New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

15 Glowing Facts About the History of Radiation

New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
New York Tribune via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Strange Glow: The Story of Radiation, written by Georgetown professor of radiation medicine Timothy Jorgensen and released this month, is a fascinating account of how radiation has both helped and harmed our health. While much of the book is concerned with explaining radiation risks so that consumers can better understand them (one takeaway fact: airport scanners expose you to less radiation than waiting in line for them does), it’s also full of intriguing, if occasionally horrifying, facts and anecdotes about the history of the "strange glow" that has transformed our lives.

1. X-RAYS MOVED FROM THE LAB TO THE HOSPITAL IN RECORD TIME.

Montreal resident Toulson Cunning had an unfortunate Christmas Day in 1895: For reasons Jorgensen does not relate, Cunning was shot in the leg. The injury occurred just a few weeks after German professor Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen noticed a faint glow on a fluorescent screen in his lab while experimenting with cathode rays and a glass vacuum tube. Roentgen’s first paper on the subject, “On a New Kind of Rays,” was published in a local journal on December 28, 1895, and was rapidly picked up in the both the scientific and popular press. A professor at McGill University in Montreal soon replicated the experiment, and after hearing about it, Cunning’s doctor asked for an x-ray of his patient's leg. After a 45-minute exposure, the image was still somewhat faint, yet clear enough for surgeons to see the bullet and remove it—thus saving Cunning’s leg from amputation barely six weeks after Roentgen’s discovery. As Jorgensen tells it, “Never before or since has any scientific discovery moved from bench to patient bedside so quickly.”

2. THE STANDARD UNIT OF RADIOACTIVITY IS NAMED FOR ITS ACCIDENTAL DISCOVERER.

Henri Becquerel. Paul Nadar via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Henri Becquerel, his father, and his grandfather were all chairs of the Department of Physics at the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, and all conducted experiments on fluorescence and phosphorescence—you might call it their family obsession. The men had even amassed a vast collection of fluorescent minerals to use in their studies.

Becquerel was intrigued Roentgen’s discovery of x-rays, and wondered if any of the minerals in his collection might emit them. He tried a series of experiments in which he sprinkled flakes of various fluorescent materials onto photographic film wrapped in black paper, leaving them outside in the sun to stimulate the fluorescence. To his surprise, the only one that seemed to expose the film at all—whether there was any sunlight or not—was uranium sulfate, which left a faint impression of its granules. Becquerel soon discovered that this property of uranium didn’t have anything to do with x-rays or even fluorescence: It was uranium’s own special type of radiation. By trying to understand fluorescence, Becquerel had discovered radioactivity. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903, alongside Marie and Pierre Curie, for his discovery, and the standard international unit for measuring radioactivity is today named the becquerel in his honor.

3. POLONIUM IS NAMED FOR MARIE CURIE’S HOMELAND, POLAND.

Marie Curie's notebook containing notes of experiments, etc. on radioactive substances. Image: Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

The Curies eventually outstripped Henri Becquerel when it came to radioactivity research—to start, they were the ones who introduced the term “radioactive." The pair showed that uranium ore contained at least two substances more radioactive than uranium itself, both previously unknown to science—radium, derived from the Latin for ray, and polonium, named for Marie’s native Poland, then under Russian control.

The Curies would go on to work with so much radiation (and make so many key discoveries) that there was a concern after Marie's death from aplastic anemia in 1934 that her skeleton might be radioactive. When tested during a reinterment in 1995, it wasn't, although her papers still are. (Pierre had died much earlier, in 1906, after an accident with a very non-radioactive horse cart.)

4. MANY OF THE PIONEERS OF RADIATION RESEARCH WERE PRETTY CONFUSED.

Many of the earliest discoverers of radiation and radioactivity didn’t have a great understanding of how their discoveries worked. For example, Becquerel believed for a while that radioactivity was a type of fluorescence, while Marie Curie proposed that uranium and similar elements could absorb x-rays and release them later as radioactivity. Even Guglielmo Marconi, awarded the 1909 Nobel Prize for his work on radio waves, “freely admitted, with some embarrassment, that he had no idea how he was able to transmit radio waves across the entire Atlantic Ocean,” according to Jorgensen. Classical physics said that radio waves shouldn’t have been able to go nearly that far; it was only later that scientists understood that radio waves can cross the globe because they bounce off a reflective layer in the upper atmosphere.

