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.

The Lonely Tower

A single apartment sits at the top of an ancient tower in the middle of the Jordanian desert. The tower at Um er-Rasas stands 46-feet-tall with no door, no stairs, and no way to ever leave. The square base of the tower, one mile north of the Byzantine city of Kastron Mefa’a is completely solid and constructed so well it still stands after 1,000 years of desert wind and sun. The church and courtyard at its base have crumbled into dust.

Now home to only birds, the tower may be the only standing structure left from the Stylite movement. These ascetic, Christian monks, were so dedicated to self-discipline and depriving themselves of comfort they lived in isolation high above the rest of the world. The Jordanian tower likely housed one of these Stylite monks in the fifth-century.

The Stylites followed the footsteps of St. Simeon Stylite the Elder. Known for his unceasing prayer, Simeon became so popular to pilgrims he had no time for his own devotions. To guarantee he had quiet, Simeon climbed aboard a platform on the top of a tower in the town of Aleppo in modern-day Syria. Although he allowed visitors to climb a ladder to seek his counsel in the afternoons, he never left. Simeon ascended to his platform in 423 A.D. and remained until his death 37 years later.

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.

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