How Civil War Engineers Tasted A Cretaceous Sea

In 1864, the US Army began digging a proper well for Fort Monroe, a Chesapeake Bay Union fort surrounded by then-Confederate Virginia. Three years into the Civil War, and cut off from the state it was built to defend, Fort Monroe had more wounded soldiers and escaped former slaves than it could handle, and its insufficient surface wells had already forced a small-scale “invasion” of Virginia to secure enough water.

After five years of digging (long after the Civil War ended), the Army’s well was 907 feet deep . . . but no matter how deeply they dug, the well was bringing up only saltwater!  And salty saltwater, twice as saline as the Atlantic.  Subsequent attempts at digging wells also turned up only the same salty brine.  The aquifers underground were fed by rain, and sloped down from the inland west; by all rights they should have been salt-free.  Yet the salt ran deep and wide, fouling water wells on both sides of the bay.

But why?  The US Army in 1860s Virginia certainly didn’t know, nor did anyone else at the time.  It would be 114 years later, and 190 miles away, that the first significant clue would finally appear.

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When Christmas Was Un-American

Two hundred years ago, Christmas Day in the USA came and went with barely a mention. There were no special family gatherings, no big dinners, no presents, no tree, no stockings or stories of Santa Claus. Outside of certain German and Dutch communities, there were effectively no special church services, no nativity scenes, carols or bell-ringers. Though there were still scattered private observances, Christmas was essentially nothing, a non-event.

This hadn’t always been true.  In earlier centuries, plenty of American colonists had celebrated Christmas.  Traditions varied, from quiet religious services to rowdy, days-long parties full of feasting, drinking, gambling, and theatrical performances (imagine a cross between New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras) . . . but by the 19th century, American Christmas had simply disappeared.
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How Good Were We At Guessing What Pluto Would Look Like?

Before Tuesday, nobody really knew what Pluto looked like. But since 1933, its (now former) status as “the ninth planet” merited its inclusion in countless depictions of the Solar System. Which means up until Tuesday, every time a TV show showed a picture of Pluto they were largely guessing.

So . . . how well did they guess? In the game of “pin the proper coloration and topology on the barely-visible dwarf planet”, who came closest to winning?

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How Much Money Would It Take To Fill Scrooge’s Money Bin?

Scrooge McDuck has a lot of money. He’s the richest duck in the world, consistently number one (or two) in rankings of all wealthy fictional characters. And the most conspicuous and iconic symbol of his wealth is his aptly-named “money bin”.

Unchanged in appearance since artist Carl Banks settled on its modern form in 1956, it’s one of those ridiculous symbols of childish excess that could never exist in real life. But . . . what if it did? How much real-life money would it take to fill Scrooge McDuck’s money bin?

(It’s more than all the gold in the world . . . but less than all the pennies.)

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Reach For A Lucky: The Lucky Strike Cigarette Diet (1928)

By the late 1800s, public opinion was souring on cigarettes. Just look at the language people were using: the first use of the phrase “coffin nails” was in 1888, and the phrase “smoker’s cough” was coined in 1898. Even if there wasn’t definitive scientific evidence, it was apparent that something about smoking was sickening and killing smokers.

The tobacco companies, worried that widespread discussion of the obvious might turn people off the habit, turned to marketing to win back the hearts and minds and lungs of the public. Celebrity endorsements were mixed with “throat doctors” making spurious medical claims.

Nearly all of these ads were targeting men, over 50% of whom were already smokers. But in the 1920s, tobacco companies started going after women, too.

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How To Live 100 Years: The First Fad Diet Book

In his 30s, Alvise “Luigi” Cornaro had become very sick. Suffering pain, fatigue, constant thirst and intestinal distress, his doctors gave him only a few months to live. He radically changed his diet, and within a year was not only still alive, but symptom free and full of energy! He maintained this new diet for decades (except for a short time in his 70s), and in 1558 (at the age of 91 . . . or 94, or 83, or maybe 74 . . . sources disagree on dates) he published a diet and lifestyle book, titled How to Live 100 Years, or Discourses on a Sober and Temperate Life.

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Why Is The Dollar Sign A Letter S?

The letter S appears nowhere in the word “dollar”, yet an S with a line through it ($) is unmistakably the dollar sign. But why an S? Why isn’t the dollar sign something like a Đ (like the former South Vietnamese đồng, or the totally-not-a-joke-currency Dogecoin)?

There’s a good story behind it, but here’s a big hint: the dollar sign isn’t a dollar sign.

It’s a peso sign.

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Melanie’s Marvelous Measles Is A Book For Children That You Can Buy

Melanie’s Marvelous Measles is a book about how awesome it is to catch the measles. Children ages 4-10 are invited to learn that the measles is actually pretty fun, has no serious possible side-effects, and is something kids should look forward to getting.

The book includes helpful medical advice, like that measles is easily avoided by drinking melon juice, and that vaccines weaken the human immune system, but getting measles strengthens it (as does melon juice).

You can buy the book—for your own unvaccinated children, or for a friend’s—on Amazon. (If you’re lucky enough to be unvaccinated and expecting, just click the “add to Baby Registry” button.)

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What Would Global Wealth Equality Look Like?

The Oxfam charity grabbed headlines this week with a report on global wealth inequality. Their primary data source was the (much more in-depth) Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, which in 2014 specifically focused on the same subject.

(Credit Suisse is a Swiss holding company with nearly a trillion dollars in total assets.)

While the Oxfam report deals mainly in percentages and proportions, the Credit Suisse report (and its accompanying data sheet) has page after page of hard numbers. And those numbers got me thinking . . . how much money are we talking about here? If wealth inequality didn’t exist—if somehow wealth were perfectly distributed among every adult human on earth (and leaving aside the many serious possible consequences of such a redistribution)—how much would everybody have?

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