In the 7th century A.D., Æthelthryth—better known by her Anglicized name, Audrey—was a daughter of East Anglian (present-day England) royalty who, despite becoming a queen, was primarily interested in a life of spiritual devotion. She even became a nun and founded her own abbey before eventually passing away and being canonized as a saint. Legend has it, however, that one folly that lingered from St. Audrey’s highborn youth was a love of necklaces. And so the locals began to commemorate her by producing fine, lace necklaces. Fast forward to the 17th century, when three significant changes had occurred: The lace necklaces had grown to become low-quality goods sold to those on pilgrimage. The Puritans had ascended to power, and were busy looking down their noses at anything that smacked of prideful frippery. And the name of St. Audrey’s Lace had gradually been shortened to Tawdry Lace. Thus, the word “tawdry” came to mean anything cheap and vulgar.
You’d never guess and answer. First, because the answer is the tuatara, an animal you probably haven’t heard of unless you’re from New Zealand. And second, because its record-setting evolutionary rate is disguised by the fact that its appearance hasn’t changed much in millions of years. The tuatara resembles a lizard, except that it has features that are more closely related to fish and birds, as well as some truly unique attributes, such as a light-sensing third eye. These creatures are the last living members of an order of animals that thrived during the Mesozoic period (as in, the age of dinosaurs), and they actually predate the appearance of lizards and snakes. But while fossils reveal that the tuatara looks essentially the same now as it did then, DNA extracted from those fossils compared to DNA from living specimens reveals a faster rate of change than is found in any other animal. Sadly, climate change is having an adverse effect on the tuatara: their gender is determined by the incubating temperature of each egg, and as their habitat grows warmer, fewer and fewer females are being born. While they may be the fastest evolving species on earth, evolution itself is such a slow process that it won’t be able to outpace this problem.
Yes. It’s not only possible, but we have actual time travelers walking among us today. According to the Theory of Relativity, it is possible for speed or gravity to make time pass differently for separate observers. If that sounds vague and science-y, maybe a real-world example will help: if highly accurate, atomic clocks are aligned perfectly on earth, and one of those is sent into space, then one of those clocks will run faster than the other one. This is not caused by a mechanical problem with the clock, but happens through time itself being bent by the forces involved in space travel. So, all of those astronauts hanging out on the space station? Their time is passing faster than ours, and when they return to earth, they are actually younger than they would be if they had remained here. Ok, so not much younger, but it’s still true. Michael Finke and Peggy Whitson, who have spent more time on the space station than any other American man and woman, are 0.0093 and 0.0092 seconds younger, to be exact. And the man who has spent more time on the space station than anyone in history—Russia’s Sergei Krikalev, with 803 days in orbit—is a full 0.02 seconds younger! Maybe one day we will be able to reverse the time dilation, and these explorers can tell us about the wonders of life half a second in the future!
Most of us have had it pounded into our heads by dedicated English teachers that our adverbs should end with “ly.” We should “study diligently” instead of “study diligent,” and heaven help the child who tries to “talk correct.” But it turns out, this “ly” bias has not always been the case. For example, in the Old Testament, King Darius is “exceeding glad” that Daniel wasn’t eaten by lions. When Daniel Defoe was wanted to describe the weather on Robinson Crusoe’s island, he did so by saying it was “excessive hot” and the sea was “dreadful high.” It wasn’t until the 18th century when diehard grammar enthusiasts began insisting on an “ly” in order to distinguish between adverbs and adjectives. And yet some flat adverbs have stuck with is. We sleep tight, rather than tightly. Time goes fast, rather than fastly. And, of course, we all work very hard at work, rather than working hardly.
Rocks don’t seem very fast, what with their lack of mobility and all. But they simply don’t let that stop them. The largest rocks on earth—our tectonic plates—move at cruising speeds reaching 2 inches per year. And falling rocks can really pick up speed, of course, as they accelerate at a rate of 32.174 ft/s2. In contrast, it has been much more difficult to calculate the speed of the mysterious sailing stones in Death Valley National Park. These rocks, ranging from pebbles to slabs weighing hundreds of pounds, are found scattered around the parched, dirt surface of the Racetrack Playa with what appear to be skid marks behind them, tracing a path hundreds of feet long and not always in a straight line. While these tracks have been observed for at least a hundred years, the rocks’ movement only occurs every few years, and it has never actually been observed by humans. Until 2013. In December of that year, some researchers used time lapse photography and GPS tracking, and were able to document the movement of 60 different stones. It turns out that, under certain winter conditions, a sheet of ice just millimeters thick that forms on the ground, providing a low-friction surface across which stones can slide when blown by the wind—moving up to 200 meters in a month.