Sunday Nibble #67: Friday hangover

No, not that kind of hangover. One of the Friday Free-for-All questions two days ago was what I thought was the most significant invention of the last 50 years. Coincidentally, I noticed a new documentary series on Amazon Prime which tracks important inventions by decade, starting in the 1900s and going from there to the present.

So it got me to wondering, after watching the 1900s episode, what the big inventions were exactly 100 years ago. That is, not those invented in the 1920s, but limited to 1921.

This was the year in which Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics, although he wasn’t awarded it until 1922. Oddly enough, though, he didn’t win this one for either his General or Special Theory of Relativity, but rather for his discovery of the photoelectric effect.

This would later go on to prove quantum theory, because reasons, and become very useful in things like electric eyes, smoke detectors, solar panels, and so forth. The very short version of why it supports quantum physics is that it proved that electrons could only exist at very specific energy levels with no in-between going on — that is, those levels were quantized, or set at fixed amounts.

Imagine it like this: You’re making instant mashed potatoes from the box, and it gives you options for various numbers of servings, like 2, 4, 8, 12, or the whole box. For each increment of servings, there’s going to be one unique number for the flakes, water, butter, and milk. There’s no sliding scale allowed.

That’s how electrons work. The photoelectric effect is just what happens when you throw photons — which are little packets of energy with no rest mass — into matter. Depending on the energy of the photon and how it interacts, it’ll kick an electron up to the next “step” in energy levels. Think of this as the changing microwave or cooking times for those potatoes depending upon how many servings you’re making.

And Einstein described that a century ago.

The other big inventions and/or discoveries were all medical: A vaccine for tuberculosis, Vitamin D, and insulin.

All of these were a huge deal. Tuberculosis (TB) killed a lot of people and was highly infectious, and in the crowded cities of the modernized world, that was a problem. A century prior to the vaccine, it was the stereotypical wasting disease that killed the heroines in Romantic novels and operas (think Camile). It also contributed to the death of Frédéric Chopin, who wasn’t the healthiest of composers to begin with.

The vaccine in question, and the only effective one still used to this day, is the Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine, named for its creators. However, it’s only recommended to be given automatically in areas where TB is known to be prevalent. Otherwise, if someone is tested and not infected, the vaccine is optional, with only children at high-risk due to other conditions being inoculated.

In the same year, Vitamin D was indirectly discovered as science searched for a cure for rickets, which seemed to be seasonal, although Vitamin D itself wasn’t isolated and identified until 1922. What scientists did figure out in 1921, though, was the exposure to sunshine and ultraviolet light helped to alleviate or prevent rickets, which also related to the seasonal nature of the condition.

And, as is generally known now, the human body is capable of making its own Vitamin D. All it takes is sunshine.

But perhaps the biggest medical discovery and most important innovation of 1921 was the discovery of the hormone insulin, and its role in diabetes, a human disease so ancient that it was first described nearly 4000 years ago, and it was an Indian physician in the 5th century BCE who noted that ants seemed particularly attracted to the urine of such patients, said urine being sticky to the touch and sweet to the taste.

Yeah, I guess doctors went all-in on diagnosis back then.

But in 1921, researchers finally found the hormone and made the connection to the disease. There are two kinds of diabetes. Type 1 is a sort of autoimmune disease in which your body destroys the cells in your pancreas that make insulin, so that you’re incapable of producing it. Therefore, your body has no way of reducing the amount of glucose in your blood, which is bad.

Type 1 diabetes usually shows up during childhood, and requires regular monitoring of blood sugar and injections of insulin in order to treat — but never cure.

Type 2 diabetes happens when your body becomes resistant to insulin. That is, you need more insulin to get the same glucose clearing effect. However, over time, the cells in your pancreas may not be able to keep up and they burn out, so you wind up in the position of not making insulin either, or no matter how much insulin your body makes, it can never properly clear all that blood sugar.

Most Type 2 treatments involve medications that either make your body more responsive to insulin, increase your sensitivity to insulin, or cause you to make more insulin. Insulin itself is generally not a treatment. Dietary changes, however, can be very helpful.

So the big picture is that some of humanity’s most important discoveries might just be a lot older than we think but it’s also a nice reminder that, in terms of the history of humankind, a century is just the blink of an eye.

What inventions from now do you think that people will marvel at in 2121 as being so “ancient?” Let us know in the comments!

Sunday nibble #48: Five fart facts

Farts are an amusing subject, and jokes about them go back, well, about as far as jokes. In fact, the very first joke, c. 1900 BCE, was along the lines of “Something that has never happened: A young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Reading between the lines, I suppose there’s also a sex joke hidden in here, too. Those have also been popular from the beginning. If you’re interested, you can check out the ten oldest documented jokes.

But today’s article isn’t so much jokes about farts as it is interesting facts, so let’s let her rip.

  1. There’s actually a New York Times best-selling book about it called Does It Fart? The book itself has a fascinating origin story. Back in 2017, a teenage boy asked his old sister, zoologist Dani Rabaiotti, “Do snakes fart?” When she realized she didn’t know the answer, she asked Twitter, and the rest happened from there.

