Thinkstock
Thinkstock

10 Questions Still Baffling Scientists

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Science has done a terrific job of answering some of the world’s most difficult questions, but certain mysteries still elude researchers. How does gravity work? Can your pet fish really predict an earthquake? Why do we yawn so much? Here’s what we don’t know and how close we are to figuring it out.

1. Why Do We Yawn?

Theories about why we yawn are as common as grumpy toddlers at nap time, but two explanations seem plausible after experimental tests. One is that yawns help cool the brain and optimize its performance. Psychologists at the State University of New York at Albany say it explains why we yawn when we’re drowsy: Like the fan in a computer, the yawn kicks in when our performance starts lagging.

But if yawns are our brains’ way of kick-starting their efficiency, why is yawning contagious? The brain-cooling camp suggests that it’s a way to maintain group vigilance and safety. When a member of a pack yawns, signaling that he is not functioning at his best, the whole group may need to yawn for a collective cognitive boost.

That’s not the only theory floating around, though. Another explanation contends that contagious yawning builds and maintains empathy between yawners. A sympathetic yawn signals an appreciation and understanding of someone else’s condition and subconsciously says, “Me too, buddy.” So which story is the accurate one? Scientists aren’t ready to declare a winner yet—they need a little time to sleep on it.

2. Why Do People Spontaneously Combust?

Here’s what we know: Humans really do spontaneously combust. One of the first people recorded to have gone up in smoke is a poor Italian knight who burst into flames after drinking strong wine in the mid–17th century. The cause of the mysterious fireworks befuddles scientists, but they’re certain that each instance is less spontaneous than it seems. Over centuries, 120 cases of spontaneous human combustion have been reported, but because most of the cases involve smokers, a common hypothesis is that an outside flame is involved. The theory is that a cigarette scorches the skin and breaks it deep enough to force body fat to seep rapidly from the wound into burning clothing; together they act like candle wax and a wick.

It’s far more probable than the competing idea—that methane gases build up in the intestines and are sparked from inside the body by a mix of enzymes. But there’s a problem with testing both theories: Researchers can’t just walk around setting people on fire. They may have found a substitute that will answer the question, though. Pig tissue combusts in a way that’s consistent with the “wick effect,” and samples are far easier to obtain. Who knew bacon would help solve the mystery of one of Spinal Tap’s drummers?

3. Why Do Placebos Work?

When a new drug enters clinical trials, researchers need a control group against which to compare its effects. Members of this group are given what they’re told is the drug but is actually a pill containing no active ingredients, a placebo. Frequently, though, the control subjects feel the drug’s effects. Or at least they say they do. What actually happens to placebo poppers is still unsettled. Some studies have found objectively measured effects that are in line with a real drug’s results. Others have found that the benefits are only subjective; patients said they felt better after taking the placebo, regardless of their actual improvement. This mixed bag of evidence could support any number of explanations. There could be an actual physiological response, Pavlovian conditioning (a patient expects to feel better after medicating), positive feelings from patient-doctor interactions, an unconscious desire to “do well” in a clinical trial, or even a natural improvement in symptoms.

Whatever the cause, pharmaceutical companies are keen to figure out the placebo effect given its potential to throw clinical trials into disarray. Real drugs often can’t compete against the effects of fakers, and about half get scrapped in late-stage trials. For the researchers who’ve spent nearly 10 years trying to bring their drugs to market, that’s a bitter pill to swallow.

4. What Was Life’s Last Universal Common Ancestor?

A whale and a bacterium or an octopus and an orchid don’t seem to have much in common, but deep down they’re all the same. Research reveals that most of life’s tiniest components, like proteins and nucleic acids, are nearly universal. The genetic code is written in the same way across all organisms. A small core of genome sequences is also similar across major branches of life’s family tree. All this suggests that every living thing made of cells can trace its lineage back to one source, a universal common ancestor.

In theory, this idea makes a lot of sense. Getting this ancestor to show up for a paternity test is tougher. Scientists estimate that the last universal common ancestor (LUCA) split into microbes and later eukaryotes (animals, plants, and the like) around 2.9 billion years ago. The fossil record from that era is scant, and by now, the genes that have traveled down the family tree have been lost, swapped, or shuffled around.

