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Which Came First: Airplanes or Paper Airplanes?

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What came first, the paper airplane or the real thing? It’s a valid question, but the answer is obvious once you look at history. Paper planes were, in fact, a vital precedent in developing manned flight. That elusive power had captivated people until the Wright Brothers achieved the feat in their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, but the origins of paper planes—and the ambitious curiosity behind flight—go back generations.

Ancient Paper Planes and the Leonardo Factor

Specifics are hazy, and there's some disagreement surrounding who is actually responsible for first folding up a piece of paper and letting it fly. Technically some 2000 years ago the ancient Chinese were the first to invent the paper plane since they also used papyrus paper to invent the kite, but their primitive designs may not have much in common with the paper planes we make today. (Detractors claim these Chinese designs were more akin to simple origami birds that were thrown without the intention of having them fly.)

Others—who point out that the relative and proportional concepts of air resistance and velocity weren’t fully grasped until centuries later—say Leonardo da Vinci and his documented experiments in bringing his failed ornithopter to life make him the creator of the paper plane. Always fascinated by the concept of flight—he even sketched out crude concepts for a parachute and a helicopter—the artist and inventor’s notebooks specifically reference his attempts at building a model plane out of parchment. (Scientific American even named the magazine’s first paper plane contest prize, The Leonardo, after him.)

Gliding Along

A subsequent pioneer in airplane flight (both paper and real) is Sir George Cayley, the man who identified the four primary aerodynamic forces of weight, lift, drag, and thrust. In 1804—just shy of a century before the Wright Brothers’ flight—Cayley built and flew the first successful human-controlled glider based on his observations that the propulsion of the plane should generate thrust and the shape of the wings should create lift, as opposed to the long-held belief that the propulsion force should generate both forward motion and lift, like da Vinci’s failed ornithopter or the wings of a bird. Cayley documented the tests of his ideas using small model gliders made of linen that he flung from the hillside near his home in Yorkshire, England.   

The Wright Stuff

Wikimedia Commons

Wilbur and Orville Wright would also experiment extensively with paper planes while tinkering with their designs for powered flight. They continued to use wind tunnels and small model planes to test out what they came up with, graduating to larger kite models and, eventually, creating the Wright Flyer, the first successful powered aircraft, which was made from spruce wood and fabric.

This practice of starting small with paper designs to refine aerodynamic ideas for larger aircraft would continue on, most notably in the 1930s when Jack Northrop, the co-founder of the Lockheed Corporation, used paper planes for tests that led to the development of many of the planes and bombers that helped the Allied powers win World War II.

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

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
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

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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