from the world's big
Sandy Island, the Last Island to be Un-Discovered
If phantom islands can be discovered as recently as 2012, maybe there are still more of them out there.
In 2012, the world lost an island, and gained a phantom island. Losing islands is a regrettable, but increasingly common occurrence , what with rising sea levels and all. Gaining a phantom island, on the other hand, is an exciting event - especially since that particular category was considered extinct. Map-lovers were under the assumption that scientific rigour and satellite technology had illuminated the shadows out of the cartographic twilight in which phantom islands thrive. The Age of Un-Discovery had been closed for good, we thought. We thought wrong.
A phantom island can be defined as ‘An island once believed to exist, and accordingly depicted on maps, but of which the existence was later disproved, and its cartographic representation removed’. These fallacies started infesting maps by the dozen during the Age of Discovery, when explorers sailing for regions unknown mistook their fevered ambitions, or a random fog bank, for islands that weren’t there .
Some of these phantom islands lingered on maps for centuries, at least partly, it seems, because they had such a great hold on the imagination of generation after generation of sailors. But eventually, they were proven not to exist. Gone from today’s maps are places with such captivating names as the Isle of Demons, Estotiland, the Island of the 11,000 Virgins, and Hy-Brasil . All of these and more were un-discovered, removed from nautical charts, and added to the select club of Phantom Islands.
The most recent member of that club, as far as we could tell, was Sannikov Land . It was presumed to lie in the Arctic Sea off Siberia, ever since the Russian explorer Yakov Sannikov in 1811 reported a ‘bluish fog’ to the northeast of the New Siberian Islands. Distant mirages of the island were subsequently observed by the Baltic baron Edward Toll in 1886 and 1893, before their false promise lured him to his death in 1902, on a third expedition. Finally, the Soviet ice-breaker Sadko  found only frozen sea where the island ought to be, relegating it to the Phantom Island Hall of Fame.
Sannikov Land, the phantom island, also became a fictional island when it was chosen in 1926 as the setting for a Soviet science fiction novel of the same name (Image here at Wikimedia Commons).
That was in 1937. And that seemed to be the very fag-end of the Age of Un-Discovery.
Cue to 21 November 2012, as the Australian RV (Research Vessel) Southern Surveyor puts into port at Brisbane, after a 25-day exploration of the tectonic framework for the easternmost Coral Sea, in the Pacific Ocean between the eastern coast of Australia and the French territory of Nouvelle Calédonie. The ship’s crew, marine geologists from the University of Sydney, have a strange tale to tell. During their expedition, they noticed that the sea floor beneath an island in the French part of the Coral Sea is recorded as 4,600 feet (1,400 m) deep. That seems odd. So they go and check it out.
The lens-shaped fleck of land, 15 miles (24 km) from north to south and 3 miles (5 km) across, is marked as Sandy Island on the ship’s nautical charts (and on Google Maps), and as Sable Island in the Times Atlas of the World.
The Southern Surveyor approaches the island’s supposed location with great care, lest it runs aground. But the ship’s instruments consistently indicate a depth of 4,600 feet. And when it arrives at 19°15' S 159°55' E, there is no island, only ocean. How is this possible? Did Sandy Island perhaps fly away, like the fictional island of Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels ?
With the benefit of hindsight, Sandy Island’s appearance on Google Maps - since removed  - provides a clue to its non-existence. Its presence there was more of an absence: a black rift in the undulating blues of the Coral Sea, as if someone punched a hole in the very fabric of Google Maps itself. It’s hard to see how nobody - or, more precisely, no satellite - was able to spot this anomaly before. And it’s incredible that it took a good, old-fashioned look-see to discover Sandy Island’s non-existence. For its supposed size was considerable: at 45 square miles, it would have been almost exactly double the area of Manhattan.
Sandy Island as a - now unnamed - rift in the fabric of the Coral Sea (taken from Google Maps).
“How did it find its way onto the maps? We just don’t know”, mused Dr Maria Seton, the expedition leader on board the Southern Surveyor.
Early press reports mentioned that Sandy Island had been struck off some nautical charts, notably the French ones, but had appeared on others, including the Australian ones, since “at least the year 2000”. Some experts opined that Sandy Island had been a relatively recent glitch, imported into cartographic databases when analog maps had been digitised. Perhaps a (literal) bug had been squished between the paper map and the scanner? It could explain the curious, hole-in-the-map appearance of Sandy Island on Google Maps. Or could it be a ‘trap island’, analogous to the ‘trap streets’ sprinkled across London’s A-to-Z and other street maps to identify unauthorised copying?
