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11 Leif Erikson Facts for Leif Erikson Day

While most people associate Italian explorer Christopher Columbus with the discovery of the giant landmass that we know today as North America, it’s believed that it was actually Vikings who first landed on the continent. Specifically, 11th-century Norse explorer Leif Erikson has been credited with sailing to Newfoundland and Labrador, along with establishing the first settlements in an area referred to as Vinland, a full 500 years before Columbus even set foot on a ship. 

While not nearly as widely popular as Columbus, Erikson does still get his own holiday to mark his contributions to exploration and, on October 9, the United States officially celebrates Leif Erikson Day by way of observance (it’s not a federal holiday, unlike Columbus Day). The day is celebrated without too much fanfare—no, you won’t be getting off work or school for Leif Erikson Day, and there probably won’t be a parade near you—though it’s been traditionally recognized by the current U.S. President with a proclamation about the holiday that extends praise not just to Erikson, but to the Nordic people and to the very spirit and appreciation of exploration. Erikson might not get the full Columbus treatment, but he was unquestionably an interesting guy (his dad was named “Erik the Red,” just for a start), and we’re happy to celebrate Leif Erikson Day with a ship full of fun facts about the Norse explorer.

1. HIS NAME

While Americans officially celebrate “Leif Erikson Day,” the explorer’s name is spelled differently depending on who is chatting about him and where they are doing it. In Old Norse he’s Leifr Eiríksson, in Icelandic he’s Leifur Eiríksson, in Norwegian he’s Leiv Eiriksson, and Wikipedia calls him Leif Ericson, just to mix things up. Since we’re celebrating Leif Erikson Day, we’ll just stick with “Erikson,” though since the name Erikson is a patronymic and not a family name (he’s literally “Erik’s son”), we really should be referring to him just as Leif.

2. HIS BACKGROUND

Sure, Leif is often referred to as being from Norwegian blood, but he was actually born in Iceland (around 970 CE), and both his father and his grandfather spent some serious time in Norway and eventually Greenland. Leif is also considered a Viking, but perhaps we’ll just call him Norse and be done with it. 

3. WHY OCTOBER 9?

While the actual date of Leif Erikson Day doesn’t have anything personally to do with Leif, it was picked for the holiday because it’s the anniversary of the day that the ship Restauration arrived in New York from Stavanger, Norway, back in 1825. The arrival of the Restauration marked the beginning of organized immigration from Scandinavia to the USA. The holiday was first recognized by Wisconsin in 1930, eventually becoming a nationally observed holiday in 1964.

4. HIS COOL FAMILY

Leif’s family was totally cool and totally wild. He was the son of Erik the Red, a Viking explorer traditionally credited with founding the first settlements in Greenland, but only after he was banished from Iceland for three years (for helping to start a landslide and killing some guys because he was convinced their father had stolen some magical beans that belonged to him, which sounds like the most terrifying fairy tale ever). Erik’s dad (and Leif’s grandfather) was Thorvald Asvaldsson, who was actually banished from Norway for manslaughter, which is what sent young Erik there in the first place. Leif was, thankfully, never banished from anywhere. Way to break from tradition.

5. NOT THE FIRST

The history surrounding Leif’s discovery of Vinland (and North America) is predictably hazy, with a number of people believing that Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see the continent, even if he never actually landed there.

6. LAUNCHING HIS EXPEDITION

One of the many stories about Leif holds that, obviously intrigued by Bjarni’s tales, he bought Bjarni’s ship off of him and set out in the direction of the mysterious new land. He is believed to have first landed on a rocky island he called “Helluland” (which many believe is Baffin Island), before going on to a second stop that he called “Markland” (presumed to be Labrador), and then venturing to his “Vinland” (whose location has been the subject of much debate).

7. BAD OMENS

Erik the Red was set to join Leif on his first North American expedition, but he left the crew after falling off his horse on the way to board the ship. Erik wasn’t injured, but he took the fall as a bad omen—even if it wasn’t one bad enough to get his son to stop his plan.

8. “LEIF THE LUCKY”

Erik’s bad omens aside, Leif and his crew stayed on in Vinland for a winter, and when they made their return to Greenland in the spring, they picked up yet another group of castaways on the way home. Thus, the punchy nickname “Leif the Lucky” was born. Sorry, papa Erik. (Some stories hold that Leif made his rescue on his way back from a second voyage to North America, but that nickname sticks.) 

9. WHERE IS VINLAND?

Good luck with this debate. Some people believe that Vinland is around the Cape Cod area, while others swear it’s in the north of Newfoundland. Still others believe that “Vinland” as a name applies to a wide region, not just one spot. What we do know, however, is that there is a Norse settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland and signs of similar settlements around Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence. While Cape Cod doesn’t have the same evidence to back up strangely persistent beliefs that it was actually the site of Vinland, there is a stone wall in Provincetown that has been attributed to Leif’s younger brother, Thorvald. Nice work, kiddo.

