1999: When American astronaut Dan Barry tried to whistle during a spacewalk, he found he couldn’t. Astronauts’ spacesuits are depressurized, so they can hum, but they can’t whistle.
1998: Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s leading rabbis, pronounced on the vexed theological issue of whether Jews should be allowed to pick their noses on the Sabbath. Nose-picking risks dislodging nasal hairs and is therefore similar to shaving or cutting hair – activities forbidden on the Sabbath – but the rabbi ruled that the habit was harmless and permissible.
Source: The Guardian, 12 January 1998
1997: India mobilised millions of health workers and volunteers at hundreds of thousands of vaccination posts to immunise the country’s children against polio. On 18 January, 127.3 million children were immunised in a single day.
Source: The Lancet, 31 May 1997
1996: The Georgia typeface reputedly got its name from a tabloid headline: “Alien heads found in Georgia”.
1995: Justin Kruger and David Dunning illustrated their article “Unskilled and Unaware of It” with the example of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight with no obvious attempt at disguise. When arrested shortly afterwards, Wheeler expressed surprise that the lemon juice he had rubbed on his face had failed to make him invisible to surveillance cameras. Why lemon juice? Because lemon juice can be used as invisible ink, so, as any fool knows, rubbing it on the skin obviously makes one’s features invisible. In their article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Kruger and Dunning argued that, not only are the McArthur Wheelers of this world incompetent, but their incompetence means that they don’t realize they are incompetent.
Source: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, December 1999
1994: In a free concert on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana beach on New Year’s Eve, Rod Stewart performed before an audience estimated to number 3.5 million.
Source: Rod Stewart, Rod: The Autobiography (2013), pp. 297–8
1993: In a move guaranteed to please the population of Turkmenistan, President Saparmurat Niyazov issued a decree making gas, electricity and water free to all citizens.
Source: Rafis Abazov, Historical Dictionary of Turkmenistan (2005), p. xl
1992: If braininess were measured in terms of number of Nobel Prize winners relative to size of population, Saint Lucia would have a strong claim to be the world’s brainiest country. The Caribbean island, with a population of less than 150,000, celebrated its first Nobel Prize winner, Arthur Lewis, for economics, in 1979, and its second, Derek Walcott, for literature, in 1992.
Source: Guy Ellis, St Lucia: Helen of the West Indies (2006), pp. 1, 2, 8
1991: The Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome for the Mir space station on 18 May. During the 312 days he spent in orbit, communist hardliners staged a short-lived coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the Commonwealth of Independent States was formed, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics officially ceased to exist. When Krikalev returned to Earth on 25 March 1992, he landed in the newly independent state of Kazakhstan.
Source: Brian Harvey, Russia in Space: The Failed Frontier? (2001), pp. 29–32
1990: “I don’t believe all our propaganda about you starving in the West.” The quote, near the end of Robert Carver’s travel book The Accursed Mountains, came from “an intellectual in Leningrad”. “I think you have queues at your shops, like us,” the man said, but “not as long as ours.”
Source: Robert Carver, The Accursed Mountains: Journeys in Albania (1998), p. 330
1989: On Christmas Day, deposed Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were put on trial for genocide, armed attacks against the people, the destruction of buildings and state institutions, and undermining the national economy. The prosecution offered scant evidence, but it was enough to satisfy the military tribunal. In less than an hour the Ceaușescus were found guilty and sentenced to death. The couple were immediately taken outside and shot.
Source: Peter Siani-Davies, The Romanian Revolution of December 1989 (2005), pp. 136–41
1988: For half a century, John Mainstone oversaw the University of Queensland’s pitch drop experiment, in which pitch – the tarry substance used to make boat seams watertight – dripped infinitely slowly from a funnel into a flask. Set up in 1927, the experiment demonstrated that pitch is not a solid, but an extremely viscous liquid.
Although a drop fell from the funnel only once every decade or so, paradoxically, when this happened, it happened in an instant. One weekend in April 1979, aware that a drop was about to fall, Mainstone kept a close watch on the experiment, but nothing happened, so he went home. When he returned on Monday, the drop had fallen. Nine years later, he was determined to witness the next drop, but briefly abandoned his vigil to go for a cup of tea. When he came back, the drop had fallen.
1987: The antiretroviral drug AZT, developed in the 1960s to combat cancer, proved too toxic for its intended use. After years in pharmaceutical limbo, the drug returned to favour in the 1980s when it was found it could treat HIV and AIDS – appropriate, given that it was first isolated from herring sperm.
Source: Barry D. Schoub, AIDS & HIV in Perspective: A Guide to Understanding the Virus and Its Consequences (1999), pp. 177–9
1986: A year after CIA counterintelligence officer Aldrich Ames began betraying secrets to the Soviets, the American spy agency scheduled a lie detector test for him. Although it was only a routine test, it put the wind up Ames.
He got in contact with the KGB and asked them to suggest ways to foil the polygraph. Their advice: “Get a good night’s sleep, and rest, and go into the test rested and relaxed. Be nice to the polygraph examiner, develop a rapport, and be cooperative and try to maintain your calm.”
1985: When his hearing aid started playing up during a White House briefing on the Soviet Union, President Ronald Reagan turned to intelligence official Robert Gates, smiled, and said, “My KGB handler must be trying to reach me.”
Source: Robert M. Gates, From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider’s Story of Five Presidents and How They Won the Cold War (1996), p. 344
1984: Mind your head! In “Injuries due to Falling Coconuts”, Peter Barss calculated that one in 40 trauma admissions to a provincial hospital in southeastern Papua New Guinea was the result of someone getting hit by a falling coconut.
