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Seven Curses That Seem To Be Doing Their Jobs (plus that Billy Goat one)

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Looks like the Curse of the Billy Goat has struck again, and with the Cubs' loss last weekend, it will be at least one more year until the curse is lifted. 2008 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Cubs' last World Series win, so a Series win next year would be pretty poetic anyway.

The story goes like this: Greek immigrant William "Billy Goat" Sianis, who owned the nearby Billy Goat Tavern, bought two tickets to game four of the 1945 World Series against Detroit. The second ticket was for his pet billy goat, Murphy. They made it into the game for a little while, but were thrown out after owner P.K. Wrigley complained about the goat's smell. In retaliation, Sianis cursed the Cubs and said they would never win a pennant or a World Series again. Looks like there might be something to that curse.

If you're not too superstitious, read on for seven more curses that seem to be doing their jobs. By the end of this post, you won't want to endorse soup, knit any presents or turn 27.

1. The Curse of William Penn

WilliamPenn.jpgWilliam Penn is not a man to be crossed. His wrath isn't confined to one sport "“ no, he has cursed all four professional sports teams in Philadelphia. A statue of Penn adorns the top of City Hall in Philly, and legend has it that an agreement was made that no building in town would ever stand taller than the statue. That was all fine and dandy until 1987, when One Liberty Place was constructed three blocks away from City Hall, dwarfing William Penn by nearly 400 feet. Ever since that date, not one of the professional teams in Philly has won any of their respective championships. There may be hope, though "“ in June 2007, a new tallest-building-in-Philly record was set with the Comcast Center, which stands 58 stories. When the final beam was raised, the iron workers attached a William Penn figurine to the top of it, officially making him the tallest thing in town again. We'll see if it appeases Mr. Penn. It hasn't appeared to yet... along with the Cubs, the Phillies lost their hopes at a 2007 World Series win last weekend.

2. Sports Illustrated, Campbell's Soup and the Madden NFL video game series

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All three seem to have one thing in common: whenever NFL players appear on their covers (on the can, in the case of the soup), he will either be injured soon afterward or be cursed with an exceptionally poor performance. I won't cite all of the instances that this has held true, because it is pretty overwhelming. SI has a whole site dedicated to their jinx. Donovan McNabb, Shaun Alexander, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Marshall Faulk and Ray Lewis were all injured after appearing on the Madden cover. The Campbell's Soup curse applies to Terrell Davis, Kurt Warner, and yes, Donovan McNabb. Again. As the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles (see 'The Curse of William Penn'), he may very well be the most cursed player in sports history.

3. The Sweater Curse

CosbySweater.jpgNot all curses are sports-related. Any knitter worth his or her salt will tell you about the Sweater Curse. Legend has it that after spending much time, effort and money to create a sweater for your significant other, the relationship will fail soon after giving them the garment. I am a knitter and have yet to gift anyone a sweater...although I'll admit this is more a matter of skill than superstition. (Note: This is the best picture we found in a search for "cosby sweater." He was a pitchman for Texas Instruments in the 1980s. OK, back to the list.)

4. The Curse of Tippecanoe

tecumseh.jpgBroken but still worth mentioning, The Curse of Tippecanoe was placed in 1811, when William Henry Harrison defeated Tecumseh (at right) and his brother Tenskwatawa in battle. They cursed Harrison "“ and all future Presidents. For the next 120 years, every president who was elected on a 20-year interval would die before his term officially ended. Harrison was elected in 1840 and died of pnumonia the next year. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley, respectively elected in 1860, 1880 and 1900, were all assassinated. Warren G. Harding, elected in 1920, suffered a stroke before his term was up. Franklin Roosevelt, re-elected in 1940, had a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. Granted, this was during his fourth term, which would not be allowed by today's laws. John F. Kennedy, elected in 1960, was, of course, assassinated. It was Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, who finally broke the curse. He narrowly escaped being assassinated, however, so it wasn't for a lack of effort on Tecumseh's part.

5. The Omen

TheOmen.jpgIt wouldn't be a post written by me if I didn't work horror movies in somewhere. I have a legitimate reason, though: both The Omen and Poltergeist are plagued by curses.

The Omen author and scriptwriter David Seltzer's plane to the filming location in the U.K. was struck by lightning, and so was the movie's star Gregory Peck's. They were on two separate planes. Poor Gregory Peck kept just barely escaping aviation disaster "“ in another incident, he canceled a reservation he had on a flight. The flight he canceled crashed and killed everyone on board.

The hotel where director Richard Donner was staying was bombed. And on the very first day of shooting, the main members of the crew got in a head-on collision. Even those barely associated with the movie couldn't escape: a warden at the safari park used for a scene in the movie was killed by a lion less than 24 hours after the scene was shot.

Finally, the incident that I find the creepiest is that special effects artist John Richardson, who created the famous beheading scene, was injured on the set of a movie a year later. His girlfriend was beheaded in the same accident.

6. Poltergeist

poltergeist.jpgThe actresses who played sisters in the original movie both died at terribly young ages: Dominique Dunne, who played the older sister, was murdered by her boyfriend in 1982. Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne, died in 1988 of septic shock.

Why the curse? Supposedly, real human remains were used as props for the movie. The actress who played the mom in the movie, JoBeth Williams, said she was told the skeletons used in the swimming pool scene were the real deal. She also said that when she would get back to her house after filming Poltergeist every day, the pictures on her wall would all be crooked. She would move them back to their rightful positions, only to find them crooked again when she got home the next day.

7. The 27 Club

Forever27.jpgFinally, readers who are 27, beware, lest you join the 27 Club. Only people who die at the age of 27 are allowed to join, and, OK, they also happen to be famous rock stars. The illustrious list includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Pigpen McKernan (founding member of the Grateful Dead). Although these are the most famous, other musicians who died at the same young age include bluesman Robert Johnson; Dave Alexander, the bassist for Iggy Pop and the Stooges; Peter Ham, the keyboardist/guitarist for Badfinger; and Kristen Pfaff, the bass guitarist for Hole.

I know there are other curses, especially sports-related ones. Let me know what other curses I should be avoiding.

Previously on mental_floss:

Quiz: Discontinued Ben & Jerry's Flavor or Band I Found On MySpace?
Six Cool Plants I Would Find A Way To Kill
12 Classes We Wish Our Schools Had Offered
Strange Gravestones
Five Ballpark Promotions That Went Wrong

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

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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