In February, a 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste burst at a storage facility in New Mexico. The investigation has pinned it on a surprising culprit: Kitty litter.

It turns out that the clay is perfect for stabilizing volatile compounds, so they use it when storing radioactive waste. But somewhere along the line, someone switched to organic kitty litter, which was plant-based…and chemicals in the litter reacted with the chemicals being stored, causing it to heat up and expand.

The off-the-wall nature of the story appeals to me, but it also nicely illustrates several points:

  1. Just because something has a scary industrial use, that doesn’t make it harmful for more mundane uses, like lining the cat box. (See also: cleaning with baking soda and vinegar.)
  2. Everything has chemicals in it, even totally green organic products. That’s what complex materials are made of!
  3. Organic/natural is not always better. It depends on what you’re using it for. (Though to be fair, clay is natural too.)
  4. Swapping out ingredients might be fine sometimes, but not always. Write clear specs if you’re designing, and follow them if you’re building/procuring. (See also: Substituting a common allergen for a rare one, and “I chose X because of Y.”)
  5. We still don’t have a real solution for disposing of radioactive waste, only storing it.

There’s an old children’s joke that goes like this:

“Did you know the word gullible isn’t in the dictionary?”

Then when the other child goes to look it up, you laugh at them for believing you.

On the face of it, it’s a lesson in not believing everything you hear.

But when it comes down to it, the child who goes to look it up isn’t necessarily being gullible; he or she is doing research to confirm their expectations. Yes, gullible should be in there, but let’s make sure. Once you’ve seen a number of dictionaries that all have gullible in them, you can safely ignore the next person who claims that it’s missing, and insist that they put up their evidence.

That’s science.

The child who says, “Really?” and then goes around repeating it? He’s the one who needs a lesson in skepticism.

So the next time someone sends along a bizarre “fact,” especially one intended to spur you to action…dig a little deeper. Sometimes all it takes is two minutes of fact checking to save your credibility. You don’t want to get known as the guy who really did think gullible wasn’t in the dictionary…over and over and over again.

Crispian Jago presents the history of science as a subway map (cool visualization).

The comic strip The Oatmeal tackles the irony of mobile app pricing. Or, in the worlds of “Weird Al” Yankovic: “I hate to waste a buck ninety-nine.”

A 19th-century terraforming experiment: Ascension Island’s artificial ecosystem, instigated by Charles Darwin.

Author Seanan McGuire explains why movies’ financial success matters to fans: Since Scott Pilgrim failed at the box office, similar movies aren’t going to be funded for quite a while. I’ve actually been meaning to write up something similar, but haven’t gotten around to it.