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How To Blow Stuff Up

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Oh, sure, you could just go buy some fireworks, but where's the fun in that? To really leave your smoking, blackened mark on history there are two things you've just got to have.

1) A DEDICATED STAFF
Don't make the mistake of thinking you can do this alone. There's a reason James Bond's archenemies always have hordes of minions. Or, on a less intentionally evil note, think of the Manhattan Project. To build the world's first nuclear bomb, the U.S. government eventually ended up employing more than 130,000 people over the course of six years. And you wouldn't catch a single one of them slacking off on the job—not even for legitimate health concerns.

For instance, Elizabeth Riddle Graves, who worked at Los Alamos, New Mexico developing key parts of the bomb's core, didn't let her pregnancy stand in the way of science. In fact, when she went into labor at the lab, she first finished the series of experiments she was working on before heading to the hospital. In retrospect the whole "baby + Los Alamos" thing doesn't seem like such a great idea, but those were simpler times and the point is, she cared.

Almost as important are the staff members who will stick by you, and your vision, long after things go boom. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite and then assuaged his conscience by setting up a fund for peace awards—but had it not been for his youngest engineering assistant and executor Ragnar Sohlman, the name "Nobel" would still be synonymous with destruction. When the inventor died in 1898, his vast estate was stored in numerous bank accounts sprinkled through eight different countries. And while his will called for the money to go toward the pursuit of peace, some members of his family had other ideas of how it might be spent. To fulfill his boss' last request, young Ragnar armed himself with a gun and sped (relatively, this was the 19th century) from city to city collecting the dough, with Nobel's greedy relatives in hot pursuit. Then, after managing to withdraw all the funds and put them in a single Swiss bank vault, he spent the next three years fighting legal disputes before the first Nobel Prizes could finally be awarded in 1901. His descendant, Michael Sohlman, is the current director of the Nobel Foundation. You can't put a price on employees like that.

2) CREATIVE INNOVATION
Innovation can take many forms. Sometimes, you build off the work of others—like in the development of the car bomb. The first vehicle-based bombardment actually involved a horse cart and was the creation of an Italian-American Anarchist named Mario Buda. In September of 1920, Buda pulled his horse up to the corner of Broad and Wall streets in New York City, across from the J.P. Morgan Company. Just after noon, his vehicle exploded, taking 40 bystanders (and the poor horse) along with it. More than 200 people were injured, but the real target of the attack—J.P. "Robber Baron" Morgan himself—was completely unharmed, being in Scotland at his posh hunting lodge; a fact that, no doubt, enraged Buda even more. It would be another 27 years before the concept he developed really took off, however. It's believed that the first modern car bomb exploded on January 12, 1947, when a fascist, paramilitary Jewish organization known as the Stern Gang drove a truck full of explosives into a British police station in what was then Palestine. Other times, however, innovation requires a little more imagination. During World War II, armchair generals often sent their "great" combat ideas to the U.S. military—and most were filed in the wastebasket. But one concept, the brainchild of Pennsylvania surgeon Lytle Adams, did make it into production. Dr. Adams big idea: Bats. On January 12, 1942 (we don't know what the deal is with January 12 and explosions), the doctor sent a letter to the White House proposing a system of bat bombs. According to records, the plan was to fill a bomb-like canister with hibernating bats and then drop the canister from a plane. Slowed by a parachute, the canister would open and the bats (somehow awakened) would fly out—each one carrying a tiny time-delayed napalm explosive. Impressively, the military spent two years and $2 million on "Project X-Ray" before deciding it was "unfeasible."

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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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.

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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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