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11 Daredevil Stunts That Pushed Human Limits

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An Austrian daredevil named Felix Baumgartner plans to break the world record for highest skydive in August. After taking an air balloon to 120,000 feet, he'll step out of his helium cocoon at the edge of space and break the sound barrier on his way back to earth.

Sound exciting? It's already been done. Here's a list of eleven impossible stunts pulled off by very real human beings.

1. Joseph Kittinger

Kittinger was Baumgartner's inspiration and the current record holder. As the head of an Air Force program called Project Excelsior, Kittinger made several extremely high jumps to test new parachute designs. In August 1960 he made his highest ascent, to 102,800 feet. At 43,000 feet the pressure lock on his right glove failed. His hand, which was basically being exposed to outer space, swelled enormously. He carried on without informing his base, then jumped from the balloon once it reached target altitude. Fortunately, the hand returned to normal size back on earth. He went on to volunteer for duty in Vietnam, where he was shot down and spent almost a year in an NVA prison camp. Watch the dive video:

2. Reinhold Messner

Before Ben Folds Five unknowingly appropriated his name for an album, Messner was mostly known as the world's most famous mountain climber.

He was the first person in the world to climb every mountain taller than 8,000 meters, and in 1978 he pulled off a feat that was thought suicidal: he climbed Mount Everest without oxygen tanks. Hysteria ensued in the climbing community and, to silence his critics, he did it again in 1980. Alone. No one has repeated his feat since. Below, a clip from his and Peter Habeler's 1978 ascent of Everest without oxygen tanks.

3. William Trubridge

Trubridge is perhaps the world's best free diver, which is the art of diving without SCUBA gear. With only the air in their lungs while submerged, free divers see how far down they can swim. According to the official free diving website, Trubridge recently passed a landmark depth: he descended 101 meters in an unaided free dive. That's 331 feet down on a single breath. Watch the official video of the record-setting dive:

4. John Stapp

Stapp tested the limits of gravitational endurance by repeatedly exposing himself to G forces beyond what was thought possible to survive. He led a series of Air Force tests in rapid deceleration, the last of which exposed him to forces in excess of 40 g. His eyes bled, he suffered two broken wrists, and dust particles caused rashes on his body, but he sustained no permanent injuries. His work paved the way for the use of crash test dummies, and he later championed the inclusion of seat belts in automobiles.

Col. Stapp in a helmet that measures G forces. Image from the David Hill collection via The Ejection Site.

5. Philippe Petit

This French high wire artist was profiled in the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (trailer below). After successfully tightrope walking the cathedral at Notre Dame and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Petit set his eyes on the newly erected World Trade Center towers in 1974. In a fascinating feat that was as much a heist story as it was a physical accomplishment, Petit and his team successfully bypassed security at the towers, then fired a rope from one rooftop to the other with a bow and arrow (they first used fishing line). Petit danced on the rope for forty-five minutes as a crowd gathered below, making eight passes in all. He was arrested as soon as he stepped off the line, but charges were dropped in exchange for another show in Central Park.

6. Jordan Romero

Romero has climbed the peaks of the highest mountain on every continent. That might not sound very outlandish until you hear that he summited them all before age 16—the youngest to ever do so. He climbed Everest before his 14th birthday. Controversy erupted afterward about whether people so young should be allowed on such a dangerous mountain. The Chinese government then imposed an age requirement (18) for all climbers. Romero's record isn't likely to be broken anytime soon.

7. Martin Strel

Strel has swum the length of the world's greatest rivers: the Danube, the Mississippi, the Yangtze, and, most notoriously, the Amazon. Aside from the challenge of swimming 50 miles per day, the native Slovenian had to contend with Dengue, sunburn, extreme currents, and Candiru—blood-sucking parasitic catfish that invade their host's urethra. Strel said, "I was attacked by piranhas a few times — at one point they were eating my back." His team's solution? Pouring buckets of blood in the water nearby, diverting their attention. To unwind from the enormous stress of the river, Strel drank up to two bottles of wine each day. He completed the Amazon swim in 66 days, as seen in Big River Man (trailer below).

8. Alain Bombard

This French physician crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a rubber dinghy named l'Hérétique that was equipped with a sextant, oars, a singlesail, and the works of Shakespeare and Montaigne to keep him company. Bombard tested his ideas about survival while stranded at sea by sailing 2,900 miles from the Canary Islands to Barbados in October 1952. After bidding his newlywed wife and baby girl adieu, he went to sea alone. He speared fish with a homemade harpoon and ate surface plankton that he caught with a net. For fresh water, he pressed water from the bodies of fish, sometimes mixing it with a small amount of ocean water in a cocktail he called "a very pleasant drink, not unlike Vichy water." When he arrived in Barbados 65 days later, he had lost 55 pounds. He and his wife had four more children.

Two of the covers for Bombard's 1958 French-language book about his experience, Naufragé Volontaire.

9. Charlie Engle, Kevin Lin, & Ray Zahab

In 2006, this trio ran from Senegal to Cairo—right across the Sahara desert. Their route took them over 4,300 miles through six countries. They ran to highlight the lack of access to clean water in North Africa. A documentary crew financed by Matt Damon accompanied them. They planned to complete the run in 80 days, but ended up taking 111. If that sounds like an underachievement, consider that it still works out to a rate of almost 39 miles a day, in 120 degree heat. Each runner used roughly 25 pairs of Nikes. Engle reported that he drank 1,411 liters of Gatorade. Aside from urinating in minefields and braving Col. Gaddafi's Libya, the trio ran along the "Highway of Dead Animals" in Mauritania, where roadkill littered the asphalt because drivers exceed 100 MPH. Watch their journey in Running the Sahara (trailer below).

10. Felicity Aston

Aston very recently became the first woman to complete a solo crossing of Antarctica. The 1056 mile journey took 59 days, with Aston carrying all of her gear behind her on sleds. Through it all she tweeted updates to followers about how the journey was going. After making it back to civilization and having her fill of cake and ice cream (she had lost 18 pounds), Aston tweeted about one of the biggest re-adjustments to normal life: "Having to remind myself of the rules now I'm not alone; no peeing wherever I stand, no talking to the sun, no snot or dribble on my face..." Below, the video she recorded when she reached the end of her journey.

11. Lewis Gordon Pugh

Pugh is the only person to ever log a long distance swim in each of the world's major oceans, and that isn't even his biggest accomplishment. In 2005 and 2007, he went for one kilometer dips at both the North Pole and off the coast of Antarctica. His attire? A Speedo, swim cap, and goggles. Through a neat trick he calls "anticipatory thermo-genesis," Pugh is able to raise his body temperature to 101 degrees right before a plunge in freezing waters. Despite this unique ability, his temperature dropped to 91.4 degrees immediately after his swim in Antarctica. Some swimmers fear sharks, but in Pugh's environment, his greatest fear is different: leopard seals. Below, the official video from his North Pole swim.

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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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