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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 Brain Chemistry Behind Your Caffeine Boost
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Whether it’s consumed as coffee, candy, or toothpaste, caffeine is the world’s most popular drug. If you’ve ever wondered how a shot of espresso can make your groggy head feel alert and ready for the day, TED-Ed has the answer.

Caffeine works by hijacking receptors in the brain. The stimulant is nearly the same size and shape as adenosine, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows down neural activity. Adenosine builds up as the day goes on, making us feel more tired as the day progresses. When caffeine enters your system, it falls into the receptors meant to catch adenosine, thus keeping you from feeling as sleepy as you would otherwise. The blocked adenosine receptors also leave room for the mood-boosting compound dopamine to settle into its receptors. Those increased dopamine levels lead to the boost in energy and mood you feel after finishing your morning coffee.

For a closer look at how this process works, check out the video below.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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5 Tips for Becoming A Morning Person
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You’ve probably heard the term circadian rhythm. Your circadian rhythm is an internal clock that influences your daily routine: when to eat, when to sleep, and when to wake up. Our biological clocks are, to some extent, controlled by genetics. This means that some people are natural morning people while others are night owls by design. However, researchers say the majority of us fall somewhere in the middle, which is good news if you want to train yourself to wake up earlier.

In addition to squeezing more hours out of the day, there are plenty of other good reasons to resist hitting the snooze button, including increased productivity. One survey found that more than half of Americans say they feel at their best between 5 a.m. and noon. These findings support research from biologist Christopher Randler, who determined that earlier risers are happier and more proactive about goals, too.

If you love the idea of waking up early to get more done, but you just can't seem to will yourself from out under the covers, here are five effective tips that might help you roll out of bed earlier.

1. EASE INTO THE HABIT.

If you’re a die-hard night owl, chances are you’re not going to switch to a morning lark overnight. Old habits are hard to break, but they’re less challenging if you approach them realistically.

“Wake up early in increments,” Kelsey Torgerson, a licensed clinical social worker at Compassionate Counseling in St. Louis suggests. “If you normally wake up at 9:00 a.m., set the alarm to 8:30 a.m. for a week, then 8:00 a.m., then 7:30 a.m.”

Waking up three hours earlier can feel like a complete lifestyle change, but taking it 30 minutes at a time will make it a lot easier to actually stick to the plan. Gradually, you’ll become a true morning person, just don’t try to force it to happen overnight.

2. EXERCISE IN THE MORNING.

Your body releases endorphins when you exercise, so jumping on the treadmill or taking a run around the block is a great way to start the day on a high note. Also, according to the National Sleep Foundation, exercising early in the morning can mean you get a better overall sleep at night:

“In fact, people who work out on a treadmill at 7:00 a.m. sleep longer, experience deeper sleep cycles, and spend 75 percent more time in the most reparative stages of slumber than those who exercise at later times that day.”

If you don’t have much time in the morning, an afternoon workout is your second best bet. The Sleep Foundation says aerobic afternoon workouts can help you fall asleep faster and wake up less often throughout the night. “This may be because exercise raises your body’s temperature for about four to five hours,” they report. After that, your body’s core temperature decreases, which encourages it to switch into sleep mode.

3. MAKE YOUR BEDROOM IDEAL FOR SLEEP.

Whether it’s a noisy street or a bright streetlight, your bedroom environment might be making it difficult for you to sleep throughout the night, which can make waking up early challenging, as you haven’t had enough rest. There are, however, a few changes you can make to optimize your room for a good night’s sleep.

“Keep your bedroom neat and tidy,” Dr. Nancy Irwin, a Los Angeles-based doctor of psychology on staff as an expert in sleep hygiene at Seasons Recovery Centers in Malibu, suggests. “Waking up to clutter and chaos only makes it more tempting to crawl back in bed.”

Depending on what needs to be improved, you might consider investing in some slumber-friendly items that can help you sleep through the night, including foam earplugs (make sure to use a vibrating alarm), black-out drapes, light-blocking window decals, and a cooling pillow

Another simple option? Ditch the obnoxious sound of a loud, buzzing alarm.

“One great way to adapt to rising earlier is to have an alarm that is a pleasing sound to you versus an annoying one,” Dr. Irwin says. “There are many choices now, whether on your smartphone or in a radio or a freestanding apparatus.”

4. TAKE THE TIME TO PROPERLY WIND DOWN.

Getting up early starts the night before, and there are a few things you should do before hitting the sack at night.

“Set an alarm to fall asleep,” Torgerson says. “Having a set bedtime helps you stay responsible to yourself, instead of letting yourself get caught up in a book or Netflix and avoid going to sleep.”

Torgerson adds that practicing yoga or meditation before bed can help relax your mind and body, too. This way, your mind isn’t bouncing from thought to thought in a flurry before you go to bed. If you find yourself feeling anxious before bed, it might help to write in a journal. This way, you can get these nagging thoughts out of your head and onto paper.

Focus on relaxing at night and stay away from not just exercise, but mentally stimulating activities, too. If watching the news gets your blood boiling, for example, you probably want to turn it off an hour or so before bedtime.

5. GET YOUR DAILY DOSE OF LIGHT.

Light has a immense effect on your circadian rhythm—whether it’s the blue light from your phone as you scroll through Instagram, or the bright sunlight of being outdoors on your lunch break. In a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, scientists compared the sleep quality of 27 subjects who worked in windowless environments with 22 subjects who were exposed to significantly more natural light during the day.

“Workers in windowless environments reported poorer scores than their counterparts on two SF-36 dimensions—role limitation due to physical problems and vitality—as well as poorer overall sleep quality," the study concluded. "Compared to the group without windows, workers with windows at the workplace had more light exposure during the workweek, a trend toward more physical activity, and longer sleep duration as measured by actigraphy.”

Thus, exposing yourself to bright light during the day may actually help you sleep better at night, which will go a long way toward helping you wake up refreshed in the morning.

Conversely, too much blue light can actually disturb your sleep schedule at night. This means you probably want to limit your screen time as your bedtime looms closer.

Finally, once you do get into the habit of waking up earlier, stick to that schedule on the weekends as much as possible. The urge to sleep in is strong, but as Torgerson says, “you won't want your body and brain to reacclimate to sleeping in and snoozing.”

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