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How Mao Accidentally Turned Mangoes Into Divine Objects

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Ah, the mango: Sweet, colorful, and juicy. While all these qualities are fine and good, there was a short period of time when an entire nation elevated the humble fruit above mere smoothie fodder and into the rarefied air of sacred object. In the late 1960s, mangoes briefly became the most celebrated and revered symbol of Chairman Mao's munificence to the working class of China, and it all happened because Mao was a re-gifter.

Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly tells the odd tale of the "cult of the mango," which itself came to symbolize the fervent and contentious years during China's Cultural Revolution. After the disastrous and famine-producing Great Leap Forward of the late '50s and early '60s, Mao Zedong and the communist party desperately tried to regroup and win back the hearts and minds of the People's Republic. Their new movement, The Cultural Revolution, began in 1966 and aimed to expel the bourgeois capitalist influence Mao insisted was still corroding China.

Pro-Mao student groups dubbed "Red Guards" — who were egged on by Mao himself — became impassioned to the point of competitiveness. Different Red Guard factions clashed to prove their devotion to the Great Leader and, in 1968, their ferocity boiled over at Qinghua University. According to CW, "two oppositional cadres, the Jinggangshan Corps and the Fours, engaged in what became known as the Hundred Day War, hurling stones, spears, and sulfuric acid at each other in a bitter struggle to prove their obsequiousness to Mao."

Now, Mao loved himself a good display of fervid Mao devotion, but even he thought the Red Guards were going overboard. He ordered 30,000 Beijing factory workers to put an end to the fighting and, after some casualties, they succeeded. This marked the dissolution of the Red Guards, but it also inadvertently put China's great mango craze into motion.

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One week after the commotion at Qinghua University, Mao welcomed Pakistan’s foreign minister Mian Arshad Hussain and his wife. This was a pretty standard meeting between neighbors, and Hussain brought a box of mangoes and gave it to Mao as a gift. At the time, China didn't have many mangoes and Pakistan was swimming in them, so the gesture wasn't exactly anything to write home about. According to scholar Alfreda Murck, “Mao didn’t like fruit. Mangoes are messy, so he would have needed someone to peel and slice them." So Mao did what anyone else would do in that situation: he re-gifted the mangoes. Mao sent the box of fruit, along with a letter of thanks, to the Beijing factory workers who were still stationed at Qinghua University.

Upon receiving the mangoes, the workers were astonished. Here was a box of exotic fruit they had never seen before and, even more amazingly, it was a gift originally intended for Mao himself. He sacrificed his own hunger to honor them, they thought, and the mango became a symbol of Mao's benevolence and appreciation of the working class. The fact that they received this incredible gift after they vanquished student groups did not go unnoticed. It had to have been Mao's way of saying that the working class would be the focus and drive of the new China, not the intelligentsia.

When they were told to get back to work, they split the mangoes up and each of the eight factories that had contributed workers to the Qinghua University clash got one.

The factories tried to preserve their sacred mangoes by bathing them in formaldehyde, encasing them in wax, or sealing them in glass. When a mango began to rot, one factory turned it into a broth and workers lined up to drink a teaspoon and imbibe its power. Wax mangoes started to be given as gifts and prizes to especially deserving workers, and the legend of the mango spread quickly.

Towns would have parades dedicated to the fruit. Not many people knew exactly what a mango was, but when they saw a wax simulacrum being escorted through the streets and wildly revered, they quickly learned that this fruit meant business. Alfreda Murck writes that when a mango celebration came to a small Fulin village a local dentist didn't see what was so special. He exclaimed that it just looked like a sweet potato and, for his insolence, "he was arrested as a counterrevolutionary." The man was found guilty and executed.

In 1968, China’s National Day Parade featured a massive float designed to look like a bowl of mangoes. It was proudly whisked through Tiananmen Square and solidified the fruit as the symbol of the People's Republic's gratitude for and dependence on the working class.

However, mango madness, like the fruit itself, began to rot. People moved on, and after a little more than a year, mangoes lost most of their status. Relics of the mango's importance remain, though, and last year, the Museum Reitberg in Zurich held an exhibition of plastic and wax mangoes and other mango-related tchotchkes from China's brief obsession.

It may have gone overboard, but you were briefly at the top of the food chain, mangoes. Back in the blender with you.

[Further Reading: The Mao Mango Cult of 1968 and the Rise of China's Working Class]

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5 Things You Didn't Know About Sally Ride
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U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are five things you might not know about the astronaut, who passed away five years ago today—on July 23, 2012—at the age of 61.

