The (New) New Einsteins: Roland Fryer

In the current issue of mental_floss magazine, Erik Vance profiled nine "New Einsteins"—visionaries who are discovering how to grow organs, peer into black holes, levitate food, cure plagues, and let blind men see. This week, Mr. Vance will be anointing five additional New Einsteins here on, one per day. Today, it's Roland Fryer's turn.

Who He Is: Roland Fryer, professor of economics at Harvard

What He Did: Fryer is one of a small group of academics playing around with something called conditional cash transfer, which tries to tie welfare funds to specific performance. Take education. Fryer initiated an experiment program that paid third graders' families $10 per good test score, and $20 for seventh graders. Critics say he is bribing academic performance (not a new concept to many parents). But supporters say he is creating incentives. And those supporters are on both sides of the political spectrum. Conservatives like that he is using the free market to promote achievement and liberals like that he is bringing money to the schools.

Today, Fryer is one of the key architects of Opportunity NYC, which pays parents for things like maintaining health insurance, keeping a job, and taking their kid to the dentist "“ in addition to good test scores and grades. He is also associate director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard (named after his personal hero) and the principle investigator for the American Inequity Lab.

Why You Should Start Idolizing Him Immediately:

Where do you start? Fryer's not some idealistic kid from the suburbs. As a child he didn't know his mother, his cousins sold crack, and at 13 he regularly carried a handgun. At 15 he had to bail his father (who would eventually get convicted of sexual assault) out of jail. In spite of this, he managed to go to the University of Texas on a sports scholarship and graduate magna cum laude after just two and a half years (while holding down a job to pay his dad's bail bondsman). Then he got a PhD four years later and by 27 he was a Harvard professor.

In his short academic career, Fryer has tackled some of society's most baffling questions. He has written on the effect of crack cocaine on urban communities, the stigmas around African American names and colleges in the workplace, and "acting white." He is also one of the few researchers who has looked at whether genetics might play a role in black underperformance in school. It's a dicey subject for anyone to broach (Fryer himself is African American), but it's one that he says needs to be considered along with all the other factors that might contribute to economic disparities. This is characteristic of Fryer's unapologetic style of data-focused economics. He told the New York Times that his goal is to figure out "where blacks went wrong" in an analytical way, looking for mechanisms for why things like test scores, pay rates, and life expectancy are so low in African American communities, in order to pull people away from the kind of emotional, anecdotal evidence that he feels frames the political debate on things like affirmative action.

Previous (New) New Einsteins: Marin Soljačić

Looking for smart gift ideas? Consider a gift subscription to mental_floss magazine.

Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album

Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?

Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.


More from mental floss studios