Inspired by Tom Whitwell’s list of 52 things he learned in 2020. Everything listed here must include some sort of citation or link to a reference source that’s not just Wikipedia. The other rule is that I don’t go looking for these, I want to just come across them in my reading or conversation. Never stop learning!
The version I make for myself includes images and research papers that I can’t readily share here.
A lithopaedion, or stone baby, is a dead foetus that has been retained by the mother and subsequently calcified. A stone baby can weigh as much as four pounds and the woman will usually be unaware of its presence.
I learned this from reading Written In Bone by Sue Black.
The first recorded productive use of natural gas was in China, dated at approximately 500 BC. A pipeline constructed using stems of bamboo was deployed to transport gas from its source to a site where it could be used.
As a supplementary note, there are five lamplighters left in London who maintain 1,300 gas lamps.
(I learned both of these from reading Jeremy Paxman’s book Black Gold: A History of How Coal Made Britain )
In 2022 Westminster Council also paused their plans to scrap gas streetlights.
I learned this from reading Letters of Note. This new knowledge pleased me for two reasons. Jackie Fisher and Winston Churchill both featured heavily in the Paxman book on the history of coal. Generally the word that follows OMG in a dictionary is ‘Omicron’.
The first credible recorded sighting of ‘ball lightning’ ,witnessed on 7th June 1195, appears in a monastic chronicle compiled between about 1180 and 1199 by Gervase, a monk of Christ Church Cathedral in Canterbury.
Recent research on Boarding School Syndrome by Joy Schaverien highlights the trauma of the ‘privileged’ child sent to boarding school at a young age. The research demonstrates how forms of enduring distress in adult life may be traced back to the early losses of home and family.
I learned this reading ‘Sad Little Men’ by Richard Beard.
The novel Ulysses turns 100 tomorrow. James Joyce was so particular about the exact shade of blue to use for the first edition cover that he got a painter friend to mix up the precise tint.
The cover was meant to match the blue of the Greek flag but may have been an obscure reference to glaucoma.
The US Interstate Highway System was originally built with bridges 14 feet high to accommodate transport of nuclear missiles. However it later needed bridge heights increased to 17 feet for Atlas ICBMs.
Benford’s Law maintains that the numeral 1 will be the leading digit in a genuine data set of numbers 30.1% of the time. It can be used to detect fraud in accountancy data sets.
A new study found each new industrial robot per 1,000 workers led to about eight additional deaths per 100,000 males aged 45 to 54 and nearly four additional deaths per 100,000 females in the same age group. The analysis showed that automation caused a substantial increase in suicides among middle-aged men and drug overdose deaths.
I was very excited to read about Word2Vec that visualises an enormous body of text as a multidimensional map. Vectors between words are consistent between pairs so the vector between Paris and France is the same as Berlin and Germany. Man is to Woman as King is to Queen.
Because that model reflects biases within the body of text used, it can also mean ‘Man’ is to ‘Programmer’ as ‘Woman’ is to ‘Homemaker’ or Doctor and Nurse or Teacher and Headteacher.
Stigler’s Law of Eponymy states that no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.
Physicists in the USA have proposed using a measurement with a ruler to check whether pasta is cooked. They measured over what length two strands stuck to each other as they hung side-by-side — 30mm for al dente or 18mm for cottura (English-style pasta).
Or they could just have tasted it.
Mental speed does not drastically decline until after age 60. Response speeds in simple decision-making tasks was thought to begin to decline from early and middle adulthood but this seems to be due to other factors such as greater caution in decision making.
It appears that life does indeed flash before your eyes when you die. When an 87-year-old epilepsy patient unexpectedly passed away during an EEG brain scan, the scan found that his brain seemed to replay memories in the 30 seconds before and after his heart stopped beating.
Reading The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, I was puzzled when Major Fentiman said “Oh, I get you, Steve” when nobody of that name was present. I learned the name is early 20th century slang used in the Australian armed forces for a casual acquaintance.
The Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery has developed a map pinpointing slave-owners or direct beneficiaries within the UK. The closest to my current home location is William W. Massiah of Laverockbank Road, associated with the registration of enslaved people at the Strong Hope Plantation in Barbados.
Closer to where I grew-up, Gordon MacDonald of Surinam died in Burntisland in June 1859. In 1855 Gordon owned about 130 enslaved people and had a child, Catherina, with an enslaved woman named Mary, a ‘private [domestic] slave’ of Mary C. Hamilton, the owner of a plantation in Surinam.
Innerpeffray library, Scotland’s first free public lending library, was founded in 1680. It was there that Robert Stirling started his education. leading to the invention of the Stirling Engine in the early 1800s.
The library if governed by the Innerpeffray Mortification who have looked after the library for over 325 years.
World Goth Day is observed on 22 May.
Where almost all media is blocked or controlled, the world’s most successful computer game is still accessible. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) uses this loophole to bypass international censorship.
