Why Are Bottles of Champagne Smashed On New Ships?

Evgeniy_P/iStock via Getty Images
Evgeniy_P/iStock via Getty Images

Before a ship slides from its berth into the water, it must first get hit on—by a bottle of booze, usually champagne. Here’s the lowdown on the history and physics of smashing some bubbly and launching a ship.

Launch Party

The tradition of christening a new ship for good luck and safe travel goes way back. Many ancient seafaring societies had their own ceremonies for launching a new ship. The Greeks wore olive branch wreaths around their heads, drank wine to honor the gods, and poured water on the new boat to bless it. The Babylonians sacrificed an ox, the Turks sacrificed a sheep, and the Vikings and Tahitians offered up human blood.

These events almost always had a religious tone to them, and the name of a favored god or god of the seas was often invoked. In the Middle Ages, two friars would often board British ships before their maiden voyage to pray, lay their hands on the masts and sprinkle holy water on the deck and bow.

The religious aspect of ship christening died off in Protestant Europe after the Reformation, especially in Great Britain. Some member of the royalty or nobility would instead join the crew for a secular ceremony of drinking from the “standing cup”—a large goblet, usually made of precious metal and fitted with a foot and a cover—and solemnly calling the ship by her name. After taking a drink, the presiding official would pour what liquid was left onto the deck or over the bow and then toss the cup over the side of the vessel, to be caught by a lucky bystander (or sink into the ocean). As Britain became a maritime power and its growing navy required more ships, the practice of discarding the expensive cups fell out of favor. For a while, they were caught in a net for reuse, but eventually, the whole ceremony was replaced by the breaking of a wine bottle across the ship’s bow.

Beverage Choices

Ship christening in the young United States borrowed from contemporary English tradition. The launch of the USS Constitution in 1797 included the captain breaking a bottle of Madeira wine on its bow. Over the next century, the ritual of breaking or pouring of some “christening fluid” remained, but the fluid itself varied wildly. The USS Princeton, Raritan and Shamrock were all christened with whiskey. The USS New Ironsides was double-christened, first with a bottle of brandy and then with Madeira. Other ships were teetotalers, and launched with water or grape juice. The USS Hartford was christened three times, with water from the Atlantic Ocean, the Connecticut River and Hartford Spring. The USS Kentucky was launched with spring water by her official sponsor, but as the battleship slipped into the water, onlookers gave her a baptism more fitting of her namesake state and bashed small bottles of bourbon against her sides.

It’s not clear how champagne came to be the favored fluid. The Secretary of the Navy’s granddaughter christened the USS Maine, the Navy's first steel battleship, with champagne in 1890. The shift to that particular sparkling wine might have been meant to coincide with the new era of steel, or it may just have just come into vogue because of association with power and elegance.

When Prohibition went into effect in the U.S., ships went sober again and were launched with water, juice or, in at least one case, apple cider. Champagne came back with the passage of the 21st Amendment and has stuck around since.

Heavy Hitter

Champagne bottles are basically booze-filled tanks. They have to stand up to the enormous pressure the wine creates inside them,  so their glass is very thick, and breaking them is no easy task. But, as Mark Miodownik, a material scientist at King's College London, told the BBC, it only takes a small defect, a slight imperfection in the glass, to compromise a bottle’s strength. He points out that bigger bottles have a higher probability of a natural defect, but any size bottle can be prodded along towards breaking if the wine has bigger bubbles, and hence more internal pressure. If ever you find yourself stuck christening a ship with a bottle that can take a beating, P&O (the British shipping and logistics company) chairman Sir John Parker, quoted in the same piece, suggests scoring the bottle with a glass cutter to to weaken it.

What Does CPR Stand For?

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undefined undefined/iStock via Getty Images

The life-saving technique known as CPR stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It's a method that allows oxygenated blood to temporarily circulate throughout the body of a person whose heart has stopped. When the heart ceases beating during cardiac arrest, lungs stop receiving oxygen. Without oxygen, nerve cells start to die within minutes; it can take just four to six minutes for an oxygen-deprived person to sustain permanent brain damage or die.

The cardio part of the phrase refers to the heart, the muscular organ that pumps blood through the body's circulatory system. Pulmonary involves the lungs. People take approximately 15 to 20 breaths per minute, and with each breath you take, your lungs fill with oxygen. Resuscitation means bringing something back to consciousness, or from the brink of death.

We have two physicians, Peter Safar and James Elam, to thank for developing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in the mid-1950s. In 1957, the American military adopted their CPR method for reviving soldiers. In 1960, the American Heart Association integrated chest compressions, which keep the blood circulating.

Doctors, nurses, dentists, first responders, lifeguards, and some teachers are required to be certified in CPR. But because approximately 85 percent of cardiac arrests occur at home, it’s smart for the average person to know how to perform it, too. In school, you were probably taught CPR by the traditional method of giving 100 to 120 chest compressions per minute (play the Bee Gees’ "Stayin’ Alive" in your head to keep the beat) and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Today, the American Heart Association recommends that average people learn hands-only CPR, which simply involves chest compressions. The organization has found that people can be reluctant to administer mouth-to-mouth CPR in an emergency because they're afraid of doing it wrong or injuring the patient. With hands-only CPR, bystanders feel less anxiety and more willingness to jump in. The AHA also notes that hands-only CPR can be just as effective in saving a life. (And any CPR is better than none at all.)

But how many people actually know CPR?

In 2018, a Cleveland Clinic survey found that 54 percent of Americans said they knew CPR, but only one in six people knew that bystander CPR requires only chest compressions. Only 11 percent of people knew the correct pace for compressions. Again, singing "Stayin' Alive" to yourself is one way to remember the pace—though being a fan of The Office can apparently help, too (as one lucky life-saver recently discovered).

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Are Left-Handed People Really More Creative?

Kuzma/iStock via Getty Images
Kuzma/iStock via Getty Images

The left-handed brand has come a long way in the last few decades. The majority of people no longer assume that southpaws are tools of Satan, alight with hellfire. Today’s lefties are surrounded by a far more benevolent glow. We associate left-handedness with intelligence, out-of-the-box thinking, and artistic talent. But are these flattering generalizations backed up by science? Does being left-handed really make you more creative? 

The answer to that is a definitive … maybe.

Scientists have been chipping away at the peculiarities of left-handedness, which occurs in about 10 percent of the population, for a long time. They’ve looked into the purported links between left-handedness and things like mental illness, faulty immune systems, and criminal behavior. They’ve studied whether lefties are better at problem-solving, and if they’re more likely to die young. From all these studies on left-handedness, we can conclude one thing, and one thing alone: science is complicated. 

A handful of studies have found a link between left-handedness and creativity, conferred (some think) by the fact that left-handed folks constantly have to adjust to a right-handed world. Other studies found no link at all. 

Some researchers conclude that lefties are no smarter than righties, while others say that left-handedness comes with a clear intellectual advantage. Is there really a left-handed personality? Are lefties more prone to schizophrenia and learning disabilities? That depends on who you ask. 

But "Are lefties different?" might not even be the right question. Over the last few years, a number of studies have concluded that it’s not which hand is dominant that matters—it’s the degree of dominance. According to researchers, very few people are truly entirely left- or right-handed; it’s more of a spectrum. We use our left hands for some things and our right hands for other tasks. 

These experiments have found that people toward the middle of the spectrum are more flexible thinkers. They seem to be more empathetic and better able to view things from other people’s perspectives. When considering the risks and benefits of any given decision, inconsistent-handed people (as researchers call them) are more likely to focus on the risks, whereas people at the outer edges of the handedness spectrum pay more attention to potential benefits. They may even sleep differently. It seems we’ve been aiming our stereotypes a little too far to the left.

But who knows? This is ever-changing, constantly evolving science. If you’re a lefty who enjoys feeling superior, we’re not going to tell you to tone it down. For all we know, you could be right.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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