Of Meteors and Men

In the early 1960s, General Electric proposed a system whereby an astronaut in a space emergency might abandon ship and return to the Earth. The system was originally proposed under the acronym M.O.O.S.E. (Man Out Of Space Easiest), but later replaced with the backronym Manned Orbital Operations Safety Equipment.

The compact design was roughly 200 pounds, and about the size of a suitcase. The endangered astronaut would don their space suit and exit the spacecraft with MOOSE in hand. Upon unpacking the MOOSE, the astronaut would strap a parachute to their chest, clamber into a polyester bag (while in a space suit, in microgravity), and activate a dispenser to inflate the bag with expanding polyurethane foam. Once fully entombed in hardened foam, the astronaut would use a hand-held retrorocket to orient the bowl-shaped escape pod, then engage a small rocket to propel themselves toward the Earth. An ablative heat shield would prevent the bag (and its occupant) from burning up on re-entry1, a radio would provide communication with ground-based stations, a manually-deployed parachute would ensure a survivable landing speed, and the foam underside would serve as a cushion for landing (or as a flotation device for a water-based landing). The polyurethane was formulated such that the astronaut could break their way our of the foamy cocoon upon landing, with easy access to a survival kit while awaiting rescue.

Despite the feasibility of this emergency escape pod, and an encouraging series of ground-based proving tests, neither the US Air Force nor NASA was interested. General Electric quietly shelved the project.

1 Contrary to common belief, when an object enters a planet’s atmosphere, the fiery heat that engulfs it is not due to friction with the air. At the supersonic speeds involved with atmospheric entry, much of the air cannot move aside fast enough, and the air trapped in front of the craft becomes extremely compressed. When a gas is compressed, its temperature increases proportionately, enough to cause combustion in the case of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Friction is a factor, but not a significant one.

Of Earwax and Ethnicity

One way of determining a person’s likely ethnicity is looking inside their ears. Simply put, there are two kinds of earwax: dry and white, or wet and brownish. Genetic research shows that Caucasians tend to have the sticky type, while East Asians generally have the dry kind. This is due to a variant of the ABCC11 gene, which also affects the chemical that produces body odor. Koreans, Japanese, and others of East Asian descent typically have un-sticky earwax and un-smelly bodies due to the same gene.

National Treasure

Inside America’s Mount Rushmore National Monument there is a “secret” chamber known as the Hidden Hall of Records. Therein, under a 1,200 pound granite capstone, which is atop a titanium vault, which encloses a teakwood box, lie sixteen porcelain enamel panels with the texts of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights etched upon them. It also houses a biography of Gutzon Borglum—the supervising sculptor of Mount Rushmore—and the story of the presidents. The builders’ intent was to preserve copies of these documents for the far future. Just outside the vault is an inscription reading:

“…let we place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away.”

—Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor

The Hidden Hall of Records is tucked amidst the cliffs on the backside of the mountain, and is not accessible to the public.

Relatedly, the carved heads are 80 times larger than an average human head. Originally Thomas Jefferson’s face was carved on Washington’s right, but the sculptors decided the rock there was too weak, so they blasted the face away and started again on Washington’s left. The original design of Mt. Rushmore included torsos, but funds ran short and builders stopped while they were a head.

Well-Rounded

The most perfectly spherical object ever observed by mankind is the electron. In a series of experiments led by physicist Jony Hudson at Imperial College London, electrons were anchored to a molecule of ytterbium fluoride and measured 25 million times with a laser beam. These data showed that the negatively charged subatomic particles are a perfect sphere to within one billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter. To illustrate this fantastic sphericity, the research team said that if one were to scale up an electron to the size of our solar system—about 12 billion kilometers wide—any deviation from its roundness would be smaller than the width of a human hair.

The researchers were disappointed at this outcome—they were hoping to find some irregularity in the shape of the electron to help explain why our universe has more matter than antimatter.

The Making of the Archetypal Englishman

Jonas Hanway (1712–1786) may be the most contradictory character ever involved in the formation of British culture. On the one hand, he was likely the first man in London to carry a “brolly” (a.k.a. umbrella), establishing a trend that continues to this day. This, incidentally, was in the face of vocal opposition from coachmen, who were afraid that the new invention would cost them trade, as they were accustomed to being the only option on a rainy day.

On the other hand, Hanway was less pioneering in his long-standing feud with the famed author Dr. Samuel Johnson over the issue of tea. Dr. Johnson was for it, and Hanway very much against, as he explained in his 350-page An Essay on Tea, Considered As PERNICIOUS TO HEALTH, obstructing INDUSTRY, and impoverishing the NATION: also an Account of its GROWTH, and great CONSUMPTION in these KINGDOMS, with several POLITICAL REFLECTIONS; and THOUGHTS on PUBLIC LOVE, in Thirty-Two LETTERS to Two Ladies. Among other things, he argues therein at great length that drinking tea is an ‘offence against nature’, because humans are not meant to drink hot water, and that this ‘flatulent liquor’ causes scurvy, weak nerves, and ‘paralitic disorders’, ‘convulses the bowels’ (which he knows ‘from my own experience’), and leads to bad teeth, and a general lowering in the beauty quotient of English women.

Fortunately for tea devotees, the author/dictionary-writer prevailed. The brolly-bearing English tea quaffer had only to wait a century for Edward Coke to complete the cliché with a bowler hat.

Emphasis Mine

Many people have experienced the odd psychological sensation that results from repeating a word until it no longer seems to have any meaning. This is a recognized phenomenon in psycholinguistics known as ‘semantic satiation’ or ‘semantic saturation.’ When the phenomenon occurs, the neurons that deal with the connection between the pronunciation (or spelling) of the given word and its meaning have become so overwhelmed by repeated, emphasized activation that they begin producing inhibitory signals in protest, sometimes called ‘reactive inhibition,’ thus briefly disabling the listener’s ability to connect the pronunciation (or spelling) to the meaning of the word.

Short of Giants

In the 17th Century there was a shortage of giants in Europe, and only one man was to blame. The giant-greedy Frederick the First of Prussia.

The king’s agents fanned out across Europe, on the lookout for tall men to press into the fabled Grand Grenadiers of Potsdam. Diplomats trying to get on Frederick’s good side quickly learned to send Freddy larger-than-normal men as human presents. Every year the Russian Tsar Peter the Great—who stood at six foot seven inches tall himself—made a gift of fifty giants. Once, when Peter took back an especially large specimen and replaced him with a shorter one, Frederick refused to speak to any Russian diplomat for months. “The wound,” the King explained, “is still too raw.” Fredrick even tried to ensure a race of giants by forcing all the tall men in Prussia to marry tall women.

Though King Frederick wouldn’t ever dare risk his giants in anything resembling an actual war, he didn’t let his giant army just gather dust in a cupboard. He trained with the regiment every day, and showed them off to foreign dignitaries. Whenever he was feeling gloomy, he would have the regiment march through his rooms, led by the regiment’s mascot, a live (though presumably normal-sized) bear.

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