Whether it’s a sweet, smoky bourbon or a perfectly peaty single malt, one of the charms of whiskey (spelled “whisky,” without the “e,” in Scotland) is its warm amber color. But many whiskey drinkers might not know that when their favorite spirit comes off the still, it’s as clear as water. Its familiar, golden brown hue comes from the barreling stage, where the wood used (usually charred white oak) imparts color and complex flavors to the whiskey. In fact, whiskey’s round, wooden home provides it with 60% of its flavor and 100% percent of its color. For certain bourbons, retired sherry or amontillado barrels are re-purposed to impart exquisitely subtle notes to the whiskey. So, next time you raise a glass of the “water of life,” give thanks to the mighty oaks that impart their organic imprint on the spirits.
Ever since The Great Millennial Bed Bug Resurgence, it’s hard not to feel a rush of panic sweep over you when someone suggests that you “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.” Bed bugs?! Really? How am I supposed to sleep now? However, once you get past the threat of tiny vermin that eat you during your REM cycle, you have to wonder about the whole “sleep tight” business. Have you been sleeping loosely all these years and didn’t know it? Continue Reading…
Anyone who has asked to speak to a human when trying to pay a phone bill or set up cable knows that being on hold can be a mentally trying task. What makes it even worse? The lilting Muzak that sounds vaguely like something your dentist played during your most recent root canal. Cue dental nightmare flashbacks.
While hold music is a fact of life now, back in 1962, Albert Levy filed a patent for that very same musical mainstay that grinds your gears today. How’d he come up with it? Albert noticed that incoming calls to businesses were often coming in faster than the switchboard operators could address them. He wanted to give callers something to pass the time, but he wasn’t sure what.
Then, Albert’s factory outside New York City had a problem with its phone service. When a loose wire touched a steel girder, the steel acted as an antenna and picked up the signal from a local radio station. The wire tapped into the audio, relaying the music to anyone who was on hold. Turns out, his customers loved it and applauded his entertaining efforts. This happy accident turned into a patent and the future of waiting to speak to your student loan officer was changed forever.
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Got a minute? Would you believe that a “jiffy” refers to an actual unit of time? Originating in the late 18th century as slang for lightning, the word was co-opted by physical chemist Gilbert Norton Lewis to describe the amount of time it takes for light to travel one centimeter in a vacuum. Needless to say, it’s faster than the blink of an eye, at about 33.3564 picoseconds. Given that lightning’s visible radiation travels at the speed of light, jiffy’s leap from nickname to nanosecond-splitting speed is a natural one. Not coincidentally, Dr. Lewis also created the now-familiar word photon to describe a unit of light—be it particle or wave. Now, if it took you more than the minute requested to read this post, you might want to work on increasing your reading speed…by a jiffy or two.
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According to a 2012 study, all that “say cheese” business can actually give you a happier outlook. Researchers trained 169 university students to hold chopsticks in their mouths in such a way that they’d force particular facial expressions—one neutral, one a standard forced smile with just the upturned mouth, and one a genuine smile with the addition of crinkled eyes.
Once the participants learned their expressions, they were asked to perform some modestly stressful tasks. One task required them to trace a star with their non-dominant hand while looking at their reflection in the mirror. If the image of 169 students tracing stars with chopsticks in their mouths doesn’t make you smile, the research outcome should—the subjects with both genuine and “forced” smiles had lower heart rates than those with the neutral expression, meaning they were less stressed. So go ahead, smile through those tax returns and trips to the DMV—it might help!
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Many of us in the west grew up believing that our sense of taste had four dimensions: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. You may recall a day in high school with a diagram of a tongue (probably on an overhead projector) showing a “map” of taste receptor regions (since debunked). Everything we ate was described by some combination of those four dimensions. Culinary case closed, right? Well, chew on this: there’s a fifth distinct taste, called umami in Japanese, long suspected by chefs but only recently confirmed by scientists. Best translated as “deliciousness” or the savory taste, it’s abundant in cured meats, cheeses, mushrooms, and certain vegetables like asparagus. Umami was identified in 1908 by Tokyo University chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who isolated the key chemical, glutamate, from the kelp used in Japanese cooking. Glutamate has since gotten a bad rap thanks to being part of the compound monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor-enhancer used in a lot of westernized Asian food. But as western cooks and foodies are embracing umami as the key to a culinary experience that’s more than the sum of its parts, the chemistry of glutamate is key. Glutamate is an amino acid that’s released in food through slow cooking or curing, and scientists think they know why we crave it: evolutionarily, such processes are desirable because they make potentially toxic food safer to eat. And not coincidentally, human milk has the highest concentration of glutamate in the animal kingdom, introducing many babies to the umami taste long before they can appreciate a well-aged Parmesan.
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Retired NYC subway cars have to go somewhere. From August 2001-April 2010, the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority sent 2,500 retired cars to New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. The cars were stripped and decontaminated before being dropped into the ocean to serve as homes for the many species of fish and crustaceans that could colonize the structures—think a coral reef made out of subways. Underwater photos have shown that the new structures are thriving. They provide thousands of square feet for invertebrates like blue mussels to live on, along with food and shelter to slower fish that might need to duck into safety from a predator. Now if only we could figure out what fish rush hour is like?
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So romantic. Welcome to the Valentine’s Day edition of Uncommon Knowledge—a place where we can talk about all the romantic things animals do for each other. For one, sea otters hold hands when they sleep. They do this mostly so they don’t drift away from their pals while they snooze on their backs in the water, but the result is true intimacy.
Another romantic gesture? Penguins will propose to new mates with a pebble. Many penguins assemble their nests out of pebbles, so really, it’s a way of offering their beloved a promise to build a home with them. Maybe we can follow suit and start replacing engagement rings with a nice adjustable rate mortgage?
Brolgas cranes, like most cranes, are monogamous and will mate with the same partner every year, typically at the same nesting spot. However, the brolgas know a thing or two about keeping the romance alive—no matter how many years they’ve been together, the brolgas will still court their mate with an intricate mating dance. Ooh la la!
Okay, let’s do some rapid-fire romance: Ready for a puppy fact? Male puppies will intentionally let female puppies win when they play-fight so they can get to know them better. Like seahorses? They’re monogamous and will hold each other’s tails when traveling.
Ain’t love grand?
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