10. RELIGIOUS LIFE

Leif got hip to Christianity after a trip to Norway that resulted in his becoming a bit of a consultant to King Olaf Tryggvason, and he quickly tried to convert his family and friends once he landed back in Greenland. His mother, Thjóðhildr, was so into Leif’s religious awakening that she too became a Christian and even built her own church, called Thjóðhild's Church. Erik wasn’t so keen on the idea, and steadfastly stayed with his Norse paganism. 

11. THORVALD’S ADVENTURES

Despite some claims that Leif returned to Vinland, it’s generally believed he didn’t—but that he sent out younger brother Thorvald instead (perhaps that’s where that stone wall came from). Two years after Leif’s discovery of North America, Thorvald borrowed his ship and set out to see it for himself. For a couple of years, Thorvald and his men explored the coastal areas, until a “skirmish” with Native Americans reportedly ended in Thorvald’s death. He is believed to be the first European to die and be buried in North America, which is a sad distinction, but a distinction nonetheless.

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4 Suspect Historical Theories for Predicting Criminality

When was the last time you looked a stranger in the face and made a snap judgment about how they behave? If you've graduated kindergarten, you know you're not supposed to. But for centuries, scientists and philosophers believed that physical traits corresponded to personality. Even Aristotle thought there was a connection between the book and its cover.

Today, physiognomy—as the study of facial features linked to personality became known—is considered a pseudoscience, but it was the first application of any science at all to criminology. Some argue that it helped pave the way for the development of forensics and tools like psychological profiling; others point out that attempts to link biology to criminal behavior are often deeply problematic, and have been used to justify discrimination against various ethnic and religious groups.

Controversial though they may be, theories linking biology to criminal behavior have not gone away. From skull shape to body types, here are some of the ways we've tried to use what's on the surface to unearth the monsters underneath.

1. PHRENOLOGY

As a young man in late 18th-century Vienna, physician Franz Josef Gall wondered why his classmates were so good at memorization while he struggled. And why did he surpass them in other areas? After noticing that those who were particularly skilled at memorization had prominent eyes, he spent years searching for a biological explanation for differences in mental characteristics. Eventually, he landed on a theory that aimed to explain all human behavior.

Gall based his theory, soon to be known as phrenology, on the notion that the brain was composed of 27 separate “faculties,” or organs, each responsible for a behavioral trait—benevolence, covetousness, arrogance, and wit, just to name a few. He believed that the size of an organ was correlated to its power and that the skull took its shape from the brain. As such, by examining the shape of the skull one could determine personality. Eventually, Gall's followers introduced the idea that people were born with their faculties in balance and were essentially good, but under- or over- development, diseases of, or damage to any of these faculties could cause an imbalance that would lead to a particular behavior.

Phrenology soon took off in Europe and then in North America. It wasn't long until Gall's acolytes were applying his principles to the study of criminality, examining the skulls of criminals for clues about their personality and publishing books and treatises that showed others how to do the same. For phrenologists, crime was a result of an overgrowth or other anomaly in a particular faculty—say, destructiveness.

By attributing behavior to a brain defect, phrenology broke with existing notions of deviant behavior. Pre-Enlightenment theory had held that such behavior was the result of “evil” or supernatural forces. During the Enlightenment, free will reigned supreme, and criminality was seen as an exercise of that will, the only deterrent for which was severe punishment. Phrenology removed free will from the equation. While those with “normal” faculties could commit crimes based on free will and should be punished accordingly, the habitually criminal were not necessarily responsible for their actions—they behaved the way they did because of mental disorder, one which could be addressed and treated. It's no coincidence that phrenologists were among the most vocal opponents of capital and corporal punishment and major proponents of rehabilitation in the middle of the 19th century.

Phrenology declined in popularity in the second half of the 19th century, although it persisted into the 20th century in some areas. For a brief moment, it was the first and most comprehensive scientific approach we had to criminology.

2. DEGENERATION

A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889
A page from Cesare Lombroso's book l'Uomo Delinquente, 1889

Sometimes called the “father of criminology,” Italian physician Cesare Lombroso spent much of his career examining the bodies (both dead and alive) of convicted criminals and the mentally ill. The army doctor and professor of psychiatry was struck by both Darwin's theories and the work of Italian evolutionists during the 1860s, and evolution greatly influenced his later work.

Like Gall, Lombroso experienced a “eureka” moment while making a minute examination of a human head—only in his case, it was the skull of the recently deceased thief and arsonist Giuseppe Villella. Villella had a small indentation at the back of his skull; unusual for a human, but common in some primates. Lombroso noticed the trait in a few other crooks, and theorized that criminals were in fact some evolutionary throwback to primitive humans. He began to argue that deviance was inherited in many of these “born delinquents,” and they could be differentiated from the masses by physical characteristics that he claimed resembled our primate ancestors: large jaws, jug ears, high cheekbones, bloodshot eyes, to name a few attributes. Behavioral traits like idleness and non-biological features like tattoos could also be a sign.

