10 Little-Known Facts About Alfred Kinsey

Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images
Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images

Alfred Kinsey grew up in early 20th century America, in a cultural climate that regarded concepts like homosexuality, masturbation, and the female orgasm with ignorance at best and revulsion at worst. He died in 1956 just as the Sexual Revolution was poised to take hold of the nation. Today many historians credit Kinsey with setting the event in motion. Here are some things you may not know about the controversial figure.

1. HE WAS AMONG THE FIRST EAGLE SCOUTS.

Alfred Kinsey joined the Boy Scouts of America in 1911 when he was about 17. At the time, the club was barely a year old. After just two years of participation, he had earned the ranks required to become one of the young organization's first Eagle Scouts—the program’s highest achievement.

2. HE GREW UP IN A RELIGIOUS ENVIRONMENT.

Kinsey was raised in a devout Protestant household. Every Sunday the Kinsey clan attended Sunday school followed by a church service in the morning and a prayer meeting at night. His father’s religious beliefs were so strict that he forbade his family, including visiting relatives, from doing any work on Sundays that didn't involve eating or going to church. Kinsey’s upbringing did little to dissuade him from publishing sex research later in life that directly contradicted the conservative principles he learned in Sunday school.

3. HE CONSIDERED BECOMING AN ENGINEER, A CONCERT PIANIST, AND A YMCA EMPLOYEE.

A career in human biology wasn’t always what Kinsey had in mind for himself. In high school, he was a dedicated piano player and even dreamed of becoming a concert pianist as an adult. But his father had other aspirations for him: He insisted his son go to college to study engineering. Alfred complied but never warmed up to the idea of working as an engineer full-time. Even as he was earning his degree, he entertained the idea of going to work for the YMCA (something he’d done in his youth) after finishing school. All of these plans fell through when he ultimately switched his educational focus to entomology, the study of insects

4. HE COLLECTED MILLIONS OF WASPS.

Before Kinsey revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality, he studied the reproductive habits of gall wasps. The two subjects have some major differences: As just one example, gall wasps breed by embedding eggs into plants, causing growths to form that offer shelter and nourishment to their young. While his wasp work was a far cry from his later studies, it did help him develop his obsessive research style. Kinsey collected 7.5 million wasps during his time as an entomologist. Today those specimens are housed in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology of the American Museum of Natural History.

5. HE TAUGHT A COURSE ON MARRIAGE.

During his wasp days Kinsey worked as a professor at Indiana University. There, he made the academic leap from insects to humans when he was asked to lead a class on marriage. In addition to covering subjects like family relationships and economics, he guided his students through the practical sciences of sexual stimulation, intercourse, and contraception. Kinsey sought empirical evidence to explain familiar sexual conventions and social mores, but he found little that was scientifically sound. He sensed a new challenge—one that would confront the repressive sexual attitudes he had experienced in his own family. As he had in his studies of insects, Kinsey launched a rigorous method of inquiry into the dynamics of human sexuality outside the classroom.

6. HE ASKED THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE ABOUT THEIR SEX LIVES.

To conduct the groundbreaking sexology research, Kinsey and his colleagues interviewed more than 18,000 men and women. Their questions touched upon subjects like sadomasochism, extramarital relations, frequency of masturbation, and number of partners of the same or opposite sex. Once all the data had been gathered, Kinsey was able to break down sexual trends by age, socioeconomic status, and religion to assemble a portrait of human sexuality. The study demonstrated that some practices (like homosexuality, for example) that were considered socially unacceptable were actually quite common. Alfred Kinsey became a household name following the release of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), two books that are together known as the Kinsey Reports.

7. HE HAD AN OPEN MARRIAGE.

In an era when divorce and premarital sex were judged harshly, Kinsey veered from the norm in his own life. He encouraged the scientists who worked for him to have open marriages, and he was no hypocrite. After he and his wife Clara wed in 1921, the couple agreed to open up their relationship to outside sex partners. In addition to being polyamorous, Kinsey was bisexual, having affairs with both men and women during his lifetime.

