15 Memorable mental_floss Moments of 2011

A lot of exciting things happened in the mental_floss universe in 2011. Here are the 15 we could remember.

1. We Helped Solve a Back to the Future Mystery

Back in August, we threw out a question for discussion:

"Is it ever explained why Marty hangs out with Doc Brown? He's just in Doc's house to start the movie and it's just implied that they're good friends." —Brett Savage

Back to the Future co-creator Bob Gale was kind enough to respond:

Okay, from the horse’s mouth (yes, I’m the horse — er, co-writer, co-creator): We never explained it in the movie. But the history of the characters that Bob Zemeckis and I created is this…

For years, Marty was told that Doc Brown was dangerous, a crackpot, a lunatic. So, being a red-blooded American teenage boy, age 13 or 14, he decided to find out just why this guy was so dangerous. Marty snuck into Doc’s lab, and was fascinated by all the cool stuff that was there. when Doc found him there, he was delighted to find that Marty thought he was cool and accepted him for what he was. Both of them were the black sheep in their respective environments. Doc gave Marty a part-time job to help with experiments, tend to the lab, tend to the dog, etc.

And that’s the origin of their relationship.
— Bob Gale

This was all very exciting, but someone over at Slate thought the whole thing was a (bizarre) hoax:

"No one on the Internet knows you're a dog, or whether you're really Bob Gale ... I've seen enough Internet hoaxes to say I'll wait for a picture of him holding a sign that says 'Yes, it's me' with today's newspaper before I buy it completely."

Our new best friend Bob Gale, with whom I'd emailed before posting his original comment to make sure he wasn't, in fact, a dog, was willing to oblige:

2. We Acquired an Office Eel

And in just a few short months, that office eel made the masthead:

Not sure how veteran office dog Leo felt about this. But Leo was the star of our New Year's card.

Watch this rivalry play out in 2012.

3. We Watched Ransom Riggs Become a Pretty Big Deal

Ransom Riggs had been writing for mental_floss since 2006, and we knew it was only a matter of time before he got too big and famous for us. This year, his debut YA novel, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, made the New York Times Best Seller List, and it sounds like Tim Burton might direct the Miss Peregrine movie. Ransom is also turning his popular Talking Pictures series into a book. We promise we'll guilt him into coming back and contributing an occasional photo essay or short film in 2012. For now, you can follow him on Twitter: @RansomRiggs.

4. We Made a Cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm...

Sadly, Larry David didn't draw any swastikas inside us.

5. ...and Bored to Death...

6. ...and Nikki Sixx's Twitter Account

We're hoping to collaborate on something in 2012. Maybe a Christmas album.

7. We Gave My 2-Year-Old Daughter Her 15 Minutes (Well, 3:55) of Fame

Last January, I posted a clip of my two-year-old playing with her U.S. Presidents placemat alongside our "can you guess the president by his placemat portrait?" quiz. Gawker re-posted the video, and soon it showed up on the Yahoo! and AOL homepages and The NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

A few weeks later, Charlotte appeared on Rachael Ray for Presidents' Day.

Here's her segment. She's recently turned her attention to counterfeiting.

8. We Joined Forces With Melissa & Doug

We're teaming up with educational toy giant Melissa & Doug for a mental_floss children's line. Coming soon!

9. We Filled Over 12,000 Orders This Holiday Season

A week before Christmas, the elves in our Ohio office announced that they'd filled 10,000 orders this holiday season. Co-founders Will Pearson and Mangesh Hattikudur and e-commerce guru Renier Fee dispatched themselves to Cleveland with cake for a surprise "thank you for not going crazy during all this madness!" party.

So let's give it up for Amy, British Melanie, Cathy, Cheryl, Dana, Elizabeth, Kathy, Katie, Young Melanie, Mo, Paul, Marvelous Melanie and Toby, who ended up filling over 12,000 holiday orders. You guys deserve two cakes.

And I wish I could share a cake with all 12,000 of you who shopped in the mental_floss store these last couple months. This is one of those situations where the phrase "we couldn't have done it without you" is entirely appropriate.

