The 25 Most Important Questions in the History of the Universe

People magazine has its 50 Most Beautiful People ... Time has a Person of the Year ... And mental_floss magazine - besides having tons of fascinating, cool, and juicy stories, anecdotes, and trivia - now has something that trumps 'em both:

The 25 Most Important Questions
in the History of the Universe.

Hard questions that matter, like "can a pregnant woman drive in the carpool lane?" or "how can I win at that ultra-important-corporate-decision-making- process, rock-paper-scissor?" and of course, "is turkey a country or a bird first?". Wait, is it *really* a natural bird? Never mind - don't answer that.

The folks at mental_floss were friendly enough to let us feature their stuff - something that will become a regular feature here at Neatorama (so be kind to them and visit their brand new and very chic blog, ok?). The text is verbatim from the articles, although I did add links, pics, videos and probably a couple of typos.

Let's go to the list, already:

1. What Makes No. 2 Pencils So Darn Special?

Little. Yellow. Identical. The No. 2 is definitely No. 1 in the pencil market. It's a staple in schools and workplaces everywhere, and the required writing utensil for Scantron® tests across the globe. But is it really that great of a pencil? You bet your bippy.

No. 2's use medium weight graphite, which makes them the ideal pencils for general writing. 18th-century French pencil maker Nicolas-Jacques Conté created the number system based on a pencil's hardness (the higher the number, the harder the graphite), and we've been using it ever since.

But let's not forget the other numbers of pencils out there. No. 1's are made with soft graphite and tend to smudge, and are often used to record bowling scores. No. 3's and above indicate harder pencils that are most often used for drafting, when you need a sharp, strong point.

2. Who's That AOL Guy Who Eerily Knows When You've Got Mail?

Meet Elwood Edwards, the man behind the message. Approximately 63 million times a day, Edwards' voice greets AOL customers to let them know "you've got mail."

Edwards' career as a disembodied cyber presence stretches back to 1989 when his wife overheard her boss at Quantum Computer Services discussing adding a voice to its online service, Q-Link. At the time, Elwood did voice-overs for radio and television, so his wife suggested him for the company's new program. Not long after, Quantum changed its name to America Online and premiered AOL 1.0, with Elwood speaking four phrases: "Welcome," "You've got mail," "File's done," and "Goodbye." Through AOL's numerous upgrades, one thing has remained the same: Elwood Edwards.

Today, his voice is so well known that he's created a website where fans can order their own custom phrases. The site also includes pictures of Edwards, just in case you're looking to put a face with that friendly voice you love so much.

3. Where Does Nougat Come From?

Like falafel and the number "0," nougat is a product of Middle Eastern genius. Originally made from a mixture of honey, nuts, and spices, the basic recipe was transplanted to Greece where it lost the spices and gained the name "nugo."

Later cultural exchanges brought the treat to France, where it became "nougat," and the recipe switched from calling for ground walnuts to ground almonds. In 1650, the French made another change for the better, adding beaten egg whites and creating the fluffier, modern nougat texture. The first commercial nougat factory opened in Montelimar, France, in the late 18th century, and today, the area is renowned for its nougat, with about a dozen manufacturers producing the sugary treat.

As for its ugly American cousin - the nougat you're probably familiar with from candy bars - it's not "true nougat." The imitation stuff is chewier, less almond-y, and contains enough artificial preservatives to make a French candy-maker swoon.

4. Is There One Move That's More Likely to Win a Game of Rock-Paper-Scissors?

To answer this question, we turned to the archives of the World Rock-Paper-Scissors Society (seriously!), where we found that RPS players rely on strategy, not probability, to win. From the playground to the annual International World RPS Tournament (really, people, we're not kidding), outwitting your opponent is job No. 1 for serious competitors.

