10 Inspiring Facts About George Washington Carver

Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress // Public Domain
Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress // Public Domain

Botanist and inventor George Washington Carver was born into slavery and died as a scientific advisor to presidents and titans of industry. What happened in between was no less extraordinary.

1. HIS FIRST YEARS OF LIFE WERE TRAUMATIC.

The baby boy born to Mary and Giles, two slaves in the household of Moses and Susan Carver, in the 1860s would see tragedy before he turned two. Raiders entered the Carvers' Missouri farm and abducted Mary, her infant son George, and his sister. The Carvers’ agent searched long and hard and eventually recovered George, but Mary and the little girl were lost.

When the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished, the Carvers decided to adopt George and his brother and raise them as their own.

2. EDUCATION WAS IMPORTANT TO GEORGE FROM THE BEGINNING.

Susan Carver taught George to read. As he got older, she encouraged him to learn all he could. Local schools wouldn’t accept black students, so the teenage boy began traveling from classroom to classroom, exploring new subjects and eventually graduating from high school. It was in one of these schoolrooms that the boy known all his life as “Carver’s George” started calling himself George Carver instead.

3. IT WAS ALSO HARD-WON.

Colleges were as reluctant as primary schools to enroll black students. Initially accepted to Highland College in Kansas, Carver was uninvited once administrators learned of his ancestry. Undaunted, Carver decided to create his own research facility instead. He homesteaded a claim and started collecting geological samples, conducting botany experiments, and studying fine art, all on his own.

4. HIS DETERMINATION PAID OFF.

Carver’s intelligence and accomplishments were undeniable. He was admitted to Simpson College in Iowa to study art and music. His beautiful drawings of plants prompted a teacher to recommend him to the Iowa State Agricultural College. The next year, Carver became Iowa State’s first black student.

Carver thrived in academia, and completed his bachelor’s degree with his thesis, "Plants as Modified by Man," in 1894. Thrilled by the young scientist’s potential, his advisors pushed him to continue, and Carver eventually earned his master’s degree after studying plant pathology and mycology. He established his reputation as a leading botanist while teaching at his alma mater.

5. HE EARNED HIMSELF A PRETTY AWESOME JOB.

Word of Carver’s brilliance and creativity spread. Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), personally invited Carver to lead its agricultural department in 1896. Washington was so determined to snag Carver’s bright mind for his school that he offered a fine lab, a high salary, and a two-room apartment. This didn’t go over well with the other faculty, who had to share rooms, but Washington believed the perks were justified by Carver's accomplishments and degree from a university that didn't usually accept African-Americans.

6. HIS MIND JUST WOULD NOT QUIT.

Detail of a painting of George Washington Carver tending a flowering plant.
Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Carver flourished at Tuskegee. His research, while ground-breaking, was also practical: Carver was always looking for ways to help American farmers get more from their crops. As the boll weevil decimated southern cotton crops, Carver and his students began investigating uses for newer plants like sweet potatoes, soybeans, pecans, and, of course, peanuts. In his tenure at the institute, Carver would invent more than 300 uses for peanuts alone, including chili sauce, shampoo, and glue.

7. HE’S NOT THE PEANUT BUTTER GUY.

Ironically, Carver’s best-known creation wasn’t actually his. The diets of ancient Aztec and Inca peoples included peanuts ground into a paste. Modern peanut butter can be traced back to three inventors: Marcellus Gilmore Edson, who patented peanut paste; John Harvey Kellogg of cereal fame, who created a peanut butter-making process; and Ambrose Straub, who built a peanut butter-making machine. Carver’s efforts did help popularize peanut butter, but he didn’t claim credit.

8. HE WAS APPRECIATED AS A GENIUS IN HIS OWN TIME.

Peanut butter or no, Carver’s expertise was legendary. He advised Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin D. Roosevelt on agricultural concerns, and testified before Congress in support of a peanut import tax. The Crown Prince of Sweden traveled to the U.S. to study under Carver. The scientist even shared his agricultural and nutrition expertise with Mahatma Gandhi.

His innovative mind attracted the admiration and friendship of automotive pioneer Henry Ford. The two thinkers spent several years collaborating, looking for ways to turn plants into power and military equipment. They invented peanut rubber for cannons and made progress toward soybean and peanut substitutes for gasoline.

