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9 Other Things That Happened Christmas Day

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1. Lots of Notable People Were Born

For at least 1,656 years, Jesus's birthday has been celebrated on Christmas day. As a result, those born on December 25 have complained that they only get one set of gifts each year. At least they have some good company. Christmas day is also the birthday of (among many other notables) scientist Isaac Newton, cosmetics tycoon Helena Rubenstein, Egypitian president Anwar Sadat, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. It is also the birthday of several entertainers, including Cab Calloway, Rod Serling, Little Richard, Sissy Spacek, Annie Lennox"¦ and Humphrey Bogart, star of movies like Casablanca and The African Queen.

bogie.jpgBogie's birthday, however, was long under dispute. According to Hollywood legend, his birth date was actually January 23, 1900, but Warner Brothers Studios listed it as Christmas Day, 1899, when he went from playing thugs to heroic leading men. The reason? If everyone thought that he was born on Christmas, they wouldn't think that he was such a villain.

It's dubious logic, of course "“ and the truth is that he really was a Christmas baby. Nonetheless, many film writers and biographers have still fallen for the Hollywood myth that his Christmas birthday was a Hollywood myth. (Got that?)

2. Ten Days Went Missing

In case you think that Christmas sometimes comes too quickly, spare a thought for the Dutch provinces of Brabant, Zeeland and the Staten-Generaal, which adopted the common Gregorian calendar (along with most of Europe) in 1582 "“ and adjusted the dates to cater for this. In those provinces, the final day of the old calendar was December 14. When they awoke the next morning, it was December 25. Hopefully they had all finished their Christmas shopping.

The Gregorian calendar reformed the previous Julian calendar, which had been introduced by Julius Caesar in 46 BC. Though Caesar had based his calendar on astronomical data, his scientists had miscalculated the lunar and solar times, so that by the 16th century, the spring equinox (which included Easter) was starting to seem a little wintry. To deal with this, Pope Gregory XIII assembled a team of expert mathematicians and astronomers to create a new, official calendar. Among the reforms, New Years Day was on, er, January 1. Previously, for reasons too complicated to explain, it had been celebrated in late March.

3. A Christmas Truce

Only six months into World War I, the scale of slaughter was difficult to comprehend. Hundreds of thousands of German and British soldiers had already died (only a fraction of the nine million lives that would eventually be claimed by the war). Yet if you want an example of the power of Christmas, none would be more powerful than the scene in one corner of the Western Front on Christmas Day 1914, when the enemy soldiers climbed from the trenches and greeted each other in the open, making no attempt to shoot each other. The Germans offered cigars and (speaking French) requested English fruit jam (jelly). It was a brief "Christmas truce," in which they played soccer, exchanged wine and photos, and sang each other carols in their native languages. Though the hostilities would recommence by New Years Day, the British generals were appalled by this truce, and ordered Christmas Eve artillery bombardments each year for the rest of the war (ensuring that nobody would have time to make merry). But they couldn't completely end the goodwill. A similar truce would held in 1915 between German and French troops, and an Easter truce would be enforced in 1916.

4. Washington Crosses the Delaware

In one of the most famous and decisive moments of the American Revolution, General George Washington led his army across the Delaware River to Trenton, New Jersey, with the password "Victory or Death." In the evening, they captured 1,000 Hessian soldiers in a surprise attack that raised morale in Washington's troops and turned the tide of the war.

5. Coronation Day

In Christian nations, Christmas has been a popular date for coronations "“ at least since 800, when Charles the Great (Charlemagne) was crowned Roman emperor by Pope Leo III, technically making his the rightful successor to Augustus Caesar. Over the next few hundred years, many popes, monarchs and bishops have had Christmas coronations. Among them was William the Conqueror, who was crowned king of England in 1066, two months after defeating the Saxon army at the Battle of Hastings. But since then, the tradition has lost favor. Over 900 years later, William's descendent, Queen Elizabeth II, made it quite clear in her 1991 Christmas Message (televised, as every year, to millions of Britons) that, despite rumors, she would not be stepping aside for her son, Prince Charles.

6. Hirohito Ascends

Japanese Emperor Yoshihito died on Christmas Day 1926, and was immediately replaced by his son Hirohito, who began a record 62-year reign (far longer than any other Japanese emperor, and the fifth longest-reigning monarch in world history). The official name of his reign was Showa, the "time of enlightened peace," but it would see Japan become a more militaristic and aggressive force. After Japan's terrible defeat in World War II, however, Hirohito learned the art of humility, and renouncing his traditional divinity. His subjects were now permitted look him in the face.

7. Ceausescu's Execution

200.jpgThe year 1989 saw the fall of many Eastern European dictators, but none were as dramatic as that of Romanian president Nicolae Ceausescu, who refused to relinquish his power. Ceausescu had bled the country dry, leaving many Romanians in poverty while he and his family built palaces and lived in luxury. (He burned down the houses of 30,000 families to build a palace in Bucharest, which was never completed.) Eventually, even his army turned against him. He and his equally despised wife, Elena, spent their Christmas on trial for "extremely grave crimes against the State." Though they weren't particularly helpful during the trial ("I will answer only to the workers," said Ceausescu), they were quickly found guilty. By the end of the day, Romanians were treated to an unusual Christmas TV special: the execution of the Ceausecus, by firing squad. Still seemingly deluded enough to think that they were adored by their former subjects, they looked confused and angry in their final moments. The news led to dancing in the streets of Bucharest.

8. Date with Disaster

If you thought burnt turkey and out-of-tune carol-singing with the family was bad, think of all the terrible disasters that have happened on Christmas day. In 1717, floods ravaged coastal provinces in Holland, killing thousands. In 1953, a train plunged into New Zealand's Wangaehu River, leaving 166 dead. In 1971, a fire killed 163 at the Taeyokale Hotel in Seoul. In 1974, Cyclone Tracy destroyed much of the city of Darwin, in northern Australia. Sixty-five people died, and Darwin was so damaged that fund-raisers, including a hit song called "Santa Never Made it to Darwin," raised millions for reconstruction. In case Australia needed more Christmas disasters, a fire at a Sydney backpackers' hotel left 13 dead on Christmas Day the very next year.

A year after that, Egypt's SS Patria sank in the Red Sea, killing 100. More recently, a 2004 earthquake in south-east Asia, measuring 9.3 on the Richter scale, led to a devastating group of tsunamis the next day, which would ultimately kill over 200,000 people.

Rather than end on such a low note, let's finish the Christmas list with one of the lighter moments"¦

9. Dick Marries Tess

Dick Tracy has been described as "the first realistic police [comic] strip", which sounds odd for a strip where the crooks have names like Mr. Bribery, Pruneface and Boris Arson, and look as ridiculous as they sound. Nonetheless, plainclothes cop Dick Tracy did a few things that were surprisingly real for a comic strip. For starters, he became one of the first comic strip heroes to marry his sweetheart, Tess Truehart, on Christmas Day 1949. True, they had been dating for 18 years (during which time they hadn't aged a day, of course), but as Superman and Lois Lane would take 58 years to tie the knot, and Popeye finally married Olive Oyl after 70 years, that's not a bad waiting time. Their daughter, Bonnie Braids, was born (in the back of a squad car) in 1951.

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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