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Talking Trash: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

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It's like something you'd expect to see in a now-classic post-apocalyptic novel by J.G. Ballard or Richard Matheson: The Synthetic Sea, a swirling vortex of plastic garbage the size of Texas; an island of plastic riding atop the cold North Pacific, leaching poisonous chemicals into the ecosystem and being swallowed by fish and birds who mistake the smaller bits for food. Except it's real. Also known as the North Pacific Gyre (recalling Yeats; I like it), it contains something like 100 million tons of debris caught up by ocean currents in an endless loop between Hawaii and Japan. The reason fish and birds swallow the stuff and die is because small pieces of plastic already outnumber plankton in the gyre/vortex/patch by 6 to one, an imbalance which may increase tenfold in the coming years.

Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, who first discovered the Patch, has artfully dubbed it a kind of "plastic soup," a concept which this graphic demonstrates rather well. Or, here's another way of looking at it -- this is Captain Moore holding a pint or so of randomly-scooped water from the Patch:

(Photo courtesy of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation )

Captain Moore put it all together during a recent TED talk. Check out this clip:

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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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science
Belly Flop Physics 101: The Science Behind the Sting
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Belly flops are the least-dignified—yet most painful—way of making a serious splash at the pool. Rarely do they result in serious physical injury, but if you’re wondering why an elegant swan dive feels better for your body than falling stomach-first into the water, you can learn the laws of physics that turn your soft torso a tender pink by watching the SciShow’s video below.

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