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How Is the Olympic Flame Lit—and How Does It Stay Lit?

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This evening, billions of people from around the world will tune in to watch the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. From performances by famous Brazilian musicians to the scrapped plans for Gisele Bündchen to be mugged in the name of art, it’s sure to have a different tone from the 2012 opening ceremonies in London. One thing that will remain constant: the traditional lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

The Olympic torch is reignited months before each new cycle of the games in a ceremony in Ancient Olympia, Greece. An actress playing an ancient priestess uses a parabolic mirror and the sun’s rays to set the torch relay in motion (if it's cloudy on the day of the ceremony, they light the torch from a second torch that was lit in the parabolic mirror on a sunny rehearsal day).

Once the flame is reestablished, it’s up to thousands of torchbearers to ensure that it makes it to its final destination safely; this year, 12,000 torchbearers have carried the torch more than 12,000 miles by road and 10,000 by air to make it to Rio de Janeiro. The path from Greece to the Games can even take the torch underwater, as it did at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, when a special underwater flare was employed to send the flame over the Great Barrier Reef.

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The intention is for the flame to stay continuously lit throughout its entire journey, but there's almost always difficulty at some point along the route. One journalist reported that the flame was extinguished at least 44 times on its way to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the Rio relay has already seen its fair share of mishaps as well. On June 20, a jaguar that was part of the relay was shot and killed after it escaped from its handlers and reportedly lunged at a soldier; several days later, a Brazilian man attempted to douse the torch as it passed through his town. Just last week, protestors actually shut down the torch procession in Angra dos Reis, Brazil, stealing it from the torchbearer and extinguishing the flame.

Sometimes it's Mother Nature who extinguishes the torch. In 2013, it had to pass through what amounted to a wind tunnel at the Kremlin, where it fell victim to a particularly persistent gust of wind. It was quickly relit by a security agent’s Zippo. (That’s a no-no, by the way. There’s protocol for relighting the flame, and it involves a backup torch also lit from the original source in Athens—not a random lighter.)

When the flame does go out for good, it will be intentional; the snuffing ceremony on the final day of the Games, August 21, will put the flame to rest until the relay for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics begins in 2017.

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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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