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5 Superhero (and Supervillain) Origins

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We've read their comics, watched their movies, TV shows and cartoons, and dressed like them for Halloween. But where did our favorite superheroes come from?

1. Superman

Arguably America's first superhero, the Son of Krypton made his debut in June of 1938 in Action Comics. Being, as he was: faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive (we're confused by that metaphor, too) and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, Superman represented an entirely new kind of American hero. No longer satisfied with idolizing self-made men, pioneers, and various and sundry presidents, American kids suddenly seemed to need a hero who was incredibly powerful and, with his easy sense of right and wrong, deeply not human.

2. Lex Luthor

Lex-Luthor.jpgEvery hero needs a nemesis and that role in Superman's life was soon filled by mad scientist, wealthy businessman, and occasional presidential hopeful Lex Luthor. Of course, the Lex of the 1930s looked nothing like the slick tycoon you're accustomed to, largely because, at the time, he sported a clown-esque shock of red hair. It wasn't until 1941 that Lex acquired the smooth pate we've all come to know and love. However, later editors would revise what was originally a simple fashion decision into something much deeper.

In the 1960s, the story of Superman and Lex's relationship was stretched back in time to have them meeting up and, naturally, fighting during their teenage years. During this re-writing of history, it was revealed that Lex lost his hair as a child in a freak chemical plant explosion, which, inexplicably, he blamed on Superboy. Filled with the sort of animosity only a member of the Hair Club for Men could truly appreciate, Lex vowed to destroy the man who caused his baldness. In fact, in a November 1962 issue, the now-grown Superman intimates that Lex might have been the world's "greatest benefactor" were it not for the explosion that turned him into a bitter criminal.

3. Batman

batman.jpgThe year after Superman premiered, Detective Comics came out with their own, very different superhero. Who was he? The Batman, that's who. For Bruce Wayne, fighting crime wasn't about flying, punching people to the moon, or burning holes in things with his eyes. No, Batman was more honest than that. Just an average guy in peak physical shape (later revised to peak physical shape and ninja training), Batman got by on his wits"¦ and a never-ending supply of thematically named accessories—Batmobile, Batplane, Batmarine, the list goes on and on. He was the first superhero to indulge in a secret hideout, constructing the Batcave as a base of operations and the first to take on an underage protégé, touching off both a major comics trend and decades of snickering innuendo.

4. The Joker

joker.jpgA major innovation in his own right, the Joker's introduction in Spring of 1940 marked the arrival of the first true supervillain. Sure, Lex Luthor came first, but evil business honchos are a dime a dozen. The Joker represented comics' first foray into literally insane bad guys that were at once writhing in high camp and utterly terrifying. All three men involved in the creation of Batman claim individual credit for the Joker, citing various inspirations from the 1928 film adaptation of Victor Hugo's "The Man Who Laughs" to personal experience as a practical jokester. Of course, the Joker's "jokes" tended to lean a bit more toward the homicidal than anything being perpetrated by turn of the century schoolboys—like the Grinning Death, a rigor mortis"“stiffened smile brought on by the Joker's specially developed poison gas.

5. Wonder Woman

wonder-woman.jpgAlthough she's certainly earned her role as a feminist icon, the origins of Princess Diana the Amazon aren't exactly as "feminist" as we might think today. Created in 1942 by psychologist William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman was indeed intended to be a role model for comics-reading little girls. But Marston's intentions were a little different from what you might expect.

In a 1943 issue of The American Scholar magazine, he explained Wonder Woman as an attempt to show little girls that women could have fun adventures while still being "tender, submissive, and peace-loving." The character was actually inspired by two real women: Marston's wife, Elizabeth, and their polyamorous lover, Olive Byrne—which puts quite a twist on Wonder Woman's original catch phrase, "Suffering Sappho!" Then there's all the bondage. Early Wonder Woman books were chock-full of women tying up men, men tying up women, and lots of women tying up each other. Wonder Woman even told stories about how much the Amazons liked to play bondage games. Spanking, for the record, was also rather prevalent (the Amazons apparently had a whole penal system 2in-the-beginning.jpgbased around it) and Marston made it clear in interviews that this was intentional"¦a love of light S & M just being one more trait of his ideal woman.

This piece was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

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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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