But some features of proteins and nucleic acids encoded by these genes—such as their three-dimensional structure—have been preserved throughout time. A survey of these molecular traits offers a glimpse at what the last universal common ancestor might have looked like. Researchers have found that tiny organelles (specialized subparts of cells) as well as their associated enzymes are shared by all major branches of life, meaning that they must have been present in the last universal common ancestor. This and other evidence suggests that the LUCA was as complex as a modern cell—which doesn’t make our forebear all that visually impressive. But on the plus side, until scientists get to the bottom of this question, we can all save money on Father’s Day cards for the granddaddy of all life on Earth.

5. How Does Memory Work?

For a long time, neuroscientists thought a memory was stored in a scattered group of neurons in either the hippocampus or in the neocortex. Last year, researchers at MIT proved that theory for the first time by causing mice to remember or forget an event by activating or deactivating the associated neurons.

It’s an essential piece to the puzzle, but to recall a memory on its own, the brain has to activate the correct assortment of neurons. And how exactly the brain pulls off that trick isn’t fully understood. Studies on rodents and brain imaging in people suggests that some of the same neurons that the original experience affected are involved. In other words, remembering something may not just be a matter of grabbing it from its storage space but re-forming the memory each time it’s pulled out.

6. Can Animals Really Predict Earthquakes?

The idea that our furry and feathered friends could warn us about impending doom is a nice one, but it’s been hard for scientists to prove. Pet owners have noted how their animals acted funny just before an earthquake since the days of ancient Greece. There’s no shortage of reports, but almost every one is anecdotal, based on opinions of what’s “normal” and “funny” for an animal. And the stories are generally reported long after the fact.

It’s not out of the question that animals may sense and react to some environmental change that we don’t notice—anything from seismic waves to changes in electric or magnetic fields. However, it’s not clear that earthquakes even produce such precursors. Plus, whatever the proposed cause, it’s nearly impossible to test. If we can’t predict earthquakes, we don’t know when to observe animals, and it’s even more difficult for researchers trying to reproduce the experiment later. The few “lucky” cases where quakes happened during animal experiments provide conflicting evidence. If you’re going to rely on a cat for earthquake advice, consult one with a degree in seismology.

7. How Do Organs Know When to Stop Growing?

Every mammal starts out as a single cell before growing into trillions of them. Usually, there’s tight control over the number and size of cells, tissue, and organs, but sometimes things go very wrong, resulting in anything from cancer to a leg that’s larger than its partner. So what’s sending the “stop growing” signal?

Four proteins that make up the core of what’s known as the Salvador-Warts-Hippo signaling pathway appear to help regulate growth for a number of organs. Shutoff signals sent down the pathway deactivate the protein that promotes growth, but that’s where scientists’ knowledge stops. Where these signals originate and which other elements are affecting SWH is unknown. Scientists continue to learn how to manipulate the pathway, discovering new triggers and working their way to the source, but there are still a lot of mysteries—including how we may be able to “turn off” cancer.

8. Are There Human Pheromones?

Can you actually smell someone’s fear? Or sniff out a rat? Plenty of animals communicate with chemical signals called pheromones, but whether humans are part of that club is a contentious issue. There’s some evidence of people making behavioral and physical changes in response to chemosignals, but scientists haven’t been able to figure out which chemicals trigger these responses. And despite what the labels on pheromone-infused colognes and hair gels will tell you, no compound has been identified as a human pheromone or linked to a specific response.

Moreover, if people are giving off pheromones, scientists aren’t sure how others are detecting them. Many mammals and reptiles have what’s known as a vomeronasal organ that detects pheromones. While some human noses contain the tiny organ, it may not be functional; sensory neurons have little or no connection with the nervous system. So for now, the answer to this question remains “maybe.” And that uncertainty truly stinks.

