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What Do Snakes and Sticks Have to Do With Doctors?

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If you’ve ever seen the World Health Organization or American Medical Association logo, or the “star of life” on the side of an ambulance, you might have wondered what a snake wrapped around a stick has to do with those who fix what ails us. Well, that stick is the asklepian, or rod of Asclepius. In ancient Greek mythology, Asclepius was the son of Apollo, and the god of medicine and healing. Depending on which historian you ask, he may have even been based on an actual historical doctor whose skills became so exaggerated that patients formed a cult around him.

The snake that's wrapped around the rod may symbolize rejuvenation, because snakes shed their skin, or it could simply represent the healing of snakebites. It might also have something to do with antivenom or the medicinal properties of snake venoms.

The rod itself has more to do with medicine than the fact that a doctor-god carried it, though the explanations for the connection vary. It could be a reference to a traditional treatment of a parasitic nematode called Dracunculus medinensis or Guinea worm. The worm causes blisters on whatever limb it takes up residence in, which can be can be quite painful judging from the ancient Latin name for the infection: "affliction with little dragons." To remove the parasite, doctors would cut a slit in the skin right in its path and, when it poked its head from the wound, take a small stick and slowly wrap the worm around it until the “little dragon” was fully removed.

The infection is relatively rare today, but the same extraction method is still used. The parasite and the treatment may have been so widespread and well-known in ancient times that the symbolic rod started out with worms on it, and they morphed into snakes centuries later.

Know the Difference

Whatever the snake and stick mean, the rod should not be confused with another snake & stick combo: the caduceus, featuring two snakes, a stick and wings, that’s often used as a symbol of medicine in the U.S.

The staff is said to have been that of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods. Hermes did not have a connection to medicine, and the medical use of the caduceus has a very modern origin. The U.S. Army Medical Corps adopted it as their symbol in 1902 at the insistence of a single officer who probably assumed a medical link after seeing it used as a printer’s mark on 19th century medical texts. The mark was used by several publishers in their books because they thought of themselves, like Hermes, as messengers and diffusers of knowledge.

Art historian Walter J. Friedlander, in his book The Golden Wand of Medicine: A History of the Caduceus Symbol in Medicine, collected hundreds of examples of both asklepian and caduceus logos and insignias in America and found that professional associations were more likely to use the staff of Asclepius and commercial organizations were more likely to use the caduceus. He noted that caduceus is more appropriate for commercial ventures, since it has more visual impact.

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What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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iStock

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?

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Big Questions
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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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