Author: Erika Nesvold

The Mystery Lake of the Himalayas


Nestled in a valley high in the Himalayas in northern India is a small lake named Roopkund, known locally as Mystery Lake. The area around Roopkund Lake is uninhabited; at an altitude of over five kilometers, the lake is frozen for all but one month out of the year, and ice storms occasionally pose a significant threat. The mystery concerns the origin of the occupants of the lake: not fish or other common lake-dwellers, but hundreds of human skeletons.

Roopkund Lake, also known as Skeleton Lake, and its surroundings are littered with around 200 sets of human remains. The state of the skeletons indicates that they have been lying in and around the lake for many centuries, but their exact age and the cause of the mass death was unknown until 2004, when National Geographic sent a team of researchers to retrieve some of the skeletons for study.

The National Geographic team discovered that the skeletons dated from 850 C.E. Most of the previous owners of the bones originated in Iran, although a few were from the local Indian population. Fractures in the skulls hint at the cause of death: devastating blows to the top of the heads, from rounded objects roughly the size and shape of a cricket ball (or slightly larger than a baseball). There are no signs of injury to any other part of the bodies. The research team finally concluded that a band of travelers from Iran, traversing the mountains with locally-hired porters, was caught in a terrible hailstorm. Unable to seek shelter, they succumbed to the blunt trauma and their bodies tumbled down the steep slopes, eventually collecting in the lake.

Starving for Answers

In early 1945, 36 American men lay in their bunks in a windowless room, each man alone with his thoughts as he tried to fall asleep despite the hunger that gnawed at his gut. Just a few weeks earlier, they had all been fit, healthy young men, eager to serve their country. But then their overseers had decreed that their rations were to be cut in half, and the men assigned to feed them had shown no mercy. Now they were so weak from hunger that they could barely roll over in their bunks. During the day, they tried to smile and laugh with each other to keep their spirits up, but at night the depression that accompanied starvation seeped in, telling them to give in, to give up. But the men soldiered on, despite the fact that they were not actually soldiers at all: they were pacifists who had volunteered to be starved for the sake of science.

A Googol by Any Other Name

When inventing a name for an imaginary and/or ridiculous object or concept, the best resource is often a child. A clear example of this arrived in the late 1930s, when mathematician Edward Kasner was searching for a simple name for a very large number. The number was a 1 with one hundred zeros after it: 10,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000,​000, also known as 10100, or ten duotrigintillion. Kasner turned to his 9-year-old nephew, Milton Sirotta, for ideas, and Milton promptly suggested the name “googol.” The name stuck, and Kasner brought the googol into public consideration in his 1940 book Mathematics and the Imagination as an illustration of a very large number. For example, if one were to count all subatomic particles in the entire observable universe, the total would be less than a googol.

Young Milton was not content to stop at this very large number, however. He next proposed that there exists an even larger number than a googol, called a googolplex. While initially Milton defined a googolplex as a 1 followed by as many zeros as one could write before one collapsed, his uncle suggested a more precise definition: a 1 followed by a googol zeros, or 1010100. There is not enough time or space in the universe to write out such a number in our current base-10 system, but thanks to Kasner and his nephew, it can be expressed with a mere handful of letters.

In 1996, a young Larry Page wanted to give his new search engine a name that evoked vast quantities of data to be placed at the fingertips of its users. After tossing ideas around with his officemate Sean Anderson, Larry decided that “googol” was the perfect term. Sean did a quick check online to see whether the domain name was available. It was, and a multi-billion dollar company was born, but owing to Sean’s clumsy spelling, the search engine is now known as Google.

Victory in Death

Frank Hayes must have been excited as he climbed into the saddle on 04 June 1923. While the 35-year-old horse trainer and stableman had plenty of experience riding horses, this was only Frank’s second race as a jockey. He had worked hard to drop 12 pounds in just a few days to race Sweet Kiss, a bay mare owned by Miss A. M. Frayling, in a steeplechase at Belmont Park. The two-mile race was a nail-biter. Sweet Kiss and the odds-on favorite, Gimme, stayed within two horse lengths of each other for the entire course. At one point, Sweet Kiss swerved and nearly collided with Gimme, but she quickly recovered and crossed the finish line a length and a half ahead, Frank leaning closely over her neck.

Frank had won his very first race, and Miss Frayling rushed from the stands to congratulate him. But as she approached, Frank, who at first seemed to be reaching down to adjust his stirrup, toppled off the back of the horse and landed in a crumpled heap. The track’s official physician, Dr. Vorhees, quickly examined the man and pronounced him dead. It was later determined that Frank had probably died during the race, of a massive heart attack. His body had slumped over her neck and somehow stayed in the saddle. Sweet Kiss never raced again, but the Jockey Club decided that since Frank had finished the race on her back, he was the official winner of the steeplechase, making him the only jockey to ever win a race after death.

The Japanese Art of Self-Preservation

Please put on sunglasses so that you are not blinded by the shininess of our newest author, Erika Nesvold.

The mountains of Japan’s Yamagata prefecture are considered sacred by the Buddhists in the region. These holy sites are sparsely populated, their forests interrupted only occasionally by isolated Buddhist temples. Many of the men serving in the temples come seeking solitude and an escape from the modern world. They were probably a bit startled, then, when a group of scientists and historians showed up in 1960 and asked to see their mummies.

The year before, several researchers investigating rumors of local mummies had discovered six mummified Buddhist monks in five temples in Yamagata prefecture. Soon after the discovery, several Japanese universities formed the Investigating Committee for Mummies to study them. The mummies were each kept on display in a place of honor in the temples, and were maintained by the temple monks. Unlike the Egyptian mummies that are most familiar to the Western world, these Japanese mummies were not wrapped in cloth. Instead, they were dressed in monks’ robes, their dried, leathery skin visible on their faces and hands.

Mummies were not unheard of in Japan. In fact, four leaders of the Fujiwara tribe had been mummified in the twelfth century and were still kept in a great golden temple hall in northeastern Japan. But mummification is a tricky business, especially in a climate as humid as Japan’s. The researchers hoped to examine the temple mummies to uncover the details of this specific mummification process.

To prevent bacteria, insects, and fungi from decomposing the mummy, the mummifier usually begins by extracting the internal organs to remove the most tempting food sources for the critters of decay. So when the researchers began examining the Yamagata mummies, they were startled to find that the monks’ internal organs were still intact, and had begun to dry before death. Close examination of the temple records revealed that this live-mummification wasn’t some kind of torture or ritual murder, but rather ritual suicide. These monks had mummified themselves.

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