Strange But True: A clear case of mistaken identity ...


Q: The moral of this story might be: Be wary of making documents with a valid ID number, even when clearly labeled a sample. What happened here?

A: It was 1938, three years after Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, and a wallet manufacturer wanted to encourage customers to use their new wallets to carry their Social Security cards, says Dan Lewis in his book, "Now I Know More." Bad idea, as we now know. His idea was to include a fake card in their leather products, clearly marking it as a "specimen" so the new purchaser would know it was not a true Social Security Number (SSN). The problem was that, in fact, it was a valid number — 078-05-1120 — that of his secretary Hilda Schrader Whitcher.

When retail giant Woolworth's began distributing the wallet across the country, sales soared. But this success came with a down side: In the year 1943 alone, 5,755 people used Ms. Whitcher's SSN, "sparking all sorts of inconveniences for her, including a visit from the FBI."

All totaled, roughly 40,000 have claimed 078-05-1120 as their own, and "as recently as 1977 — nearly 40 years after it was first placed on sample cards — Whitcher's number was still being used by about a dozen people."

Q: Light pollution is one of the many ways humans impact the environment. What fraction of residents of North America and Europe do you think are able to see the Milky Way at night?

A: Based on satellite data, ground-level measurements and more, an international team of scientists found that "the Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60 percent of Europeans and nearly 80 percent of North Americans" (published by Fabio Falchi, et al. in "Science Advances").

The Boston/Washington corridor is farthest from places where a hint of the Milky Way is visible. Even fewer people see the Milky Way clearly: "More than 80 percent of the world and more than 99 percent of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies."

As the authors conclude, "Humanity has enveloped our planet in a luminous fog that prevents most of Earth's population from having the opportunity to observe our galaxy. This has a consequent potential impact on culture that is of unprecedented magnitude."

Q: For the first six months of 2015, the U.S. experienced an 8.1 percent increase in traffic fatalities, compared with 2014 data. How are the new crash test dummies being used to address this problem?

A: Until recently, body blows from certain directions or trauma to the lumbar spine and abdomen have been difficult to predict, says Peter Andrey Smith in "Scientific American" magazine. The Global Human Body Models Consortium (GHBMC) has been working on a more accurate, responsive crash test dummy using an elaborate 3-D computer model that depicts bone, tissue and internal organs from head to toe. Their current work includes a 173-pound adult model.

But until now, children in particular have been left out of the equation, so GHMBC is working on a model to account for kid-sized bodies, as well as other variations in sex and age. Already, General Motors vehicles with an OnStar telematics system can collect collision data and send its prediction of severe injury to emergency responders.

J.T. Wang, an engineer at GM and a lead technical adviser to the GHBMC, speculates that the virtual-body-model may eventually run fast enough to create real-time simulations that enable vehicles with such systems to give a more specific picture of the crash scene, perhaps even to predict the kind of injuries involved. Such information may be crucial to paramedics, especially when crash victims are found unconscious.

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