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Catching Up With The Plague

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The plague. It's not just a disease of the past.

This highly contagious killer is striking again across the globe. Nearly 3,000 people caught the plague last year, and hundreds have died. It's an ugly and painful death "“ if you're really curious and really brave, here are the some examples via Google Images.

Just days ago the WHO (not that "The Who," the World Heath Organization) issued a warning, pointing out that precautions need to be taken in case the plague is used as a biological weapon. If an attack like that happened, it most certainly wouldn't be the first time the plague has been used as a weapon of war. For the last 700 years, the practice has been more common that you might think.

The Corpses of Caffa

In 1346, The Tartar Army was doing its best to capture Caffa, a walled city on the Black Sea in present-day Ukraine. They weren't having much luck, especially after an outbreak of the plague started killing them off. So in what can only be called a strange bit of inspiration (and one of the first instances of biological warfare), the Tartars gathered up the plague-infected corpses and catapulted them over the city walls, using the flying bodies to spread the disease. After the plague started killing off the city's inhabitants, the Tartars easily took Caffa. But although they may have won the battle, the Tartars really lost the war. The newly infected fled the city of Caffa to Italy, spreading the plague everywhere they went, effectively starting the outbreak of Black Death that would kill off much of Europe. [Image courtesy of StupidBeaver.com.]

Unit 731

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During the Second World War, Unit 731 "“ a secret unit of the Japanese army "“ was created for the sole purpose of turning illnesses into weapons of mass infection. Masterminded by General Shiro Ishii, this unit conducted horrible experiments on humans, including vivisections without anesthesia (ouch) and unnecessary amputations. General Ishii was especially fascinated by the plague and numerous possibilities it held as a weapon of war, but testing proved difficult. Japanese scientists tried spreading the plague to unsuspecting victims via the water system and through aerosol, but nothing worked. Until, that is, they went back to the basics of the disease.

Someone came up with the idea of using the animal behind the original spread of the plague: the flea. Ceramic bombs filled with infected fleas were dropped on several unsuspecting cities in China (where in a sad twist of fate, the bubonic plague is said to have originally started before making its way to Europe and the rest of the world). The resulting epidemic killed thousands. In all, Unit 731 would be responsible for the deaths of nearly half a million people. [Image courtesy of BU.edu.]

The Cold War Race to the Plague "“ USSR

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During the Cold War, the Soviet Union ramped up its efforts to find a use for diseases like the plague. This was nothing new, as they had been stockpiling battle-ready bio-terror weapons for decades. During the mid to late 20th century, the Soviet scientists not only came up with a new strain of the plague that was resistant to both vaccines and antibiotics, they found a way to mass produce it. Former Soviet officials say they had 1,500 metric tons of plague ready at all times for use in their intercontinental ballistic missiles. At all times! Soviet research on bio-terror weapons continued well into the 1990s before being shut down by the government. No word on what they did with the stockpile of plague, but in theory, it should all be dead by now. In theory.

The Cold War Race to the Plague "“ USA

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The Soviets weren't alone in their race to weaponize the plague. For decades, the United States tried to create a plague bomb (and a gay bomb, among other things). Their efforts were decidedly less successful than the Soviets. Scientists said they had numerous problems with production and were unable to overcome the challenge of controlling the disease once it had been created. The U.S. is said to have ceased production of the plague and shut down its offensive biological weapons research during the 1970s.

Holding Tucson Hostage

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In September of 1978, Tucson, Arizona, Mayor Lewis Murphy started getting threatening letters. Unless demands were met, the sender warned, he would release bubonic plague-carrying fleas on the hapless city. Among the demands was a $500,000 dollar ransom, food for the poor, and for a local hospital to resume performing abortions. The threat of the plague was enough for Mayor Murphy, because he sent the police to deliver the money. But when they arrived at the delivery site, no one showed up. The sender of the letters is still unknown.

* * * * *

If all these attempts at weaponizing the plague aren't enough to keep you up at night, then how about this: In 1995, a man in Ohio with "suspect" motives was able to buy plague bacilli using fraudulent means through the mail. In the southwestern U.S., there are reports of extremist groups capturing plague-carrying animals. You might be perfectly healthy now. But just remember, someone out there has the plague, and wants you to catch it.

Stefanie Fontanez is an occasional contributor to mentalfloss.com. She won't always be this scary.

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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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