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.

No Touching

On 31 May 1880, 19-year-old Sunandha Kumariratana, queen of Thailand, was aboard a boat en route to the Bang Pa-In Royal Palace when her vessel suddenly capsized, tossing the pregnant queen and her one-year-old daughter into the water. There were many onlookers, however none jumped in to lend a helping hand. At that time, touching the queen, even to save her life, was punishable by death.

Some quick-thinking bystanders threw buoyant coconuts into the water, hoping the queen could grab them to remain afloat. But she could not swim, and both queen and princess disappeared into the dark water, untouched by commoners’ hands. The following year, King Chulalongkorn, overcome with grief, erected a marble obelisk at Bang Pa-In Palace to commemorate his wife, daughter, and unborn child.

The Sack of Champagne

It is a cliché that Shakespeare ranks among the great inventors of the English language, a commonly-believed fallacy that his vocabulary was larger than that of any other writer, and a simple fact that he is likely the single most-cited author in the Oxford English Dictionary. What is less known is his contribution to the language of German drinking.

One of Shakespeare’s most beloved characters is the great rogue Falstaff, an incorrigible rascal whose taste for drink is matched only by his obesity. In early 19th century Germany, no actor was better known in the part than Ludwig Devrient, whose later life shows what might be called either a strong sympathy for his character’s style—or an early example of tenacious method acting. It was Devrient’s habit, on leaving the stage after playing Falstaff and, as actors tend to do, joining the others at the pub, to enter and bellow one of his character’s defining lines—namely, “Bring me a cup of sack!”

Sack was a very popular type of sherry in Shakespeare’s day, and his drunkards’ drink of choice. But it was not a common drink in the type of taverns that actors could patronise in Germany at the time, and what Devrient was actually calling for was the Bohemian drink of choice of the day—sparkling wine, most likely Champagne.

Champagne is now thought of as a high-class drink, but in the Romantic era it was quaffed in great quantities among artists, whose budget kept them from truly decent drinks. Devrient, touring throughout Germany, repeated his entrance in pub after pub—and as a result, cheap, barely-drinkable sparkling wine is still known in German today as ‘sekt’.

[Ed Note: In a historical parallel, in America’s early colonial days, lobsters were extremely abundant on the east coast, so much so that wealthy residents had no interest in eating the stuff. Lobster tails were served primarily to prisoners and servants, often despite protest. It wasn’t until railways began to serve this cheap foodstuff to inland passengers—passing it off as an exotic east coast delicacy—that it began its rise to the fine dining scene. Ultimately, America accepted the inevitable deliciousness of lobster during World War 2, when lobster was not rationed like other meats. -AB]

Going Under

LBJ driving his Amphicar
LBJ driving his Amphicar

Among other things, former president Lyndon Baines Johnson was known for his collection of unique automobiles, which he referred to as his “presidential toys.” He kept many of these at his ranch in Stonewall, Texas, and among them was a rare Amphicar. As the name implies, the Amphicar is was an amphibious passenger vehicle, the only one mass-produced for civilians. About 3,900 of these vehicles were produced between 1961 and 1968.

While vacationing at his ranch, Johnson delighted in taking guests for rides in this car, without informing them of its unique talent. As a practical joke, he would often speed down a hill, exclaiming “The brakes don’t work!” or “We’re going under!” as he drove the amphibious car into a lake, typically terrifying his passengers in the process.

Internationally Adored

Merriam-Webster may be one of the most respected names in the dictionary business, but the giant isn’t always perfect. In 1934, the company released an edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary including the word “dord,” which was defined as a synonym for “density.” But no such term actually existed within the physics and chemistry lexicon.

This “ghost word” came about after someone at Webster misinterpreted a piece of paper sent in by the company’s chemistry editor. It read, “D or d, cont./density.” What the editor meant to convey is that “density” should be added to the list of words that can be abbreviated with “D.” Dord was somehow assigned a pronunciation guide (dôrd), it slipped past the proofreaders, and it ended up on page 771 of the esteemed catalog of English vocabulary.

Inevitable future line of IKEA wastepaper baskets notwithstanding, “dord” is no longer masquerading as a real word. An editor identified the impostor in 1939, but it wasn’t fully banished from all G & C Merriam Company dictionaries until 1947.

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.

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