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How To: Break Out of Prison

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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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