Fluid Identity

When a caterpillar enters the chrysalis stage, it is not merely sprouting wings to become a moth or butterfly. Enzymes inside the chrysalis completely dissolve the entire caterpillar—brain, organs, and all—into a nutrient-rich slurry of protein. Only a few cells remain alive. Once the caterpillar has self-digested, an alternate section of DNA inside the few remaining living cells is expressed, and the cells use the nutrient soup to multiply and develop the new organism. In essence the animal is a chimera; the caterpillar lives and dies, and an entirely new organism emerges from its remains.

Astonishingly, in spite of the radical liquefication of the original organism and its entire nervous system, some memories survive the transition. Researchers at Georgetown University have found that they can train caterpillars to avoid particular odors by associating them with a mild electric shock. After these trained caterpillars metamorphosized into moths they continued to avoid the shock-associated odors, demonstrating some kind of as-yet-inexplicable memory retention from the larval stage.

Tastes on a Plane

Consumption of tomato juice is unusually popular on commercial airline flights. For example, German airline Lufthansa estimates they serve about 53,000 gallons (about 200,000 liters) of the stuff a year, which is not too far off from the 59,000 gallons (223,000 liters) of beer they serve annually on their airplanes. Its popularity has something to do with the history of drink service on airplanes. When commercial flights began, alcohol was complimentary and therefore hugely popular. Because of the expense, airlines eventually began charging for booze, but the mixers remained available free of charge.

However, that’s not the whole story. Studies in chambers that mimic airplane cabins in flight indicate there’s a scientific reason for tomato juice’s airborne popularity. The modern airplane cabin’s combination of low pressure, loud engine noise, and desert-like humidity has an impact on a human’s sense of taste. These factors dull humans’ sensitivity to sweet and salty flavors by about 30%, but do not impact the umami flavors that are important to the taste of tomato juice. As a result, people consistently rate tomato juice as tasting better in conditions observed in an airplane than in conditions normally seen on the ground. These studies also found that sour, bitter, and spicy flavors are mostly unaffected.

The same effects that enhance the flavor of tomato juice seem to be partially to blame for airline food’s infamous lack of appeal. In an effort to circumvent the phenomenon, some airlines conduct taste tests in simulated airplane cabins.

Do Not Go Lulled Into That Good Night

While today’s vision of the conductor is that of the be-tuxedoed individual standing in front of an orchestra holding a thin strip of wood, the baton is actually a relative newcomer to the musical world. Before its introduction in the 19th century, conductors used any rod-shaped object that happened to be handy, everything from a rolled-up musical score to a violin bow—or, in the case of Jean-Baptiste Lully, master of music and sycophant to Louis XIV, a walking cane.

Often considered the founder of the modern orchestra, due to his fixing its basis in a five-part string section and ensuring the dominance of the violin family over the viols, Lully conducted not by waving his cane like a lance at his musicians, but by raising his long, heavy, gilded, and ribbon-bedecked ambulation accessory up and down in time like a drum major, alternating between striking it on the floor and thrusting it straight up in the air. For a man of Lully’s temper, this was perhaps not the wisest choice. While conducting the orchestra in a rehearsal of his rendition of Te Deum, to be performed to celebrate the King’s recovery from surgery, the composer grew furious at the musicians’ inability to do quite what he wanted, and struck the floor particularly hard. Unfortunately, he had failed to notice that his foot was in the way.

Unless he was a particularly melodious screamer, the Te Deum’s harmony was presumably further spoiled by Lully’s subsequent howl of pain. The injury was substantial, and in the following days, infection set in. Being a dancer, Lully refused to have his leg amputated. Gangrene migrated upwards from his foot, settled in his brain, and killed him.

Curiously, the reciprocating cane method of conducting has not been revived by the original instrument movement.

Poor Execution

Jack Ketch was a man in need of a career change. As the official executioner during King Charles II’s 17th-century reign, Ketch handled a number of political executions. However, he lacked a knack for the job. He frequently required as many as five swings before successfully beheading a prisoner. His butchery of the politician William Russell was so messy and reviled that Ketch took it upon himself to write a pamphlet after the execution, apologizing for his poor performance and blaming it on Russell’s inability to hold still.

At Ketch’s most high-profile assignment, the execution of the rebel Duke of Monmouth, the duke mentioned Ketch’s earlier bungling of the Russell execution. This made Ketch nervous, and his three shaky axe strikes failed to complete the severing. Pleading, “I can’t do it,” Ketch attempted to flee the site, but the sheriffs forced him to return and finish the job. It took several more hacks with the axe and the assistance of a knife to successfully separate Monmouth’s head from his body.

Due to his notoriety, “Jack Ketch” became a generic term in the UK for executioners and Satan.

Double Life

The Billy Tipton Trio, Tipton pictured center.
The Billy Tipton Trio, Tipton pictured center.

Billy Tipton was a jazz musician and bandleader who gained a following in the Pacific Northwest during the 1940s and 1950s. He retired from music and adopted three sons with his common law wife. In 1989 at the age of 74, Tipton died due to complications from an untreated peptic ulcer. It was only after his death that Tipton’s family learned he was biologically female. The day after his funeral, his secret was revealed to the public.

Dorothy Lucille Tipton was born in 1914 and left home in the 1930s to pursue a career in music. Tipton initially began dressing as a man during performances to further his career, but was living full time as a man by 1940. He had many relationships with women over the years, keeping his biological sex a secret by telling his lovers he had been in a serious car accident that damaged his genitals and required him to bind his chest to protect broken ribs. He was able to keep his biological sex a secret from the world for almost fifty years. His biological family, however, was unaware of his double life—whenever he visited home he temporarily became Dorothy again.

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.

Titan the Bolts

On 18 September 1980, an Air Force airman was conducting routine maintenance high in the missile silo at a Titan II nuclear launch complex in Arkansas. In the course of his work he lost his grip on a large ratchet socket, and it tumbled into the depths of the silo. After falling approximately 80 feet it impacted one of the nuclear missile’s propellant tanks, causing a small rupture and leak.

After assessing the severity of the leak, Air Force personnel decided to evacuate the facility. Within the hour they decided to also evacuate nearby civilian residents. Early the following morning, just after the last two airmen emerged from the silo, the fuel-saturated atmosphere inside exploded, blowing the 740-ton launch door 200 feet into the air. One of the two men who had just emerged died of injuries sustained in the blast, the other was injured. The missile’s nuclear warhead was found about 100 feet from the launch complex’s entry gate, but very fortunately its safeties were intact and there was no loss of radioactive material, nor localized atomic devastation.

Rather than repairing the launch complex—estimated at $225,322,670—the Air Force decided to bulldoze surrounding soil, gravel, concrete debris into the hole and retire the site. On 18 February 2000, Titan II Missile Launch Complex 374-7 Site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

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