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12 Things You Might Not Know About the Dust Bowl

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In the 1930s, the United States faced one of its greatest natural disasters. The farmers in the High Plains had turned over too much soil too fast, leaving over 100 million acres stripped of its native Buffalo Grass and barren of crop. Combine this with one of the driest summers on record and you have what came to be known as the Dirty Thirties.

1. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray, a governor from Oklahoma (one of the hardest hit states), ran for President in 1932 under the platform "Bread, Butter, Bacon, Beans." During a time when most people were eating various forms of wheat three times a day, bacon and beans were powerful words. Not powerful enough, however to beat FDR for the Democratic nomination.

2. During a particularly bad storm on May 9, 1934, over three tons of dust for every American alive traveled across the country covering Chicago, New York and Atlanta. The storm spanned 1,800 miles and weighed 350 million tons.

3. At one point, 4,000 out of 5,500 families in six Oklahoma counties were receiving government aid. When FDR came into office he also implemented a program in which the government bought these farmers' starving livestock in order to butcher those still edible to feed the homeless in the Hoovervilles. The $12 earned for every cattle sold was soon the only source of income for many.

4. Russian thistle, or tumbleweed, grew rampantly during this period—one of the few plants that could survive the harsh conditions. People became so desperate that they started to brine the tumbleweed, rendering it edible. Supposedly high in Chlorophyll and iron, a county in Oklahoma declared a "Russian Thistle Week" where people were encouraged to harvest the weeds.

dust-bowl.jpg5. When a storm blew in, people were never safe. Dust particles snuck through cracks in their walls and windows, clogging their ears, noses, and mouths. The buildup of this dust in the lungs caused dust pneumonia, which is a lot like the Silicosis. Silicosis, the oldest occupational respiratory disease, was now affecting every person, young or old, in the High Plains.


6. This was the era of Bonnie and Clyde's famous bank robberies, and many farmers admired the duo for their sense of justice. Many people figured that the banks that had robbed them of their savings during the bank crisis deserved to get a taste of their own medicine.

7. The 1930s were the first decade where the birth rate fell below twenty children for every 1,000 women. Never before had there been so few children living in the United States.

8. The worst storm of the Dust Bowl occurred on April 14, 1935—Black Sunday. Carrying dust up to 200 miles off the Atlantic coast, the storm blackened cities and traveled at over 100 miles per hour. Animals and insects fled south and a woman believing the storm marked the beginning of Armageddon, killed her child to spare her the horror. And while Hugh Hammond Bennett was delivering a speech to Congress about soil preservation, dust rained down on Washington D.C. and blackened out the sun. Congress passed his legislation.

9. A single storm generated enough static electricity to short radios and cars and caused blue flames to erupt from barbed wire fences. It was so strong it even knocked full grown men off their feet if they accidentally touched or shook hands. People would drag chains in order to offset the static electricity. On Black Tuesday, enough static electricity was produced to power New York City.

guthrie.jpg10. Woody Guthrie (the singer of "This Land") even wrote a song about the Dust bowl. Surrounded by people claiming Black Sunday to be the end of world, Guthrie penned his famous song "So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya." You can listen to it here.


11. While two-thirds of farmers of the Dust Bowl stayed, those that did leave had minimal prospects of finding jobs. Many had no money, no gas for their ragged Ford Model T and no place to go. Arizona didn't want them and California placed signs at their borders that read "Okies Not Welcome."

12. The Plow that Broke the Plain is an excellent documentary by Pare Lorentz. Filmed during the Dirty Thirties, it illustrated the causes and effects of the agricultural policies (or lack thereof) that led to the Dust Bowl. It is also the only film in American history to be commercially produced by the government during a peacetime period. In 1999, the Library of Congress preserved the film because of its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance.

Note: There's an excellent book on the period called The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. If you are interested in the Dust Bowl I highly recommend it. And for all you young adult Flossers, Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse gives an excellent depiction of this period.

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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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