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Poet, inventor, and businesswoman Amanda Theodosia Jones learned firsthand why 19th century America was a tough time and place to be a female entrepreneur, especially one with romantic and spiritual sensibilities. In her long and storied career, Jones made remarkable advances in food safety and other fields, collecting a dozen patents along the way. She relied on not just her ingenuity and diligence, but some influential and very unlikely friends.

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When Germany was divided in two after the Second World War, military leaders recognized the need for liaison between the Soviet-occupied East Germany and the US/British occupied West Germany. To this end, the military governments agreed to exchange a fixed number of representatives who would have the freedom to live and move somewhat freely throughout the country. These representatives would serve to facilitate communication, as well as preventing possible hostilities. Naturally, enterprising spy agencies saw these individuals as vectors for intelligence-gathering.

The British liaison mission was known as British Commanders’-in-Chief Mission to the Soviet Forces in Germany (BRIXMIS), and one of their favorite means of information-gathering was to “tamarisk,” a bit of British jargon referring to the practice of sifting through military trash for interesting documents. As the early days of the Cold War unfolded, BRIXMIS officials began to realize that the quantity of useful tamarisk discoveries was inversely correlated with the Soviets’ supply of toilet paper. Evidently, whenever East Germany’s sanitary supplies dwindled, Soviet soldiers tended to improvise by moving stacks of bureaucratic documents from the filing cabinets to the Wasserklosetts. The Soviets knew it would clog the drains to flush the used sheets, so they installed special bins to hold soiled manuals, tainted code sheets, redacted correspondence, and so on. These were periodically emptied into the general trash, their aromatic contents eventually making their way to British intelligence. Upon discovering the cause of these...

Synesthesia is a neurological phenomenon in which certain sensory concepts are strongly linked to each other in seemingly random but persistent ways. Though the pairings are unique to each individual and can cover any type of sensation from sound to touch to emotion, the most commonly-reported type is grapheme-color synesthesia, or connecting letters and numbers to particular hues. A patient with synesthesia may associate the number 3 with the color blue, for example, to the degree that he or she reports seeing all 3s as blue regardless of what shade they may actually be written in.

Opponents, however, have argued that these may be nothing more than accidental mnemonics, or simple memory associations of a forgotten origin. Toddlers often play with magnetic alphabet sets, for example, and who can say whether the capricious color choices of a toy manufacturer are not really at the root of an adult who claims to see the letter A as red? Modern fMRI scans have allowed researchers to visualize the activated areas of the brain and prove the existence of synesthesia, but the expense and time for these scans is still prohibitive for large-scale studies. Instead, one of the foremost synesthesia researchers, Jamie Ward, has created a number of simple tests to quickly identify true “synesthetes,” who are now known make up a little over 1% of the population (though not all of those are of the grapheme-color variety.)

Consider the...

One of the more controversial trades in baseball history was announced on 04 March 1973, just before the start of the 1973 baseball season. Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson, both pitchers for the New York Yankees, called separate press conferences to announce to the world that they had decided to “trade lives.” “Don’t make anything sordid out of this,” 31-year-old Peterson implored the press. His 27-year-old colleague Kekich agreed. “Don’t say this was wife-swapping, because it wasn’t. We didn’t swap wives, we swapped lives.” Kekich’s wife Susanne traded places with Peterson’s wife Marilyn, along with each family’s children and pets. The idea to swap husbands in this way had apparently began as a lark some months earlier, but upon trying it out, they enjoyed the change and decided to make it permanent.

Fritz Peterson and Susanne were still happily married as of 2013, forty years after the infamous trade. “I could not be happier with anybody in the world,” Fritz Peterson said in a 2013 interview. “‘Mama’ and I go out and party every night. We’re still on...

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...

On 13 May 1960, a NASA Thor-Delta rocket carried the agency’s new Echo 1 satellite into a 1,000 mile orbit around the Earth. It was a 156.995 pound metalized sphere 100 feet in diameter, essentially an enormous, shiny balloon made of the same mylar as party balloons of today. It required forty thousand pounds of air to fully inflate the sphere at sea level, but in the rarefied atmosphere in orbit it only required a few pounds of gas.

Echo 1 was a passive satellite, used to reflect transcontinental and intercontinental telephone, radio, and television signals. It was so large and so reflective that it was easily visible to the naked eye for much of the Earth. It was expected to remain in orbit until sometime in 1964, but it survived much longer, and did not burn up in the atmosphere until 24 May 1968, eight years after its launch.