For one thing, she got her answer (“yes”), but her question also led to the creation of the hashtag #doesitfart, and soon experts were weighing in on the ability or inability of various living creatures to break wind.

Eventually, she collaborated with Nick Caruso — entirely via internet, they never met in person — and the book was born. Illustrations were provided by artist Ethan Kocak, and you can read all about the farting habits of eighty different creatures great and small.

  1. You’ve heard the term “silent but deadly,” I’m sure, but for one tiny creature, this is literally the case. The culprit would be the beaded lacewing, and it deals out a specialized form of toxic ass gas designed specifically to paralyze termites.

Adult lacewings lay their eggs near termite colonies, and then the larva proceed to use this weapon in order to hunt for food. They’ll back up to a termite, raise their ass to the termite’s face level, and open fire.

The deadly component of their flatus is an allomone, which is a signaling chemical, like a pheromone. The difference is that the latter are designed for a member of a species to use on another member of the same species for their mutual benefit.

And by mutual benefit, I mean it makes the target horny and ready to bone. Incidentally, it’s a myth that humans have or use pheromones. Sorry!

Once the allomone has paralyzed the termite, the larva digs in for a meal. And the chemical from this little anal cantata is so powerful that a single lacewing larva can take out half a dozen termites at once.

The ones that don’t get eaten will eventually die, either from exposure or predation, because they aren’t getting up again. It must be nice to have an asshole that’s also a superweapon.  

  1. On the other end of the scale, is the beloved sloth which, sadly, is the only mammal that cannot fart. This is entirely due to their slow metabolisms. They already only poop once a week at the most, so they’re very predisposed to not be able to build up enough gas to let off a thundering ripper.

All of the gas for those potential sloth farts is reabsorbed into the sloth’s bloodstream and excreted through the skin before it can build up. That’s probably good, though. Given the general pace of a sloth’s lifestyle, if they did fart, each one would probably last for at least half a day, and I’m sure no one else in the forest would appreciate that.

  1. Farts can be dangerous to more than just termites. Picture this scene: It’s a mid-autumn day in October 2015, and a Singapore Airlines jet, specifically a 747-400 freighter plane that had taken off from Adelaide, Australia was en route to Kuala Lampur Malaysia when potential disaster struck.

Fire alarms in the ship’s cargo hold went off and the plane diverted to Bali to make an emergency landing. Emergency services arrived at the scene, but determined that there was no fire and no smoke.

There was only a crew of four humans on board, but the cargo happened to be 2,186 goats. Their collective Capricorn-holes emitted enough flatulence that it tripped the alarms and altered the plane’s flight plan considerably.

I’ll let you imagine what it must have sounded like, as the bleating of over 2,000 goats intermingled with their reverberating farts.

  1. Finally, no article about farts is complete without a mention of this man:
Joseph Pujol. Both images are public domain

You probably won’t recognize the picture or know the name Joseph Pujol, but maybe you’ve been lucky enough to have heard his stage name: Le Pétomane. He lived from 1857 to 1945, and was born in Marseilles, France.

He discovered his super power accidentally when he was young. While swimming underwater, he held his breath and felt a sudden cold sensation in his lower abdomen. When he ran out of the sea, water started pouring of his anus.

Eventually, he determined that he could do this voluntarily with both water and air, and in his first career as a baker, he used to entertain his customers by doing impressions of musical instruments with his asshole, claiming to be playing them behind the counter.

The unique thing about him was that he was not actually farting gas from his intestines. Rather, he was sucking in air and shooting it back out. This and one good pre-rinse with water before the show kept his performances odorless, much to the benefit of his audience, I’m sure.

He made his professional debut in Marseilles at the age of 30. Five years later, he hit the big time when he became the star attraction at the famous Moulin Rouge, which had opened three years earlier in 1889.

In fact, he became a bigger draw than the renowned Sarah Bernhardt, with his shows pulling in twice as much at the gate as hers.

That’s the power of farts.

He would begin his act by performing a series of farts and naming them. A tiny, meek fart was “young bride on her wedding night,” while a drawn out rip was “dressmaker tearing two yards of calico.”

He could smoke a cigarette with his anus (well, via a long rubber tube, at least), as well as play a flute. Another part of his repertoire was a poem about a farm, and he would punctuate it with farts imitating the sounds of the animals.

I can only imagine how hilarious this all must have been, and the finale was spectacular. First, he would blow out a candle from a foot away, and then extinguish the gas lights at the foot of the stage one by one.

Eventually, after a tour of Europe and North Africa, he returned to Paris and decided to start his own theatre, which led to a falling out with Zidler of the Moulin Rouge, but Pujol’s continued success.

And then World War I broke out, and he retired, going back to being a baker in Marseilles, and then eventually running a biscuit factory in Toulon.

That’s actually kind of a fitting place for him to end up, though, making real biscuits, since he’d made his name and his fortune making air biscuits.

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