By Gareth Edwards

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Aztec Dry Cleaning and Fish in Boots

More from the blog that answers your questions about the mysteries of the universe.

candyflossandvodka Is 'Dry-Clean Only' a polite suggestion, or will the world plunge into a swirling vortex of misery and despair if that instruction is not followed?
It’s too early to tell. When in 1874 the immaculately turned-out explorer Ernest Sketchley stumbled across a ruined temple in the heart of the Mexican jungle he made an astonishing find. On the frontispiece of the altar was a beautiful carving of what archeologists believe was an Aztec mohair cardigan. Etched into the stone work above it were a series of mysterious symbols:

Sketchley realized at once that he had stumbled upon the fabled Laundry Of The Gods, but his happiness was short-lived. Eye witness accounts tell how as the great explorer approached the sacred altar his jumper seemed to shrink about him, the colours on his shirt ran, his trousers went all wrinkly and one of his socks became inexplicably lost. He died of what his physician described as a “fatal dishevelment”. News spread and the public were terrified that the curse of the Laundry of the Gods might spread, and  soon across the world clothing manufacturers began to sew the symbols into their wares as a kind of talisman to ward off the anger of the gods, a tradition that continues to this day. While we still do not know the exact meanings of the Aztec inscriptions some believe they carry a stark warning about garment care to future generations. Others believe that if you just chuck everything in the machine at once it will probably all be fine. But dare we run the risk? Dare we?

Clangerfan1 asked: Why aren't there more hedgehogs in the world?
People often like to leave a saucer of milk out for their local hedgehog, but this kind-hearted act can have disastrous consequences for the hedgehog’s unique digestive system. Enzymes in cow’s milk react inside the hedgehog’s stomach to create a kind of inferior cottage cheese and a large quantity of hydrogen. As the hydrogen expands the hedgehog’s density drops and in the cool night air the hedgehog begins to float upwards, faster and faster, gaining in size and buoyancy until on the edge of the ionosphere it explodes in a spiky, cheesy ball of blue flame in the phenomenon we know as a “tiggy burst”.

NanceWhy do people use the adjectives "ice" and "downhill" to describe hockey and skiing? Is hockey on ice and skiing down a hill the norm rather than the exception in sports?
No. Consider the sport of Tennis, which over the years has been popular as Real Tennis, Lawn Tennis, Clay Court Tennis, Table Tennis, Chair Tennis, Shelf Tennis, Fake Tennis, Telephone Tennis, and Horse Tennis. Ice Hockey and Downhill Skiing are merely the modern versions of age old sports and it’s as well to keep the distinctions clear for whenever a new  version of the sport comes along, like Downhill Hockey or Australian Rules Skiing. 

Broken Antler @BrokenAntler Why did the first fish to grow legs decide this was a good idea?
Since time immemorial this is a question that has baffled both scientists and fish. We now know that around 400 million years ago a pair of leg-like limbs first appeared on a coelacanth. We don’t know her name, but let’s call her Sue. Surprisingly, scientists have observed that Sue’s “legs” were unsuitable for walking or swimming and probably made her vulnerable to predators, so it seems likely that Sue was instead using her primitive legs to make some kind of pioneering fashion statement. The fossil record backs up this theory as Sue’s remains were found sporting a pair of bright orange thigh-length platform boots inside the stomach of an early shark. What the other fish thought of all this we can only conjecture, although in the same stratum of Devonian rock other nearby coelacanths appear to be rolling their eyes and tutting. The second fish to grow legs was a lungfish called Julie who went on to colonise the land wearing a pair of sturdy but dull loafers.

If you have enjoyed this blog why not go on to live a long and fulfilling life enriching the lives of those around you with innumerable acts of love and kindness? You could start by asking a question in the comments below…

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Two Years Explaining the Universe

Some Kind of Explanation is two years old today, and already the blog that aims to explain every mystery in the universe has explained 203 of them.  I’ve no idea how many that leaves, but we must be well on the way.  These are some of my favourite explanations of the last two years.

