Rocks don’t seem very fast, what with their lack of mobility and all. But they simply don’t let that stop them. The largest rocks on earth—our tectonic plates—move at cruising speeds reaching 2 inches per year. And falling rocks can really pick up speed, of course, as they accelerate at a rate of 32.174 ft/s2. In contrast, it has been much more difficult to calculate the speed of the mysterious sailing stones in Death Valley National Park. These rocks, ranging from pebbles to slabs weighing hundreds of pounds, are found scattered around the parched, dirt surface of the Racetrack Playa with what appear to be skid marks behind them, tracing a path hundreds of feet long and not always in a straight line. While these tracks have been observed for at least a hundred years, the rocks’ movement only occurs every few years, and it has never actually been observed by humans. Until 2013. In December of that year, some researchers used time lapse photography and GPS tracking, and were able to document the movement of 60 different stones. It turns out that, under certain winter conditions, a sheet of ice just millimeters thick that forms on the ground, providing a low-friction surface across which stones can slide when blown by the wind—moving up to 200 meters in a month.
Humans aren’t the only species that delights in delivering unexpected little surprises to the ones they love. Anyone with a cat is probably well aware of this fact. Dropping its prey for you to find later on your doorstep is an act of generosity—like delivering a furry fruitcake for you to nibble on. But such generosity is not limited to domesticated animals. A 2007 study showed that rats who had been helped by other rats were likely to “pay it forward” when they saw another rat in need. The males of some species of spider woo their mates by offering delectable treats wrapped in silk. (Although some male spiders can be a real Grinch, and trick the female by wrapping up something completely inedible, like seeds, prey that he has already eaten, or a fruitcake.) Vampire bats are known to share blood with the less fortunate who were unable to find prey during their feeding hours. But perhaps the sweetest gift of all is the gift of cyanide, which the male, six-spot burnet moth gives to his mate. Sure, cyanide is poisonous, but the female knows just how to transform it into a substance that keeps unwanted visitors at a distance. Like fruitcake.
It’s a Christmas epiphany! From Dasher and Dancer to Comet and Cupid, the gender-neutral names and majestic antlers of Santa’s reindeer suggested that they were predominantly male. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see that female reindeer are not only better equipped for the midnight flight, but they also fit the classic description of Santa’s sleigh pullers perfectly. Around Christmas time in the wild, the average male reindeer can carry as little as 5% body fat, while the female has about 50%. These extra layers keep them extra warm in temperatures as low as minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit—an advantage that would definitely come in handy while flying all over the world. But the ultimate proof that Santa’s reindeer are female is the iconic silhouette. Around Christmas, male reindeer lose their antlers, which means that those antlered reindeer in the sky have to be ladies! How’s that for a little bit of girl power with your holiday cheer?
All over the world, you find different traditions for holiday giving. Many countries, including the United States, hang stockings by the fireplace for Santa Clause to fill on Christmas Eve. In Germany, St. Nicholas leaves small toys and candy in children’s shoes on his saint day in early December, as does the good witch la Befana on January 6 for children in Italy. But perhaps the most unusual tradition comes from the Catalonia region in Spain. There children are given treats on Christmas Even by Tió de Nadal—the Christmas Log. Beginning on December 8 (the Feast of the Immaculate Conception), children give the Christmas Log a cozy place to live, “feeding” it a little food from their dinner each night, and even giving it a blanket to keep warm. On Christmas Eve, the children are sent into another room to pray for the tio to deliver lots of presents, and while they are doing so, the adults quickly hide candy and other treats under the log’s blanket. When the children return, they command the log to poop. They sing songs while hitting it with a stick in order to help it do so, and after each song, an adult reaches under the blanket to reveal another goodie that the log has produced. It gives one reason to be grateful that America has decided to stick with stockings.
Sure, large stretches of Russia are essentially a frozen wasteland for half of the year, but that’s no reason not to have fun. In fact, starting in the 17th century, the Russians developed a unique winter pastime. Called the Russian Mountain, it involved a scaffolding (sometimes up to 200 feet tall) built to support a wooden ramp, which would then be covered with ice to create an instant, high-adrenaline sledding hill. The Russian Mountains were so popular that Catherine the Great not only demanded to have one built at her private residence, but it also required that it be available for her use during the summer as well. That presented a bit of a problem. But after some thought, her enterprising engineers came up with a modified version that, instead of relying on ice, used wheels to send its toboggans careening along a sloping track. Enterprising businessmen began to copy this new thrill ride—which one might describe as involving rolling and coasting—all across Europe and eventually across the Atlantic, where innovations like the circular track and the “lift hill” were perfected. Ironically, when the new, American-style roller coasters began to pop up in Russia a hundred years later, they were known as “American Mountains.”
“Not for all the tea in China!” It’s an oldie but a goodie, but how old is it, and just how much in goods does it represent? The colorful metaphor for “never ever” hails from the late 19th or early 20th century. The earliest reference may lie in J. J. Mann’s 1914 travelogue Round the World in a Motor Car, though the book may be referencing an earlier colloquialism. In any case, understanding the phrase requires being steeped in a modicum of geography and global economics. Simply put, China is a big country that produces a lot of tea, so all of that production would equal a small fortune. To turn down such a slice of the Chinese GDP underscores the magnitude of the rejection. But have you ever wondered how much we’re talking dollar-wise? China’s total tea production in 2013 was worth roughly 17.5 billion dollars. That’s billion with a B. Still sure you want to turn that down? Maybe you should consult the tea leaves.
That, like your eligibility for the Olympics, depends on your age. During the 1940s, studies showed that 75% of Americans reported rarely or never seeing any color in their dreams. Today, those numbers are reversed. One big reason is traced back to our sources of entertainment—we watch TV in HD color, we dream in HD color. In more recent studies, people 25 and younger report never dreaming in black and white, whereas people over 55 reported to dreaming in black and white a quarter of the time, which is linked to childhood exposure to black and white television. The jury’s still out on what childhood exposure to birthday clowns can do to your dreams.
Yeah, sure, there’s the whole “exposure your kids to culture” reason. But perhaps the more important reason to take children to the museum is that if they go without adult supervision, they may embark on a short-lived but highly lucrative career of art theft. Seriously, it can happen. Take the case of 15-year-old Laurence McCall. He was fond of visiting the Alfred O. Deshong Museum in Chester, Pennsylvania—so much so that he felt compelled to start bringing the artwork home. This was a small museum in the 1970s, so its security system was limited to guards walking the floor. So all young Mr. McCall needed to do was wait until the guard had passed, take the painting off the wall and slide it out an open window. But McCall wasn’t just an art lover, he was also a reader, and when he read an article in the New York Times about how much art could sell for, his appreciation rose to whole new levels. In time, he started selling to private collectors. And then he started selling paintings through Sotheby’s auction house in New York. And if anyone found it suspicious that a teenager was depositing checks for $30,000, driving a Jaguar, and living in his own, 30th floor apartment, no one said anything about it. That is, until they did. By the time he was caught at age 19, it was believed he had stolen at least $400,000 art from the Deshong museum—nearly half of their collection. They couldn’t actually prove that he had stolen the paintings, but they were able to convict him for not paying his taxes. He was imprisoned for three years, and will probably be paying of his debt to the IRS for the rest of his life. And now, when you see those signs in the museum saying “No Unattended Children”, you will know why.