The 18 Coolest Things I Ever Learned — Part 2

7. Where did Groundhog Day, May Day and Halloween come from?

These holidays represent the midpoints of their respective seasons; they originated with the Celts in the British Isles. The Celts divided the year into four parts, each beginning with a “Quarter Day”—the winter solstice, the spring equinox, the summer solstice and the fall equinox. They went further, however, and divided each quarter-year into halves, marked by days they called “Cross-quarter Days.” February 2nd, the mid-point of winter, was Candlemass (a Christian holiday); May first, the mid-point of spring, was Beltane; August 1st, the mid-point of summer, was Lammas; and October 31st, the mid-point of fall, was Samhain. Some believe the Celts thought the Cross-quarter Days were more significant than the solstices and equinoxes.

On February 2, Candlemass, marked the mid-point of winter; it has now evolved into our Groundhog Day. This day was an occasion to predict how the weather would be during the weeks leading up to planting season; if it was bright and sunny, that was a bad omen for early planting, but if it was dark and cloudy, people thought the planting season would begin early. Today, that has translated into a weather prediction based on whether or not a groundhog sees his shadow. But the idea remains the same!

On May 1, Beltane (now referred to as May Day) was considered by the Celts to be the beginning of summer, although it was technically the mid-point of spring. It was an occasion for dancing and singing to celebrate the fields being sown. It was also a traditional time for couples to pair up, leading to the popularity of June weddings!

August 1st, the mid-point of summer, was Lammas, which marked the beginning of the wheat and corn harvests. This day is still celebrated in some countries with a feast for friends and family. (We should bring this one back in the United States — we can always use another holiday!)

October 31st was Samhain; it represented summer’s end. Many historians believe the Celts also thought of this day as the end of the old year and beginning of the new. This could explain the stories about ghosts wandering the countryside as the old year ends…now a key part of Halloween lore!

 8. Why are the Hawaiian Islands in a chain with a large, volcanic island at one end and progressively smaller islands as you go up the chain?

As most everybody today knows, the surface of the Earth isn’t solid and unmoving; it consists of a number of tectonic plates—about 20—that are slowly but continually shifting. The interactions between the plates (for example, as one pushes into another) are a common cause of earthquakes. But these slow-moving plates are also responsible for other phenomena, including the existence and characteristics of the Hawaiian Island chain.

Although the tectonic plates are moving, what’s underneath them may not be. There’s an unmoving “hot spot” beneath the Pacific Plate at the location of the Hawaiian Islands. This is a point at which hot magma, or lava, pushes up from the layers of the Earth below the plates. It pushes up with great force, sufficient to break through the plate, forming a volcano as the hot magma hits the cold ocean water above. The hot magma solidifies into a cone shape around the opening, gradually growing in size as more of it pushes up through the center of the cone. Eventually the volcano gets large enough to break the surface of the water, and as it continues to grow, it becomes an island.

However, the tectonic plate continues to slowly move, while the hot spot beneath remains stationary. The result is that after a while, the volcano formed above the hot spot moves away from the hot spot; eventually it stops erupting. Since the magma is still being pushed upwards, the process repeats; the magma breaks through the plate at a new location and starts to form a new volcanic island.

This process has been occurring in the area of Hawaii for millions of years. The result is a chain of volcanic islands, lined up in a row. But nature has another force at work: erosion. Once a volcano goes dormant, it stops growing and the forces of wind, rain and ocean tides begin to erode it away. Thus, over time, the existing islands gradually get smaller. The overall result is a chain of islands, smaller islands on one end, with a large island with an active volcano at the other end.

In Hawaii, the Big Island is still an active volcano. The popular tourist attraction, Diamond Head, near Honolulu on the island of Oahu, is one of the extinct volcanos further up the chain. The parts of the island chain that have already eroded enough to be underwater extend for thousands of miles, up to Alaska. Meanwhile, a new volcanic island is already building up beneath the water next to the Big Island (it’s already been named Loihi, although it won’t grow tall enough to break the surface for at least another 10,000 years).

If you’ve never been to Hawaii, it’s worth going at least once in your life. And if you have to wait a few years for that to be feasible, well, the islands aren’t going anywhere! (At least not very fast!)

