Although there are quite a few symbols that call to mind the frontier history of the American West—ten gallon hats, spurs, and low-slung six guns—nothing quite says dusty old cowboy town like a tumbleweed, well, tumbling by.
While the tumbleweed might be synonymous with the wild west, it isn’t native to the American West (or even anywhere in the entire North, Central, or South American land masses for that matter). The invasive weed hitched a ride with Russian immigrants in the late 19th century. The immigrants brought flax seed from their home country and those seeds happened to be contaminated with the seeds of the weed Russian Thistle (Salsola tragus).
By the time anyone even noticed the weed spreading it was essentially impossible to control. One full-grown thistle contains around 250,000 seeds, and when the plant is fully mature it dries out, snaps off its stalk, and tumbles in the wind (quickly spreading the hardy and numerous seeds over a large area). Further, the plant requires very little precipitation and happily grows in adverse conditions.
Modern ranchers find the weed to be quite an annoyance as the weed displaces grazing grass and the dried up tumbleweeds gather along fences and buildings, thus posing quite a fire hazard, but we do owe the sturdy weed a little bit of credit. During the horrible drought of the 1930s Dust Bowl that decimated crop land in the region, the Russian thistle saved the beef industry: when nothing else would grow and regular feed was non-existent, the hardy thistle rapidly colonized the cattle pastures and entire herds of cattle survived on thistle alone.
Image courtesy of Charles Henry.
During the occupation of Denmark by the Nazi regime in the 1940s, Hungarian chemist George de Hevesy came up with a very clever way of protecting the Nobel Prizes of his friends and fellow researchers Max von Laue and James Franck.
De Hevesy knew that there was a prohibition against the exportation of precious metals from Denmark and that if either of the men attempted to take their medals with them when leaving the country, they could be prosecuted and imprisoned or brought to harm.
In order to hide the gold medals in such a way that the Nazis would never find them, de Hevesy dissolved the two medals in nitro-hydrochloric acid (a very powerful acid capable of dissolving gold and platinum). He placed the solution on a shelf with other chemicals at the Niels Bohr Institute where it looked innocuous enough, hardly valuable, and not the kind of solution anyone would wish to toy with.
When he returned to the Institute after the war, he found the solution entirely undisturbed. After precipitating the solution to extract a pile of gold powder, he brought the gold to the Nobel Society where they recast the medals using the original gold that had been so carefully and cleverly hidden by de Hevesy.
Image courtesy of Alexander C. Wimmer.
The Eiffel Tower is the tallest structure in Paris, an internationally recognized symbol of both its host city and the country of France, and composed of approximately 7,300 tons of wrought iron.
That last little detail is critical to the subject of today’s trivia: paint. If you’re going to build a 1,063 foot tall structure composed entirely of wrought iron, you’re committing yourself to thoroughly painting that structure to keep rust and corrosion at bay. Originally, the Tower was painted red (tinted with brown), then shifted to yellow-ochre, chestnut brown, and then finally the bronze gradient it is today (the color shifts subtly from the ground to the top of the Tower to make it appear consistent to viewers on the ground).
The Eiffel Tower is repainted every seven years and soaks up a remarkable amount of supplies in the process: 60 tons of paint, 5000 sanding disks, 1500 brushes, five acres worth of safety netting, and 31 miles of security cords. The repainting process takes approximately 18 months and the Tower is kept open to the public.
An Australian doctor is raising funds to launch an SMS service in West Africa that sends people to the right medical facilities based on key words used and crunches that data to look for the next outbreak spot.
In 1860, photographer James Wallace Black hauled his gear into the basket of a hot air balloon and set sail over the city of Boston. Although Black wasn’t the first to combine the lofty elevation of a hot air balloon and a camera (that distinction belongs to the Frenchman Gaspard-Félix Tournachon who snapped a photo from a balloon two years earlier in 1858), his photograph is the earliest surviving example of aerial photography.
Oliver Wendell Holmes described Black’s photograph in the July 1863 edition of the Atlantic Monthly as such:
Boston, as the eagle and wild goose see it, is a very different object from the same place as the solid citizen looks up at its eaves and chimneys. The Old South and Trinity Church are two landmarks not to be mistaken. Washington Street slants across the picture as a narrow cleft. Milk Street winds as if the old cowpath which gave it a name had been followed by the builders of its commercial palaces. Windows, chimneys, and skylights attract the eye in the central parts of the view, exquisitely defined, bewildering in numbers…. As a first attempt it is on the whole a remarkable success; but its greatest interest is in showing what we may hope to see accomplished in the same direction.
Despite more than a century of photographic developments between the work by Tournachon and Black we’ve never, if the popularity of satellite image services like Google Earth are any indicator, lost our love of seeing the same places as very different objects from a more bird-like vantage point.
Image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Outside of Rome is a scenic hill, one of the many that surround the city, known as Monte Testaccio. To an observer in the 21st century, there’s nothing particularly unusual about the enormous mound. It’s covered in lush vegetation and trees, overlooks the River Tiber, and makes for a lovely spot to hike and have a picnic lunch if you’re so inclined.
Without getting your hands dirty and doing some serious digging, however, you’d never know that the hill is man made and your picnic lunch is taking place on one of the largest waste mounds of the ancient world.
Beneath the soil of Monte Testaccio lies the remains of an astounding 53 million olive oil jars, or amphorae, that were deposited there during a four hundred year span beginning in approximately the 1st century BC. The mound is a testament to the enormous appetite the Romans had for olive oil. The demand for olive oil was so high that it was imported from far reaches of the empire to Rome in large clay jars, decanted at the nearby port, and then the clay vessels were disposed of at Monte Testaccio. Unlike other vessels used by the Romans, the large globular oil containers were difficult to recycle and a system was put in place for disposing of them.
The disposal was highly organized and the mound was carefully planned. Archaeologists excavating the site have long marveled at how organized the structure of the discarded pots and their shards is; the layers are carefully arranged in stable patterns and sprinkled with lime (presumably to mask the smell of the rancid oil). It is estimated that the quantity of vessels in the mound represents an olive oil import of roughly 1.6 billion gallons.
A health care worker in Dallas has become the first person to become infected with the Ebola virus within the US. Reuters is among many outlets that are reporting that a nurse who treated an Ebola patient has now tested positive for the virus.
Hear the name “Nokia” today and you likely think of phones, perhaps the iconic little blue candy bar style Nokia 1100 (the best selling cellphone in history) and the equally iconic little Grande Valse (or Nokia Tune) ringtone that’s still heard nearly 1.8 billion times a day around the world.
But long before they became involved in electronics in the 1960s, telecommunications in the 1970s, and released their first cellphone in the 1980s, they were focused on a much more pedestrian pursuit. A quite literally pedestrian pursuit that is: rubber boots.
The corporation that would later morph into Nokia, a global telecommunications firm famous for durable phones and catchy ringtones, was originally involved in a diverse number of markets. The first enterprise they undertook was wood milling and pulping. They later branched out into rubber through the acquisition of Finnish Rubber Works. At the start of the 20th century, Nokia was the primary producer of rubber boots and galoshes in Finland and enjoyed a healthy competition against Russian imports.
In fact Nokia retained the rubber production portion of its corporate portfolio well into the 1980s (when it was spun off into a separate company) and the boot and galoshes division was further spun off and revitalized in 1990 as Nokian Footwear; a century after their introduction you can still buy Nokia branded rubber boots.