Source: The Journal of Trauma, November 1984
1982: The 26 March issue of The Penguin News included articles on Polish sailors jumping ship in the Falklands (the 11 seamen represented “an increase in the population of the Falklands of over one half of one per-cent”), the construction of six houses in Stanley (“the biggest spate of house building that the capital has seen for many years”), and the horticultural society’s annual vegetable and home produce show (entries were “much more numerous” than the previous year). In fact, rather like a parish magazine, except that other articles expressed unease on a topic of wider importance: Argentine claims to the Falklands. The islanders were right to be apprehensive; a week later Argentine troops invaded the islands, which put an end to all that parochial calm.
1981: Animals can sometimes make humans look really stupid.
In October, a Soviet submarine ran aground on rocks close to the naval base at Karlskrona in southern Sweden. This was undeniable evidence of foreign intrusion into Swedish territorial waters, and it made Swedes jumpy.
For the next decade, unidentified submarines were frequently reported along the country’s coastline.
1980: Under Colombia’s new Legal Code, parents who murdered their daughters, husbands who murdered their wives, and siblings who murdered their sisters could no longer get away with lighter sentences by claiming to have killed in defence of honour.
Source: Las Mujeres en la Historia de Colombia: Tomo 1: Mujeres, Historia y Política, ed. Magdala Velásquez Toro (1995), p. 425
1979: A question that should stump most players of the board game Trivial Pursuit: who invented it?
Answer: the Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott.
Source: The New York Times, 6 June 2010
1978: Breakfast, for the mathematician Kurt Gödel, generally consisted of a single egg, one spoonful of tea, or possibly two, and sometimes a little milk or orange juice. For lunch, he usually ate string beans, but never any meat. In the last months of his life, Gödel’s obsessive fear of poisoning meant that he existed on navel oranges, white bread and soup – though he stopped buying soup when the grocery store put up the price by two cents. At the time of his death, from “malnutrition and inanition” resulting from a “personality disturbance”, Gödel’s weight had dropped to 30 kilograms.
Source: John W. Dawson, Jr., Logical Dilemmas: The Life and Work of Kurt Gödel (1997), pp. 248–53
1977: When his first wife, Elaine, confessed to an affair with another man, Kenneth Tynan caned her – he got a thrill out of caning. One stroke for each letter of his wife’s lover’s name:
Source: Kenneth Tynan, The Diaries of Kenneth Tynan, ed. John Lahr (2002), p. 374
1976: Staff at a crematorium in Solihull were puzzled by a salvo of explosions during the cremation of a body; investigators discovered that batteries in a cardiac pacemaker implanted in the deceased had detonated. It was the first such incident recorded at a British crematorium, although P.J. Morrell, writing in The Practitioner, gave examples of other explosions during cremations caused, in one case, by an aerosol deodorant can inadvertently left inside a coffin and, on another occasion, by a coconut.
Source: The Practitioner, July 1977
1975: Blurry underwater photographs from Loch Ness purported to show the head, elongated neck and body of large animal, and a diamond-shaped fin or flipper. The conservationist Sir Peter Scott, writing in the journal Nature, proposed that the creature be named Nessiteras rhombopteryx – Nessiteras combining the name of the loch with the Greek word teras, meaning “marvel” or “wonder”; and rhombopteryx combining the Greek rhombos, meaning “diamond shape”, and pteryx, meaning “fin” or “wing”. Sceptics quickly pointed out that Nessiteras rhombopteryx was also an anagram of “monster hoax by Sir Peter S”.
Source: New Scientist, 18/25 December 1975
1974: Yellow, orange and red vegetables and fruit are important sources of carotenes, which the human body converts into vitamin A. Carrots (no big surprise) are particularly rich in carotenes.
Basil Brown, a scientific adviser, was so convinced of the vitamin’s benefits – for good vision, healthy skin and a strong immune system – that he drank several litres of carrot juice each day. His excessive consumption eventually killed him.
1973: As a child, I played cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers with the other boys in my home village. When Konrad Lorenz was a child, he and his future wife “used to play at iguanodons in the shrubbery”. Which maybe shows why, even at a young age, he was destined to win a Nobel Prize for scientific studies and I was not.
Source: Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (1988), p. 110
1972: In The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland, Robert Dixon identified four grammatical genders. The first gender included men, the moon, storms, rainbows, boomerangs, kangaroos and possums. Women were in the second gender, lumped together with the sun and stars, bandicoots, platypuses, most birds (since birds were the spirits of dead women) and hairy mary grubs. Trees with edible fruit formed the third gender, and the fourth consisted of parts of the body, the wind, digging sticks, bees and honey, noises, grass, mud and stones.
Source: R.M.W. Dixon, The Dyirbal Language of North Queensland (1972), pp. 306–11
1971: From childhood, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel walked in her sleep. The fashion designer’s somnambulism eventually became so bad that, to stop herself straying at night, she instructed her maid, Céline, and her assistant, Lilou, to tie her down in bed.
Source: Lisa Chaney, Chanel: An Intimate Life (2011), pp. 430–1
1970: Sign of the times: to create the logo for West Germany’s militant Red Army Faction – the initials “RAF”, in white, against a black machine gun and a red five-pointed star – Andreas Baader reputedly enlisted the help of a graphic designer.
Source: Rupert Goldsworthy, Consuming//Terror: Images of the Baader–Meinhof (2010), p. 19