9. What advantage do zebras gain by having stripes?

There are three species of zebras in Africa, and they’re the only striped members of the horse family. Their eye-popping black and white stripe patterns vary from one species to the next, as well as from one location to the next. Over the past 100 years, at least 18 different explanations have been suggested to explain why zebras have stripes, including camouflage, unique individual identifiers and temperature control in the hot Savannah. However, the suggested answers were not holding up well when closely examined or tested in the wild.

Recently, one explanation has stood out: Flies that bite rarely land on a striped surface! These flies often suck the blood of the animals on which they land and transmit disease, so having a physical characteristic that prevents the flies from biting is a significant advantage to have in the wild. In fact, biologists have analyzed tsetse fly bodies and found no traces of zebra blood. (Scientists are still trying to determine what it is about stripes that throws off a fly’s ability to land on a surface.)

While other theories—like regulating temperature or fooling predators—have some supporting evidence, that evidence is inconsistent. In contrast, there are two strong pieces of evidence that keeping flies at bay is probably the explanation for the stripes:

  • Striping is more pronounced in areas in Africa that have more of the biting flies. In contrast, the intensity of the stripes didn’t parallel temperature differences or danger from predators in several studies.
  • Placing zebra-stripe coats on horses (their version of a Halloween costume, no doubt) caused far fewer flies to land on the horses.

Of course, more than one factor could have caused zebras to evolve those catchy stripes. But it seems likely that warding off dangerous fly bites is likely a key piece of the equation.

10.  Who almost single-handedly shaped much of the modern English language?

They say that whatever language we speak not only allows us to communicate, but also limits us, depending on the nature and extent of its vocabulary. So it would be fair to say that expanding the number of words in a given language also expands the universe of those who speak the language and allows for greater innovation in thinking. In the case of modern English, one person above all others deserves credit for expanding the language: William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was not only one of history’s greatest playwrights and poets, he was one of the greatest word and phrase inventors of all time. He took nouns and turned them into verbs, and vice versa, and created new words by combining other words. Furthermore, his multi-word “turns of phrase” were so brilliant that they remain in use to this day. (I’m reminded of the joke about the high school student assigned to read a Shakespeare play. When the teacher asked what she thought of it, she said, “It was OK, but it was full of clichés!”)

Here’s just a small sample of the approximately 1,700 words Shakespeare has been credited with creating: jaded; fortune-teller; pander; widowed; employer; bloodstained; bandit; domineering; mountaineer; advertising; manager; excitement; skim milk; academe; accused; addiction; softhearted; alligator; amazement; watchdog; anchovy; hint; arouse; fashionable; assassination; auspicious; farmhouse; eyeball; sanctimonious; lackluster; hush; deafening; tightly; buzzer; zany; glow; gnarled; hobnob; gossip; traditional; eventful; hoodwinked; and the popular name “Jessica.”

That may seem like a long list, but the complete list of words attributed to Shakespeare is 40 TIMES as long!

Shakespeare’s original multi-word expressions include: It’s Greek to me; salad days; vanished into thin air; refused to budge; green-eyed jealousy; playing fast and loose; a tower of strength; knitted your brows; fair play; slept not a wink; stood on ceremony; laughed in stitches; short shrift; cold comfort; too much of a good thing; seen better days; fool’s paradise; a foregone conclusion; as luck would have it; high time; the long and short of it; the game is up; the truth will out; flesh and blood; foul play; teeth on edge; one fell swoop; without rhyme or reason; give the devil his due; good riddance; send someone packing; dead as a doornail; a laughing stock; the devil incarnate; for goodness’ sake; neither a borrower nor a lender be; to thine own self be true; the be-all and end-all; by the book; the winter of our discontent; the lady doth protest too much; the play’s the thing; the sound and the fury; brave new world; and tongue-tied.

It’s worth noting that experts have found that the number of new words Shakespeare invented is impossible to determine accurately, in part because some words that turn up in his works for the first time may have been in common use before he incorporated them. In fact, at least a few words that were thought to be his inventions have recently been found in other, more obscure sources predating Shakespeare. But there’s not much question that he did create a spectacular number of new words and  phrases, most of which have remained part of common parlance ever since.

