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Do Loose Lips Really Sink Ships?

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In the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s leaks about the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program, I keep hearing people roll out the old World War Two phrase “loose lips sink ships.” How literally, I wonder, are we supposed to take that? Have intelligence leaks ever led directly to the loss of a U.S. naval vessel before?

Maybe. Over the course of our naval history, there have been security breaches. At the same time, there have been ships and boats and lives lost. Most of the time, it’s very hard to draw a straight line from an instance of the former to one of the latter. There’s often correlation, but not clear causation. In one of these cases, the lips that might have sunk the ships were attached to a congressman.

During WWII, concerns about national security were probably higher than ever before in U.S. history, and secrecy was paramount to security and the war effort. Civilians were reminded of this through the “loose lips” posters, and many soldiers serving overseas were issued pamphlets that reminded them that…

Silence means security — If violation of protective measures is serious within written communications it is disastrous in conversations. Protect your conversation as you do your letters, and be even more careful. A harmful letter can be nullified by censorship; loose talk is direct delivery to the enemy.

If you come home during war your lips must remain sealed and your written hand must be guided by self-imposed censorship. This takes guts. Have you got them or do you want your buddies and your country to pay the price for your showing off? You've faced the battle front; it’s little enough to ask you to face this "home front."

If only someone had given a copy of that to Andrew J. May. The Kentucky democrat served in the House of Representatives from 1931 to 1947 and chaired the House Military Affairs Committee during the war. During the summer of 1943, May and other House members visited sites in the Pacific Theater and received briefings on operations and intelligence. Upon his return home, May gave a press conference and shared a little too much of what he learned.

Americans didn’t have to worry about the safety of their submarines, he explained, because the Navy had found that the Japanese were setting their depth charges—a type of anti-submarine explosive—to detonate at shallow enough depths that the subs could avoid them. May’s comments were reprinted in various newspapers, including ones in Hawaii and other Pacific coastal areas where subs were operating.

Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, commander of the U.S. submarine fleet in the Pacific, blamed May’s leak for leading to improved Japanese tactics and American casualties. “I hear Congressman May said the [Japanese] depth charges are not set deep enough,” Lockwood wrote in a letter to another officer. “He would be pleased to know [they] set 'em deeper now." Lockwood estimated that May’s “indiscretion” directly led to the loss of ten subs and 800 seamen.

Lockwood’s accusations and estimates might not be water-tight, though. The Navy’s “Enemy Anti-Submarine Measures” report, a summary of the Pacific fleet’s experience with Japanese anti-sub weapons, makes no mention of a change in depth charge deployment after May’s leak, and says that the Japanese were never able to figure out the full depth capabilities of American subs. Even if the depth charges were set lower, the Japanese still didn’t know how low they had to go before the subs couldn’t maneuver below them. The Naval History Division’s report of submarine losses in the war, meanwhile, does mention the use of depth charges in the attacks leading to the loss of ten subs, but the reports also couldn’t conclude the exact reasons for the loss of each of those subs. The events surrounding some losses were only learned years after the war from enemy reports or other second-hand information, and may not be entirely accurate or definitive.

Representative May, meanwhile, suffered no consequences for his big mouth except some bad press. He was later caught up in scandal, though, and convicted of accepting bribes and using his position to secure contracts and favors for a munitions company. He served nine months in prison and was pardoned by President Truman, but his political career was sunk.

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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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