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What Exactly is Quicksand?

Quicksand is a staple hazard of adventure movies, TV shows and video games. Whenever a minor character needs to be killed off quickly, the hero needs someone to rescue, or danger needs to be introduced without calling the villain in, quicksand is there to fulfill the task and swallow an explorer whole. Conveniently, there’s always a pool of pasty goo sitting around somewhere, usually perfectly circular and somewhat hidden from the characters’ view. This shouldn’t come as a shock, but real quicksand isn’t exactly how Hollywood makes it out to be.

Quicksand is what happens when regular old sand or grainy soil gets mixed with water under the right conditions. Normally, sand/soil can support weight on top of it because the friction between the grains helps distribute the load across a large area. If enough water seeps up from an underground source and gets under and around each grain, though, the friction gets compromised and the soil and water become a suspension where the grains are floating around in the water. The ground loses a lot of its ability to support weight, and takes on a consistency somewhat like wet concrete. If you step on it, you’ll start to sink, though not necessarily to your doom.

Despite its frequency in fiction, complete submersion and death in quicksand doesn’t happen in real life. Objects sink only to the level at which their weight is equal to the weight of the displaced sand/water mix, and then the object floats due to its buoyancy. The average person is only going to sink to his or her waist, elbows or armpits, depending on what they’re wearing and carrying. People who die in quicksand don’t die because they sank all the way in, but because they weren’t able to get out quickly enough and were exposed to the elements — low temperatures, incoming tide, etc.

Because quicksand needs underground water to form, riverbanks, beaches, sand washes, alluvial fans, swamps, marshes, and areas with natural springs are the most common spots to find it. It can, and does, develop almost everywhere in the U.S., but the hotspots are the marshes and coasts of the Southeast, and the canyons of Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.

I'm Stuck in Quicksand Right Now. How Do I Escape?

It’s less difficult to get out than you might think. First, don’t struggle. Remember, you won’t sink all the way in, just to your hips or so if you’re not carrying a pack or wearing heavy gear. Flailing, however, makes you sink deeper by making the quicksand more fluid.

Now, to pull yourself out, start by leaning backwards. Yes, you’re putting more of your upper body in the sand, but it will spread your weight out a little more and improve your buoyancy. You’re basically going to backstroke yourself out from here. Kick your legs slowly to loosen the sand around them and then try to gently bring them up towards the surface. Once your legs and midsection are at or on the surface, gently and slowly paddle with your arms with short strokes along the surface of the quicksand - don’t submerge your hands or arms all the way and get them stuck.

Once you’ve paddled to the edge of more solid ground, pull yourself out. Depending on what type of soil the quicksand is made of and what type of shoes you’ve got on, you might have a hard time pulling your feet completely free because of the quicksand’s suctioning effects. Try and grab a stick and pry your shoes off, but don’t squirm too much or stick your hands in to pull them off.

Quicksand’s Evil Twin

There’s another type of quicksand that’s a little bit scarier than the regular stuff and can cause a person to sink completely — and very quickly. Fortunately, no one has ever confirmed a natural occurrence of it. It’s called dry quicksand and scientists only know it from conditions they created in the lab. Dry quicksand forms when grains of sand form a very loose structure that can barely hold its own weight, let alone yours. In the lab, it’s made by blowing air through the sand, but could be caused naturally by the gradual buildup of sand blown around in the air. Hypothetically, desert winds could create a patch of dry quicksand on the down-wind side of a dune.

While scientists haven’t confirmed dry quicksand in the wild, they don’t discount the possibility that it’s out there. It was a concern during the planning of the Apollo moon missions, and astronomers were worried that the battering of the moon by asteroids and meteorites might have ground some of its surface to a deep, loose layer of debris, soil and dust that would swallow the lunar module whole. To support the craft in the event of these conditions, NASA added large plates to the ends of its legs to help distribute weight.

We'll be answering 20 big questions like this one today. We'll plan more days like this, so if you have something you're dying to know, leave us a comment or tweet @mental_floss with the hashtag #bigquestions.

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Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?
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The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

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Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
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On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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