According to the Society, one way to guess what hand someone will throw out is to know how many rounds they've won so far. Players who are in the lead will often use scissors, because it's believed to symbolize aggression, while paper is used for a more subtle attack. Rock is usually a last resort, when players feel their strategies are failing. There are also techniques you can use to mask your move, such as cloaking, in which players will pretend to throw rock and then stick out two fingers at the last second to make scissors. In addition, the true professionals (who do exist) will use sets of three moves, called "gambits," to help them make their moves out of strategy, not reaction.

But that's not all. The Society also keeps track of how common moves are, particularly as they relate to mentions of RPS in pop culture. For instance, after "The Simpsons" episode where Bart beats Lisa with rock and thinks to himself "Good old rock, nothing beats it," the Society recorded a .3 percent upswing in the use of rock.

But if you're gonna play, be prepared to pay; RPS can be a dangerous sport. In the late 1980's, Kenyan Mustafa Nwenge lost a match and the use of a finger when an overzealous opponent "cut his paper" a little too hard and crushed Nwenge's finger ligaments.

See also: Rock Paper Scissors on Steroids


This is a Vargo titanium spork: spoon, fork, can opener, and bottle openers all in one!

5. Which Came First, the Can Opener or the Can?

While the mental_floss staff is still working round the clock to figure out that blasted chicken/egg question, this one we can definitely answer.

In 1810, a British merchant named Peter Durand patented the tin can, making it possible for sterilized food to be preserved more effectively than was possible with breakable containers. The can were especially useful for long ocean voyages, where glass bottles were prone to breakage, and soon the British Navy was dining on canned veggies and meat.

So far, so good. But what Durand (and everybody else for that matter) forgot to invent was a way to open the cans. For almost 50 years, getting into your pork 'n' beans required the use of a hammer and a chisel. The first can opener was patented by American inventor Ezra Warner in 1858, but even that wasn't particularly convenient. These early openers were stationed at the grocery store, and clerks did the honors. It wasn't until 1870 that the first home can openers made an appearance.

6. How Does a Word Become a Curse Word?

Our parents are totally going to ground us for talking about this, but if you must know, a "curse" was originally just a bad type of prayer. Thus, the first curse word was likely "damn," as in asking God to damn someone to Hell, which was considered taboo because of the religious power it wielded.

Condemning people to an eternity of suffering isn't something to let everyone just go around doing on a daily basis, so the government stepped in, leading to the first censorship laws. Among the first victims was William Shakespeare, whose works were considered quite racy for their time, and not just because he sent his fair share of characters to Hades. The Bard's plays were littered with sexual innuendo, and eventually, these types of references became swear words as well.

Depending on what the sexual mores of the current generation were, formerly innocuous words could suddenly become unfit for polite company. The Victorians, for instance, instituted the practice of referring to the thigh meat on a chicken as "dark meat" because saying the word "leg" or "thigh" at dinner could be enough to give your hostess a case of the vapors.

And in the 17th century, the "c-word" that formerly referred to a certain barnyard fowl took on another, er, more inappropriate meaning, leading to the invention of words like "rooster" and "weathervane" to keep the newly dirty word from crossing genteel lips.

Sometimes these avoidance tactics went a little too far, though. Case in point: the 1952-53 season of "I Love Lucy," during which, despite the star's stomach being about the size of the Superdome, censors prevented the show's writers from even once mentioning the word "pregnant."

See also: Maledicta Journal, a scholarly journal dedicated to bad, bad words, published by Reinhold Aman [wiki] (a colorful character himself!).

7. Can a Pregnant Woman Drive in the Carpool Lane?

Expectant mothers, start your engines! In 1987, a pregnant California woman was ticketed for driving "by herself" in the carpool lane. Sure, the citation was only for $52, but she sued anyway, contending that her 5-month-old fetus constituted a second person.

Lo and behold, the jury agreed with her, despite the prosecution's argument that women could then just stuff pillows up their dresses to drive "carpool" on California's freeways.

But as it turns out, the California Highway Patrol took care of that concern, brushing off the case as a bunch of hooey. Verdict or not, officers said they would continue to ticket solo drivers, even if they claimed to be pregnant.