Both theories crumbled as much older maps of Sandy Island surfaced. A librarian in Auckland, New Zealand located it on a chart of the Pacific Ocean, published in 1908 but first compiled in 1876. The island was sighted in that year by the British vessel Velocity. The chart includes a warning that helps explain why it included even doubtful sightings of land: Caution is necessary while navigating among the low-lying island of the Pacific Ocean. The general details have been collated from the voyages of various navigators extending over a long series of years. The relative position of many dangers may therefore not be exactly given.
The Coral Sea in particular is rich in treacherous reefs that lurk just beneath, or barely above the ocean’s surface. Take for instance the Chesterfield Islands, an uninhabited archipelago in French territorial waters, west of Sandy Island’s supposed location. The Chesterfields are a collection of about a dozen islets, some still shifting, and numerous reefs, spread out over an area 75 by 45 mile (120 by 70 km), but totalling less than 10 km2 (6 sq. mi) in dry land. Apart from the occasional visits by guano harvesters and whalers in the 19th century and meteorologists in the 20th, these shipping hazards have generally been shunned by seafarers .
In such a tricky environment, it’s understandable that the precautionary principle is maximally applied. This explains why a cluster of potential dangers to shipping to the east of New Zealand, consisting of Wachusett Reef, Ernest Legouvé Rock, the Jupiter Breakers, and Maria Theresia Reef, is still a fixture on most nautical maps, even though they appear not to exist. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Until an obstacle’s existence is positively disproved, it stays on the map.
When in doubt, leave it in: the cluster of South Pacific reefs that is either dangerous or non-existent (taken here from Wikipedia).
But that only deepens the mystery of Sandy Island; for it seems the Southern Surveyor’s recent un-discovery was already the second time that the island’s existence was disproved.
In 2000, a group of radio amateurs headed to the Chesterfield Islands on a so-called DXpedition, hoping to find the remotest dry land possible from which to send a ham radio message. In order for the Chesterfields to qualify, they scoured its surroundings for land, found Sandy Island on the map, but not where it should be in the ocean. Perhaps because this allowed the radio amateurs to proceed with their über-nerdy expedition, their un-discovery of Sandy Island didn’t receive as much worldwide attention as it merited. The original report of their expedition does mention that Sandy Island is marked on some maps, but not on others, and quotes a Senior Editor of National Geographic Maps as saying that their cartography is “hopelessly outdated for this area”, and would be updated ‘soon’.
Which still leaves the question: When and by whom was Sandy Island first put on the map?
One source mentions the French navigator Joseph Bruny d’Entrecasteaux as the discoverer, in 1792, of several islands in the area, among which one he called Ile de Sable (Sandy Island). The British whaler Velocity then re-reports it in 1876 as Sandy Island, but indicates that it may in fact be ‘islands’, noting several groups of surf waves. Possibly the Velocity is confusing an island in d’Entrecasteaux’s report with the Chesterfields to the west. Even the discovery phantom islands can be subject to international rivalry. Another source has not the Frenchman d’Entrecasteaux, but the British Captain Cook survey the island in 1772, before the Velocity re-maps it in 1876.
A more interesting question regards not Sandy Island’s past, but the future of Un-Discovery. Is its non-existence, in our age of eyes in the sky, and computers that can crunch more data than can be contained in a shipful of logbooks, a fluke? Or are there many more islands out there waiting to be un-discovered?
One final note on Sandy Island: it does really exist. At least, another curious island of (almost) the same name does. Sable Island (also from the French Ile de Sable) is a giant dune far off Canada’s Atlantic Coast, the bane of transatlantic shipping, and home to a tribe of wild horses. See #387 for more on this remarkable place.
Many thanks to Vlad Atanasiu and G. Ockeloen for sending in information on Sandy Island.
Strange Maps #588
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Some examples of islands that disappeared naturally: Bermeja (off Mexico), New Moore Island, a.k.a. South Talpatti (disputed between India and Bangladesh). See this episode of Borderlines for a discussion of Okinotorishima (south of Japan) and Ferdinandea (south of Sicily), islands that have trouble staying afloat.
 Another possibility: famous, otherwise meticulous cartographer fills in empty space on map with places referenced in unverified stories, unwittingly creating phantom islands that will outlive him by many decades. See #116.
 See #64.
 Interestingly, the icebreaker Sadko - itself named after a Russian mythical hero - gave its name to an island, one of the 90-odd ones in the Nordenskjold Archipelago, in the Kara Sea north of Siberia.
 If you zoom out enough, it’s still there, though.
 One of the many shipwrecks in the area was the whaling vessel Prince of Denmark, which ran aground in 1863. Its crew used its wooden planks to construct a rescue vessel, which was baptised, with an admirable sense of humour, considering the circumstances, Hamlet’s Ghost. The crew sailed it to Brisbane, leaving 11 native crewmen on Chesterfield Reef with 18 months’ worth of provision. No record survives of their eventual rescue.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.