10. We Were Named One of the (90) Best Twitter Accounts

The good people at BuzzFeed made a list of the Top 90 Best Twitter Accounts, and we made the cut. Thanks for all the retweets and #FollowFriday love! If your New Year's Resolution includes learning lots of random facts (or following more interesting people on Twitter), @mental_floss would be happy to have you.

11. We Partied With Flossers in Memphis, Indy, Columbus, Durham and Birmingham

The Mental Floss Trivia Show made several stops across the country in 2011. Rumors are swirling that we'll be on the road again in 2012. (I'm looking at you, Austin.)

12. We Put Out Our 10th Anniversary Book

Order yours today!

13. We Joined the Dennis Publishing Universe

Back in March, our little media empire became part of Dennis Publishing, making it possible to find funding for important endeavors. Such as...

14. We Made George Washington's Eggnog

15. We've Decided to Listen to Everyone

These are the three questions we're asked most often:

• When will you get a mobile version of the website?

• Why don't you guys publish the magazine monthly?

• Why aren't you releasing any apps?

All three of those things will be addressed at some point in 2012. We also hope to follow the eggnog recipes of several other historical figures this year. Thanks for the support, and for making it all the way to the bottom of our self-indulgent year-in-review!

Live Smarter
Nervous About Asking for a Job Referral? LinkedIn Can Now Do It for You

For most people, asking for a job referral can be daunting. What if the person being approached shoots you down? What if you ask the "wrong" way? LinkedIn, which has been aggressively establishing itself as a catch-all hub for employment opportunities, has a solution, as Mashable reports.

The company recently launched "Ask for a Referral," an option that will appear to those browsing job listings. When you click on a job listed by a business that also employs one of your LinkedIn first-degree connections, you'll have the opportunity to solicit a referral from that individual.

The default message that LinkedIn creates is somewhat generic, but it hits the main topics—namely, prompting you to explain how you and your connection know one another and why you'd be a good fit for the position. If you're the one being asked for a referral, the site will direct you to the job posting and offer three prompts for a response, ranging from "Sure…" to "Sorry…".

LinkedIn says the referral option may not be available for all posts or all users, as the feature is still being rolled out. If you do see the option, it will likely pay to take advantage of it: LinkedIn reports that recruiters who receive both a referral and a job application from a prospective hire are four times more likely to contact that individual.

[h/t Mashable]

Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Essential Science
What Is a Scientific Theory?
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

In casual conversation, people often use the word theory to mean "hunch" or "guess": If you see the same man riding the northbound bus every morning, you might theorize that he has a job in the north end of the city; if you forget to put the bread in the breadbox and discover chunks have been taken out of it the next morning, you might theorize that you have mice in your kitchen.

In science, a theory is a stronger assertion. Typically, it's a claim about the relationship between various facts; a way of providing a concise explanation for what's been observed. The American Museum of Natural History puts it this way: "A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of an aspect of the natural world that can incorporate laws, hypotheses and facts."

For example, Newton's theory of gravity—also known as his law of universal gravitation—says that every object, anywhere in the universe, responds to the force of gravity in the same way. Observational data from the Moon's motion around the Earth, the motion of Jupiter's moons around Jupiter, and the downward fall of a dropped hammer are all consistent with Newton's theory. So Newton's theory provides a concise way of summarizing what we know about the motion of these objects—indeed, of any object responding to the force of gravity.

A scientific theory "organizes experience," James Robert Brown, a philosopher of science at the University of Toronto, tells Mental Floss. "It puts it into some kind of systematic form."


A theory's ability to account for already known facts lays a solid foundation for its acceptance. Let's take a closer look at Newton's theory of gravity as an example.

In the late 17th century, the planets were known to move in elliptical orbits around the Sun, but no one had a clear idea of why the orbits had to be shaped like ellipses. Similarly, the movement of falling objects had been well understood since the work of Galileo a half-century earlier; the Italian scientist had worked out a mathematical formula that describes how the speed of a falling object increases over time. Newton's great breakthrough was to tie all of this together. According to legend, his moment of insight came as he gazed upon a falling apple in his native Lincolnshire.

In Newton's theory, every object is attracted to every other object with a force that’s proportional to the masses of the objects, but inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. This is known as an “inverse square” law. For example, if the distance between the Sun and the Earth were doubled, the gravitational attraction between the Earth and the Sun would be cut to one-quarter of its current strength. Newton, using his theories and a bit of calculus, was able to show that the gravitational force between the Sun and the planets as they move through space meant that orbits had to be elliptical.