9. HE STAYED GROUNDED.

Carver never lost sight of what mattered to him most: using his mind to help those in need. He published a long series of easy-to-read bulletins for farmers, providing tips to maximize their yield and creative uses for their crops. He even took the show on the road, driving a wagon through farm country to spread the word about sustainable farming practices that could help poor farmers survive.

10. HIS WORK CHANGED THE WORLD.

Of Carver, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “From oppressive and crippling surroundings, George Washington Carver lifted his searching, creative mind to the ordinary peanut, and found therein extraordinary possibilities for goods and products unthinkable by minds of the past, and left for succeeding generations an inspiring example of how an individual could rise above the paralyzing conditions of circumstance.”

The Science of Tearjerkers: Why We Love It When Movies Make Us Cry

iStock/simonkr
iStock/simonkr

Each year, millions of people pay their hard-earned money to watch movies that will make them cry.

Some plays and novels are famous for drawing out the waterworks (Don’t get us started on Where the Red Fern Grows), but movies seem to have our tear ducts on speed dial. We spoke with experts to learn how weepies get to us, and why audiences find them so appealing.

SEPARATING FICTION FROM REALITY

In the 19th century, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that effective fiction relied on a “willing suspension of disbelief.” That is, in a theatrical scenario, the audience has to juggle two incongruent thoughts: I know these people on the stage are just pretending, but I’m pretending this is real anyway. Coleridge argued that this unspoken contract between artists and audiences makes acting seem believable—and it makes the audience emotionally vulnerable.

Dr. Jeffrey Zacks, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Flicker: Your Brain on Movies, argues that Coleridge had it backward.

“You know it’s just a movie. But large parts of your brain don’t process that distinction,” he writes. “This makes sense because our brains evolved long before movies were invented, and our perceptual systems are honed to deal with the problems posed by the real world. Our brains didn’t evolve to watch movies: Movies evolved to take advantage of the brains we have.”

As Zacks tells Mental Floss, movies engage the algorithms already hardwired in our brains. When our nervous system confronts something in the cinema that looks and sounds real, our brain will respond to it appropriately. It’s the reason “jump scares” in horror movies work: You are experiencing a natural, uncontrolled biological response.

UNCONSCIOUSLY WE ROLL ALONG

These natural bodily responses happen all the time at the cinema—just look at the audience’s faces. According to Zacks, when a character frowns or smiles or laughs, the audience is likely to unconsciously imitate these responses. When a character cries, your own facial muscles might involuntarily copy their expression. The tension can place pressure on your eyes and trigger your tear ducts to well up.

This automatic mimicry response—what Zacks calls the “mirror rule”—is a relic of an old survival mechanism. Millennia ago, if you saw a group of cavemen running, it probably wasn’t a good idea to investigate what they were running from. “Rather, upon seeing others run, running should come first—automatically and immediately—and analyzing the situation should come later,” Dr. Tanya Chartrand and colleagues explain in a chapter of The New Unconscious [PDF].

But because the face is the most noticeable part of the body, it’s the most susceptible to this automatic mimicry response. According to Chartrand, a professor of marketing, psychology, and neuroscience at Duke University, it’s part of everyday life. If you smile at an infant, the baby might smile back; yawn around a friend, and your friend might yawn too; sit at an interview and scratch your forehead, and your interviewer might begin scratching their forehead.

The phenomenon has even been observed to occur at levels that are impossible to detect with the naked eye. In one study published in Psychological Science, researchers showed test subjects pictures of neutral faces. Just before the neutral face appeared, a happy or sad face flashed quickly on the screen. The test subjects failed to consciously detect the happy and sad faces—but their brains did, as shown by the involuntary twitching of their facial muscles.

Good filmmakers have been hijacking this evolutionary quirk for more than a century. “Our imitation of the emotions we see expressed brings vividness and affective tone into our grasping of the [movie’s] action,” psychologist Hugo Münsterberg noted in his 1916 book The Photoplay, which is widely considered the first work of film criticism. “We sympathize with the sufferer and that means that the pain which he expresses becomes our own pain.”

SUPERNORMAL STIMULI

Just because your face might mimic an expression you see on a screen doesn’t automatically mean you’ll feel that specific emotion. It does, however, boost your chances. “Functional MRI studies show that circuits in the emotional brain can be activated by watching emotional expressions on the screen,” Zacks writes.

Movies have a habit of eliciting exaggerated emotional responses. The reason why can be best explained with herring gulls.