Lombroso ran experiments on prisoners, the insane, and even low-lifes he wrangled from Italian alleyways. He took measurements of their bodies and features and tested their blood pressure, pain resistance, and reaction to other stimuli. Over the years, he established a set of features associated with different types of crime. His theory, known as degeneration, laid the foundation for a systematic approach to crime and even punishment. Like the phrenologists, Lombroso and his acolytes argued against capital punishment for those whose degeneration was not particularly advanced but triggered by an environmental factor—they were to be treated rather than locked up.

While wildly popular during his lifetime (he even argued the merits of his theory with Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy while visiting the writer's home), Lombroso's ideas faded from prominence as sociological theories of crime became more popular at the turn of the 20th century. Besides his emphasis on a scientific approach to criminology, his legacy consists of a museum in Turin stocked with the skulls and other ephemera he collected throughout his career ... along with the good doctor's own head, preserved in a jar.

3. SOMATOTYPES

Body type is blamed for a lot these days—a propensity for obesity, jeans that don't fit quite right. But in the early 20th century, an American psychologist named William Sheldon looked a little deeper.

Sheldon examined some 4000 photographs of college students and distilled their bodies into three categories, or somatotypes: endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs. Endomorphs were soft, round, and put on fat easily; they were also amiable, relaxed, and extroverted. Mesomorphs were hard, muscular, and broad-chested; they were also assertive, aggressive, and insensitive. Finally, ectomorphs were long, narrow, and fragile-looking; they were also more introverted and anxious. Bodies fell into a spectrum defined by the degree to which they exhibited each of these three traits.

In a study of 200 delinquent youths, Sheldon concluded that mesomorphs had the greatest predisposition for impulsive (and thus perhaps criminal) behavior. While his work was criticized for its methodology, Sheldon did attract more than a few students, some of whom modified his theory to include social pressures; for example, it was possible that society treated people with certain physical characteristics a certain way, thereby encouraging delinquency.

4. XYY SYNDROME

XYY syndrome karyotype
An XYY syndrome karyotype

In 1961, a 44-year-old man underwent genetic testing after discovering his child had Down syndrome. The test results surprised his doctor—the man had an extra Y chromosome. Over the following decades, further testing revealed that XYY syndrome, as it became known, was rather common, appearing in men at a rate of 1 in 1000.

In 1965, when a study from a Scottish institution for people with dangerous, violent, or criminal propensities reported a high frequency of XYY syndrome among its population, scientists and the media alike began to wonder if that extra chromosome somehow caused violence and aggression in men. XYY was used as a defense in the trial of a French murderer, and has been brought up in regard to the case of Richard Speck, the student nurse killer of Chicago, though he turned out not to have the extra Y. Books and TV shows featured XYY killers even into the 1990s.

But what does the science say? While men with XYY syndrome tend to be taller, more active, and have a greater chance of having learning or behavioral problems, there's been no evidence showing a decrease in intelligence or a higher propensity for violence or aggression. In fact, most XYY men are unaware of their genetic quirk and blend perfectly well into the rest of the population. While two Dutch studies did show an increase in criminal convictions among XYY men, researchers have posited that this could be explained away based on socioeconomic variables that have also been linked to the chromosome aberrations.

For now, the XYY theory remains just a theory—as well as a convenient plot device.

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Space
Astronauts on the ISS to Teach Christa McAuliffe's Lost Science Lessons
NASA
NASA

Christa McAuliffe was set to become the first private citizen to travel to space when she boarded the Challenger space shuttle on January 28, 1986. That dream was cut tragically short when the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven passengers onboard. Now, 32 years later, part of McAuliffe's mission will finally be realized. As SFGate reports, two NASA astronauts are teaching her lost science lessons in space.

Before she was selected to join the Challenger crew, McAuliffe taught social studies at a Concord, New Hampshire high school. Her astronaut status was awarded as part of NASA's Teacher in Space Project, a program designed to inspire student interest in math, science, and space exploration. McAuliffe was chosen out of an applicant pool of more than 11,000.

Once in orbit, McAuliffe had planned to conduct live and taped lessons in microgravity for her students and the world to see. Though that never happened, she left behind enough notes and practice videos for astronauts to carry through with her legacy 32 years later. On Friday, January 19, astronaut Joe Acaba announced that he and his colleague Ricky Arnold will be sharing her lessons from the International Space Station over the upcoming months. The news was shared during a TV linkup with students at Framingham State University where McAuliffe studied.

McAuliffe's lost lesson plan includes experiments with Newton's laws of motion, bubbles, chromatography, and liquids in space, all of which will be recorded by Acaba and Arnold and shared online through the Challenger Center, a nonprofit promoting space science education.

It will be the first time students will get to see the lessons performed in space, but it won't be the only footage of the lessons available on the internet. Before the doomed Challenger flight, McAuliffe was able to practice her experiments in NASA's famous Vomit Comet. You can watch one of her demonstrations below.

[h/t SFGate]

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