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The Decks of the Mary Celeste, December 1872

Our new issue is on newsstands and in mailboxes (or beach bags or bathrooms or wherever it is you do your _flossing). This week we've been sharing a few excerpts from the cover story, "The 50 Most Interesting Places in the Space-Time Continuum," by Jenny Drapkin and Ethan Trex. Today and tomorrow, we'll share a couple places that just missed the cut.

The Decks of the Mary Celeste, December 1872
In early December 1872, the crew of the English cargo ship Dei Gratia made a perplexing discovery in the Atlantic. The Dei Gratia's helmsman spotted a ship a few miles off his bow and quickly realized that it was the familiar brigantine merchant ship the Mary Celeste. Something seemed a little off about the Mary Celeste, though. Her sails were up, but they appeared to be lopsided and torn. Furthermore, while the Mary Celeste appeared to be heading for the Strait of Gibraltar, the ship wasn't really keeping a straight course.

The concerned helmsman set a course to intercept the apparently troubled ship, and when the Dei Gratia finally caught up to the other vessel after hours of observation, they discovered one of history's greatest nautical mysteries: the entire crew of the Mary Celeste had vanished.

Oliver Deveau, the Dei Gratia's chief mate, was the first sailor to board the eerily quiet ship. After poking around the decks and the holds, Deveau reported back that although the Mary Celeste was a "thoroughly wet mess" with quite a bit of standing water below decks and in the her bilge, the boat was still seaworthy. However, there wasn't a soul on board. The entire crew and Captain Benjamin Briggs, along with Briggs' wife and two-year-old daughter, were nowhere to be found.

Wherever the Mary Celeste's crew had gone, they had packed up in a hurry. Most of their personal belongings, even their pipes, remained untouched by their bunks. The ship's cargo—1701 barrels of commercial alcohol bound for Italy—was still snugly resting in her holds. Even the captain's logbook was still on board, as was a six-month supply of untainted food and fresh water. The only things that appeared to be missing were the ship's navigational equipment, some papers, and her lone lifeboat.

The baffled crew of the Dei Gratia decided to split up and sail the Mary Celeste to Gibraltar. Once they arrived safely, the British Vice Admiralty Court began an inquiry into the Mary Celeste's abandonment, and the ghostly ship became a worldwide media sensation.

The admiralty inquiry lasted three months and tested all sorts of theories. One of the early explanations that got quite a bit of traction—even the New York Times reported this one—was that the ship had been attacked by pirates who murdered the crew. There were a few problems with this story, though. Piracy wasn't particularly common in this part of the world at the time thanks to a strong British naval presence, and there wasn't any sign of a struggle on the Mary Celeste. Furthermore, pirates generally didn't just take a boat, kill the crew, and then leave it adrift at sea with a hold full of cargo.

Another explanation—also reported by the New York Times—hypothesized that the ship's crew had gotten into the alcoholic cargo and then murdered Captain Briggs and his family during a drunken rampage before fleeing in the lifeboat. (The Times breathlessly reported that ""¦some of the men probably obtained access to the cargo, and were thus stimulated to the desperate deed.") This story didn't work with the facts either, though. The crew had all been experienced sailors with impeccable records, and the alcohol in the hold was denatured, not the sort of drinkable grade-A booze that might incite a mutiny. Moreover, despite a search for the crew in ports around the world, not a single man ever turned up.

A Fit of Collective Drug-Fueled Madness?

When these mundane explanations proved to be dead ends, theorists became increasingly fantastic with their stories. What if a sea monster had devoured the crew? Wasn't this mysterious disappearance obviously the work of aliens? Perhaps the ship's flour had become contaminated with hallucinogenic ergot fungus and caused the entire crew to throw themselves overboard in a fit of collective drug-fueled madness. As one might imagine, nobody found these far-fetched theories all that compelling.

Today there are a few prevailing theories about what really happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste. Some historians now believe that the ship hit a waterspout, a tornado at sea, that caused the ship to take on water. Although the Mary Celeste was still seaworthy, Captain Briggs may have panicked and abandoned ship, only to have the lifeboat sink in the storm.

Another credible theory centers on the ship's dangerous cargo. When investigators unloaded the 1,701 barrels of alcohol from the hold, nine barrels turned out to be empty. These barrels were made of porous red oak, which might have allowed alcohol vapors to gradually escape until there was a small but terrifying explosion below decks. Such an explosion—or even the presence of vapors that might have exploded—could have spooked the crew into the abandoning the ship before it went up in flames.

The Mary Celeste eventually found a new owner and crew and sailed for another 12 years until her captain deliberately ran her aground off Haiti as part of an insurance fraud scheme. Despite nearly 130 years of research, maritime historians still don't know what became of the ship's crew on that fateful 1872 voyage, an uncertainty that makes the decks of the Mary Celeste one of the most fascinating places in the space-time continuum.

See Also: The Final Resting Place of the Russian Mafia, The Final Moments of the Civil War, Where Antimatter Still Exists. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are all the details.

