#2. The Vietnam War Ruins Lives at Random
It's a little hard for me, living ass deep as I do in the Age of Irony, to appreciate how awful the Vietnam War drafts must have been. Getting picked at random and told you have to go get shot at and maybe die for no particularly good reason. That's got to suck, and it makes me feel at least a little guilty about how much time I've spent contemplating The Transformers in my life.
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"Sarge, you gotta promise me something. If I don't make it back, you gotta make sure our children grow up to waste their lives designing stupid T-shirts and arguing about videoed games."
It seems almost impossible to imagine anything good coming out of this clusterfuck. But leave it to science to find a way.
The draft during the Vietnam War was based on assigning numbers to specific birthdays at random, with men whose birthdays were assigned lower numbers being more likely to be drafted. Because this was so random, with few confounding factors like location or income to muddy the data, it turned draftees into a statistically ideal group to study the lifetime effects of being drafted. Like, for example, the research that found that men with low numbers (more likely to be drafted) immediately became more anti-war, and ultimately more Democratic leaning.
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(thinking) "It'd be helpful if the candidate that wanted me dead the most had an asterisk or something beside it on the ballot."
And if that seems obvious, consider the sad study that found out that just in case getting shot at and sometimes killed wasn't bad enough, the poor assholes who came back from Vietnam could then look forward to a lifetime of dramatically lower earnings. Like on the order of 15 percent less per year.
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"Also, Sarge, you gotta promise me you'll set up a monthly budget and stick to it. Promise me you'll keep an eye on your entertainment expenses, Sarge. Promise me."
#1. 28,000 Missing Rubber Ducks
In 1992, a container fell off the side of a ship crossing the Pacific Ocean. But instead of being full of things we typically dump in the Pacific, like oil, or zoo animals, or national treasure Tom Hanks, this container was full of rubber ducks. Thousands of them.
And for awhile, that was that, this simple act of sea-littering not much more than a write-off on some insurer's spreadsheet, almost $12 of Chinese plastic gone forever.
Until they started washing ashore.
The ocean is famous for being a harsh mistress, but let's not forget that, in many important respects, it's also quite a large mistress. This fact makes studying some of its larger features quite challenging, like, for example, its surface currents. Satellite imagery can only tell us so much (all those clouds get in the way), and direct measurements of surface currents are impractical because of the expense and the ethical issues with dumping thousands of current-tracking instruments into the ocean.
But if thousands of current-tracking instruments are dumped accidentally, science can go to town! That might seem a grandiose description for rubber ducks, but really, they're perfect for it. They're bright, tough, and relentlessly floaty, and once the news media found out there were scientists tracking the movement of rubber ducks throughout the oceans, regular citizens would know to report found ducks to their local science magistrates.
And so, by tracking where and when these ducks washed up around the world (a bunch crossed the Arctic friggin Ocean and ended up in the North Atlantic), scientists were able to map out major ocean currents to a degree that never would have been possible before.
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Which that useless ass national treasure Tom Hanks never managed.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist and takes great pride in personally spreading stupidity in a manner that future scientists will hopefully be able to take advantage of. Join him on Facebook or Twitter and become part of history.