I keep my office like I keep my coffee: dark. So when the door creaked open, and the light streamed in, I knew it was trouble.The dame walked toward me and started firing off questions. She was the pushy sort, and she shot "˜em off rapid-fire: "Why's the sky blue? Why are tennis balls fuzzy? Why do llamas spit? Why? Why? Why?" The gal was merciless, and she didn't take "go ask mom" for an answer. This was a four-year-old who needed explanations, and she needed "˜em fast. I looked over my shoulder, took a long swig of courage, then opened the drawer. I could see it was time to crack open this case.
THE WHY FILES
WHY DO WE SOMETIMES EXPERIENCE STRANGE MUSCLE SPASMS BEFORE FALLING ASLEEP?
It's OK to admit it. It's happened to all of us, and it scared us to death, too. But don't worry; it's perfectly normal. When we're awake, our brains are constantly communicating with our various muscle groups, but when we're asleep, that connection between our brain and our muscles is turned off. However, there is a period of limbo just after we doze off and just before we enter REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, leaving some room for communication. In this transition period, if we think of something stressful or fearful, our body tries to jolt back into "awake mode" by connecting to all the muscle groups and preparing to fend off the perceived danger. These jarring flinches, known as "hypnic jerks," can also occur if a person is engaged in a repetitive activity for a long period of time during the day, such as kayaking or skiing. On these nights, the brain has a hard time letting go of that brain-muscle rhythm and accidentally tries to initiate the movement.
WHY DO PEOPLE YELL "GERONIMO" BEFORE JUMPING?
Back in the late 1800s, the Chiricahua Apache chief, Geronimo, wasn't exactly excited that the Americans, like the Mexicans before them, were trying to take over the land where his tribe had been living for centuries. Geronimo was fierce, and he and his band of warriors often presented a major roadblock for the U.S. Cavalry. Tales of his heroic actions in battle were not hard to come by, but only one became legendary. As the story goes, when the U.S. Calvary was in pursuit of Geronimo during a battle in Medicine Bluffs (in present-day Oklahoma), they managed to corner him between their guns and a steep cliff. Determined not to be captured by the white man, Geronimo leapt over the edge "Thelma and Louise" style while defiantly crying out his name. The year before America joined in World War II, a group of parachute troops at Fort Benning, Ga., went to see a movie about Geronimo that included his famous jump. When they went airborne the next day, one or more soldiers shouted the chief's name upon jumping, and the tradition was born.
WHY DO CLOCKS RUN CLOCKWISE?
It has nothing to do with the intricate gearing mechanisms, the Earth's magnetic poles, or anything else quite so complex. The reason that the hands of a clock travel in a clockwise direction is related to the same reason that the number "12" appears at the top of the clock. The hands are mimicking the movements of shadows on the first clocks — sundials. The indicators run from left to right and peak at the very top at noon, when the sun is directly overhead. That's all there is to it!
WHY DO WE GET GOOSE BUMPS?
The truth is that goose bumps are pretty useless. When we get cold or scared, tiny muscles attached to our hair follicles tighten, making the connected hair stand erect. It's not likely that your arm hairs sticking straight up will scare anybody today, but back in the days when we looked a lot more like chimpanzees, it was a pretty good tactic for making the body look bigger and more menacing in the face of an approaching enemy. It also helped keep us warm because tightening the muscles attached to our hairs closed our sweat glands and reserved body heat. Unfortunately, we don't really have enough hair for that to make a big difference anymore either.
WHY IS GASOLINE SOLD AT PRICES ENDING IN 9/10THS OF A CENT?
There are two prevailing theories on how this originated. First, since gasoline is most often purchased in volume (say, 10 gallons at a time), the 9/10ths of a cent increment would help save a full penny when one filled a car's tank. Take into account that a penny used to buy a few things. Second, it might have referenced the percentage-of-a-cent taxes that governments put on fuel sales. Either way, the day of these excuses has long passed. The only reason that it continues today is that, to put it plainly, it looks less expensive. A station's sign can say $1.49 per gallon (with the 9/10ths in small print) and it seems like a bargain, whereas rounding it to $1.50 would cause some drivers to exclaim, "A buck and a half for a gallon of gas?!"
Lots more after the jump!
WHY ARE EGGS AND BUNNIES ASSOCIATED WITH EASTER?
The initial answer is pretty simple: Religious implications aside, Easter is essentially a celebration of springtime—a time in which big rabbits make a bunch of little rabbits and birds lay a whole lot of eggs, thus symbolizing rebirth. But the more complicated question is, why does the Easter bunny lay eggs? This strange animal hybrid originated as an Anglo-Saxon legend in which Eostre (the goddess of spring) turned a frozen bird into a hare to help it survive the harsh winter. The story was passed down through generations, and by the 1700s, Dutch settlers in America were telling their children that if they were good, the Easter bunny would come to their house and lay a beautiful nest of colorful eggs. For some reason, children really wanted colored eggs, so they went to great lengths to entice this magical bunny to place a nest at their house. Eventually, this led to our current celebration of the holiday in all its plastic grass, hollow chocolate and marshmallow bunny glory.
WHY DO LLAMAS SPIT?
The spit of a llama may be the only thing more offensive than that of a baseball player, so be extra nice. If you get on their bad sides, llamas can whip up a wad of piping hot stomach juices and send it hurling toward you with powerful precision. Far from normal saliva-based spit, this putrid present will make recipients wish they'd been sprayed by a skunk. But, to be fair, llamas rarely get angry enough to show off this hidden talent. Most of the time, llama spit is of the benign saliva variety and actually serves as a form of communication among llama herds.
WHY ARE THERE LINES ON A SIDEWALK?
It's basically a way for builders to cover up their cracks "¦ concrete cracks, of course. When concrete dries, it shrinks and breaks apart. But, making small divisions between slabs gives the concrete a more natural, thin place to crack, and makes it less noticeable. When damaged, it's also much easier to replace a single slab of sidewalk concrete that's already divided than to have to cut it away first.
WHY DO PEOPLE DRIVE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD IN OTHER COUNTRIES?
If it wasn't for some silly wagon that people used to drive in the 18th century, we'd all be driving on the left side of the road. Way before there were even roads, people would pass each other on the left side so they could draw their swords with their right hands in case the passerby wasn't friendly. (Lefties were kind of screwed, but everybody was doing it, so they had to conform.) Eventually, as roads became more common, sticking to the left side just seemed natural, so that's how it remained until the late 1700s when the Americans went and changed everything. It was around this time that the settlers began using a wagon called a Conestoga. You're probably familiar with the kind of wagons people took out West, where the driver sat at the front of the wagon and guided four horses in front of him. The Conestoga differed from this because the driver rode atop one of the four horses—usually the left horse on the back row as to free the right hand for whipping. Sitting on the left side of the horses, it made more sense to pass on the right, where the driver's visibility was greatest. Conestoga wagons were all the rage in America, but eventually the French got involved and spread the right-hand custom on to all of the land it conquered during the Napoleonic years. Today, most of the countries that drive on the left-hand side of the road are those that are or were British colonies, like India and Australia.