Question: Why did they change the name of the Brontosaurus to Apatosaurus, when the old one was obviously a better name? (C Lewis-Marffy, Billericay)
It all started in the 1880s when palaeontologists found a heap of bones of a previously unknown dinosaur. Unsure how to classify it, they named it Apatosaurus (deceptive lizard). Two years later, another pile of bones was named Brontosaurus (thunder lizard).
Much later, it was confirmed that these were, in fact, the same creature, and in such cases, according to the internationally agreed Code of Zoological Nomenclature, the earlier name takes precedence.
Apatosaurus has, in fact, been the correct name since around 1940, though it has been slow to catch on. As recently as 1970, the US Post Office issued a set of dinosaur stamps including one picturing a 'Brontosaurus'.
The entries for 'Apatosaurus' in many encyclopaedias and dictionaries include the words 'formerly known as Brontosaurus' but this is not strictly correct. It was never actually renamed.
Another recent palaeontological error is the sound made by the Tyrannosaurus in the film Jurassic Park. The latest research describes it as resembling 'the sound made by a human stomach after a bad night in a cheap restaurant'.
Sources: Angela Milner at the Natural History Museum and New Scientist, 11 September 1993.
Why is it that women can fold a sheet or tablecloth accurately and neatly into its original folds but are terminally baffled if asked to do the same thing with a map? (James Goodchild, Glasgow)
Leaving aside the implied sexism of the question, there is a good deal of psychological research supporting the view that two formulations of the same problem, though demonstrably logically equivalent, are often not found equally simple by an individual solver. Take the following problem (The Wason Selection Task):
Version one: You are presented with four cards on which the visible faces show, respectively, A, D, 4, and 7, and you are told that each card has a letter on one side and a number on the other. You are then given the rule: 'If a card has a vowel on one side, it has an even number on the other side.' Which cards do you need to turn over in order to discover whether the rule is true or false?
Version two: As above, except that the cards show Manchester, Leeds, Train, and Car, each having a destination and a mode of transport on them. Which must you turn to establish the truth or falsehood of the statement: 'Whenever I go to Manchester, I go by train'?
The answers most frequently given to version one are 'A and 4' or 'only A'. The correct answer, however, is 'A and 7'. The second version is logically identical, but far more people get the correct answer of 'Manchester and Car'. The conclusion of this and similar experiments is broadly that problems are more easily solved if framed in a familiar context.
So people who spend a good deal of their time with sheets and tablecloths may find maps rather puzzling. And conversely.
For a problem that does appear to be sex-linked, try the following:
1 You have a four-legged table that wobbles. What do you do?
2 You have a three-legged table that wobbles. What do you do?
According to the psychologist Peter Wason, most people respond to the first by putting a wedge under the shortest leg, or cutting down the longest legs. When it comes to the second question, however, female respondents still wedge or cut, while males point out that three-legged tables cannot wobble. While Dr Wason found this an almost infallible indication of a respondent's gender in the 1960s, however, he says that more recent informal experiments have failed to replicate the earlier successes. He used to believe that when presented with a problem, women would solve it, while men preferred to conceptualise it. Now he is not so sure.
Sources: Thinking by P N Johnson-Laird and P C Wason; Personal Communication by P C Wason.
Who were the Gordons and were they all gay? (John Hibbs, Birmingham)
They were the Gordon Highlanders, in particular the 2nd Batallion, the 92nd Highlanders. The earliest reference we have found is in Frazer and Gibbons, Soldier and Sailor Words (1925), though the expression appears to be from an older song, 'Gay Go The Gordons To A Fight'. Their reputation for cheerful belligerence stems from the assault on the Heights of Dargai on the North-West Frontier of India in 1896, when Piper Findlater (later awarded the VC) continued to play lively regimental pibrochs though shot in both legs.
They were earlier known as the Cheesy Highlanders, after the distinctive yellow line added to their tartan by the 4th Duke of Gordon. The Duchess Jean of Gordon offered the King's shilling to any recruit who would take it from her lips with a kiss.
Sources: David Griffin, Modern British Army Regiments and Eric Partridge, Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.
One is said to be as happy as Larry. Who is Larry and how happy is he? (Christopher Hobbs, Leicester)
No one is sure. It may have been Larry Foley (1847-1917), an Australian boxer. The first recorded use of the expression comes from Australia in 1905. Why Mr Foley was happy remains a mystery.
Sources: Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and Oxford English Dictionary.
Finally, Richard Blythe of Stansted poses the Ultimate Question: Why is there anything; why isn't there nothing?
This is a tricky one. Plato reasoned that non-being, or nothingness, must in some sense be, otherwise what is it that is not? In other words, you can't have nothingness without there being something not to exist. Martin Heidegger, in his famous essay, Was ist Metaphysik? (1929), pointed out that 'human existence cannot have a relationship with being unless it remains in the midst of nothingness', but Rudolf Carnap in 1931 criticised the hypostatisation (making real) of Nothingness as one of the grosser fallacies of metaphysics. As Sartre wrote: 'The possible is the something which the For-itself lacks in order to be itself.' So there you are.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica and W V Quine, Quiddities.
Further requests for enlightenment will be welcome at: Good Question, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.
Compiled by William Hartston