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4 of History's Greatest Hoaxes

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The Heene family's Balloon Boy hoax is still lingering in the news this week. Will charges be filed? Is a reality show in the works? Do you really care? We're guessing you don't. So instead, let's look back at four historical hoaxes.

1. The "Computer" That Outsmarted Napoléon

Centuries before Deep Blue started whuppin' on Russian grand masters, a chess-playing automaton nicknamed "the Turk" was thrashing all manner of chess players. Atop a wheeled wooden cabinet was a seated, life-sized mannequin made of wood and dressed in Turkish garb. The Turk held a chessboard in his wooden lap, and he beat 'most all comers—including Napoléon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin. Premiering in the 1770s, the creation of Wolfgang von Kempelen moved its wooden arms, seemingly without human assistance, around the board. The secret? The Turk's arms were operated by a diminutive chess expert crouched inside the cabinet, who operated gears and pulleys to move the Turk's arms. After traveling the world for almost a century, the Turk ended up mothballed in Philadelphia—where it was destroyed in a fire in 1854. [Photo is of John Gaughan's reconstruction of "The Turk."]

2. Microsoft Buys the Catholic Church!

microsoft-logo.jpgWhile the pranksters are still unknown, few press releases have had the impact of the 1994 doozy sent out supposedly by Microsoft, announcing Bill Gates's purchase of the Catholic Church. As reported, Microsoft not only would get sole electronic rights to the good book, but also would pitch in to the church's efforts, namely by engineering a means for delivering the sacraments online. Needless to say, the prank tricked a few folks. So many customers rang up Microsoft in protest that the distraught company finally felt obligated to clear up the mess via (you guessed it!) another press release. The statement full-out denied the allegations, and further said that it hoped to alleviate customer concerns by declaring that the company had no intentions of purchasing any religious institutions, Catholic or otherwise. Of course, it wasn't long before another "press release" surfaced, this one touting IBM's response to Microsoft: a merger with the Episcopal Church.

3. This Is Your Brain on Bananas

Bananas.jpgWhen the alternative newspaper the Berkeley Barb published a satirical article in 1967 claiming that smoking dried banana peels could lead to intoxication, they never expected to be taken seriously. But the oh-so-square national news media didn't get the joke, and publicized the report throughout the nation. Since then, countless wayward teens have been duped into smoking bananas (which can make you nauseated, but not pleasantly so). The hoax really took off, though, in 1970 with the publication of William Powell's The Anarchist's Cookbook, which covers all manner of craft pleasantries from building pipe bombs to manufacturing LSD. Not surprisingly, it also provides a recipe for turning your banana peels into "a fine, black powder" suitable for smoking. Even though no one's ever gotten high from bananas (although they are a great energy fruit, according to Dr. Atkins!), the Barb's hoax has had a stunning shelf life.

4. The Social Text Fiasco

social-text.jpgIn 1996, the respected cultural studies journal Social Text published several complex and dense articles, mainly because that's what respected academic journals do. But one, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," was a hoax by NYU physics professor Alan Sokal, who sought to prove that academic journals will publish any paper that uses big words. To the extent that Sokal's article is readable, it makes a grandly silly argument about the political implications of quantum gravity. Among other ludicrous assertions, the article claims that physical reality does not exist, that the laws of physics are social constructs, and that feminism has implications for mathematical set theory. It's hilarious, if you like that kind of thing, but it's also utter nonsense. After Sokal revealed his hoax in Lingua Franca, many academic journals beefed up their peer review process.

This article originally appeared in the mental_floss book Forbidden Knowledge, which is available in our store.

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Space
Google Street View Now Lets You Explore the International Space Station

Google Street View covers some amazing locations (Antarctica, the Grand Canyon, and Stonehenge, to name a few), but it’s taken until now for the tool to venture into the final frontier. As TechCrunch reports, you can now use Street View to explore the inside of the International Space Station.

The scenes, photographed by astronauts living on the ISS, include all 15 modules of the massive satellite. Viewers will be treated to true 360-degree views of the rooms and equipment onboard. Through the windows, you can see Earth from an astronaut's perspective and a SpaceX Dragon craft delivering supplies to the crew.

Because the imagery was captured in zero gravity, it’s easy to lose sense of your bearings. Get a taste of what ISS residents experience on a daily basis here.

[h/t TechCrunch]

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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Lucy Quintanilla/iStock

Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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