It's April Fools Day, so beware of tricksters and pranksters! I wrote a post a couple years ago about the history of this day, and thought it worth sharing with you again, with yet another famous hoax.
Although people aren't entirely certain about the origin of April Fools Day, the popular explanation has to do with Charles IX of France around 1582. He introduced a new calendar, called the Gregorian Calendar, which set New Year's Day as January 1st.
Prior to that, the new year was celebrated for an entire week, ending on April 1st. Many people didn't make the change right away, either because the news didn't reach them for a few years (no internet to instantly spread the news), or because they were stubborn and didn't want to change.
Those who still celebrated the new year in April were called "April fools," and became the butt of ridicule and practical jokes. The were also called April fish (poisson d'avril), because young (and dumb) fish get caught easily. One typical joke was to attach a paper fish to someone's back–like the "kick me" signs of more recent times. By the 1700's, the tradition of playing practical jokes on April 1st had spread to Britain, Scotland, and the American colonies. It is now found throughout the globe.
April Fools jokes have become quite elaborate at times, perpetrated by some unexpected entities. Here is an example, from the Top One Hundred April Fools Day Hoaxes of All time (Museum of Hoaxes):
During an interview on BBC Radio 2, on the morning of 1 April 1976, the British astronomer Patrick Moore announced that at 9:47 AM a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event was going to occur that listeners could experience in their very own homes.
The planet Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would counteract and lessen the Earth's own gravity. Moore told his listeners that if they jumped in the air at the exact moment this planetary alignment occurred, they would experience a strange floating sensation.
When 9:47 AM arrived, BBC2 began to receive hundreds of phone calls from listeners claiming to have felt the sensation. One woman even reported that she and her eleven friends had risen from their chairs and floated around the room. Moore's announcement (which, of course, was a joke) was inspired by a pseudoscientific astronomical theory that had recently been promoted in a book called The Jupiter Effect, alleging that a rare alignment of the planets was going to cause massive earthquakes and the destruction of Los Angeles in 1982.
Over the years there have been some hoaxes that caused great distress. One was the announcement by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia that the world would end on April 1st, 1940. The boradcast message even stated "This is no April Fool joke." Local authorities were flooded with frantic phone calls, and the panic only subsided when the Franklin Institute assured people it had made no such prediction. It was only the Institute's press agent, William Castellini, who planned to use the announcement to publicize an April 1st lecture called "How Will the World End?" He was dismissed from the Institute soon after the incident.
Laughter is good for the soul. Panic is not. If you indulge in pranks, may they be in good taste, and all in fun. Happy April Fools Day, and watch out for tricksters and pranksters!