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Why Swiss maps are full of hidden secrets
Cartography is serious business in Switzerland — but once in a while, the occasional map gag slips through.
- The Swiss are not known for their sense of humor, but perhaps we've not been looking hard enough.
- Over the decades, Swiss cartographers have sprinkled plenty of "Easter eggs" across otherwise serious maps.
- The oldest one, a naked lady, has been removed — but the marmot, the haunted monk, and others are still there.
Swiss humor. Now there's two words you don't often see together. In fact, Google Trends lists zero occurrences of the phrase between 2004 and now. Even "German humor" produces a graph (albeit a rather flat one). But not only is there some evidence that Swiss comedy does exist, it might just be that being well-hidden is kind of its thing. Find it and laugh. Or don't, and the joke's on you!
That evidence, as it turns out, is cartographic. The Swiss Federal Office of National Topography, Swisstopo for short, is a decidedly serious institution. Many serious things — time and money, for starters — depend on the accuracy of its maps. In the case of its mountain maps, actual lives hang in the balance. Yet in decades past, the austere institute's maps have served as the canvas for a series of in-jokes among its more fun-loving cartographers.
These mapmakers played a game of wits against their superiors, the ones whose duties included checking the maps before publication. Over the years, the cartographers managed to slip in — on maps that were supposed to contain only dry topographic facts — drawings of an airplane, a fish, a marmot, a mountaineer, a face, a spider, even of a naked lady. Once discovered, these humorous additions were removed without pardon. At least, that's how it used to be.
Either way, it doesn't matter. Swisstopo is defeated by its own thoroughness. Its map page allows you not just to zoom in and out of the most recent maps but also to browse historical maps and thus revisit these "Easter eggs" that prove, however obliquely, the existence of a sense of humor among the mountains of Switzerland.
The plane that disappeared — twice
The craft's first appearance on the 1994 map (circled, left), and its absence on the most recent map (2018).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1994, an anonymous cartographer at Swisstopo included an airplane in this map of Kloten, the international airport of Zürich. While it may seem only natural for airplanes to show up at airports, that is normally not the case on topographic maps.
The error remained undetected until a revision of the map in 2000, when the offending craft was erased. However, the plane reappeared on the 2007 map at exactly the same spot – the tarmac before Gate A – only to vanish again in 2013.
The Naked Lady of Künten
The abstract figure appeared in 1954 (circled, left), but she was clearly inspired by the area's actual topography (2018, right).Credit: Swisstopo
Possibly the oldest topographical Easter egg, and the current record holder for the longest-lasting one, is the Naked Lady of Künten. First appearing on the topographical map of 1954, the reclining figure wasn't discovered until 2012. Admittedly, without head, arms and feet, she is hard to spot. Her odalisque-like forms are suggested by the curvature of a stream and an elongated green patch indicating vegetation.
The world — or at least that bit between Eggenrain and Sunnenberg — was put to right again in the 2013 edition of the local map. But it's still easy to see how that particular distribution of topographic features could have inspired a lonely 1950s cartographer to pencil in something that wasn't there.
A Swiss fish in a French lake
In 1980, a giant fish appeared at the southern end of a French lake (left). By 1986, it had been caught (right, the 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
It was never discovered who reshaped the aforementioned landscape feature into a female form. But the younger generation of Easter-eggers is known by name.
In 1980, Werner Leuenberger even went international. He drew a fish at the southern end of the Lac de Remoray, a small lake just across the Franco-Swiss border. The fish felt right at home among the lines marking out the area as swampy. However, it was caught five years later, and has been left off the map since 1986.
Attack of the giant Eiger spider
This giant spider (left, 1981 map) survived for half a dozen years near the top of the Eiger (spider-free, 2018 map).Credit: Swisstopo
In 1981, Othmar Wyss inserted a spider near the top of the Eiger, one of Switzerland's most iconic Alpine summits, at a location actually known by mountaineers as quite dangerous.
The giant spider survived for six years in the freezing cold. The snowfield that made up the spider's body — and made the northern approach of the Eiger so hard — has apparently also disappeared in the intervening years.
