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Are the High Seas a Criminal Paradise?

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Over the last few weeks, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden has applied for political asylum in some two dozen countries. Some nations turned him down for what he says were political reasons and others declined based on technicalities, but at least a few have granted him an invitation. Couldn’t a fugitive like that just kiss all us landlubbers goodbye, though, and live as a free man in international waters instead?

Not unless he’s a cartoon supervillain. Despite what spy novels and action movies would have us believe, international waters (aka trans-boundary waters or the high seas) are not a lawless free-for-all where The Man can’t hassle you over your monkey knife fights. They’re freer than countries’ territorial waters in the sense that no country can claim sovereignty over them, according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but that doesn’t mean that countries can’t apply their laws or jurisdiction to events or people out there.

The Law of the Sea

Under UNCLOS, “every State shall effectively exercise its jurisdiction and control in administrative, technical and social matters over ships flying its flag.” So a fugitive in a ship is still subject to the laws and regulations of whatever country the vessel is registered to.

The United States can also assert jurisdiction in international waters in certain situations by other means. The U.S. Code allows the federal government to exercise “Special Maritime and Territorial Jurisdiction” over…

…any island, rock, or key containing deposits of guano, which may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.

…any place outside the jurisdiction of any nation with respect to an offense by or against a national of the United States.

…to the extent permitted by international law, any foreign vessel during a voyage having a scheduled departure from or arrival in the United States with respect to an offense committed by or against a national of the United States.

International law also generally recognizes a country’s assertion to jurisdiction outside its territory if…

…the offense occurs in one country but has effects on another.

…the offender is a citizen of the prosecuting state.

…the offense threatens the vital interests of the prosecuting state.

…the victim is a citizen of the prosecuting state.

…the offense is universally condemned by the international community (piracy, slave trafficking or terrorism, for examples).

When the President can decide that whatever bat poop–covered rock your hideout is on belongs to the U.S. and then send the law after you, the high seas don’t seem like such a safe bet anymore. Of course, if a fugitive is on a boat flying a foreign flag in international waters, the U.S. might be less likely to violate the jurisdiction of that country to avoid a diplomatic mess. But that’s still not a guarantee for a fugitive’s freedom. The U.S. has a long history of “extraordinary or irregular,” the capture and transfer of criminal fugitives or suspects outside of normal means, and sometimes in violation of international law and foreign sovereignty. If the FBI or CIA will slip into another country to nab someone, they’ll probably get over any qualms they have about storming a foreign boat to do the same.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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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