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Could You Really Cry Someone a River?

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“Don't burn any bridges.” “Put a sock in it.” So many figures of speech evoke actions that, while physically possible, are not always good ideas. Others are harder to pin down. We may unsympathetically tell someone to cry us a river, but could they really do it? That’s what students at the University of Leicester decided to find out. They published their results this month in their school’s Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics.

These days, the words “cry me a river” are common parlance. But unlike many idioms, this one has a clear origin: a songwriter named Arthur Hamilton. Hamilton was working on a new tune in the early 1950s and wanted to evoke a certain vibe (bitter), but he needed the right words.

“I had never heard the phrase,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. "I just liked the combination of words … Instead of 'Eat your heart out' or 'I'll get even with you,' it sounded like a good, smart retort to somebody who had hurt your feelings or broken your heart."

At first, the song seemed destined for failure; no fewer than 38 artists refused to record it. But in 1955, jazz-pop singer Julie London took it on, and it took over the charts. Since then, it’s been covered hundreds of times, and the phrase entered the American vocabulary. "Its general use as a put-down phrase has continued to delight and amaze me," Hamilton said. "Whenever my wife and I are watching a film or TV show, and the phrase is used, we laugh and gently punch each other." 

It must have crossed the pond, too, because two students at UL’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Science decided to put it to the test.

Leah Ashley and Robbie Roe started by identifying the shortest river in the world, in order to give their theoretical weepers the best chance of meeting the minimum tear production requirement. That title belongs to Montana’s Roe River, which is just 201 feet long and discharges between 156 and 193 million gallons of water per day. 

By comparison, the average human tear has a volume of 0.0062 milliliters. Ashley and Roe quickly realized that there is no way a single person could cry even the tiniest river. The entire of population of Earth couldn’t even do it, even if we were all really, really upset at the same time.

What about something a little smaller, like an Olympic-size swimming pool? That’s something we might be able to manage. A regulation pool, the authors write, is 50 x 25 x 2 meters, with a capacity of 2,500,000 liters. If each of the roughly 7.4 billion people on this planet cried 55 tears apiece, we could fill up that pool together, in a weird, sad triumph of international cooperation. 

Cheryl Hurkett, the authors’ instructor, was delighted with their paper. “I am always pleased to see my students engaging so enthusiastically with the subject,” she said in a press statement. “I encourage them to be as creative as possible with their subject choices as long as they can back it up with hard scientific facts, theories, and calculations!"

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Big Questions
Why Does Turkey Make You Tired?
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Why do people have such a hard time staying awake after Thanksgiving dinner? Most people blame tryptophan, but that's not really the main culprit. And what is tryptophan, anyway?

Tryptophan is an amino acid that the body uses in the processes of making vitamin B3 and serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep. It can't be produced by our bodies, so we need to get it through our diet. From which foods, exactly? Turkey, of course, but also other meats, chocolate, bananas, mangoes, dairy products, eggs, chickpeas, peanuts, and a slew of other foods. Some of these foods, like cheddar cheese, have more tryptophan per gram than turkey. Tryptophan doesn't have much of an impact unless it's taken on an empty stomach and in an amount larger than what we're getting from our drumstick. So why does turkey get the rap as a one-way ticket to a nap?

The urge to snooze is more the fault of the average Thanksgiving meal and all the food and booze that go with it. Here are a few things that play into the nap factor:

Fats: That turkey skin is delicious, but fats take a lot of energy to digest, so the body redirects blood to the digestive system. Reduced blood flow in the rest of the body means reduced energy.

Alcohol: What Homer Simpson called the cause of—and solution to—all of life's problems is also a central nervous system depressant.

Overeating: Same deal as fats. It takes a lot of energy to digest a big feast (the average Thanksgiving meal contains 3000 calories and 229 grams of fat), so blood is sent to the digestive process system, leaving the brain a little tired.

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
How Are Balloons Chosen for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade?
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The balloons for this year's Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade range from the classics like Charlie Brown to more modern characters who have debuted in the past few years, including The Elf On The Shelf. New to the parade this year are Olaf from Disney's Frozen and Chase from Paw Patrol. But how does the retail giant choose which characters will appear in the lineup?

Balloon characters are chosen in different ways. For example, in 2011, Macy’s requested B. Boy after parade organizers saw the Tim Burton retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. (The company had been adding a series of art balloons to the parade lineup since 2005, which it called the Blue Sky Gallery.) When it comes to commercial balloons, though, it appears to be all about the Benjamins.

First-time balloons cost at least $190,000—this covers admission into the parade and the cost of balloon construction. After the initial year, companies can expect to pay Macy’s about $90,000 to get a character into the parade lineup. If you consider that the balloons are out for only an hour or so, that’s about $1500 a minute.

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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