10. HE LEFT HIS MARK ON POP CULTURE.

Thanks to the salacious nature of his work, Kinsey achieved pop icon status. One example of his fame is the tongue-in-cheek song “Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!” by comedian Martha Raye. The tune, whose lyrics include “Ooh Dr. Kinsey, I just read your essay on men’s behavior today, and men are great … like a hole in the head,” sold half a million copies. The Kinsey Reports are also mentioned in the song “Too Darn Hot” from the musical Kiss Me Kate, and a fictional portrayal of the scientist made an appearance on The Jack Benny Program.

9. HE WAS NO STRANGER TO CONTROVERSY.

Despite his success (or perhaps because of it), Kinsey attracted more than his fair share of angry critics during the 1950s. Scandalized conservatives claimed he was supporting a communist agenda by eroding sexual morality and family values in America. The controversy surrounding his name hasn’t let up since Kinsey’s death in 1956. One area of research in particular, his findings on sexual behaviors in children, remains the subject of intense scrutiny today. He gathered the information used in these sections from interviews conducted with a serial child rapist. The man agreed to speak with Kinsey under the condition that he wouldn’t be turned in for his crimes. In a possible move to protect his subject’s identity, Kinsey credited his data on children to many sources instead of just one, undermining the integrity of his work in the eyes of many scientists.

10. THE KINSEY SCALE INSPIRED OTHER WAYS TO MEASURE SEXUALITY.

Kinsey was one of the first scientists to suggest that sexual identity exists on a spectrum. According to his scale, people are either a zero (totally straight), a six (totally gay), or some number in between based on past socio-sexual interactions. The scale was radical for its time, but in the years since, many sexologists have taken the concept and expanded upon it. In 1980, psychologist Michael Storms introduced a two-dimensional grid that includes asexuality. Even more variables were introduced with Fritz Klein’s sexual orientation grid, including erotic fantasies, emotional preferences, social preferences, and self identity.

For the First Time Ever, a Woman Has Won the Abel Prize—Math's Version of the Nobel Prize

iStock.com/perfectlab
iStock.com/perfectlab

Every year since 2003, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters has bestowed the Abel Prize for excellence and contributions in the field of mathematics. Every year, the recipient has been a man. In 2019, Karen Uhlenbeck crushed that dubious tradition and became the first woman to win the Abel Prize and its $700,000 award.

An emeritus professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Uhlenbeck’s work is focused on gauge theory and geometric analysis—the latter a field she pioneered. Gauge theory supports theoretical physics and is involved in the research of particle physics and string theory. Uhlenbeck is also credited with work that led to greater comprehension of the unification of forces, a primary objective in physics that attempts to link electromagnetic force and weak nuclear force with strong nuclear force in a single theory, which would help us understand the universe.

Mathematician and Abel Prize winner Karen Uhlenbeck is seen in a portrait
Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin

Uhlenbeck arrived at UT Austin in 1987 and stayed after her retirement in 2014. During that time, she co-founded several programs, including the Saturday Morning Math Group and Distinguished Women in Mathematics lecture series, both in Texas, as well as the Park City Mathematics Institute and the Woman and Mathematics program at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.

She achieved another milestone in her field in 1990, when she became the second woman (and the first since 1932) to host a plenary lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians.

The Abel Prize, which is modeled after the Nobel Prize, is named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Hendrik Abel. Uhlenbeck will receive the prize in Oslo on May 21.

[h/t New Scientist]

12 Intriguing Facts About the Intestines

When we talk about the belly, gut, or bowels, what we're really talking about are the intestines—long, hollow, coiled tubes that comprise a major part of the digestive tract, running from the stomach to the anus. The intestines begin with the small intestine, divided into three parts whimsically named the duodenum, jejunum, and ileum, which absorb most of the nutrients from what we eat and drink. Food then moves into the large intestine, or colon, which absorbs water from the digested food and expels it into the rectum. That's when sensitive nerves in your rectum create the sensation of needing to poop.

These organs can be the source of intestinal pain, such as in irritable bowel syndrome, but they can also support microbes that are beneficial to your overall health. Here are some more facts about your intestines.