11. Adult humans can’t breathe and swallow at the same time, but newborns can. How is that possible?

Remarkably, human babies are born with their larynx, or voicebox, all the way up in the back of the mouth, not in the position it’s located in adults (about halfway up the neck). This makes breastfeeding safer for the baby because the milk flows around the sides of the raised larynx and into the stomach. The flow of air into the lungs can continue during the swallowing operation. In adults, the larynx is lower in the throat, so our esophagus instinctively closes when we swallow to prevent food or liquid from going into the lungs by mistake. Babies don’t need to do that, which undoubtedly prevents a lot of (potentially deadly) inhaling of milk.

Interestingly, having the larynx up in this position is part of the reason babies don’t talk sooner than they do; having the larynx in this position severely restricts a person’s ability to utter different vowel sounds, making the English language impossible to render coherently.

Over time, as a baby transitions from liquid to solid food during the first months of life, the larynx gradually descends down into the throat. Because it’s connected to the tongue via ligaments, this process also elongates the tongue from the back, making it ideal for enunciating words and allowing the infant to begin learning to speak.

12. How did Einstein get to be so smart?

Most people just think of Albert Einstein as a great genius who came up with the Theory of Relativity and his famous equation, E=MC squared. But if you dig a bit deeper, a lot of interesting details about his path to world renown start to emerge. He made a lot of serious mistakes and had some help with his theories that are seldom acknowledged. For example:

—  Coming up with a brilliant new way to look at the universe is one thing, but proving that it’s not just an interesting idea is a very different challenge. (Remember what Thomas Edison said: Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!) Einstein realized that his Theory of Relativity had to be explained and proven mathematically to be accepted, but he didn’t know enough mathematics to accomplish this. So, he spent a year learning an entire branch of mathematics he hadn’t previously understood (a branch of geometry dealing with curved surfaces) in order to be able to explain and prove his theory. Even after this, the first draft of his Theory of Relativity, published in 1913, contained a number of errors in the equations that took him two years to correct. (Interestingly, he didn’t win the Nobel Prize for his Theory of Relativity because it was so complex and so revolutionary the Nobel committee thought it might end up being disproven!)

—  Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric Einstein, was a brilliant physicist and mathematician in her own right who worked closely with Einstein to develop his theories during their 16 years of marriage. They both studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich, and by the end of their classes they had almost equal grades, except in applied physics, where she got the highest grade, 5, while he received a 1. The fact that they co-created his early work is acknowledged in numerous letters between them and in correspondence with close friends, in which Einstein himself describes the papers eventually published with just his name on them as being created by the two of them. (Apparently, she was fine with this at the time, possibly worried that the papers would be rejected simply because they were co-authored by a woman.)

After they completed the article containing the basis of special relativity, Einstein went to bed for two weeks. Mileva spent those two weeks checking the math over and over again. At one public gathering of young intellectuals, Einstein said, “I need my wife. She solves for me all my mathematical problems.”

Unfortunately, Mileva’s health declined, and Einstein fell into a relationship with his first cousin. He eventually got Mileva to agree to divorce him by promising her the money that came with winning the Nobel prize.

—  The measurement that would confirm the Theory of General Relativity—measuring the apparent position of stars near the sun during a total solar eclipse, when it would be possible to prove that the sun’s gravity was bending their light—couldn’t be done right away because World War I began just before the next total eclipse. That turned out to be fortunate for Einstein, because his predictions were slightly off! But by the time the war ended and scientists were able to make the measurement during the next solar eclipse, he had corrected his errors. As a result, his theory was confirmed.

One final note, proving that even a great genius can be fooled: In his later years, Einstein had a four-year-long affair with a woman we now know was a Russian spy!

Next month in part three:

  • Why do we have Trade Winds on the oceans?

  • Why do the hands of a clock run clockwise, not counterclockwise?

  • What’s really going on in the Bermuda Triangle?

  • Why is going to the top of a mountain on a clear night not always the best way to see the stars?

  • What made product design suddenly become important in the 20th Century?

  • How can you tell what someone is thinking by watching their eyes?