Idiot of the Day: This one's not too swift

The most remarkable thing about this anecdote, from reader Dan, is that the idiot in question actually got into college:

This wasn't recently, but when I was taking a physics class in college, we were discussing the speed of light. When our instructor started talking about length dilation (how something's length increases as it approaches the speed of light), someone raised their hand and asked, "Is that why a plane gets bigger as it flies toward you?"

Here are some more (correct) facts about the speed at which light travels in a vacuum:

* It's 186,282.397 miles per second, or 299,792,458 meters per second. Should you ever need to recite this second number on command, you can remember it with either of the following mnemonics: "Constant Which We Remember Well Because It's Light's Velocity" (the first letters correspond to the numbers on a phone keypad) or "We Guarantee Certainty, Clearly Referring To This Light Mnemonic" (count the letters of each word).

* It's usually abbreviated "c" (as in E=mc²) which stands for either "constant" or the Latin "celeritas," meaning "swiftness."

* From Wikipedia: "[One] consequence of the finite speed of light is that communications with spacecraft are not instantaneous, especially as distances increase. This delay was significant for the communication of Houston ground control and Apollo 8 when it became the first spacecraft to orbit the Moon: For every question, Houston had to wait nearly 3 seconds for the answer to arrive, even when the astronauts replied immediately. This effect forms the basis of the Global Positioning System (GPS), and similar navigation systems. One's position can be determined by means of the delays in light signals received from a number of satellites, each carrying a very accurate atomic clock, and very carefully synchronized."

Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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