Haunted monk trapped in a map
The 1979 map (left), a year before the addition of the eerie face (right).Credit: Swisstopo
A rock formation on a slope of the Harder Kulm, a mountain near Interlaken, looks like a face. This is the Hardermandli, or "little Harder man." Legend has it that he was a lecherous monk, condemned to look down on the place where he chased a girl to her death.
Cartographer Friedrich Siegfried extended the curse to cartography, for since 1980 and until this day, the Hardermandli also lives on the map.
Beats waiting for the Italians
Another case of a map gag surviving to this day. Left, the unadorned mountain flank on a 1996 map; right, the mountaineer as he can be seen climbing toward Switzerland now. Credit: Swisstopo
For the 1997 map update, Mr. Siegfried etched the likeness of a mountaineer on the Italian side of a mountain slope near Val Müstair. Reportedly, he got tired of waiting on the data for the area, which his Italian counterparts were slow to provide, so he found a creative way to plug the gap. Topography, like nature, also abhors a vacuum, apparently.
Swisstopo seems to have taken to heart the cartographer's slight against his Italian colleagues, because the mountaineer still appears on the contemporary map, in 1:100,000 scale at least.
The marmot of the Aletsch glacier
What the area of the Aletsch glacier looked like until 2010 (left), and how it's changed since (right, 2018 map). Both maps 1:25,000.Credit: Swisstopo
Swisstopo's most famous map gag — or at least the most recent one to be revealed, in 2014 — is the marmot, which has been hiding in a rock near the Aletsch glacier since it was put there by cartographer Paul Ehrlich in 2011, shortly before his retirement. The marmot is still there, and perhaps it and its fellow map oddities may be allowed to survive.
On its website, Swisstopo says that "these hidden drawings do not affect the accuracy and level of detail of our maps, nor on the safety and security of their users. They merely add a note of mystery to our nation's maps."
Are there any other gags hidden in the official maps of Switzerland? Swisstopo itself claims it has no knowledge of any other cartographic oddities. But knowing and not telling, that's exactly the kind of thing they would find funny, isn't it?
Strange Maps #1085
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The finding is remarkably similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency.
- Recent studies asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers.
- The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness, while attractive people underrate their looks.
- Why this happens is unclear, but it doesn't seem to be due to a general inability to judge attractiveness.
There's no shortage of disparities between attractive and unattractive people. Studies show that the best-looking among us tend to have an easier time making money, receiving help, avoiding punishment, and being perceived as competent. (Sure, research also suggests beautiful people have shorter relationships, but they also have more sexual partners, and more options for romantic relationships. So call it a wash.)
Now, new research reveals another disparity: Unattractive people seem less able to accurately judge their own attractiveness, and they tend to overestimate their looks. In contrast, beautiful people tend to rate themselves more accurately. If anything, they underestimate their attractiveness.
The research, published in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, involved six studies that asked participants to rate the attractiveness of themselves and other participants, who were strangers. The studies also asked participants to predict how others might rate them.
In the first study, lead author Tobias Greitemeyer found that the participants who were most likely to overestimate their attractiveness were among the least attractive people in the study, based on average ratings.
Ratings of subjective attractiveness as a function of the participant's objective attractiveness (Study 1)
"Overall, unattractive participants judged themselves to be of about average attractiveness and they showed very little awareness that strangers do not share this view. In contrast, attractive participants had more insights into how attractive they actually are. [...] It thus appears that unattractive people maintain illusory self‐perceptions of their attractiveness, whereas attractive people's self‐views are more grounded in reality."
Why do unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness? Could it be because they want to maintain a positive self-image, so they delude themselves? After all, previous research has shown that people tend to discredit or "forget" negative social feedback, which seems to help protect a sense of self-worth.
To find out, Greitemeyer conducted a study that aimed to put participants in a positive, non-defensive mindset before rating attractiveness. He did that by asking participants questions that affirmed parts of their personality that had nothing to do with physical appearance, such as: "Have you ever been generous and selfless to another person?" Yet, this didn't change how participants rated themselves, suggesting that unattractive people aren't overestimating their looks out of defensiveness.
The studies kept yielding the same finding: unattractive people overestimate their attractiveness. Does that bias sound familiar? If so, you might be thinking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how incompetent people tend to overestimate their own competency. Why? Because they lack the metacognitive skills needed to discern their own shortcomings.