5. RADON WAS THE FIRST RADIOACTIVE ISOTOPE LINKED TO CANCER IN HUMANS.

Radon, produced when radium decays, was first proposed as the cause of lung cancer among German miners in 1913. World War I interrupted further study of the subject, however, and the link between radon and cancer was only accepted after a thorough review of 57 studies published up until 1944.

6. THE PUBLIC LEARNED ABOUT THE DANGERS OF RADIOACTIVE SUBSTANCES THANKS TO THE “RADIUM GIRLS.”

"Radium Girls" at work. Wikimedia // Public Domain

In the 1910s, young women in Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois who painted glow-in-the-dark watch dials with radium-laced paint became known as the “Radium Girls.” Perhaps ironically, the wristwatches were specifically marketed to men, who until then had been more likely to wear pocket watches. The glow-in-the-dark dial was popular among soldiers, and thus seen as adding a touch of manliness.

Unfortunately, the women who painted the dials frequently sharpened their paintbrushes by twisting the fibers in their mouths, ingesting small bits of radium as they worked. According to Jorgensen, over the course of a year workers would have consumed about 300 grams of paint. Not surprisingly, the workers began dying of cancer and bone disease, and “radium jaw” became a new type of occupational disease. The watch companies were forced to pay out thousands of dollars in settlements, and the girls began wearing protective gear, including fume hoods and rubber gloves. Sharpening their brushes in their mouths was also banned. But it was too late for some: “By 1927, more than 50 women had died as a direct result of radium paint poisoning," according to NPR.

7. BUT RADIUM WAS STILL SOLD AS A HEALTH TONIC.

Radium ad from 1916. Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Despite the press the Radium Girls received, radium remained on the market as a health-giving tonic. One noted victim was industrialist and amateur golf champion Eben McBurney Byers, who was prescribed Radithor (radium dissolved in water) by his doctor. He proceeded to drink about 1400 bottles of it over the next several years, losing much of his jaw and developing holes in his skull as a result. He died in 1932, about five years after starting his Radithor habit, and now rests at a Pittsburgh cemetery in a lead-lined coffin—reportedly to protect visitors from radiation exposure.

8. THE MANHATTAN PROJECT RAN A SECRET RADIATION BIOLOGY PROGRAM CALLED THE "CHICAGO HEALTH DIVISION."

When the Manhattan Project began in 1939, the effects of radiation on human health still weren't well understood. Staff modeled their protective fume hoods and ventilation systems on the ones used to protect the Radium Girls, but to bolster their knowledge, they also started a new radiation biology research program, code-named the Chicago Health Division. The impetus for the project came from its own physicists, who were concerned about their life expectancy.

9. YOU CAN THANK A RADAR ENGINEER FOR YOUR MICROWAVE.

Raytheon Radarange aboard the NS Savannah nuclear-powered cargo ship, installed circa 1961. Image by Acroterion via Acroterion via Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 3.0

Radar, which often uses microwave signals, was developed in secrecy by several nations in the years before WWII. In the U.S., a secret lab at MIT worked on improving radar deployment, and contracted with a company called Raytheon to produce magnetrons (microwave signal generators) for their labs.

One day, a Raytheon engineer working on the project, Percy Spencer, noticed that a candy bar in his pocket had completely melted while he was working with a radar apparatus. Intrigued, he focused a microwave beam on a raw egg, which exploded. He later realized he could also use the microwaves to make popcorn. It wasn’t long before Raytheon lawyers filed the patent for the first microwave oven, which they called the Radarange.

10. EXPOSED X-RAY FILM HELPED HIROSHIMA SURVIVORS FIGURE OUT THEY'D BEEN HIT WITH AN ATOMIC BOMB.

When the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the populace had no idea what kind of bomb had hit them. Doctors at the Red Cross hospital got their first clue when they realized that all the x-ray film in the facility had been exposed by the radiation. (It would be a week before the public learned the true nature of the weapon that had devastated their city.) With no need for the exposed film, hospital staff used the x-ray envelopes to hold the ashes of cremated victims.