9. What’s the Deal With Gravity?

Of the four fundamental forces of nature, gravity is the runt of the litter. It holds the universe together, but it’s weaker than its three siblings: electromagnetism, weak nuclear forces, and strong nuclear forces. How much punier is it? The next step up, weak nuclear, is 10^26 (100,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000) times stronger. Gravity’s relatively feeble pull makes it hard to demonstrate with small objects in the lab.

Gravity doesn’t play well with the other forces either. Try as they might, scientists can’t use quantum theory and general relativity to explain gravity on small scales. And this incompatibility leaves us short of physicists’ grandest goal: a unified theory of everything.

Worse still, scientists can’t even figure out what gravity is made of. The other fundamental forces are all associated with particles that help carry them, but no one’s been able to detect the gravitational particle—the hypothetical graviton—even with the most super of supercolliders! And while some scientists are frustrated by its elusive nature, others know it’s just gravity’s way—the force has a reputation for bringing us down.

10. How Many Species Are There?

Taxonomists have been finding, naming, and describing species in an organized manner for more than 200 years, and they’re probably nowhere close to being finished. It’s not that they’re slacking off on the job either. In the last decade alone, scientists have reported more than 16,000 new species per year; in total, they’ve cataloged 1.2 million. It’s anybody’s guess how many are left undiscovered, though. Going out and finding every single species would take the 300,000 working taxonomists a lifetime, so they have to make educated guesses.

Making these kinds of extrapolations presents serious logistical hurdles. Biodiversity hotspots often fall in developing countries, which suffer from a shortage of taxonomists. Furthermore, up to 80 percent of the planet’s life may be hiding out in hard-to-reach places under the sea.

Given these troubles, it’s no wonder there’s a wide variance in expert guesses of how many species are left undiscovered. The most recent ballpark figures place the number between five and 15 million species, which makes the odds of someone discovering a unicorn just slightly better than we’d even dared to dream.

This story originally appeared in mental_floss magazine.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Images: iStock
arrow
Words
25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites
Images: iStock
Images: iStock

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
Lists
12 Facts About James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

June 16, 1904 is the day that James Joyce, the Irish author of Modernist masterpieces like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and who was described as “a curious mixture of sinister genius and uncertain talent,” set his seminal work, Ulysses. It also thought to be the day that he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

He was as mythical as the myths he used as the foundations for his own work. So in honor of that June day in 1904—known to fans worldwide as “Bloomsday,” after one of the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom—here are 12 facts about James Joyce.

1. HE WAS ONLY 9 WHEN HIS FIRST PIECE OF WRITING WAS PUBLISHED.

In 1891, shortly after he had to leave Clongowes Wood College when his father lost his job, 9-year-old Joyce wrote a poem called “Et Tu Healy?” It was published by his father John and distributed to friends; the elder Joyce thought so highly of it, he allegedly sent copies to the Pope.

No known complete copies of the poem exist, but the precocious student’s verse allegedly denounced a politician named Tim Healy for abandoning 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell after a sex scandal. Fragments of the ending of the poem, later remembered by James’s brother Stanislaus, showed Parnell looking down on Irish politicians:

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more

While the poem was seemingly quaint, young Joyce equating Healy as Brutus and Parnell as Caesar marked the first time he’d use old archetypes in a modern context, much in the same way Ulysses is a unique retelling of The Odyssey.

As an adult, Joyce would publish his first book, a collection of poems called Chamber Music, in 1907. It was followed by Dubliners, a collection of short stories, in 1914, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in which Clongowes Wood College is prominently featured) in 1916.

2. HE CAUSED A CONTROVERSY AT HIS COLLEGE’S PAPER.

While attending University College Dublin, Joyce attempted to publish a negative review—titled “The Day of the Rabblement”—of a new local playhouse called the Irish Literary Theatre in the school’s paper, St. Stephen’s. Joyce’s condemnation of the theater’s “parochialism” was allegedly so scathing that the paper’s editors, after seeking consultation from one of the school’s priests, refused to print it.

Incensed about possible censorship, Joyce appealed to the school’s president, who sided with the editors—which prompted Joyce to put up his own money to publish 85 copies to be distributed across campus.