Its sister “satelloon” Echo 2 was even larger at 135 feet in diameter, therefore it was even more conspicuous while it was in orbit from 1964-1969. Both balloons were sufficiently large and lightweight that they experienced detectable pressure from the solar wind, providing support for the concept of a solar sail. They also secretly served as an early rudimentary GPS system, using the balloons’ positions and instruments to calculate the exact location of Moscow for America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

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A lengthy study of ‘crack babies’ born to cocaine addicts in Philadelphia in the 1980s and 1990s ended in 2013 with an unexpected result. The average IQ amongst the ‘crack babies’ now in their early 20s was 79.0. However, the control group, who were socioeconomically similar but not born to crack addicts, had an average IQ of only 81.9. The cocaine exposure appeared to have only a small and non-significant detrimental effect on the average cognitive functioning of the children of addicts. But both groups were below the average range for the United States (90 to about 110). Further study led the team to a surprise conclusion: both groups had been unable to reach their full intellectual potential due to chronic poverty.

110 of the original ‘crack babies’ now in their 20s were followed through to the end of the study. 108 of them are still alive, but only 6 of them have graduated from college, with only another 6 working towards doing so. In the meantime, there have been 60 children born to them. Whether the next generation will grow up in conditions any better than the ones that held their parents’ cognitive functioning back remains to be seen.

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In 1936, Russian scientist Vladimir Lukyanov was confronted with the problem of devising a system to improve the quality of Russian concrete and the efficiency of its manufacture. When furnished with a few requirements for the concrete, Lukyanov was expected to calculate the resulting concrete’s other attributes, such as load capacity, curing time, temperature limits, etc. This involved a lot of tedious manual calculations with partial differential equations.

Lukyanov’s solution was to build one of the world’s first programmable computers. Like all early computers, Lukyanov’s invention was a massive analog calculator, but one design element set it apart: it used water to perform its calculations. Lukyanov outfitted a room-sized array of glass tubes with a series of valves and plugs, and these constituted the data inputs. An operator would turn knobs and move plugs to correspond to the input values, then engage the pumps to slosh water through the intricate plumbing until the water settled into various tanks. The ultimate water level in each tank indicated the results of the calculations, and thus indicated the various properties of the resulting cement.

Lukyanov’s water computer was the first machine in the world capable of solving partial differential equations.

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An iconic sight in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the Kimjongilia. This hybrid begonia was bred by a Japanese botanist and presented to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il in 1988. It soon became part of the diplomatic toolkit. The North Korean government has sent the flower to a number of countries as a sign of friendship, and the Kimjongilia won the gold medal at the 1991 International Flower Show in Czechoslovakia.

The Kimjongiliia is displayed domestically as well. Like the Kimsungilia, an orchid clone presented in 1965 by Indonesian president Sukarno, the Kimjongilia forms part of an “international friendship botanic garden” in Pyongyang’s Central Botanic Garden. This garden also includes greenhouses dedicated to the Kimjongilia and Kimsungilia. And, as presided over by a 232-member Funeral Committee, Kimjongilia flowers were prominently displayed around the corpse of Kim Jong-il during his 11-day mourning period.

The North Korean state takes this flower seriously. As reported by the state news agency KCNA, the Kimilsungia and Kimjongilia Research Centre created a chemical concoction to extend the blooming period of the Kimjongilia by up to 20 days. And the DPRK State Administration for Quality Management notes that the Kimjongilia “is a rare bright and crimson flower that represents the personality of the energetic great man as dozens of corrugated evenly-arranged petals form a big, clear and lovely flower supported by heart-shaped leaves”. It’s not all flowery talk, however. The State Administration for...

According to a 1957 US government study entitled The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, canned and bottled sodas and beers “could be used as potable water sources for immediate emergency purposes as soon as the storage area is safe to enter after a nuclear explosion.”

This information was provided by the Atomic Energy Commission, which placed caches of consumer beverages around the Nevada Proving Grounds then exploded one 20 kiloton and one 30 kiloton device there. The surviving beverages within a quarter mile of the blast were slightly radioactive, but “well within the permissible limits for emergency use.” As for the flavor, taste testers described the beers and sodas as “still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1,270 feet from Ground Zero.”

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By the 1840s the British Empire was at full tilt, operating colonies on every continent apart from Antarctica. Key for Britain’s domination of world trade was India, which provided cotton, lumber, and one of the most formidable foes the Empire had yet faced. For all of its mercantile successes, the British Empire was nearly brought to its knees by the humble, irritating mosquito.

Malaria was rampant in the tropical colonies. Its initial onset was marked by high fevers, chills, and vomiting. In extreme cases it lead to seizures, coma, and death. Left untreated the disease resurged in prior victims, incapacitating those who had battled through a first encounter. The causal link between malaria and insects had been observed as far back as the Roman occupation of Northern Africa. Despite this, the parasitic protozoans that the mosquitoes carried–and that ultimately caused the disease–were not discovered until the turn of the 20th century. What was known was an effective, if gustatorially unpleasant, treatment.

Quinine, derived from the bark of the cinchona tree native to South America, was known to be an effective treatment for malaria as early as the late 16th century. The dried and powdered bark was shipped around the Empire to battle malaria and maintain British presence in the colonies. The unpalatable taste of the bitter alkaloid was a common complaint, and as a remedy, colonists began mixing the substance with water and sugar. This crude ‘tonic...