See also: Pregnant mom driving in the carpool lane? Not in Arizona, you won't | Dummies won't work, either!

8. Why Do Battery Letters Skip from A to C? Was There Ever a B-Cell Battery?

Battery letter designations are based on the size of the battery: for common sizes, A is the smallest, and D is the largest. By the same logic, AA batteries are larger than AAA. Unfortunately for B batteries, it's not the size that counts. You never see B batteries around because they aren't very useful. The size never caught on in products made for consumers, so stores didn't carry them, and the cycle continued. They are sold, but only in Europe, where they're used primarily to power bicycle lamps.

9. What Does McDonald's Have in Common with the CIA?

"Clowns wanted! We are looking for clowns to fit high profile, permanent positions. Must be wiling to relocate."

If this ad seems a little peculiar, it's because McDonald's execs share an intense policy of employee secrecy with their less-delicious counterparts over at the Central Intelligence Agency. Clowns who portray the company mascot, Ronald McDonald, are strictly forbidden from disclosing their identities.

It's also taboo for two (costumed) Ronalds to be in the same place at the same time. In fact, the only time they get together is at the biennial Ronald McDonald Convention, which, as you might imagine, is also very top-secret.

All of this helps keep up the image that Ronald, the second most recognizable figure worldwide after Santa, is a single, magical character. There are, of course, many Ronalds - an estimate 250 of the clowns worldwide, in fact. Their average income is about $40,000 a year, but the busiest clowns can bring in as much as $100,000. The Ronald McDonald who appears in the company's television commercials earns a salary of more than $300,000 and must be booked a year in advance. We could tell you who he is, but then, of course, we'd have to kill you.

See also: In Japan, forget Ronald and say hello to McHottie! Ronald McDonald: Chief Happiness Officer [wiki]

10. Why Does Hawaii Have Interstate Highways?

While we'd like to believe Hawaii's Interstate system exists for the sole purpose of annoying George Carlin, the name is actually a misnomer. Not all Interstates physically go from one state to another; the name merely implies that the roads receive federal funding.

The three Hawaii Interstates (H1, H2, and H3) became Interstates as part of The Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and National Defense Highways to protect the U.S. from a Soviet invasion by making it easier to get supplies from one military base to another.

11. Why Do Most Snooze Buttons Only Give You Nine More Minutes of Sleep?

By the time the snooze feature was added in the 1950's, the innards of alarm clocks had long been standardized.

This meant that the teeth on the snooze gear had to mesh with the existing gear configuration, leaving engineers with a single choice: They could set the snooze for either a little more than nine minutes, or a little more than 10 minutes.

Reports indicated that 10 minutes was too long, since it allowed people to fall back into a "deep" sleep, so clock makers chose the nine-minute gear, believing people would wake up easier and happier after a shorter snooze. We'd tend to disagree with that logic, but, then we must be in the lazy minority.

Although today's digital clocks can be programmed to have a snooze of any length, most stick with nine minutes because that's what consumers expect.

See also: Puzzle Alarm Clock

12. Why Do We Call Them Grandfather Clocks?

Grandfather clocks are grandfather clocks for much the same reason M.C. Hammer pants are M.C. Hammer pants: It's all about the pop music.

In 1875, American songwriter Henry Work checked in for a stay at the George Hotel in North Yorkshire, England. In the lobby was a large pendulum clock that had belonged to the inn's pervious owners, both deceased. The clock was said to have stopped dead - to the minute - on the day the last surviving owner died.

Work thought this was a great story and went on to fictionalize it in a song called "My Grandfather's Clock [wiki]." The lyrics centered around a clock that was "taller by half than the old man himself" and that "stopped short never to go again" when the grandfather died. It was, obviously, a runaway hit. Work sold over a million copies in sheet music, and eventually, the term "grandfather clock" became attached to the style of clock that inspired the song.