The pamphlet, published alongside a friend’s essay to beef up the page-count, came with the preface: “These two essays were commissioned by the editor of St. Stephen’s for that paper, but were subsequently refused insertion by the censor.” It wouldn’t be the last time Joyce would fight censorship.

3. NORA BARNACLE GHOSTED HIM FOR THEIR PLANNED FIRST DATE.

By the time Nora Barnacle and Joyce finally married in 1931, they had lived together for 27 years, traveled the continent and had two children. The couple first met in Dublin in 1904 when Joyce struck up a conversation with her near the hotel where Nora worked as a chambermaid. She initially mistook him for a Swedish sailor because of his blue eyes and the yachting cap he wore that day, and he charmed her so much that they set a date for June 14—but she didn’t show.

He then wrote her a letter, saying, “I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This led to their first date, which supposedly took place on June 16, 1904.

She would continue to be his muse throughout their life together in both his published work (the character Molly Bloom in Ulysses is based on her) and their fruitful personal correspondence. Their notably dirty love letters to each other—featuring him saying their love-making reminded him of “a hog riding a sow” and signing off one by saying “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty littlef**kbird!"—have highlighted the NSFW nature of their relationship. In fact, one of Joyce’s signed erotic letters to Nora fetched a record £240,800 ($446,422) at a London auction in 2004.

4. HE HAD REALLY BAD EYES.

While Joyce’s persistent money problems caused him to lead a life of what could be categorized as creative discomfort, he had to deal with a near lifetime of medical discomfort as well. Joyce suffered from anterior uveitis, which led to a series of around 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime. (Due to the relatively unsophisticated state of ophthalmology at the time, and his decision not to listen to contemporary medical advice, scholars speculate that his iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts could have been caused by sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or any number of congenital problems.) His vision issues caused Joyce to wear an eye patch for years and forced him to do his writing on large white sheets of paper using only red crayon. The persistent eye struggles even inspired him to name his daughter Lucia, after St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind.

5. HE TAUGHT ENGLISH AT A BERLITZ LANGUAGE SCHOOL.

In 1904, Joyce—eager to get out of Ireland—responded to an ad for a teaching position in Europe. Evelyn Gilford, a job agent based in the British town of Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, notified Joyce that a job was reserved for him and, for two guineas, he would be told exactly where the position was. Joyce sent the money, and by the end of 1904, he and his future wife, Nora, had left Dublin for the job at a Berlitz language school in Zurich, Switzerland—but when they got there, the pair learned there was no open position. But they did hear a position was open at a Berlitz school in Trieste, Italy. The pair packed up and moved on to Italy only to find out they’d been swindled again.

Joyce eventually found a Berlitz teaching job in Pola in Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). English was one of 17 languages Joyce could speak; others included Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Italian (which eventually became his preferred language, and one that he exclusively spoke at home with his family). He also loved playwright Henrik Ibsen so much that he learned Norwegian so that he could read Ibsen's works in their original form—and send the writer a fan letter in his native tongue.

6. HE INVESTED IN A MOVIE THEATER.

There are about 400 movie theaters in Ireland today, but they trace their history back to 1909, when Joyce helped open the Volta Cinematograph, which is considered “the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema” in Ireland.

More a money-making scheme than a product of a love of cinema, Joyce first got the idea when he was having trouble getting Dubliners published and noticed the abundance of cinemas while living in Trieste. When his sister, Eva, told him Ireland didn’t have any movie theaters, Joyce joined up with four Italian investors (he’d get 10 percent of the profits) to open up the Volta on Dublin’s Mary Street.

The venture fizzled as quickly as Joyce’s involvement. After not attracting audiences due to mostly showing only Italian and European movies unpopular with everyday Dubliners, Joyce cut his losses and pulled out of the venture after only seven months.

The cinema itself didn’t close until 1919, during the time Joyce was hard at work on Ulysses. (It reopened with a different name in 1921 and didn’t fully close until 1948.)

7. HE TURNED TO A COMPLETELY INEXPERIENCED PUBLISHER TO RELEASE HIS MOST WELL-KNOWN BOOK.

The publishing history of Ulysses is itself its own odyssey. Joyce began writing the work in 1914, and by 1918 he had begun serializing the novel in the American magazine Little Review with the help of poet Ezra Pound.