Götz von Berlichingen (1480-1562) was a German knight and warrior for hire in the first half of the 16th century. In 1504, at age 24, he lost the lower portion of his right arm to cannon fire during the siege of Landshut. Upon his recovery, rather than retiring or taking up a less violent profession, Berlichingen commissioned an Austrian blacksmith to construct an iron prosthetic hand.

The result was no mere hook; rather it was a sophisticated apparatus with articulated fingers that could be clamped tightly upon a sword or delicately upon a feather quill. With this prosthesis he continued to fight in wars and feuds for another 20 years or so, and ultimately participated in at least 15 armed conflicts. He lived to 82 years old, an unusually long lifespan for the period, and he wrote an autobiography in has later years.

Berlichingen’s story has been embellished by legend, and he is often portrayed as a brave hero in later retellings. In reality, he was an unscrupulous mercenary who fought for the highest bidder and engaged in kidnapping and sea piracy to make ends meet when no convenient wars were afoot. The modern vulgarity “he can lick/kiss my arse” is also thought to have been coined by Berlichingen; it was attributed to him in a 1773 play based on his life.

Today, Berlichingen’s prosthetic arm is housed in the Götzenburg castle museum in the German town of...

The introduction of non-native species can be a tricky business. The feral camels of Australia are a case in point. They were brought to the country in 1840 to ease exploration of the Outback, and the hardy animals soon proved useful in the construction of railway and telegraph lines.

From the beginning, however, camels and Australia made for a precarious pairing. During one of the first Australian expeditions to use the beasts–John Horrocks’ 1846 journey into the Outback–a camel was responsible for the expedition leader’s death. Horrocks was unloading a rifle while standing alongside a prone pack camel when the camel suddenly lurched, hooking part of its pack into the rifle’s action. The gun discharged, and the slug severed Horrocks’ middle finger, then entered through his left cheek and knocked out a row of upper teeth. Horrocks died within the month, but not before ordering the camel executed.

On a large scale, Australian camels started to create trouble in the 1930s, when automobiles rendered them increasingly obsolete. The thousands of no-longer-needed animals multiplied rapidly, given plenty of space and camels’ suitability for the dry climate. Their population approximately doubled every eight years, and by 2008 they numbered an estimated 600,000. Australia is now the only country with a substantial feral camel population.

The huge numbers of wild camels have become a major ecological and financial liability. They deplete vegetation and water sources, creating scarcity for other animals. The...

On 29 March 1951, shortly after 5 p.m., a hand-grenade-sized pipe bomb exploded in the landmark Grand Central Terminal in New York City. Ordinarily, the detonation of a pipe bomb in a busy commuter terminal at rush hour would be cause for grave public concern, yet the local news media barely acknowledged the event.

It had been a hectic news day. In one of the shrillest moments in America’s infamous anti-communism “red scare,” husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were both found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage. News from the ongoing war in Korea dominated the space below the fold. By comparison, the small explosion from the homemade pipe bomb at Grand Central didn’t hurt anyone; it merely startled passers-by and damaged a cigarette urn outside the Oyster Bar. Police dismissed the event as the work of “boys or pranksters.” The New York Times reported the event in the following day’s issue, though only with a three-paragraph brief at the bottom of page 24.

About four weeks later, another small bomb exploded inside a phone booth in the basement of the New York Public Library. Again, no one was injured, though the explosion damaged the booth–as well as the composure of a security guard leaning against the booth at the time. The NYPD bomb squad found fragments very similar to the Grand Central device; both were lengths of well-machined pipe with a cap on each...

In April of 1873, an unhappy man walked along Clark Street in downtown Chicago. His name was Aymar de Belloy. There was a gun in his pocket, and a nickel – enough for one final glass of beer.

He entered Kirchoff’s tavern and sat at a table, then changed his mind about the beer. He drew his gun, pointed it at his forehead, and pulled the trigger.

The bullet careened along the inside of his skull like a speed skater on a banked turn. It stopped at the left temple, sparing his brain. Belloy rose and staggered to the bar, shaking hands with the horrified men he passed along the way. Upon reaching the bartender, he apologized in all sincerity for the inconvenience he had just caused. Then he collapsed.

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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.

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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.


The year was 1721. The ship was called the Prince Royal, its destination the American colonies. And the cake–the cake was gingerbread.

The British crew shouldn’t have been surprised to find the metal file in the cake. Its stasher, James Dalton–a notorious thief and escape artist–had been shuttled involuntarily between Britain and America more times than a trans-Atlantic diplomat. Unluckily for Dalton, this particular mutiny fell apart as soon as the cake did. Luckily for Dalton, there would always be a next time. After all, as a convict who’d been sentenced to the punishment of “transportation” multiple times, Dalton had mutinied before.

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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.

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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...