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

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.

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The American Museum of Natural History
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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in our solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last month, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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