In 1947, biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen was observing the eating behaviors of nesting herring gull chicks, which beg for food by pecking at the parent’s beak. Tinbergen performed an experiment, feeding the birds with models that looked less and less like their parents. Surprisingly, Tinbergen discovered that, the more unrealistic the model looked, the more the chicks exaggerated their pecking behavior.

Tinbergen called this response a supernormal stimulus. Put simply, exaggerated patterns can elicit exaggerated responses.

The cinema is designed to assault your senses. Nothing in your evolutionary circuitry has prepared you for an encounter with 30-foot tall faces. The dialogue, the color, the framing, the angles, and the editing can help exaggerate these stimuli even further, amplifying our unconscious responses.

“The combination of stimulus features that a movie presents can often be much more consistent, much stronger, and much more powerful than what we typically experience in the normal range,” Zacks tells Mental Floss.

With the conditions of film priming your body to react emotionally, all you need is for the actors to deliver on that special moment.

THE SECRETS TO A “GOOD CRY”

If you ask somebody why they choose to watch a sad movie, they’ll often say that it improves their mood. This idea, which is known as the tragedy paradox, has baffled thinkers from Aristotle to David Hume: Why would somebody seek out a negative experience to feel better?

Evidence suggests a “good cry” might be therapeutic. A 2008 review published in Current Directions in Psychological Science cited a study that evaluated 3000 crying episodes and found that 60 to 70 percent of people reported feeling better after shedding tears [PDF]. (One third reported no boost in mood. One in 10 claimed to feel worse.)

“When you ask people if they feel better after crying, in general, most people will say they do,” Dr. Lauren Bylsma, a crying expert and assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, tells Mental Floss. “But if you ask them about a specific crying episode, especially the closer you get to that episode, most people say they didn’t feel better after crying.” The more distance we put between ourselves and a specific crying episode, the more likely we might lie to ourselves about how beneficial it really was. (A 2015 study in Motivation and Emotion found that respondents needed 90 minutes for their mood to bounce back after watching tear-jerking film clips.)

Crying is most therapeutic when the crier is surrounded by a strong network of supportive people, Bylsma says. It also tends to be more beneficial when it forces people to reflect on the causes of their emotions. A 2012 study backs that up: Researchers at Ohio State University had 361 college students watch an abridged version of the film Atonement and discovered that the people who found the movie saddest also came away from the experience feeling the happiest, because the movie compelled them to reflect on their own relationships.

Interestingly, the study showed that downward comparisons—selfish thoughts such as “at least my life isn’t that bad”—did not increase a viewer’s pleasure. "Tragedies don't boost life happiness by making viewers think more about themselves,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Silvia Knoblock-Westerwick, told Ohio State News. “They appeal to people because they help them to appreciate their own relationships more."

So for those keeping a checklist, here’s the secret to crying at the movies (and feeling good about it): Pick a heart-tugging film with lots of close-ups. Watch it in a controlled room and on a big screen that exaggerates the stimuli, and invite a handful of supportive friends. Lastly, find characters you can relate to. And bring the popcorn.

Listen to the Eerie Song of Antarctica's Largest Ice Shelf

iStock.com/gyro
iStock.com/gyro

If you ever find yourself on Antarctica's largest ice shelf, you won't hear much besides the whistle of the wind. But there's another sound that rumbles across the frozen plain, and humans have been unable to listen to it until recently.

This audio clip released by the American Geophysical Union was recorded on Antarctica's Ross Ice Shelf—a slab the size of Texas. In a news release, researchers compare the haunting tones to those of a flute or "the pounding of a colossal drum." The sound is actually made by wind shifting massive snow dunes and causing the ice sheet beneath them to vibrate. The frequency is too low to be detected by the naked ear, so the scientists sped up the 2015 recording below about 1200 times.

As the researcher describe in their newly published study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, they discovered the Antarctic song by accident. They installed 34 seismic sensors beneath the Ross Ice Shelf's deep layer of snow in late 2014 in order to track its movements. It didn't take long for them for them to realize that the ice produces a near-constant humming tone that's unrelated to its gradual shift toward the sea.

In addition to sounding cool, the vibrations also convey valuable information about the state of the ice shelf at any given time. The position of the snow dunes and air temperatures at the surface both determine the specific pitch of the glacial tones. By studying which conditions correspond to which pitches, climate scientists can better monitor the stability of the ice—which is essential as more ice chunks break away from the continent each year.

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