See also: Eric Harshbarger's Lego Grandfather Clock

13. Was Turkey a Bird or a Country First?

And the award goes to: Turkey-the-country! Turns out, turkey-the-bird is native to North America and acquired its name when the Spanish brought it from Mexico to Europe. When the bird made its debut in England, it was mistaken for a Guinea Hen, a common fowl regularly imported from Africa by Turks. Then the English, demonstrating that they are the real turkeys in this story, named the bird after its supposed importers.


Turkey Target found at Airhog

14. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck if a Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood?

Probably none. Woodchucks aren't particularly tree-oriented, and while they can climb to find food, they prefer being on the ground.

In fact, they got the name "woodchuck" from British trappers who couldn't quite wrap their tongues around the Cree Indian name "wuchak." More commonly (and accurately) known as groundhogs, these animals are closely related to squirrels, marmots, and prairie dogs, with which they share an affinity for burrowing.

And actually, a burrowing woodchuck can chuck dirt, in the form of tunnels that can reach five feet deep and as much as 35 feet in length. So, based on that number, New York State wildlife expert Richard Thomas calculated that if a woodchuck could chuck wood, he could chuck as much as 700 pounds of the stuff.

15. We Know Nothing Better Has Come Along Since then, But Who Invented Sliced Bread Anyway?

It may get a lot of credit now, but at the time of its debut in 1928, sliced bread received less-than-rave reviews.

Baker and inventor Otto Frederick Rohwedder had spent 15 years perfecting his bread slicer (finally settling on one that wrapped the sliced bread to hold it together as opposed to the hat pins he'd tried earlier), but consumers weren't quick to convert. People found the sliced bread strange and senseless. It wasn't until the advent of Wonder Bread, and the collective realization that sliced bread worked better in the toaster, that Rohwedder's invention really took off.

By World War II, the military was using sliced bread to serve peanut butter & jelly sandwiches as part of soldiers' rations. Previously uncommon, the PB&J gained a loyal following among servicemen, who kept making the sandwich, sliced bread and all, after they came back to the home front.

Neatorama note: Sliced Bread photoshop job by Nana, at the always amusing Worth1000 (Mucho Macho 2)

16. Why Is It Called "Blackmail?"

The first blackmailers were Scottish landlords who exploited farmers by making them pay rent in livestock or services if they couldn't pay in cash. The goods they had to hand over were usually worth more than the rent owned, and the landlords didn't make change.

Around the same time, local chieftains started going after the same farmers with the kind of scheme the mafia usually refers to as "selling insurance." They made an offer the farmers couldn't refuse: pay a fee for protection. If the farmers didn't pay, then the chieftains would unfortunately be unable to prevent ruffians from destroying crops and sacking property.

The Scottish farmers called both nefarious deals "black" because they associated that color with evil, and because both payments were made in goods rather than silver coins (called "white money"). As for the "mail" part, it doesn't refer to the postal system. That "mail" comes from the German word for "pouch." The "mail" in blackmail is related to the Old Norse word for "payment" or "agreement."

Neatorama's note: The photo above is of Monty Python's skit Blackmail [wiki], where "Michael Palin plays a smarmy television game show host who extorts money from his viewers by threatening to reveal embarrassing or illegal facts about them. One game is "Stop the film," where a scandalous film is played until a phone call is received, and the amount of money needed increases the longer the subject waits."

17. Is It Possible to Own Property on the Moon?

That depends on what your definition of is, is. According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, countries can't own lunar real state. However, the Treaty doesn't say anything about the rights of individuals to claim land.

Enter Dennis Hope, a California entrepreneur / ventriloquist who'd exploited the loophole to its fullest. In 1980, Hope announced his ownership to the moon (and, incidentally, the rest of the solar system) and promptly started selling off plots through his company, Lunar Embassy.

Space-faring nations vehemently denied the legality of Hope's business, pointing to the 1979 Moon Treaty, which forbids individual interstellar land investment. Finding yet another loophole, Hope countered by noting that none of the space nations ever actually signed that treaty after the U.S. and Russia both refused.

But Moon Treaty or not, an individual can still only own land through the jurisdiction of his or her home country, and if nations can't own it, then people can't own land through them.

