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How To: Break Out of Prison

I know, I know, you're thinking, "Finally, something practical!" And you'd be right. While driving a tank and digging to the center of the earth are fun things to know how to do, the chances you'll use that info are pretty slim. Breaking out of prison, on the other hand...well, I'm pretty sure some of you will find this helpful. You know who you are.

Method 1: By Tunnel
You can get all fancy if you want, but a good, solid tunnel is still the most reliable method of prison escape. It's tradition; the kind of thing you'd learn from your grandpappy—provided you came from that sort of family. In fact, the most successful tunnel escape in American history dates back to the Civil War, when 109 Yankee prisoners dug their way out of a Confederate penitentiary. To be fair, Libby Prison in Richmond, VA, wasn't exactly Alcatraz. A former warehouse, Libby didn't have actual cells. Instead, hundreds of prisoners were kept in squalor in eight 103-x-42-foot rooms. The yard around the prison was heavily guarded. The rooms, apparently, not so much. In 1863, a group of officers realized that they could access an abandoned basement by prying through the brick floor of the kitchen room. Over a series of months, they spent their nights digging a narrow tunnel into the basement wall using their hands, clamshells, and stolen tools. By February of 1864, they'd dug enough that the tunnel reached to the far side of a board fence, across the street from the prison. On February 9, the original 14 conspirators, plus one friend each, crawled out of the tunnel and walked off as casually as possible into the night. An hour later, an associate began spreading the word to the rest of the inmates. Things went pretty well at first, but as dawn closed in the tunnel was swamped in a bum rush and the Confederate guards finally figured out that something might be amiss. Of the 109 who escaped, 38 were recaptured. The rest hiked through more than 50 miles of frozen swamp to reach the Union lines at Williamsburg.

Method 2: In Disguise
This method was also a favorite among Civil War prisoners. Particularly at Camp Douglas in Illinois, where Confederate soldiers would frequently darken their skin with charcoal and walk out the front door with the prison's black servants. However implausible, the ruse apparently fooled Camp officials so many times that they eventually stopped employing African Americans. Some of the boldest disguise escapes come from another prisoner of war facility—Germany's Colditz Castle. A former fortress-turned-insane asylum, the Castle was commandeered by the Nazis to house "difficult cases," i.e. POWs who kept escaping from other prisons. In hindsight, putting them all together maybe wasn't the best idea the Third Reich ever had. Within a year of its 1939 opening, there were so many escapes brewing simultaneously that the inmates appointed "escape officers" to coordinate attempts and make sure that no one accidentally ruined another group's plan. Using costumes from the camp's theater (the prisoners' 1941 Christmas spectacular "Ballet Nonsense" was supposedly excellent), various individuals attempted escapes dressed as the Castle's electrician, guards, even the Camp Kommandant. And in June 1941, a French Lieutenant named Boule nearly made it out dressed as a woman. Boule's drag act was apparently so good that when he dropped his watch on the way out, a British officer attempted to return it to "her." Unfortunately, this got the attention of the guards who then noticed Boule's unladylike 5 o'clock shadow.

Method 3: The Way You Came In
In the 1970s, white anti-apartheid activists Tim Jenkin, Alex Moumbaris and Stephen Lee were sent to prison for their political activism. And not just any prison. At the time, South Africa's Pretoria Central Prison was the sort of place that Alcatraz wished it could be. And yet, from the moment they got in, the three men were looking for a way out. In 1979, they finally found it. Over the course of two years, the men taught themselves lock picking and made replicas of several of the keys they'd need to escape. They fashioned street clothes by re-tailoring their own prison pants into khaki bellbottoms and using spare prison gloves and shirts to make casual hats. On the night of December 11, 1979, they put their planning to work and—without any violence or even a single confrontation with a guard—unlocked the ten doors between themselves and freedom and then simply walked out.

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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iStock

Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

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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Space
More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in own solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last week, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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