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What is the Most Complex Chinese Character?

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Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

Chinese characters are made up of strokes. Learning to write them involves not only learning where all the strokes go, but also the order in which they are supposed to be written and the direction of each individual stroke (left to right, up to down, etc.) The simplest character is (one), a single stroke written from left to right. The most complex character, biáng (above), is made up of 57 strokes.

This character occurs in the written form of biángbiáng miàn, or biangbiang noodles, a dish of wide, flat noodles popular in the Chinese province of Shaanxi.

The status of biáng as most complex requires a bit of qualification. The character is not found in dictionaries, and its origin appears to be whimsical: biáng is not a syllable in Standard Mandarin but an onomatopoeia for the sound of noodles slapping on the table as they are being made, or for the lip-smacking sound of people contentedly munching on them. There are different theories about how the character came to be, but the most plausible one is that the owner of a noodle shop made it up.

If obscure or little-used characters count, then one could make a case for zhé, an obsolete character of 64 strokes, that, appropriately enough, meant "verbose."

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

This character however, is just one single character (for long or "dragon") written four times. Biáng contains within it the characters for speak, horse, grow, moon, heart, knife, eight, roof, and walk, plus a few extra strokes, so though it might have fewer strokes, it has a lot more complexity.

For characters that do appear in modern dictionaries, the complexity winner seems to be nàng, a 36-stroke character referring to the sound your voice makes through a stuffed up nose.

Wikimedia Commons/Erin McCarthy

Biáng though, deserves to get the credit for its complexity. Though it is a highly atypical Chinese character, a case can be made for it being most "Chinese" of Chinese characters. As expert Sinologist Victor Mair says in this post at Language Log, "For me, biáng symbolizes the difficulty of accommodating the full fecundity of folk, popular, and local/regional cultures and languages within the bounds of the standard writing system, which enshrines the elite, high culture, and now also the bourgeois, urban, national culture. In other words, biáng is well-nigh bursting at the sides of the scriptal and phonetic boxes within which it is constrained."

Biáng. A local comfort food wrapped up, with a wink, in the ribbons of a 5000 year old writing tradition. A lip-smacking, calligraphical good time.

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Big Questions
Why Is Soda Measured in Liters?
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Never a nation to fall in line, America is one of the few countries to resist the metric system. We stubbornly measure distance in miles and weight in pounds. So what’s with those two-liter bottles of soda?

First, a clarification: Soda is far from the only substance we measure in metric units. Heck, it’s not even the only beverage. Wine, liquor, and bottled water are sold by the milliliter. The healthcare field is all about metric units, too, from cholesterol levels to prescription, over-the-counter, and supplement dosages. We run 5-kilometer races, ride on 215-millimeter tires, and use 8-millimeter cameras, or at least we used to.

In most other things, we determinedly cling to our imperial measurements. Attempts to convince Americans to join the rest of the metric-measuring world have been met with great resistance.

Ken Butcher of the National Institute of Science and Technology has been working with the government’s tiny Metric Program for years. Speaking to Mental Floss back in 2013, Butcher explained that we’re so entrenched in our way of doing things that switching measurement systems now would be both chaotic and expensive.

"If we were going to start a new country all with the metric system, it would be easy," he said. "But when you have to go in and change almost everything that touches people’s everyday life and their physical and mental experience, their education, and then you take that away from them—it can be scary."

Here and there, though, when it’s convenient, we have been willing to budge. The soda bottle is a good example. Until 1970, all soft drinks in the U.S. were sold in fluid ounces and gallons, mostly in glass bottles. Then the plastic polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle came along, and soft drink makers decided it was time for a product redesign.

The redesign process coincided with two key factors: a short-lived wave of government interest in going metric, and the burgeoning environmental movement.

The folks at PepsiCo decided to meld all three into its exciting new vessel: a lightweight, cheap, recyclable, metric bottle, with built-in fins so it could stand up on supermarket shelves. Two liters: the soda size of the future.

The two-liter bottle took off. The rest of the soft drink world had no choice but to get on board. And voila: liters of cola for all.

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
Where Is the Hottest Place on Earth?
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The summer of 2017 will go down as an endurance test of sorts for the people of Phoenix, Arizona. The National Weather Service issued an extreme heat warning, and planes were grounded as a result of temperatures exceeding 120 degrees. (Heat affects air density, which in turn affects a plane’s lift.)

Despite those dire measures, Phoenix is not the hottest place on Earth. And it’s not even close.

That dubious honor was bestowed on the Lut Desert in Iran in 2005, when land temperatures were recorded at a staggering 159.3 degrees Fahrenheit. The remote area was off the grid—literally—for many years until satellites began to measure temperatures in areas that were either not well trafficked on foot or not measured with the proper instruments. Lut also measured record temperatures in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2009.

Before satellites registered Lut as a contender, one of the hottest areas on Earth was thought to be El Azizia, Libya, where a 1922 measurement of 136 degrees stood as a record for decades. (Winds blowing from the nearby Sahara Desert contributed to the oppressive heat.)

While the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) acknowledged this reading as the hottest on record for years, they later declared that instrumentation problems and other concerns led to new doubts about the accuracy.

Naturally, declaring the hottest place on Earth might be about more than just a single isolated reading. If it’s consistency we’re after, then the appropriately-named Death Valley in California, where temperatures are consistently 90 degrees or above for roughly half the year and at least 100 degrees for 140 days annually, has to be a contender. A blistering temperature of 134 degrees was recorded there in 1913.

Both Death Valley and Libya were measured using air temperature readings, while Lut was taken from a land reading, making all three pretty valid contenders. These are not urban areas, and paving the hottest place on Earth with sidewalks would be a very, very bad idea. Temperatures as low as 95 degrees can cause blacktop and pavement to reach skin-scorching temperatures of 141 degrees.

There are always additional factors to consider beyond a temperature number, however. In 2015, Bandar Mahshahr in Iran recorded temperatures of 115 degrees but a heat index—what it feels like outside when accounting for significant humidity—of an astounding 163 degrees. That thought might be one of the few things able to cool Phoenix residents off.

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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