What is the one weird old tip that will help me lose belly fat?
My Great Uncle Emlyn, a keen Methodist, had a job in Smithfield meat market collecting unwanted offcuts to deliver to the tallow chandler. One day while taking some pork trimmings to Walthamstow a strange old man with home-made shoes told him to wager a shilling on Velvet Kipper to place in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Although he had never gambled before Uncle Emlyn felt strangely drawn to enter the bookies to place a bet. He won seventeen shillings and sixpence! However, in his excitement my uncle completely forgot the bag containing twenty-two pounds of belly fat. Exactly the same thing could work for you. Except I suppose we’ve gone decimal, so it won’t.

Is terracotta red, orange, or brown?
No, that’s autumn leaves. Terracotta is a Sardinian dessert made out of milk and clay

Why do Americans drop the “u” when they spell words like neighbour, colour, and humour, but leave it in other words like contour and velour?

The American Declaration of Independence (or as it was known in Britain “Fine, See If We Care”) was followed by immensely difficult years for the newly-formed US government. Up to that point the erstwhile colonies had imported all letters of the alphabet from Britain, but in an attempt to undermine the prestige and name of the newly-formed USA in 1776 the British banned all trans-Atlantic trade in the letter U. The Americans were determined to keep the U in pride of place in their new nation’s name and so made sacrifices elsewhere, salvaging non-essential “u”s from words like “honour”, “harbour” and “elephaunt” (a usage that eventually became adopted back in Britain too) to keep the new national sobriquet intact.  As the blockade continued patriotic mums became “moms” and farmers exchanged their ploughs for plows while ukulele players took up the banjo. Eventually however the masses complained of this hand-to-moth existence, and there was even talk of a second revoltion so that by winter 1789 the Fonding Fathers had to face up to the possibility of becoming a Nited States of America. But as grim preparations were made tomake do without the letter U altogether and George Washington prepared a sombre State of the Onion address a French schooner, L’Ululation, carrying several tons of fresh letter “u”s wrapped in the finest contoured velour broke the British blockade of the ports.  The Americans fell on the vowel-rich cargo and the letter flooded back into the New World. But the years of shortage had left their scars and American spelling was never the same again.

Which is best, Earl Grey or Normal?
It depends. Earl Grey was a British prime minister famous for liking the strong citrus aroma of Bergamot oil, which he added liberally to everything. This worked very well in tea, but history has been less kind to Earl Grey Mashed Potato; Earl Grey Trousers; and the infamous Earl Grey Elephant, which rampaged furiously through both Houses of Parliament dripping with strong-smelling unguent until it was finally put to sleep with a reading from one of Benjamin Disraeli’s early novels. The story of Thomas Normal who amassed a great fortune by not adding Bergamot to a range of every-day products is too well-known to need repeating here.

Are there really people who can’t understand what to do when they approach roundabouts?
Yes. Most people can’t understand what to do and this condition is unaffected by proximity to roundabouts.

Who invented scissors?
Scissors weren’t invented, they were discovered in Massachusetts in 1749 by Jeddadeddadiah Lowell who came across two knives that had been riveted together with a thunder bolt during a mechanical storm (the standard kind of storm before Benjamin Franklin’s invention of the electrical storm two years later). Excited by his discovery he picked up the scissors and ran home to show his family but tripped, and was naturally killed instantly.

How do you pronounce “nougat”?
You don’t pronounce nougat. The N is mute, as in “Damn”. The O is silent, like in the word “people”. The U is not sounded, as in “guide”. The G, like the g in “gnat”, is implied rather than said. And the A is unspoken, like in “aisle”. Nougat is a French word of course, and so as in “chalet” we don’t say the T. This means that nougat is onomatopoeic, since the noise of saying it mimics the sound it makes. This is what linguists call a pronounced silence.

That's all for now, but if you have enjoyed this blog you might also enjoy brownies, the poetry of Edward Thomas, breeding mice for fun and profit, or water-skiing. I simply have no way of telling.