind a screen in the packed town hall. The repertoire must include a hail call, a feed call, a mating call and a come-back call. To the uninitiated ear, these are just noisy variations of startled squawks, but they are carefully monitored and scored by a panel of five judges who can obviously detect subtle differences between a mating call and hail call, which to me is the same thing.

No electronic devices are allowed, and as a result the actual ‘vocal chords’ of real ducks are sometimes used – for authenticity. One can only hope the ducks are already dead before the chords are removed and carefully incorporated into the competitors’ hand-crafted devices which they blow/suck through. A bit like playing a cross between the mondfluitjie and a vuvuzela.

Apparently one lout half-swallowed his duck’s ‘chords’ by mistake and it got stuck in his throat for a while. It wasn’t serious though, because it didn’t obstruct his windpipe. But later that afternoon he was disqualified because whenever he spoke or breathed heavily, he quacked like a duck in distress, which the judges found distracting. He, too, was distressed and disappointed, but after the competition, his feathers still slightly ruffled, he had it surgically removed and he’s already practising for the next World Championship.

Buckets of Gold

For centuries alchemists, physicists and chemistry boffins have been grappling with the lure of unearthing the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ and the concept of turning something that isn’t gold into gold. One such enthusiastic scientist was a bloke called Dr Henning Brand from Hamburg, Germany.

It was 1669, and our Hennie thought he’d discovered a way to create gold for very little cost. According to his theory, we all inhale minute particles of gold (together with other air-born material) every day, which work their way through the body and are excreted through our urine. That’s why it’s yellow, he claimed. Those were gold particles in the pee, and all he had to do was extract them. I’m not making this up.

Hennie was certain he’d hit the jackpot by evaporating/distilling the pee into ‘a black sludge’, which was then re-heated with sand and some other goodies, and condensed into a solid, using cold water. Before it had set, he decided to forge ahead anyway, but realised his pee alone wouldn’t crack it.

Now, where do you go to find excessive amounts of piddle ‘on tap’? The pubs, of course. So he immediately bought and distributed 50 dustbins to the local beer halls, and went back to his lab to check how his trial experiment was maturing. Somewhat disappointed, he found his black sludge had so far only turned white as expected, but not yet gold. So he switched off the lights to lock up for the night, and in the darkness saw his sludge was glowing.

“Bliksem!” he said in his best German and wondered how this stuff could be shining in the pitch darkness of his lab? Well, sadly for him, he soon realised it wasn’t gold, but what he didn’t realise, and died years later never knowing, was that he had inadvertently discovered phosphorus – used extensively today in fluorescent lighting, fertiliser, matches etc.

I do wonder how he dealt with the 5 000 litres of gold-free pee, though.

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