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Science made for April Foolery


The Virgin Group declares that its founder, Richard Branson, has bought Pluto and is reinstating it as a planet.

Which of these headlines from today are April Fools' jokes? British billionaire buys Pluto, reinstates it as planet ... Quest to find Northwest Passage stymied by imaginary mountains ... One Mercury probe rediscovers another ... Spaceship guru hangs it up, is moving to lake resort ... Arsenic life found in sea monkeys ...

Tales of discovery are tailor-made for scientific foolery, because scientific advances and exploration almost always take place outside the sphere of everyday life.

You can't instantly verify whether gorillas at the Port Lympne Zoo are being issued iPads — but who knows what weird behavior primatologists might be studying? So if The Sun has a big spread about the "Planet of the Apps," there's just enough plausibility to keep you going. (And in fact, zoo is already famous for honest-to-goodness shots of a gorilla that walks like a man, a phenomenon that's the subject of serious study.) 

Without further ado, here's a roundup of today's scientific foolery and non-foolery:


Richard Branson buys Pluto, reinstates it as a planet: After setting up what's likely to be the first private-sector space tourism venture, this is a natural for the British billionaire. Here's what Virgin says in its announcement: "As a firm supporter of small businesses, Sir Richard is hoping to hoping to set an example for struggling entrepreneurs facing setbacks by having Pluto reinstated as an official planet, after its declassification by the International Astronomical Union in 1996 [actually, it was 2006]. Already at the forefront of space travel with Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard is having a special deep space vehicle built that will help bulk up Pluto to its required planetary mass." Virgin says the mission is due for launch on April 1, 2012.


The Messenger mission team distributed this April 1 photo of the ancient Mariner 10 probe at Mercury.

Encounter with the ancient Mariner: The team behind NASA's Messenger mission to Mercury released this photo of NASA's Mariner 10 probe, which flew past the planet in 1974 and 1975 but then faded into oblivion ... or did it? Navigation team members speculated that solar neutrinos or outgassing may have caused changes in the ancient Mariner's trajectory. One engineer described the sight as follows: "A speck, a mist, a shape, I wist!"

Unicorn at Tower of London? It's raven mad: Britain's Metro reports on mysterious remains discovered by archaeologists.

First-ever poker tournament in space: CardsChat says it's working with Virgin Galactic to get "poker gladiators" onto the International Space Station for a $10 million duel. Next up: Lunar Poker Tour 2012. (True story: Virgin was working on an online game with a space ride as the ultimate payoff, but that project fizzled out.)

Herschel to be refilled with helium: The team behind the Europe's Herschel Space Observatory suggest that the probe could be brought in for docking at the International Space Station for a mission-extending coolant fill-up.

Animal Planet announces TV deal with Bronx Zoo cobra: The latest celebrity gets its own reality-TV show, according to USA Today.

Physicists arrested after supercollider break-in: They really did take a peek at the abandoned Superconducting Super-Collider site in Texas, but Physics Buzz kicks it up a notch with an April 1 arrest report.


ThinkGeek features Arsenic-Based Sea Monkeys as one of its April 1 featured items.

Arsenic-based Sea Monkeys for sale: This offering from ThinkGeek capitalizes on findings claiming that microbes from a California lake could be switched from using phosphorus to using arsenic. ThinkGeek has a whole lineup of April 1 products, including "Star Wars" lightsaber popsicles and De-3D glasses. (Those might help when you're checking out the XK3D online comic.)

In a surprise find, it's Hugs, not Higgs: CERN reports that a 16-year-old student has found the elusive but charming Hugs boson.


Imaginary mountains thwart expedition: Britain's Royal Society has put a series of historical manuscripts online as part of its "Turning the Pages" project — including Edward Sabine's account of an 1818 voyage in search of a Northwest Passage through the waters of the Canadian Arctic. The expedition's commander, John Ross, ordered the ships to turn back because the way was blocked by what he called "Croker's Mountains" — a mountain range that turns out not to have existed. Why did Ross think they were there? Who knows?

Spaceship guru retires, will leave Mojave: The Los Angeles Times reports that Scaled Composites' Burt Rutan, designer of the first private-sector craft to go into outer space (SpaceShipOne) as well as Virgin Galactic's suborbital spaceship (SpaceShipTwo), is retiring after today and will move from Mojave, Calif., to the resort area of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. The story makes it sound as if Rutan, who has been dealing with health problems, will have to pass up the opportunity to fly into space.

Belly button biodiversity under study: New Scientist highlights the Belly Button Biodiversity project, which sounds like an April Fools' joke but apparently is not.


Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto." And if you're listening, Sir Richard ... sign me up for that Pluto-plumping mission.