11. HIROSHIMA AND NAGASAKI SURVIVORS HAVE BEEN KEY TO UNDERSTANDING RADIATION’S EFFECT ON HEALTH.

In the months after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945, scientists realized the events provided an important opportunity to study the effects of radiation on human health. President Harry Truman directed the National Academy of Sciences to begin a long-term study of the bomb’s survivors, which became the Life Span Study (LSS). The LSS has been tracking the medical history of 120,000 atomic bomb survivors and control subjects from 1946 up until the present. Jorgensen calls the LSS “the definitive epidemiological study on the effects of radiation on human health.”

Among other results, the LSS has provided an important metric—the lifetime cancer risk per unit dose of ionizing radiation: 0.005% per millisievert. In other words, a person exposed to 20 millisieverts of radiation—the amount in a whole body spiral CT scan, according to Jorgensen—has a 0.1% increased lifetime risk of contracting cancer (20 millisieverts X 0.005% = 0.1%).

12. THE U.S.’S LARGEST NUCLEAR WEAPONS TEST INCLUDED A MAJOR MISTAKE.

The Castle Bravo blast. US Department of Energy via Wikimedia // Public domain

On March 1, 1954, the U.S. conducted its largest-ever nuclear weapons test, code-named Castle Bravo, at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The hydrogen bomb that exploded—nicknamed “Shrimp”—released more than twice the energy scientists had predicted: 15,000 KT of TNT instead of the anticipated 6000 KT. According to Jorgensen, the extra punch was thanks to an error in the calculations of physicists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, who failed to understand that two, not one, of the lithium deuteride isotopes would contribute to the fusion reaction. The mistake, combined with some unreliable winds, produced fallout in a much larger zone than expected. Among other effects, it contaminated a Japanese fishing boat, Lucky Dragon #5, which led to a diplomatic crisis between Japan and the U.S.

13. THE BIKINI ATOLL WAS RESETTLED—TO DISASTROUS EFFECT—THANKS TO A VERY BAD TYPO.

Before the Castle Bravo tests, the inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll were asked to relocate to another nearby atoll for a project that would benefit all of humankind (according to archaeologists, this ended close to 4000 years of habitation on the atoll). The island of Bikini wasn’t resettled until 1969, until what Jorgensen calls a “blue-ribbon panel” estimated that their risk of radioactivity exposure would be low enough to be safe. Sadly, the panel based its advice on a report with a misplaced decimal point, which underestimated the islanders’ coconut consumption a hundredfold.

The problem wasn’t discovered until 1978, when the islanders were evacuated again. Many have suffered from thyroid and other cancers, and the U.S. has paid more than $83 million in personal injury awards to the Marshall Islanders since then; according to Jorgensen, however, millions remain unpaid, and many of the claimants died while waiting for their settlements.

14. A PENNSYLVANIA HOME HAD ONE OF THE HIGHEST RADON CONCENTRATION LEVELS EVER RECORDED.

In 1984, Stanley Watras repeatedly set off the radiation detector alarms at the nuclear power plant where he worked. Investigators eventually realized his work wasn’t the problem, and traced the contamination via his clothes to his home, which was discovered to be sitting on a massive uranium deposit (radon is produced as part of the uranium decay chain). The Watras family house was found to contain about 20 times as much radon gas as a typical uranium mine. The discovery led the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to survey other homes, and to discover that many in America had hazardous levels of radioactive gas.

The Watras family was told they were seven times more likely to die of lung cancer in the next 10 years than the average person, and that their young children might not live until adulthood. The risk proved to be overestimated: 30 years later, none of them have died of lung cancer. The house was later used as an EPA laboratory for radon remediation technologies, and the family was able to move back in. Stanley and his wife still live there, according to Jorgensen.

15. THE RISK OF NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS HAS BEEN DIFFICULT TO ESTIMATE.

In the early 1970s, an MIT professor of nuclear engineering named Norman Rasmussen headed a federal committee charged with determining the risk of a nuclear reactor core accident. The report concluded that the odds of such an accident at a commercial nuclear power plant were 1 in 20,000 per reactor per year.

The Rasmussen report, as it came to be known, is now seen to have severely underestimated the odds. Just four years later, in 1979, the Three Mile Island accident occurred, in which a nuclear reactor partially melted down. Later studies have estimated other odds, but based on data from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Jorgensen estimates that the accident rate is closer to 1 in 1550 operational years. With 430 operational nuclear reactors in the world, Jorgensen writes, we could reasonably expect a significant reactor core accident once every 3 to 4 years—at least based on accident rates in the past.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
17 Things to Know About René Descartes
iStock
iStock

The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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