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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
What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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 Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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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