1. The intestines were named by medieval anatomists.

Medieval anatomists had a pretty good understanding of the physiology of the gut, and are the ones who gave the intestinal sections their names, which are still used today in modern anatomy. When they weren't moralizing about the organs, they got metaphorical about them. In 1535, the Spanish doctor Andrés Laguna noted that because the intestines "carry the chyle and all the excrement through the entire region of the stomach as if through the Ocean Sea," they could be likened to "those tall ships which as soon as they have crossed the ocean come to Rouen with their cargoes on their way to Paris but transfer their cargoes at Rouen into small boats for the last stage of the journey up the Seine."

2. Leonardo da Vinci believed the intestines helped you breathe.

Leonardo mistakenly believed the digestive system aided respiratory function. In 1490, he wrote in his unpublished notebooks, "The compressed intestines with the condensed air which is generated in them, thrust the diaphragm upwards; the diaphragm compresses the lungs and expresses the air." While that isn't anatomically accurate, it is true that the opening of the lungs is helped by the relaxation of stomach muscles, which does draw down the diaphragm.

3. Your intestines could cover two tennis courts ...

Your intestines take up a whole lot of square footage inside you. "The surface area of the intestines, if laid out flat, would cover two tennis courts," Colby Zaph, a professor of immunology in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Melbourne's Monash University, tells Mental Floss. The small intestine alone is about 20 feet long, and the large intestine about 5 feet long.

4. ... and they're pretty athletic.

The process of moving food through your intestines requires a wave-like pattern of muscular action, known as peristalsis, which you can see in action during surgery in this YouTube video.

5. Your intestines can fold like a telescope—but that's not something you want to happen.

Intussusception is the name of a condition where a part of your intestine folds in on itself, usually between the lower part of the small intestine and the beginning of the large intestine. It often presents as severe intestinal pain and requires immediate medical attention. It's very rare, and in children may be related to a viral infection. In adults, it's more commonly a symptom of an abnormal growth or polyp.

6. Intestines are very discriminating.

"The intestines have to discriminate between good things—food, water, vitamins, good bacteria—and bad things, such as infectious organisms like viruses, parasites and bad bacteria," Zaph says. Researchers don't entirely know how the intestines do this. Zaph says that while your intestines are designed to keep dangerous bacteria contained, infectious microbes can sometimes penetrate your immune system through your intestines.

7. The small intestine is covered in "fingers" ...

The lining of the small intestine is blanketed in tiny finger-like protrusions known as villi. These villi are then covered in even tinier protrusions called microvilli, which help capture food particles to absorb nutrients, and move food on to the large intestine.

8. ... And you can't live without it.

Your small intestine "is the sole point of food and water absorption," Zaph says. Without it, "you'd have to be fed through the blood."

9. The intestines house your microbiome. 

The microbiome is made up of all kinds of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoans, "and probably used to include worm parasites too," says Zaph. So in a way, he adds, "we are constantly infected with something, but it [can be] helpful, not harmful."

10. Intestines are sensitive to change.

Zaph says that many factors change the composition of the microbiome, including antibiotics, foods we eat, stress, and infections. But in general, most people's microbiomes return to a stable state after these events. "The microbiome composition is different between people and affected by diseases. But we still don't know whether the different microbiomes cause disease, or are a result in the development of disease," he says.

11. Transferring bacteria from one gut to another can transfer disease—or maybe cure it.

"Studies in mice show that transplanting microbes from obese mice can transfer obesity to thin mice," Zaph says. But transplanting microbes from healthy people into sick people can be a powerful treatment for some intestinal infections, like that of the bacteria Clostridium difficile, he adds. Research is pouring out on how the microbiome affects various diseases, including multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's, and even autism.

12. The microbes in your intestines might influence how you respond to medical treatments.

Some people don't respond to cancer drugs as effectively as others, Zaph says. "One reason is that different microbiomes can metabolize the drugs differently." This has huge ramifications for chemotherapy and new cancer treatments called checkpoint inhibitors. As scientists learn more about how different bacteria metabolize drugs, they could possibly improve how effective existing cancer treatments are.

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