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.
Category archive: 1990s
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
1999: For weeks, the Philippines was rife with rumours of a military plot to unseat the country’s unpopular president, Joseph “Erap” Estrada. When the lights went out in Manila and across much of Luzon on the evening of 10 December, jittery Filipinos thought a coup was under way, until Estrada popped up to show he was still in charge. The electrical blackout had in fact been caused by jellyfish: tons of jellyfish had clogged the cooling water intake of a power plant in Pangasinan.
Source: Lisa-ann Gershwin, Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean (2013), pp. 13–14
1998: After 70 years of getting by on first-name terms, Mongolians resorted to using three names – given name, patronym and clan name. The communist government had banned clan names in the 1920s; Mongolians owed their allegiance to the state, the authorities had said, not to their clan. All change in the post-communist 1990s: Mongolians were instructed to resume using their old clan names or, if they couldn’t remember them, to adopt new names. Many chose Borjigin, the clan name of Genghis Khan.
Source: Ian Jeffries, Mongolia: A Guide to Economic and Political Developments (2007), pp. 19–20
1997: Tom Friedman applied the finishing touches to 1000 Hours of Staring, which consisted of a large sheet of plain white paper that the artist had stared and stared and stared at.
Source: Ian Sansom, Paper: An Elegy (2012), p. 117
1996: An intriguing but ultimately meaningless statistic: “practically every president elected in the United States since 1900 was the taller of the two candidates”. Eighteen of the 25 presidential elections in the 20th century were won by the taller of the two main candidates and five by the shorter. In the other two elections, the main opponents were the same height.
1995: In “Tumbling toast, Murphy’s Law and the fundamental constants”, Robert A.J. Matthews demonstrated mathematically that “toast does indeed have an inherent tendency to land butter-side down”. At the end of his article, Matthews suggested ways to avoid this messy outcome: by swiping at the falling toast, to give it a horizontal as well as a vertical velocity; by reducing toast size to 2.5-centimetre squares; or by breakfasting at 3-metre-high tables.
Source: European Journal of Physics, 1995
1994: Why the sudden appearance, in Japanese backstreets and alleys, of clusters of plastic bottles filled with water?
To ward off unwanted cats. Householders believed the cats would be frightened by their distorted reflections as they walked past. A sort of feline hall of mirrors.
Source: James M. Vardaman, Jr., and Michiko Sasaki Vardaman, Japan from A to Z: Mysteries of Everyday Life Explained (1995), pp. 19–20
1993: During the siege of the compound near Waco, in Texas, occupied by the Branch Davidian religious group, the FBI subjected sect members to the recorded shrieks of dying rabbits.
Source: Garret Keizer, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise (2010), p. 71
1992: The catastrophic collapse of the cod population off the eastern seaboard of Canada forced the government to impose a moratorium on catches.
European sailors who reached Newfoundland at the end of the 15th century found the seas “full of fish which are taken not only with the net but also with a basket”. In 1851, Newfoundland’s display at the Great Exhibition in London dealt solely with the history and manufacture of cod liver oil. Cod sustained the Newfoundland economy, and cod numbers seemed inexhaustible.
1991: Louisiana’s executioner expressed nonchalance about operating the state’s electric chair: “It’s no different to me executing somebody and goin’ to the refrigerator and getting a beer out of it.”
Source: Wilbert Rideau, In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance (2011), p. 220
1990: In 1962, Roald Dahl’s 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, caught measles. The virus can lead in rare cases to measles encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that is sometimes fatal. Olivia was one of those rare cases, and the disease was fatal.
Thirty years later, as his own life drew to a close, the children’s author tenderly remembered his dead daughter and drew inspiration from her. “I am not frightened of falling off my perch,” he said. “If Olivia can do it, so can I.”
Source: Donald Sturrock, Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl (2010), pp. 383–8, 560
1999: The Scottish poet and translator William Auld became the first person to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature for work in Esperanto.
Source: The Daily Telegraph, 22 September 2006
1998: In Hong Kong, a city where the majority of people live in high-rise flats, it was perhaps unsurprising that the most common method of suicide should have been by jumping from a tall building; intentional carbon monoxide poisoning was relatively uncommon. In November, however, a middle-aged woman took her life by sealing herself in a room and burning barbecue charcoal to produce a fug of the deadly gas. The novelty and simplicity of this method attracted widespread media coverage and inspired copycats. Within two months, charcoal-burning had become the third most prevalent means of suicide in Hong Kong.
Source: Psychiatric Services, June 2001
1997: No one wants it to rain on their parade. To make sure that wet weather didn’t spoil Moscow’s 850th anniversary pageant, the city’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, sent up aircraft to seed approaching clouds with silver iodide as a way of encouraging them to shed their rain before they reached the celebrations.
Source: Gavin Pretor-Pinney, The Cloudspotter’s Guide (2006), p. 270
Q: What began life at Stanford University in 1996 as a student research project with the nickname “BackRub”?
A: The Internet search engine Google.
Source: John Battelle, The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture (2005), pp. 72–6
1995: At the beginning of the century, the world land speed record, set by the Belgian racer Camille Jenatzy in 1899 in an electric-powered car, stood at 105.88 km/h. By the end of the century, bicycles were travelling faster than that. Much faster. On 3 October 1995, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, in Utah, the Dutch cyclist Fred Rompelberg, pedalling in the slipstream of a dragster, set a world bicycle speed record of 268.831 km/h.
1993: Deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States: diphtheria, 156 in 1953 and none in 1993; whooping cough, 270 in 1953 and one in 1993; tetanus, 337 in 1953 and 11 in 1993; paralytic polio, 1,450 in 1953 and none in 1993.
1992: The Times of India report on 29 April 1966 that Balasaheb Patloji Thorat, from Maharashtra, had won a lawsuit that had dragged on for centuries was incorrect. The dispute had a long history, but a civil suit had only been filed on 8 April 1964. The lawsuit had lasted just over two years, not 761 years.
Source: The Times of India, 18 February 1992
1991: In the space of 70 years, Azerbaijanis had to cope with three major changes to their alphabet, plus a handful of minor alterations. From 1923, the centuries-old Arabic script was replaced by a Latin script; in 1939, Stalin imposed a Cyrillic script; and in 1991, the newly independent state reverted to a Latin script. Azerbaijanis barely had time to become literate in one before they had to learn another.
Source: Azerbaijan International, Spring 2000
1990: Between the end of the Second World War and 1990 the world’s population soared by almost 3 billion. The medical journal The Lancet illustrated the scale of this increase with an analogy: if an atomic bomb with the killing capacity of the one that obliterated Hiroshima had been dropped every day since 6 August 1945, it would have failed to keep pace with the runaway growth in human numbers.
Source: The Lancet, 15 September 1990