Tenuous as his argument is, Hope has still managed to inspire some serious investors. To date, the Lunar Embassy has made more than $1.6 million. If you're interested, plots go for as little as $30, but don't spend all your money on moon land: mental_floss has some contacts with beautiful oceanfront lots in Arizona and we'd love to get you in on the ground floor.

See also: Space Article | Google Moon

18. Why Can't You Tickle yourself?

Much to the dismay of wacky masochist everywhere, the human brain is wired against self-tickling. Because the brain controls movement, it knows what your hand is going to do before you do it. Thus it anticipates the exact force, location, and speed of the tickle and uses that information to desensitize you to your own roving hands.

So why do we have a tickle response anyway? Turns out, it's a defense reaction meant to alert our cave-dwelling ancestors to creepy crawlies that didn't know their place, and the uncontrollable laughing fit that goes along with it is actually a panic response.

Even if you know someone else is about to go for your rib cage, it's hard to turn the response off because a) your brain can't anticipate exactly how and where they'll tickle you and b) knowing someone is about to tickle you is usually enough to keep those panic receptors open and ready to go.

See also: Tickle Salon and Tickle Robot | Andre Stubbe and Markus Lerner's ticklish robot | for something completely different: trout tickling [wiki], and who can forget: Tickle Me Elmo [wiki]

19. Human Meat Isn't Appetizing, But is It Healthy?

You are what you eat. So it stands to reason that if you're a cannibal, and you eat a diseased, dead guy, you're going to become a diseased, dead guy.

But the cannibalistic Fore people of New Guinea found that out the hard way. For most of the 20th century, the Fore were plagued with a disease called Kuru [wiki], also known as the laughing death. Kuru, a relative of mad cow disease, paralyzes its victims and cause dementia by turning the brain into something resembling Swiss cheese - literally creating holes in the brain.

Fascinated by what he though was a genetic disorder, scientist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek [wiki] traveled to New Guinea in 1957 to study the Fore. While there, he discovered that women made up the vast majority of Kuru victims. He also noticed that women and children were the ones ceremonially eating the brains and intestines of dead relatives. Putting two and two together, Gajdusek deduced that the Fore were ingesting the prions, or misshapen proteins, that caused the disease.

Gajdusek received a Nobel Prize for his work, and today, cannibalism and Kuru are all but wiped out in New Guinea.

See also: University of Utah's Prions:On the Trail of Killer Proteins

20. Can You Actually Sense Weather with an Injured body Part?

There was a time when scientists would walk barefoot, through the snow, uphill both ways, just to ridicule you for believing that sensing weather with the body was anything but an old wives' tale.

Today, many will still scoff at the idea, but maybe just in an email. In 1961, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School conducted a series of tests that proved changes in climate could affect your health, especially if you suffered from arthritis.

It works like this: When a storm is approaching, the barometric pressure of the air falls, which can cause an inflammation around a bone injury to swell and stretch, irritating the nerves around the joint and causing a lot of pain.

The Pennsylvania scientists tested their theory on 12 volunteers in a climate-controlled chamber, and found that those who had arthritis experienced more pain when the air pressure was lower, thus suggesting that they could sense an approaching storm.

21. Why Won't Pineapple and Jell-O® Be Friends?

If Jell-O® ads and 1950's cookbooks are to be believed, you can mix almost anything with gelatin and have it come out tasty. Ham? Absolutely. Carrots? Sure thing. Tomato soup? M'm, m'm, good.

The only ingredient that seems to be taboo is one that actually sounds delicious: fresh pineapple. Unfortunately, the tropical treat works like kryptonite on Jell-O® because it contains an enzyme called bromelain, which prevents gelatin from forming into a solid.

But fret not, fruit salad mold fans: canned pineapple doesn't contain bromelain. The canning process heats the pineapple to a temperature sufficient to break the enzyme down, making it oh-so Jell-O® friendly.

