Why Are There Only 28 Days in February?

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Thirty days hath September,
April, June, and November.
All the rest have 31,
Except for February,
Which got the short stick because it's cold and no one likes it.  

Well, something to that effect. Some believe February once boasted 29 days and that Augustus Caesar stole a day so he could add it to August, which was named for him. (If there’s a month named after you, why not milk it?) But that’s a myth. Rather, February has 28 days because, to the Romans, the month was an afterthought. In the 8th century BCE, they used the Calendar of Romulus, a 10-month calendar that kicked the year off in March (with the spring equinox) and ended in December. January and February didn’t even exist:

Martius: 31 days
Aprilius: 30 days
Maius: 31 days
Junius: 30 days
Quintilis: 31 days
Sextilis: 30 days
September: 30 days
October: 31 days
November: 30 days
December: 30 days

Tally up those numbers, and you’ll see a problem—the year is only 304 days long. Back then, winter was a nameless, monthless period that no one cared for much. (Planters and harvesters used the calendar as a timetable. To them, winter was useless and wasn’t worth counting.) So for 61 days out of the year, Romans could ask “What month is it?” and you could correctly answer, “None!”

King Numa Pompilius thought that was stupid. Why have a calendar if you’re going to neglect one-sixth of the year? So in 713 BCE, he lined the calendar up with the year’s 12 lunar cycles—a span of about 355 days—and introduced January and February. The months were added to the end of the calendar, making February the last month of the year.

But no Roman calendar would be complete without some good old-fashioned superstition mixed in! The Romans believed even numbers were unlucky, so Numa tried to make each month odd. But to reach the quota of 355, one month had to be even. February ended up pulling the short stick, probably because it was simply the last month on the list. (Or as Cecil Adams puts it, “If there had to be an unlucky month, better make it a short one.”) Numa’s calendar ended up looking like this:

Martius: 31 days
Aprilius: 29 days
Maius: 31 days
Iunius: 29 days
Quintilis: 31 days
Sextilis: 29 days
September: 29 days
October: 31 days
November: 29 days
December: 29 days
Ianuarius: 29 days
Februarius: 28 days

Of course, a 355-day calendar had its bugs. After a few years went by, the seasons and months would fall out of sync. So to keep things straight, the Romans would occasionally insert a 27-day leap month called Mercedonius. The Romans would erase the last couple days of February and start the leap month on February 24—further evidence no one ever cared much for the month.  

This caused headaches everywhere. The leap month was inconsistent, mainly because Rome’s high priests determined when it would arrive. Not only did they insert Mercedonius haphazardly, but the priests (being politicians) abused the power, using it to extend the terms of friends and trim the terms of enemies. By Julius Caesar’s time, the Roman people had no clue what day it was.

So Caesar nixed the leap month and reformed the calendar again. (To get Rome back on track, the year 46 BCE had to be 445 days long!) Caesar aligned the calendar with the sun and added a few days so that everything added up to 365. February, which by now was at the top of the calendar, kept its 28 days. We can only imagine it’s because Caesar, like everyone before and after him, just wanted it to be March already. 

What Is the Wilhelm Scream?

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What do Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Toy Story, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Anchorman, 22 Jump Street, and more than 200 other films and TV shows have in common? Not much besides the one and only Wilhelm Scream.

The Wilhelm Scream is the holy grail of movie geek sound effects—a throwaway sound bite with inauspicious beginnings that was turned into the best movie in-joke ever when it was revived in the 1970s.

Just what is it? Chances are you’ve heard it before but never really noticed it. The Wilhelm Scream is a stock sound effect that has been used in both the biggest blockbusters and the lowest low-budget movies and television shows for over 60 years, and is usually heard when someone onscreen is shot or falls from a great height.

First used in the 1951 Gary Cooper western Distant Drums, the distinctive yelp began in a scene in which a group of soldiers wade through a swamp, and one of them lets out a piercing scream as an alligator drags him underwater.

As is the case with many movie sound effects, the scream was recorded later in a sound booth with the simple direction to make it sound like “a man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams.” Six screams were performed in one take, and the fifth scream on the recording became the iconic Wilhelm (the others were used for additional screams in other parts of the movie).