The word ‘grotty’ was invented for The Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night.
(I learned this reading One two three four: The Beatles in Time by Craig Brown)
In 1977, the same year Star Wars was released, thelast execution by Guillotine took place in France.
Women in the highest quartile for optimism have a greater likelihood of achieving exceptional longevity compared with their most pessimistic peers. Researchers tracked the lifespan of nearly 160,000 women aged between 50 to 79 for a period of 26 years and the most optimistic experienced a 5.4% longer life.
Jane Roe was a fictional name used to protect the identity of the plaintiff, Norma McCorvey in federal action against Henry Wade, the district attorney of Dallas county.
The word ‘Magpie’ is a contraction of the words Margaret and Pie. The first element is a nickname for Margaret, used in proverbial and slang English for qualities associated generally with women, especially in this case idle chattering. The second element ‘pie’ is the earlier name of the bird.
Physical buttons outperform touchscreens in new cars and, in the worst case, simple tasks take four times longer. The worst-performing car needed 1,400 meters to perform the same tasks for which the best-performing car only needed 300 meters. The easiest car to understand and operate, by a large margin, was a 2005 Volvo V70.
Dogs may form tears of joy when reunited with their owners. In a small study, researchers found that dogs produce significantly more tears after being reunited with their owners compared to when their owners stayed at home with them.
The first person in history whose name we know was not a king or high priest; just an accountant named Kushim, born around 5,000 years ago in Uruq (modern Iraq) which is also home to the epic story of Gilgamesh.
(I learned the above two things from reading the book Who Ate the First Oyster by Cody Cassidy)
New research in the UK suggests higher tea intake leads to slightly lower mortality risk among those drinking two or more cups per day. These findings suggest that tea, even at higher levels of intake, can be part of a healthy diet with a lower risk of death from heart disease, and strokes.
When Sweden plays Denmark at sportball the scoreboard will usually display SWE-DEN. The unused letters are DEN-MARK. 🤯
Clutter Image Ratings can be used to assess how much of a compulsive hoarder someone is.
(Level 4 or higher needs professional help and in our house we sit around level 2, despite running a cluttered house)
The royal beekeeper, 79-year-old John Chapple, informed Queen Elizabeth II’s bees of her death. This is part of an ancient folk tradition of ‘telling the bees’ about important events, including when their keeper dies. The consequences of not telling the bees could be calamitous for the health of the colony.
‘Wet-bulb’ temperatures above 35°C, known as the ‘threshold of survivability’, will cause even fit people to overheat and die within six hours. Although that temperature might seem low, it equates to almost 45°C at 50% humidity, and would feel like 70°C.
(I learned this from reading the book Nomad Century by Gaia Vince)
Bad dreams and nightmares (bad dreams that make you wake up) during middle or older age, may be linked with a 4-fold risk of developing dementia.
Researchers observed unborn babies looking upset when exposed to the taste of Kale in the womb. This was due to aromas from the mother’s diet present in amniotic fluid.
In Scottish law, a trainee Advocate is known as a ‘devil’ and each devil has a principal devilmaster.
The first hot air balloon flight in the UK took place in Edinburgh in 1784.
The collective noun for a group of ferrets is ‘a business’ or maybe a busy-ness would be better.
(I learned this from Ben Macintyre’s history of Colditz)
An abstract painting by the painter Piet Mondrian was found to have been hanging upside down ever since it was first exhibited 75 years ago.
The world’s longest running scientific study started in 1946, studying a representative sample of 5,362 babies all born in the same week in the United Kingdom. Every year since their 16th birthday, study members have received a birthday card from the research team.
One member of the cohort is looking forward to his funeral…
“I keep saying that when I die, as the coffin goes down the crem, or possibly the church, there will be the national survey with its clipboard, following me and just checking on the size of the coffin — how expensive it was, how many flowers there were on top of it, whether the mourners were all wearing black, all this stuff … I love it.”
A urinal that’s been scientifically-designed to reduce splashback was developed by scientists at the University of Waterloo (yes, really) in Canada. Their research was partly based on how dogs instinctively raise their legs to achieve the “magic angle” between the urine stream and a tree.
A machine learning model trained on 85,000 eyes can tell male from female eyeballs with 87% accuracy but no-one knows how.
The ancient-sounding Scottish name ’Fiona’ was probably invented in the 1890s by the writer William Sharp. In the 21st century Sharp might have identified as non-binary as he was both William and Fiona according to their friend, the poet WB Yeats.
In Korean tradition, babies are aged one at birth and their first birthday is New Year’s Day. So a child born on the last day of the year would turn two just a few hours after being born. Would because South Korea will change this system in 2023, making everyone one year younger.
In 2022 I learned just how big a Zeppelin really was.
Hardly anyone lives 400m above sea level in the UK and around 50% of the population appears to live at 50 metres or lower.
My mum had so many siblings that her parents forgot they already had a child called ‘Frank’ and re-used the same name for their youngest boy!