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What is Animal Magnetism?

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You might have used the term “animal magnetism” to describe the je ne sais quoi that allows only a lucky few people to consistently charm the pants off their audiences, literally or figuratively.

According to the term’s 18th-century inventor, animal magnetism is a very real thing that exists in all of us as a magnetized liquid—one that empowers us, of course, but that can also form dangerous clots that will give your cosmic alignment the spins.

To understand the theory of animal magnetism, its cultural impact, and just how the latter managed to be so big, we’ll start with a quick time-and-space hop to where the pseudoscientific craze really caught on: pre-revolutionary Paris.

THE CITY OF LIGHT, LOVE, AND ANIMAL MAGNETISM

It was the turn of the swingin’ 1770s. The French (in large majority) were suffering under worsening food shortages and a growing financial crisis; Marie Antoinette was spending ever more time fabulously entertaining guests at the Petit Trianon in Versailles (her favorite niche in a palace that employed 10,000 for upkeep); French fashions, architecture, furniture, and writings were taking the continent by tempête.

The curtains were also coming down on the Enlightenment era, much of which found its legs in the cafes, salons, and clubhouses of the French capital. Critic Stephen Jay Gould points out that, when it came to brand new ideas, Paris was “the most 'open' and vibrant capital of Europe” at the time—a city that “[embraced] intellectual ferment of the highest order combined with quackery at its most abject: Voltaire among the fortune tellers; Benjamin Franklin surrounded by astrologers; Antoine Lavoisier amidst the spiritualists."

Enter German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who’d left Vienna (where he’d been in hot water over failing to cure—and likely seducing—a young, blind pianist) and traveled to Paris in 1778 with his distinctive charm, private money, and seemingly innovative ideas in tow.

WHO IS THIS GUY, AND WHY DOES HE WANT ME TO DRINK IRON FILINGS?

Prior to his arrival in Paris, Mesmer had already mostly developed his grand theory, which, “insofar as one can find coherence in his ideas at all,” Gould says, “claimed that a single (and subtle) fluid pervaded the universe, uniting and connecting all bodies." This unifying fluid had different names depending on its context: the planets orbited according to its force in the form of gravity, its manifestation as simple magnetism determined a compass’ course, and, as the fluid that flowed in all living things, it was called “animal magnetism.”

While this “subtle” fluid couldn’t actually be extracted and studied, it was thought to nevertheless affect the human body in a big way. Mesmer argued that blockages in a person’s magnetic flow could cause any number of diseases and conditions, ranging from the physical and the psychological to the simply intangible (many of his disciples also later suggested these blockages were the only cause of illness).

To remedy magnetic imbalances and blockages, Mesmer and subsequent trained practitioners (or “mesmerists”) treated patients in several different ways. In a one-on-one session, Mesmer would locate the magnetic “poles” on a person’s body (something he could do thanks to his own “unusually strong magnetism,” Gould says). He would then touch, hold, or massage the parts of the patient’s body that contained those poles in order to discharge excess energy and/or restore balance—often while staring deeply into her eyes (most of his patients were women, but not all). In some cases, he’d prescribe his patients to drink “magnetized” water that contained iron filings, or pass magnets over their bodies.

He also developed cost-effective group treatments for righting personal magnetic imbalances en masse. In a salon setting, Mesmer would instruct as many as 20 people to each take a thin metal rod from a baquet (or vat) of supposedly magnetized water—sometimes garnished with metal shavings—and pass it over their body’s poles. If the gathering were larger than 20, Gould reports, he’d “loop a rope from those who surrounded the baquet (and held the iron rods) to others in the room [...and] then instruct the roped group to form a ‘mesmeric chain’ by holding a neighbor’s left thumb between their own right thumb and forefinger,” thereby letting magnetic impulses flow through the entire linked group.

Not to be accused of only using his treatment for profit among the wealthy, Mesmer also reportedly “magnetized” a number of trees so that lower-class sufferers of illness could touch them at their leisure and discharge any surplus magnetism.

DID IT WORK?

