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10 Facts About St. Peter's Basilica

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Whether you're Catholic or not, it's hard to argue with the fact that St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is an amazing feat of architecture and art. The cornerstone for this sanctified structure was laid on April 18, 1506, so its birthday is just around the corner. In case you're counting, that's 503 candles on the cake. To celebrate, here are a few facts about the House that Peter Built (according to Catholic tradition, anyway).

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1. The current Basilica is actually St. Peter's Basilica #2.

Old Saint Peter's Basilica (OSPB, for future reference) was built on the orders of Constantine I sometime around 324. It was at OSPB that Charlemagne was crowned the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in on Christmas Day in 800. Not much of the original Basilica remains, but a piece of a mosaic from the eighth century can still be found at Santa Maria in Cosmedin, and eight of the original columns from the old altar were moved to the new (current) St. Peter's. Somewhat unrelated trivia: Santa Maria in Cosmedin is also where the Mouth of Truth is.

2. There are 100+ tombs at St. Peter's,

including 91 popes, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II and Swedish Queen Christina who abdicated the throne to convert to Catholicism.

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3. Michelangelo's Pietà  is located at St. Peter's and has been the source of much abuse over the years.

First of all, four of her fingers broke off sometime in the 1700s as the statue was moved throughout the Basilica. They were repaired in 1736. But the worst incident was in 1972 when a geologist named Laszlo Toth ran into the Basilica and attacked the nearly 500-year-old statue with a geologist's hammer. Yelling "I am Jesus Christ," he took Mary's arm completely off from the elbow down, chipped a chunk out of her nose and damaged one of her eyelids. Since its restoration from the attack, the Pietà  has been housed in a case of bulletproof acrylic glass. You can still see where she was damaged if you look closely. The Pietà  is also the only work Michelangelo ever signed. The story is that he heard someone talking about this great statue that Cristoforo Solari had created. It was Michelangelo's statue, of course, and in a fit of pride, he went and added his signature to Mary's sash. He later regretted it and said he would never sign anything ever again.

4. There's a door that is only opened for holy years. It's called, appropriately, the Holy Door.

They're only opened in certain years 'Jubilee years' and people who pass through them receive a plenary indulgence. A better Catholic than I can explain what a plenary indulgence is.

5. The top of the colonnade in the square outside contains 140 statues of various saints.

That's a lot of carving, folks. But they were completed by many artists over a period of 41 years, from 1662 to 1703. Not all of the artists' names were recorded, but the ones that were (and which statue they created) can be found here.

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6. Bernini finished the 96-foot-tall baldacchino (the canopy-like thing over the altar) in 1633 and it's the epitome of opulence, which it was heavily criticized for at the time.

It's said that the bronze that makes up the baldacchino was taken from the roof of the Pantheon, which is another thing Italians weren't too thrilled about.

7. Climbing to the top of Michelangelo's dome will add 491 stairs to your exercise log.

And it's a scary climb: in some spots, the "staircase" is so narrow there's no room for railings, so there's a rope that runs down the middle for you to hold on to. And sometimes, it's both narrow and incredibly slanted. Not good for claustrophobics. You don't have to climb the whole thing, though. Taking an elevator will save you about 171 stairs.

8. The Scavi is the Vatican Necropolis.

Not the grotto — the grotto is the place where a lot of Popes are now buried, including JPII. The Scavi is only available by appointment, and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to why the Vatican grants some requests and denies others. Only about 200 people a day are admitted into the Scavi, which is where the tomb of St. Peter supposedly resides. I mean, they think it's St. Peter. Exactly 134 bone fragments were found in a niche with the phrase "Petros eni," which means "Peter is here" in Greek. Carbon dating has found that they are the remains of a 60 to 70-year-old man from the second century. The tour guide also says that no pieces of bone found were determined to be feet bones. Some stories say that after Peter was crucified upside down, he was removed from his cross very quickly — just chopped off at the ankles instead of properly removed. So maybe? Anyway, that's the Vatican's story, and they're sticking to it.

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9.

There's a bronze statue of St. Peter thought to have been made by Arnolfo di Cambio in the 13th century, although that's something that's often disputed by art historians and scholars who think it was cast as early as the fifth century. Either way, this St. Peter has seen a lot of love: it's tradition for people to kiss or rub his foot when they pass by. You can tell just how many people have done it by the fact that his right toes have worn into a completely smooth surface, whereas his left toes are still individual digits.

10.

I seem to remember this enduring rumor that there were portraits of every Pope in gilded frames somewhere at St. Peter's, including empty frames for the upcoming Popes. How the Vatican knew how many empty frames to include was always a mystery, and so the speculation began that they knew the apocalypse was going to happen during a certain Pope's reign and therefore only provided the exact number of empty portrait frames that would be needed through that time frame. Silly, I know. But I can't find mention of this urban legend anywhere, not even Snopes! Did I completely make it up? Has someone else heard of it? Tell me I'm not losing it. Update: see the comments for an explanation. I know our _flossers would come through!!

On that note, I'm out for a few days. I posted a couple months ago about this road trip we're taking and it's time to finally make good on that post. If you're interested, I will probably document the trip in real time on Twitter just out of sheer boredom. I imagine 24 hours in a car (48 round trip) is going to lead to desperate measures to entertain myself. Otherwise, I'll definitely be doing an Armchair Field Trip or two about it when I get back.

I leave you in the capable hands of Jason English and Adrienne Crezo. See you Tuesday!

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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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