Following its debut in 1951, the effect became a regular part of the Warner Bros. sound library and was continually used by the studio’s filmmakers in their movies. Eventually, in the early 1970s, a group of budding sound designers at USC’s film school—including future Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt—recognized that the unique scream kept popping up in numerous films they were watching. They nicknamed it the “Wilhelm Scream” after a character in the first movie they all recognized it from, a 1963 western called The Charge at Feather River, in which a character named Private Wilhelm lets out the pained scream after being shot in the leg by an arrow.

As a joke, the students began slipping the effect into the student films they were working on at the time. After he graduated, Burtt was tapped by fellow USC alum George Lucas to do the sound design on a little film he was making called Star Wars. As a nod to his friends, Burtt put the original sound effect from the Warner Bros. library into the movie, most noticeably when a Stormtrooper is shot by Luke Skywalker and falls into a chasm on the Death Star. Burtt would go on to use the Wilhelm Scream in various scenes in every Star Wars and Indiana Jones movie, causing fans and filmmakers to take notice.

Directors like Peter Jackson and Quentin Tarantino, as well as countless other sound designers, sought out the sound and put it in their movies as a humorous nod to Burtt. They wanted to be in on the joke too, and the Wilhelm Scream began showing up everywhere, making it an unofficial badge of honor. It's become bigger than just a sound effect, and the name “Wilhelm Scream” has been used for everything from a band name, to a beer, to a song title, and more.

But whose voice does the scream itself belong to? Burtt himself did copious amounts of research, as the identity of the screamer was unknown for decades. He eventually found a Warner Bros. call sheet from Distant Drums that listed actors who were scheduled to record additional dialogue after the film was completed. One of the names, and the most likely candidate as the Wilhelm screamer, was an actor and musician named Sheb Wooley, who appeared in classics like High Noon, Giant, and the TV show Rawhide. You may also know him as the musician who sang the popular 1958 novelty song “Purple People Eater.”

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Can You Really Suck the Poison Out of a Snakebite?

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Should you find yourself in a snake-infested area and unlucky enough to get bitten, what’s the best course of action? You might have been taught the old cowboy trick of applying a tourniquet and using a blade to cut the bite wound in order to suck out the poison. It certainly looks dramatic, but does it really work? According to the World Health Organization, approximately 5.4 million people are bitten by snakes each year worldwide, about 81,000 to 138,000 of which are fatal. That’s a lot of deaths that could have been prevented if the remedy were really that simple.

Unfortunately the "cut and suck" method was discredited a few decades ago, when research proved it to be counterproductive. Venom spreads through the victim’s system so quickly, there’s no hope of sucking out a sufficient volume to make any difference. Cutting and sucking the wound only serves to increase the risk of infection and can cause further tissue damage. A tourniquet is also dangerous, as it cuts off the blood flow and leaves the venom concentrated in one area of the body. In worst-case scenarios, it could cost someone a limb.

Nowadays, it's recommended not to touch the wound and seek immediate medical assistance, while trying to remain calm (easier said than done). The Mayo Clinic suggests that the victim remove any tight clothing in the event they start to swell, and to avoid any caffeine or alcohol, which can increase your heart rate, and don't take any drugs or pain relievers. It's also smart to remember what the snake looks like so you can describe it once you receive the proper medical attention.

Venomous species tend to have cat-like elliptical pupils, while non-venomous snakes have round pupils. Another clue is the shape of the bite wound. Venomous snakes generally leave two deep puncture wounds, whereas non-venomous varieties tend to leave a horseshoe-shaped ring of shallow puncture marks. To be on the safe side, do a little research before you go out into the wilderness to see if there are any snake species you should be particularly cautious of in the area.

It’s also worth noting that up to 25 percent of bites from venomous snakes are actually "dry" bites, meaning they contain no venom at all. This is because snakes can control how much venom they release with each bite, so if you look too big to eat, they may well decide not to waste their precious load on you and save it for their next meal instead.

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