Newton's theory is powerful because it explains so much: the falling apple, the motion of the Moon around the Earth, and the motion of all of the planets—and even comets—around the Sun. All of it now made sense.


A theory gains even more support if it predicts new, observable phenomena. The English astronomer Edmond Halley used Newton's theory of gravity to calculate the orbit of the comet that now bears his name. Taking into account the gravitational pull of the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn, in 1705, he predicted that the comet, which had last been seen in 1682, would return in 1758. Sure enough, it did, reappearing in December of that year. (Unfortunately, Halley didn't live to see it; he died in 1742.) The predicted return of Halley's Comet, Brown says, was "a spectacular triumph" of Newton's theory.

In the early 20th century, Newton's theory of gravity would itself be superseded—as physicists put it—by Einstein's, known as general relativity. (Where Newton envisioned gravity as a force acting between objects, Einstein described gravity as the result of a curving or warping of space itself.) General relativity was able to explain certain phenomena that Newton's theory couldn't account for, such as an anomaly in the orbit of Mercury, which slowly rotates—the technical term for this is "precession"—so that while each loop the planet takes around the Sun is an ellipse, over the years Mercury traces out a spiral path similar to one you may have made as a kid on a Spirograph.

Significantly, Einstein’s theory also made predictions that differed from Newton's. One was the idea that gravity can bend starlight, which was spectacularly confirmed during a solar eclipse in 1919 (and made Einstein an overnight celebrity). Nearly 100 years later, in 2016, the discovery of gravitational waves confirmed yet another prediction. In the century between, at least eight predictions of Einstein's theory have been confirmed.


And yet physicists believe that Einstein's theory will one day give way to a new, more complete theory. It already seems to conflict with quantum mechanics, the theory that provides our best description of the subatomic world. The way the two theories describe the world is very different. General relativity describes the universe as containing particles with definite positions and speeds, moving about in response to gravitational fields that permeate all of space. Quantum mechanics, in contrast, yields only the probability that each particle will be found in some particular location at some particular time.

What would a "unified theory of physics"—one that combines quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravity—look like? Presumably it would combine the explanatory power of both theories, allowing scientists to make sense of both the very large and the very small in the universe.


Let's shift from physics to biology for a moment. It is precisely because of its vast explanatory power that biologists hold Darwin's theory of evolution—which allows scientists to make sense of data from genetics, physiology, biochemistry, paleontology, biogeography, and many other fields—in such high esteem. As the biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky put it in an influential essay in 1973, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

Interestingly, the word evolution can be used to refer to both a theory and a fact—something Darwin himself realized. "Darwin, when he was talking about evolution, distinguished between the fact of evolution and the theory of evolution," Brown says. "The fact of evolution was that species had, in fact, evolved [i.e. changed over time]—and he had all sorts of evidence for this. The theory of evolution is an attempt to explain this evolutionary process." The explanation that Darwin eventually came up with was the idea of natural selection—roughly, the idea that an organism's offspring will vary, and that those offspring with more favorable traits will be more likely to survive, thus passing those traits on to the next generation.


Many theories are rock-solid: Scientists have just as much confidence in the theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, evolution, plate tectonics, and thermodynamics as they do in the statement that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

Other theories, closer to the cutting-edge of current research, are more tentative, like string theory (the idea that everything in the universe is made up of tiny, vibrating strings or loops of pure energy) or the various multiverse theories (the idea that our entire universe is just one of many). String theory and multiverse theories remain controversial because of the lack of direct experimental evidence for them, and some critics claim that multiverse theories aren't even testable in principle. They argue that there's no conceivable experiment that one could perform that would reveal the existence of these other universes.

Sometimes more than one theory is put forward to explain observations of natural phenomena; these theories might be said to "compete," with scientists judging which one provides the best explanation for the observations.

"That's how it should ideally work," Brown says. "You put forward your theory, I put forward my theory; we accumulate a lot of evidence. Eventually, one of our theories might prove to obviously be better than the other, over some period of time. At that point, the losing theory sort of falls away. And the winning theory will probably fight battles in the future."


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