1. SHE PROVED THERE IS SUCH THING AS A STUPID QUESTION.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN A TENNIS PRO.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. HOME ECONOMICS WAS NOT HER BEST SUBJECT.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. SHE HAD A STRONG TIE TO THE CHALLENGER.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. SHE DIDN'T SELL OUT.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

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Space
Remembering Comet Hale-Bopp's Unlikely Discovery
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Comet Hale-Bopp was a sensation in the mid-1990s. It was visible to the naked eye for 18 months, shattering a nine-month record previously set in 1811. It inspired a doomsday cult, wild late-night radio theories about extraterrestrials, and plenty of actual science. But a year before it became visible to normal observers, two men independently and simultaneously discovered it in a coincidence of astronomical proportions.

On the night of July 22-23, 1995, Alan Hale was engaged in his favorite hobby: looking at comets. It was the first clear night in his area for about 10 days, so he decided to haul out his telescope and see what he could see. In the driveway of his New Mexico home, he set up his Meade DS-16 telescope and located Periodic Comet Clark, a known comet. He planned to wait a few hours and observe another known comet (Periodic Comet d'Arrest) when it came into view. To kill time, he pointed his telescope at M70, a globular cluster in the Sagittarius system.

Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through a starry night sky.
Comet Hale-Bopp streaks through the sky over Merrit Island, Florida, south of Kennedy Space Center.
George Shelton // AFP // Getty Images

Hale was both an amateur astronomer and a professional. His interest in spotting comets was actually the amateur part, thought it would make his name famous. Hale's day jobs included stints at JPL in Pasadena and the Southwest Institute for Space Research in Cloudcroft, New Mexico. But that night, peering at M70, he wrote, "I immediately noticed a fuzzy object in the field that hadn't been there when I had looked at M70 two weeks earlier." He double-checked that he was looking in the right place, and then started to get excited.

In order to verify that the fuzzy object wasn't something astronomers already knew about, Hale consulted his deep-sky catalogues and also ran a computer search using the International Astronomical Union's computer at Harvard University. Convinced that he had found something new, Hale fired off an email very early on the morning of July 23 to the IAU's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, telling them what he had found, along with detailed instructions on how to verify it themselves. Hale also tracked the object as it moved, until it moved out of view. It was definitely a comet, and it was definitely new.

Meanwhile, Tom Bopp was in Arizona, also hunting for comets. At the time, Bopp was working at a construction materials company in Phoenix, but he was also an accomplished amateur astronomer, with decades of experience observing deep-sky objects. That night, Bopp vas visiting the remote Vekol Ranch, 90 miles south of Phoenix, known as a great location for dark-sky viewing. He was with a group of friends, which was important because Bopp didn't actually own a telescope.

The Bopp group looked through their various telescopes, observing all sorts of deep-sky objects late into the night. Bopp's friend Jim Stevens had set up his homemade 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope and made some observations. Stevens finished an observation, then left his telescope to consult a star atlas and figure out what to aim at next. While Stevens was occupied, Bopp peered into Stevens's telescope and saw a fuzzy object enter the field of view, near M70. He called his friends over to have a look.

The Bopp group proceeded to track the fuzzy object for several hours, just as Hale was doing over in New Mexico. By tracking its movement relative to background stars, they (like Hale) concluded that it was a comet. When the comet left his view, Bopp drove to a Western Union and sent a telegram to the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. (For historical perspective, telegrams were extremely outdated in 1995, but technically they were still a thing.)

Brian Marsden at the Central Bureau received Bopp's telegram hours later, after getting a few followup emails from Hale with additional details. Comparing the times of discovery, Marsden realized that the two men had discovered the comet simultaneously. According to NASA, it was the farthest comet ever to be discovered by amateur astronomers—it was 7.15 Astronomical Units (AU) from our sun. That's 665 million miles. Not bad for a pair of amateurs, one using a homemade telescope!

The Central Bureau verified the findings and about 12 hours after the initial discovery, issued IAU Circular 6187, designating it C/1995 O1 Hale-Bopp. The circular read, in part: "All observers note the comet to be diffuse with some condensation and no tail, motion toward the west-northwest."

Four men smile, posing outdoors next to a large telescope at night.
Comet hunters (L to R): David Levy, Dr. Don Yeomans, Dr. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp pose next to a telescope during a public viewing of the Hale-Bopp and Wild-2 comets.
Mike Nelson // AFP // Getty Images

Less than a year later, Comet Hale-Bopp came into plain view, and the rest is history. It was a thousand times brighter than Halley's Comet, which had caused a major stir in its most recent appearance in the 1980s. Comet Hale-Bopp will return, much like Halley's Comet, but it won't be until the year 4385. (And incidentally, it was previously visible circa 2200 BCE.)

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