Greitemeyer found that unattractive people were worse at differentiating between attractive and unattractive people. But the finding that unattractive people may have different beauty ideals (or, more plainly, weaker ability to judge attractiveness) did "not have an impact on how they perceive themselves."
In short, it remains a mystery exactly why unattractive people overestimate their looks. Greitemeyer concluded that, while most people are decent at judging the attractiveness of others, "it appears that those who are unattractive do not know that they are unattractive."
Unattractive people aren't completely unaware
The results of one study suggested that unattractive people aren't completely in the dark about their looks. In the study, unattractive people were shown a set of photos of highly attractive and unattractive people, and they were asked to select photos of people with comparable attractiveness. Most unattractive people chose to compare themselves with similarly unattractive people.
"The finding that unattractive participants selected unattractive stimulus persons with whom they would compare their attractiveness to suggests that they may have an inkling that they are less attractive than they want it to be," Greitemeyer wrote.
Every star we can see, including our sun, was born in one of these violent clouds.
This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.
An international team of astronomers has conducted the biggest survey of stellar nurseries to date, charting more than 100,000 star-birthing regions across our corner of the universe.
Stellar nurseries: Outer space is filled with clouds of dust and gas called nebulae. In some of these nebulae, gravity will pull the dust and gas into clumps that eventually get so big, they collapse on themselves — and a star is born.
These star-birthing nebulae are known as stellar nurseries.
The challenge: Stars are a key part of the universe — they lead to the formation of planets and produce the elements needed to create life as we know it. A better understanding of stars, then, means a better understanding of the universe — but there's still a lot we don't know about star formation.
This is partly because it's hard to see what's going on in stellar nurseries — the clouds of dust obscure optical telescopes' view — and also because there are just so many of them that it's hard to know what the average nursery is like.
The survey: The astronomers conducted their survey of stellar nurseries using the massive ALMA telescope array in Chile. Because ALMA is a radio telescope, it captures the radio waves emanating from celestial objects, rather than the light.
"The new thing ... is that we can use ALMA to take pictures of many galaxies, and these pictures are as sharp and detailed as those taken by optical telescopes," Jiayi Sun, an Ohio State University (OSU) researcher, said in a press release.
"This just hasn't been possible before."
Over the course of the five-year survey, the group was able to chart more than 100,000 stellar nurseries across more than 90 nearby galaxies, expanding the amount of available data on the celestial objects tenfold, according to OSU researcher Adam Leroy.
New insights: The survey is already yielding new insights into stellar nurseries, including the fact that they appear to be more diverse than previously thought.
"For a long time, conventional wisdom among astronomers was that all stellar nurseries looked more or less the same," Sun said. "But with this survey we can see that this is really not the case."
"While there are some similarities, the nature and appearance of these nurseries change within and among galaxies," he continued, "just like cities or trees may vary in important ways as you go from place to place across the world."
Astronomers have also learned from the survey that stellar nurseries aren't particularly efficient at producing stars and tend to live for only 10 to 30 million years, which isn't very long on a universal scale.
Looking ahead: Data from the survey is now publicly available, so expect to see other researchers using it to make their own observations about stellar nurseries in the future.
"We have an incredible dataset here that will continue to be useful," Leroy said. "This is really a new view of galaxies and we expect to be learning from it for years to come."
Tiny specks of space debris can move faster than bullets and cause way more damage. Cleaning it up is imperative.
- NASA estimates that more than 500,000 pieces of space trash larger than a marble are currently in orbit. Estimates exceed 128 million pieces when factoring in smaller pieces from collisions. At 17,500 MPH, even a paint chip can cause serious damage.
- To prevent this untrackable space debris from taking out satellites and putting astronauts in danger, scientists have been working on ways to retrieve large objects before they collide and create more problems.
- The team at Clearspace, in collaboration with the European Space Agency, is on a mission to capture one such object using an autonomous spacecraft with claw-like arms. It's an expensive and very tricky mission, but one that could have a major impact on the future of space exploration.
This is the first episode of Just Might Work, an original series by Freethink, focused on surprising solutions to our biggest problems.
Catch more Just Might Work episodes on their channel: https://www.freethink.com/shows/just-might-work