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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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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Who Has Come Closest To Winning Civilization In Real Life?

Games in Sid Meier’s Civilization series are loosely patterned off the rise and fall of real-life civilizations. And some of these real-life civilizations had exactly the kinds of ambitions that would win a game of Civilization. Which raises the obvious question: did any of them get close? Has anybody won? Are we all just living in the “just a few more turns” postgame of a real-life Civilization match?

(“Yes,” “maybe,” and “maybe.”)

This is about who got closest, although in a couple cases, there may already be a winner. And I’ll be using the victory conditions from Civilization III. Because I like Civilization III and it’s the best one.

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How Do We Know The Continents Are Moving?

50 years ago, “continental drift” was a fringe hypothesis rejected by most geologists. Today the theory of plate tectonics (which includes continental drift) is universally accepted as true, and unifies once-separate areas of geology under one grand banner.

There are mountains of evidence (literally) that plate tectonics has taken place in our planet’s past. But how do we know that the continents are still drifting, right now? And how do we know what direction each one is moving, how fast they’re going . . . how do we know what we know about plate tectonics? Continue reading “How Do We Know The Continents Are Moving?”

Academic Urban Legends: Is Spinach A Good Source Of Iron?

Spinach is a great source of iron! Except no, no it isn’t. That was debunked in the 1980s . . . someone misplaced a decimal point in the ’30s, and everyone since has thought it had 10 times more iron than it does. Or was it the 1890s? Or . . ..

Writing in Social Studies of Science, author Ole Bjørn Rekdal shares the weird, twisty, fascinating story of how “academic urban legends” like this get going, and keep going long after they’re debunked. It seems both the false idea that spinach is a good nutritional source of iron, and the subsequent urban legend that that urban legend got its start as a misplaced decimal point, have been widely believed and spread by highly-educated people in the health sciences field of study, years or even decades after they were debunked. Continue reading “Academic Urban Legends: Is Spinach A Good Source Of Iron?”