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9 Things You Should Keep in Mind Around Someone Observing Ramadan
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To mark the ninth (and most holy) month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims around the world observe Ramadan. Often compared to Lent in Christianity and Yom Kippur in Judaism, Ramadan is all about restraint. For one month, Muslims observing Ramadan fast during the day and then feast at night.

By abstaining from food and water (as well as sex, smoking, fighting, etc.) during daylight, Muslims strive to practice discipline, instill gratitude for what they have, and draw closer to Allah. To be respectful and not annoy observers, here are nine things you should never say or do to someone observing Ramadan.

1. DON'T JOKE ABOUT WEIGHT LOSS.

A traditional iftar meal.
A traditional iftar meal.
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Although it might be tempting to joke about Ramadan being a good excuse to lose weight, it is a time for spiritual reflection and is a serious matter. Observers undertake the challenge of fasting for religious and spiritual reasons rather than aesthetic ones. And, once the sun sets each night, many Muslims prepare a hearty iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) of dates, curries, rice dishes, and other delicious foods. The suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) is often fresh fruit, bread, cheese, and dishes that are high in fiber and complex carbohydrates. So the idea of a cleanse is pretty far from their minds.

2. DON'T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS.

An Indian Muslim student recites from the Quran in a classroom during the holy month of Ramadan.
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There are approximately 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, but not all of them observe Ramadan the same way. Although most observant Muslims fast for Ramadan, don't assume that every Muslim you meet has the same methods, traditions, and attitudes towards fasting. For some, Ramadan is more about prayer, reading the Qur'an, and performing acts of charity than merely about forgoing food and drink. And for those who may be exempted from the daily fasting, such as pregnant or nursing women, the elderly, or those with various health conditions, they might not appreciate the reminder from nosey busy-bodies that they aren't participating in the traditional way.

3. SAY "RAMADAN MUBARAK" INSTEAD OF "HAPPY RAMADAN."

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A sign which reads "Ramadan Kareem" in Arabic is seen pictured in front of the Burj Khalifa in downtown Dubai.
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Rather than wishing someone a happy Ramadan, being more thoughtful with your choice of words can show that you understand and respect the sanctity of their holy month. Saying "Ramadan Mubarak" or "Ramadan Kareem" are the traditional ways to impart warm wishes—they both convey the generosity and blessings associated with the month. The actual party comes after Ramadan, when Muslims celebrate Eid al-Fitr, an up to three-day festival that involves plenty of food, time with family, and gifts.

4. DON'T BE A FOOD PUSHER.

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Even if the idea of not eating or drinking all day might be unfathomable to you, don't push food onto anyone observing Ramadan. While fasting all day for a month can cause mild fatigue, dehydration, and dizziness, don't try to convince participating Muslims to eat or drink something—they are fully aware of any side effects they may feel throughout the day. Instead, be respectful of their decision to fast and offer to lend a hand with something like chores, errands, or anything unrelated to food.

5. ACCEPT THAT WATER ISN'T ON THE MENU.

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Muslims who observe Ramadan don't sip any liquids during daytime. No water, coffee, tea, or juice. Zilch. Going without water is even harder than going without food, so be aware of the struggle and accept it. It's all part of the sacrifice and self-discipline inherent in Ramadan.

6. RESPECT PEOPLE'S PRIVACY.

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Some Muslims choose not to fast during Ramadan for medical or other personal reasons, and they may not appreciate being badgered with questions about why they may be eating or drinking rather than fasting. Children and the elderly generally don't fast all day, and people who are sick are exempt from fasting. Other conditions that preclude fasting during Ramadan are pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menstruation (although, if possible, people generally make up the days later).

7. BE MINDFUL OF ENERGY LEVELS.

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Eschewing food and drink for hours at a time can cause lethargy, so be aware that Muslims observing Ramadan may be more tired than usual. Your Muslim friends and coworkers don't stop working for an entire month, but they may tweak their schedules to allow for more rest. They may also stay indoors more (to prevent overheating) and avoid unnecessary physical activity to conserve energy. So, don't be offended if they aren't down for a pick-up game of basketball or soccer. We can't all be elite athletes.

8. DON'T OBSESS OVER FOOD AND HUNGER.

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One of the worst things you can do to someone on a new diet is to obsess over all the cheeseburgers, pizza, and cupcakes they can't have. Similarly, most Muslims observing Ramadan don't want to have in-depth conversations about all the food and beverages they're avoiding. So, be mindful that you don't become the constant reminder of how many hours are left until sundown—just as you shouldn't joke about weight loss, you shouldn't call attention to any hunger pangs.

9. DON'T BE AFRAID TO EAT YOUR OWN FOOD.

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Although it's nice to avoid talking about food in front of a fasting Muslim, don't be afraid to eat your own food as you normally would. Seeing other people eating and drinking isn't offensive—Muslims believe that Ramadan is all about sacrifice and self-discipline, and they're aware that not everyone participates. However, perhaps try to avoid scheduling lunch meetings or afternoon barbecues with your Muslim colleagues and friends. Any of those can surely wait until after Ramadan ends.

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