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Could Cockroaches Really Survive a Nuclear War?

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Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice; still others say in a nuclear apocalypse that will annihilate humanity while leaving cockroaches intact. It’s an unhappy picture, homo sapiens being completely wiped out by its own technology as the little pests inherit the Earth, but is the possibility fact, or just science fiction?

Unfortunately, it looks like the bugs win this one. They’ve already survived one nuclear attack: The cockroach survival theory surfaced in the wake of the 1945 atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when reports began to circulate that the only signs of life remaining between the two cities were cockroaches scurrying among the ruins. With that kind of evidence, it’s reasonable enough to infer that even more nuclear weapons won’t be enough to keep them down, but it always helps to test a hypothesis. As usual, that’s where the Mythbusters stepped in

The Discovery Channel team conducted an experiment on German cockroaches to see just how much radiation they can stand before kicking the tiny bucket, and it’s a lot—more than we frail humans can handle, for sure. A month after their initial exposure to 1000 radon units (rads) of cobalt 60—an amount sufficient to kill a human in just 10 minutes of exposure—about half of the cockroach sample was still alive and thriving, which is all the more impressive considering the normal mortality rate of insects with only a 6-to-9-month life span. The second condition upped the dose of radiation to 10,000 rads, about the equivalent amount of exposure that would result from an atomic bomb, and 10 percent of the cockroaches were still around to tell the tale a month later. The 100,000 rads condition, thankfully, proved that at least cockroaches aren’t invincible: None of them made it through, which would be more tragic if they didn’t still possess superhuman levels of radiation immunity.

Detractors from the theory that roaches will someday rule the Earth don’t disagree with the findings that the little creepy-crawlies would easily outlive us after nuclear fallout; their argument is that there are other, even more radiation-resistant insects out there. Wood-boring insects, as well as their eggs, can survive exposure to as much as 68,000 rads, while it would take about 64,000 to take out the common fruit fly. The Habrobracon, a type of parasitic wasp, easily takes the radiation-resistance championship with its ability to survive up to 180,000 rads—somewhere around 200 times as much resistance as any human possesses.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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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