6 Labyrinths To Get Lost In (not counting the David Bowie movie)

So, I went for a run in the cemetery this weekend. That might sound a little odd, but it's a very park-like cemetery with a big pond and geese and ducks. People bring little kids to feed the ducks all of the time and there are always couples walking their dogs and whatnot. Also, it's an old cemetery with some really interesting tombstones and mausoleums "“ think of a smaller version of Père Lachaise. Plus, I always feel a little bit like Nate Fisher from Six Feet Under when I run in the cemetery.

Anyway, because this is such a big cemetery I always find something new when I'm running or walking the dogs. This weekend I found a labyrinth.

I'll be the first to admit, I didn't know there was a difference between a labyrinth and a maze. In a maze, you're offered different options. You can go this way or that way, left or right, stumble upon dead ends, etc. In a labyrinth you only ever have one option. You enter the labyrinth at the mouth of the path and follow that path until you get to the center. Then you turn around and follow the path back out. "Uh, so, what's the point?" you might be thinking. A lot of people walk labyrinths for prayer or meditation. It's said to have a very calming effect.

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In very ancient times, (Pliny's Natural History, written somewhere around 77 AD, mentions four ancient labyrinths) it's believed that labyrinths weren't necessarily used for prayer purposes "“ instead, they were intended to trap evil spirits. But by medieval times, the design had expanded to include religious motifs such as the path to God (the entrance to the labyrinth was birth and the middle "goal" was God).

Another misconception about labyrinths, at least for me, is that they have "walls" "“ you might be visualizing a hedge maze (I was). And they can, but that's not necessarily the norm. That's why I was a little confused when I happened upon the labyrinth in the cemetery "“ there was a sign explaining the labyrinth, but when I looked to where it pointed, I saw nothing but grass. But when I looked a little closer, there were bricks set level with the grass that marked the path of the labyrinth. That seems to be more typical of labyrinths. And they don't have to be made of grass or hedges at all "“ lots of labyrinths are painted on a floor or inlaid out of marble or something along those lines. After my run this weekend I became very intrigued by the whole labyrinth concept and did a little research, so I'm sharing the most interesting tidbits with you guys.

The First Labyrinth (we think)

There's an ancient Greek myth about labyrinths that goes something like this: Theseus was trying to save the Greeks from the Minotaur (a half-human, half-bull kind of a thing). The Minotaur was lurking at the heart of the Labyrinth at King Minos' palace at Knosses on the Isle of Crete. To find his way through the Labyrinth, Theseus used a ball of twine to get in, kill the beast and find his way back out (sounds more like a maze then a labyrinth to me, but I'm just relaying the story here).

To honor Theseus and recognize that he saved all of Greece from this horrible monster, the labyrinth was put on coins that date back to three centuries before Christ. The coins are still around "“ that's them in the picture. But interestingly, no bits of the actual palace labyrinth at Knossos have ever been found.

Saffron Walden

saffron walden

Apparently England used to be rampant with labyrinths "“ although there are a bunch around today, only eight of them are considered "old". The Saffron Walden labyrinth is one of them. It's the largest of the eight and has been around at least since 1699. An ash tree used to stand in the center, but now it's just open space.

Nazca Lines

Could the mysterious Nazca Lines in Peru actually be a form of a labyrinth? There's definitely a labyrinth incorporated in the designs "“ but there is also a theory that the lines themselves were walked just as a labyrinth would be walked. Hmm. I don't know about that, but it sounds just as plausible as any of the other theories surrounding the mysterious Nazca Lines.

Chartres Cathedral

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in Paris is a good example of a non-turf maze (I know, I know, it's technically not a maze but I'm getting tired of writing 'labyrinth') and a good example of the medieval labyrinth revival. They fell out of fashion for a while, but during the Middle Ages people became interested in them again and labyrinths were often incorporated into church floors or gardens. This one was built in 1200 AD-ish and is an 11-circuit design divided into four quadrants.

3-D Labyrinth

Have you heard of Glastonbury Tor? I hadn't. But I have heard of the mythical (?) Avalon "“ according to some theories, the two places are one and the same. Avalon is where King Arthur was supposedly taken after his last battle at Camlann and also where the legendary Excalibur was forged. Avalon is kind of like Atlantis "“ no one can prove it existed, really, but no one can prove that it didn't exist, either. Some monks reportedly found the bones of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere there in 1191. Some people think it might also be the final resting place of the Holy Grail. But what does all of this have to do with labyrinths? Well, some theories say that Glastonbury Tor/Avalon is really one giant, 3-D labyrinth.

Carved into the Tor "“ the WHOLE hillside "“ are seven deep, mostly symmetrical terraces. A person walking the terraces will eventually end up in the same place they started "“ just like a labyrinth. This is pretty hard to prove, though, so for now it's just a theory. Another (outlandish?) theory is that the Tor was shaped into a spiral maze for religious purposes and that the Tor was where the underworld king's spiral castle was located.


Northern European countries such as Denmark have embraced the effects of the labyrinth as well. Stone labyrinths along the Baltic coast have been dated as far back as the 13th century. There used to be thousands of labyrinths in this area alone, many of them close to the sea. Some think these were done by fishermen and other seafarers; they were used to trap evil spirits who brought bad luck and shipwrecks. If the spirits were trapped at the center of the labyrinth, they would not be free to wreak havoc on the seas.

I have to say, all of this talk of labyrinths plus the warm weather that seems to have FINALLY hit Iowa this weekend has me wanting to go in our (miniscule) backyard and build my own labyrinth. Maybe this summer.

Do you guys know of any labyrinths in your areas? If not, check out the world-wide Labyrinth Locator. It doesn't have my tiny little cemetery labyrinth on there, but maybe you'll have better luck than I did! Let us know if you've discovered any in your town or on your travels.

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Nervous About Asking for a Job Referral? LinkedIn Can Now Do It for You

For most people, asking for a job referral can be daunting. What if the person being approached shoots you down? What if you ask the "wrong" way? LinkedIn, which has been aggressively establishing itself as a catch-all hub for employment opportunities, has a solution, as Mashable reports.

The company recently launched "Ask for a Referral," an option that will appear to those browsing job listings. When you click on a job listed by a business that also employs one of your LinkedIn first-degree connections, you'll have the opportunity to solicit a referral from that individual.

The default message that LinkedIn creates is somewhat generic, but it hits the main topics—namely, prompting you to explain how you and your connection know one another and why you'd be a good fit for the position. If you're the one being asked for a referral, the site will direct you to the job posting and offer three prompts for a response, ranging from "Sure…" to "Sorry…".

LinkedIn says the referral option may not be available for all posts or all users, as the feature is still being rolled out. If you do see the option, it will likely pay to take advantage of it: LinkedIn reports that recruiters who receive both a referral and a job application from a prospective hire are four times more likely to contact that individual.

[h/t Mashable]

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Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."


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