See also: Elizabeth Hickok's San Francisco in Jell-O.

22. What are Sea-Monkeys®, Anyway?

Ah, Sea-Monkeys®. You know 'em; you love 'em; you're totally confused by them. Well, consider he monkey mystery solved. Turns out, they're Artemia salinas, or brine shrimp.

In the 1960's, inventor Harold von Braunhut [wiki] discovered that the eggs of these shrimp lie dormant in salt flats waiting for the right conditions before they spring to life, so he started experimenting with them for his toy product, Instant-Life. But later, he changed the name (and struck pop culture gold) after a colleague heard him call the creatures his "cute little sea monkeys."

The shrimp became popular because of their ability to "come back to life" after being stored dry on a shelf, but hey weren't so popular after children discovered that the shrimp only had a life span of about a month.

Over the years, however, Von Braunhut has managed to breed better Sea-Monkeys®. Today's comic book ads now promise that they will live up to two years. Von Braunhut, who passed away in 2003, was also the man responsible for X-Ray Specs, and the late 1980s' hermit crab craze.

23. How Many Pounds of Chimpanzee are Needed to Defeat the Average Human?

In 1924, the Bronx Zoo tested the relative strength of a 165-pound man against a 165-pound chimpanzee. Using a dynamometer, which measures strength by the force of a pull on a spring, the man was able to pull 210 pounds. The chimp pulled almost 900. The lesson: Don't mess with the apes. Pound for pound, chimpanzees are about five times stronger than humans. In fact, a human is no match for a chimpanzee, regardless of its age or sex. In the same Bronx experiment, a 135-pound female chimp pulled a whopping 1,260 pounds. Scientists also estimate that, at the tender age of five, young chimpanzees are already stronger than adult humans.

See also: Karate Chimp [YouTube link for video above] | Smoking Chimp | Chimp Playing Ms. Pac-Man | Chimp vs. Navy Seal Obstacle Race [video]

24. Why are Grape-Nuts® Neither Grapes Nor Nuts?

Post Company founder Charles W. Post might have been good at creating popular cereals, but he wasn't the best at naming them.

One of his first breakfast treats, Post Toasties, was originally known by the more, er, zealous name, Elijah's Manna.

And then there's the misleading Grape-Nuts®, which Charles named after a key ingredient in the cereal called maltose, which tasted like nuts and, at the time, was known as "grape sugar." Hence, Grape-Nuts.

It may sound like false advertising, but it's not. Post would likely be protected from such allegations by that precious little hyphen. The Federal Trade Commission might consider a cereal called Grape Nuts "deceitful," but that hyphen makes the name "fanciful," which excludes it from prosecution according to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

25. How Many Licks Does It Take to Get to the Center of a Tootsie Pop?

No thanks to that animated owl and his woeful lack of willpower, this question has plagued the American public ever since the commercial first aired in 1970. Fortunately, there have been plenty of noble efforts to get to the bottom (or center, as the case may be) of it all.

But the answer depends on who you ask. A group of students at Swarthmore Junior High conducted an extensive study on the subject and concluded that getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop took a statistical average of 144 licks.

However, the more ambitious and distrusting engineering students at Purdue University chose instead to rely on a "licking machine" modeled after the human tongue for their results, and found that it took an average of 364 licks. Other studies have been done, and all results vary, so only one thing is certain: The world may never know.

See also: link for video above [YouTube]

Big thanks to mental_floss for this awesome list! Don't forget to check out their new blog - one of my favorite stopping places on the Net:


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Seen a commercial a few nights ago:

We see pieces of firewood being tossed out into a pond. Angry man comes running out yelling "Hey you woodchucks! Stop chucking my wood!"
Woodchucks snicker and scurry off.

Obviously woodchucks can chuck wood, I saw it on TV so it must be true.
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I think that pregnant women should be allowed to drive in the carpool lane. Pro-life supporters believe that a fetus is technically a living child at time of conception, so if the fetus is a "living child", then why doesn't the child in question count as another person in the car?
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