But by 1921, Little Review was in financial trouble. The published version of Episode 13 of Ulysses, “Nausicaa,” resulted in a costly obscenity lawsuit against its publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and the book was banned in the United States. Joyce appealed to different publishers for help—including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—but none agreed to take on a project with such legal implications (and in Virginia Woolf’s case, length), no matter how supposedly groundbreaking it was.

Joyce, then based in Paris, made friends with Sylvia Beach, whose bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a gathering hub for the post-war expatriate creative community. In her autobiography, Beach wrote:

All hope of publication in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone. And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked : “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?”

He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I. ... Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

Beach planned a first edition of 1000 copies (with 100 signed by the author), while the book would continue to be banned in a number of countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1933 after the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses deemed the book not obscene and allowed it in the United States.

8. ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS HIS DRINKING BUDDY—AND SOMETIMES HIS BODYGUARD.

Ernest Hemingway—who was major champion of Ulysses—met Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, and was later a frequent companion among the bars of Paris with writers like Wyndham Lewis and Valery Larbaud.

Hemingway recalled the Irish writer would start to get into drunken fights and leave Hemingway to deal with the consequences. "Once, in one of those casual conversations you have when you're drinking," Hemingway said, "Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. He was afraid of some things, lightning and things, but a wonderful man. He was under great discipline—his wife, his work and his bad eyes. His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban--'Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.' We would go out to drink and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn't even see the man so he'd say, 'Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'"

9. HE MET ANOTHER MODERNIST TITAN—AND HAD A TERRIBLE TIME.

Marcel Proust’s gargantuan, seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is perhaps the other most important Modernist work of the early 20th century besides Ulysses. In May 1922, the authors met at a party for composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. The Dubliners author arrived late, was drunk, and wasn’t wearing formal clothes because he was too poor to afford them. Proust arrived even later than Joyce, and though there are varying accounts of what was actually said between the two, every known version points to a very anticlimactic meeting of the minds.

According to author William Carlos Williams, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible,” to which the ailing Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.”

Publisher Margaret Anderson claimed that Proust admitted, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work,” while Joyce replied, “I have never read Mr. Proust.”

Art reviewer Arthur Power said both writers simply talked about liking truffles. Joyce later told painter Frank Budgen, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’”

10. HE CREATED A 100-LETTER WORD TO DESCRIBE HIS FEAR OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING.

Joyce had a childhood fear of thunder and lightning, which sprang from his Catholic governess’s pious warnings that such meteorological occurrences were actually God manifesting his anger at him. The fear haunted the writer all his life, though Joyce recognized the beginnings of his phobia. When asked by a friend why he was so afraid of rough weather, Joyce responded, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

The fear also manifested itself in Joyce’s writing. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus says he fears “dogs, horses, firearms, the sea, thunderstorms, [and] machinery.”

But the most fascinating manifestation of his astraphobia is in his stream of consciousness swan song, Finnegans Wake, where he created the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtaka-mminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to represent a symbolic biblical thunderclap. The mouthful is actually made up of different words for “thunder” in French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Greek (bronte), and Japanese (kaminari).

11. HE’S THOUGHT OF AS A LITERARY GENIUS, BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN.

Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf didn't much care for Joyce or his work. She compared his writing to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples," and said that "one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely."

She wasn't the only one. In a letter, D.H. Lawrence—who wrote such classics as Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Loversaid of Joyce: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

“Do I get much pleasure from this work? No," author H.G. Wells wrote in his review of Finnegans Wake. “ ... Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Even his partner Nora had a difficult time with his work, saying after the publication of Ulysses, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”

12. HIS SUPPOSED FINAL WORDS WERE AS ABSTRACT AS HIS WRITING.

Joyce was admitted to a Zurich hospital in January 1941 for a perforated duodenal ulcer, but slipped into a coma after surgery and died on January 13. His last words were befitting his notoriously difficult works—they're said to have been, "Does nobody understand?"

Additional Source: James Joyce

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios