CLOSE
Original image

Where Did The Idea Of "Red States" and "Blue States" Come From?

Original image


Wikimedia Commons

That’s all, folks: The 2012 election is finally over. In the run up, we tackled big election questions, from why we vote on Tuesdays to what would happen in the event of a natural disaster on Election Day to whether Americans actually move to Canada after elections. But there’s one lingering question we haven’t yet tackled: Where did the notion of Red States and Blue States come from, and how did those colors come to represent their particular political parties?

Party Colors

These days, red means Republican and blue means Democrat, but it wasn't always so. The first color-coded electoral map, which appeared on NBC as part of the 1976 election, showed states that went to Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter red, while states that supported incumbent Gerald Ford were blue. Individual news outlets could decide what colors to assign the candidates—in 1976, ABC's map used yellow for Ford, blue for Carter, and red for states where votes weren't yet tallied—and the colors often flip-flopped from election to election.

Until the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. According to the Washington Post, the first use of "red states" and "blue states" occurred about a week before the election on the Today Show. Matt Lauer and Tim Russert were discussing what states would go to which candidate with a map and the color scheme that MSNBC had used a few days earlier—red for Republican, blue for Democrat—when Russert asked, "How does [Bush] get those remaining 61 electoral red states, so to speak?" In the days following the highly contested election, everything seemed to align: Both the New York Times and USA Today released maps with Gore's states in blue and Bush's in red, and then David Letterman suggested that a compromise would "make George W. Bush president of the red states and Al Gore head of the blue ones." But it was probably the sheer length of the election—which lasted into mid-December as votes were recounted and the Supreme Court weighed in—and the ubiquity of the maps that caused the colors to stick to their current parties.

Choosing Hues

So why red and why blue? There are some wacky theories: one party always called the other red, or it's because of the Communist connotation. But Roy Wetzel, the general manager of NBC's election unit in 1976, told Smithsonian recently that NBC used those colors—and associated them with those parties from 1976 until 2000—because that's how things are done in England. "Without giving it a second thought, we said blue for conservatives, because that's what the parliamentary system in London is, red for the more liberal party," he said. Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, pointed out to the Washington Post in 2004 that red and blue are flag colors that happen to look good on the TV. Other colors that we might use, like gray and blue, are too reminiscent of the Civil War, and yet others might be too subtle. But whatever the reason red and blue colors were chosen, one thing is for sure: We're stuck with them—and all their associations.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
Original image
iStock

While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, 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.

Original image
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
arrow
Big Questions
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
Original image
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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

SECTIONS

More from mental floss studios