There are many semi-documented cases (mostly by Mesmer himself) of patients who seemed to recover after receiving mesmeric treatments. However, science-minded individuals at the time and in the centuries since have suggested that any positive effects from his services should be credited not to magnetism but rather to psychological means, i.e. psychosomatic healing through the power of suggestion. Dr. Mesmer certainly seemed to encourage this, using not just his palpable charm but also well-placed mirrors and “music played on the ethereal tones of a glass harmonica, the instrument that Benjamin Franklin had developed," to heighten the effect.

Mesmerism definitely had an observable impact, though. After receiving treatment, some patients (mostly women) would enter a frenzied state, flailing and moaning as their bodies’ animal magnetism levels redistributed. Mesmer encouraged this, and even provided softly furnished “crisis rooms” where guests—delivered there by a team of assistants—could comfortably work through their mesmeric fits. It was this sort of joyous, freeing hysteria brought on by mesmeric treatments that also led a good portion of Mesmer’s many critics to suspect his practice of promoting a very unseemly, unbridled female sexuality that just wouldn’t do (that, and all the knee-cupping).

Ultimately, two commissions appointed by King Louis XVI unequivocally rejected the science of Mesmer’s animal magnetism (with Benjamin Franklin, inventor of the glass harmonica, sternly sitting on the second), and the practice had effectively faded away in France by the end of the decade. The infection had already taken hold, however, and dedicated mesmerists continued touting the benefits of well-managed animal magnetism elsewhere in Europe ‘til the early 1850s.

ONE LAST MAGNETIC DISCHARGE

Gould points out that "wrenching a person from his own time and judging him by modern standards and categories" isn't particularly fair or useful, especially when taking into account the fact that "the lines between science and pseudoscience were not so clearly drawn in Mesmer's time." Due to few records on the German doctor having survived, we just don't know "whether he was a simple charlatan, purveying conscious fakery for fame and profit, or a sincere believer, deluded no less than his patients."

Mesmerism’s also had lasting benefits and worth to scholars in various disciplines as either a forerunner, a counter-balance, or simply a case study; it’s provided food for thought for a wide range of philosophers, historians, and psychologists, and even led to the development of a statistically more useful practice that lives on today: hypnotism.

And if, despite generations of naysayers throughout the sciences, you’re still intrigued enough by the idea to want to try it out, there’s probably no harm in linking thumbs with friends, touching trees, or getting a particularly magnetic pal to massage your knees; stay away from the iron-filing cocktails, though.

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What Happens When You Flush an Airplane Toilet?
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For millions of people, summer means an opportunity to hop on a plane and experience new and exciting sights, cultures, and food. It also means getting packed into a giant commercial aircraft and then wondering if you can make it to your next layover without submitting to the anxiety of using the onboard bathroom.

Roughly the size of an apartment pantry, these narrow facilities barely accommodate your outstretched knees; turbulence can make expelling waste a harrowing nightmare. Once you’ve successfully managed to complete the task and flush, what happens next?

Unlike our home toilets, planes can’t rely on water tanks to create passive suction to draw waste from the bowl. In addition to the expense of hauling hundreds of gallons of water, it’s impractical to leave standing water in an environment that shakes its contents like a snow globe. Originally, planes used an electronic pump system that moved waste along with a deodorizing liquid called Anotec. That method worked, but carrying the Anotec was undesirable for the same reasons as storing water: It raised fuel costs and added weight to the aircraft that could have been allocated for passengers. (Not surprisingly, airlines prefer to transport paying customers over blobs of poop.)

Beginning in the 1980s, planes used a pneumatic vacuum to suck liquids and solids down and away from the fixture. Once you hit the flush button, a valve at the bottom of the toilet opens, allowing the vacuum to siphon the contents out. (A nonstick coating similar to Teflon reduces the odds of any residue.) It travels to a storage tank near the back of the plane at high speeds, ready for ground crews to drain it once the airplane lands. The tank is then flushed out using a disinfectant.

If you’re also curious about timing your bathroom visit to avoid people waiting in line while you void, flight attendants say the best time to go is right after the captain turns off the seat belt sign and before drink service begins.

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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Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from paraskavedekatriaphobia, a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki.

According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Some street addresses also skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

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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