by BD Mitchell
One hundred facts that are interesting but ultimately useless.
A Catalogue of Useless Facts
- introduction -
Whether I'm at work or out with friends, I have a reputation as the person who knows things. Not useful things, mind you; not once has it been profitable to know the reason why dogs have wet noses, or the meaning of the linguistic term "glottal stop", or the difference between a bug and an insect. If anything, all the aimless wandering on Wikipedia keeps me from finishing my other writing projects.
But there is a purpose to this eclectic mishmash of trivia, and it ties into my own major philosophy: stuff is interesting. The world is often rough and depressing, but if I can find one neat little factoid, everything seems a little less meaningless.
And this brings us to the point of this blog. Lately, it feels like my various newsfeeds are full to bursting with anger and bickering. As a generally positive person, I wanted to counteract this in some way -- only I'm not so adept with inspirational quotes or pithy wisdom. What I can offer, though, are useless facts.
Over the past few months, instead of filing these accidental info-bits in some dusty corner of my brain, I've been taking notes. Before long, I had enough for a solid month of trivia. I collected a few more and thought instead I'd do a "Factoid Friday" every week for a year. But I'm a curious person by nature, and can't help but stumble on new things. Maybe I'm eating lunch one day, I suddenly wonder where ketchup comes from, and bam! I learn something new!
So here come the facts. They may be short, or they may be long. They may cover language, biology, history, mythology, or any number of other subjects. Many of you may know some of these, and some of you may know many of these. But hopefully, at least once between now and the time my collection runs dry, you'll be inspired to say, "Huh! That's actually kind of interesting!"
The Littlest Bird
- biology -
The smallest living species of bird is thought to be the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae). An average adult bee hummingbird measures approximately five centimeters (2 in.) in length and around two grams (0.07 oz.) in weight -- for comparison, smaller and lighter than a single saltine cracker.
- etymology / mythology -
The word "cereal" (referring either to the breakfast food made from processed grain, or more broadly to any edible grass seed) derives from Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.
Ceres (equivalent to the Greek goddess Demeter) is said to be responsible for the change of the seasons. In autumn and winter, when her daughter Proserpine (a.k.a. Persephone) is forced to live in the Underworld, Ceres prevents anything from growing in the mortal world. When the pair is reunited for the spring and summer, the blight is lifted and crops are allowed to flourish again.
- history / technology -
Daguerreotypy, the first mainstream method of photography, was originally introduced in 1839. A silver-plated metal sheet was made light-sensitive by a combination of iodine, bromine, and chlorine. The sheet was then exposed to the desired subject through a lense, and further developed with mercury fumes.
Unlike previous methods that demanded exposure times of nearly eight hours, a daguerreotype could be produced in only thirty minutes. The resulting daguerreotype images were fragile, capable of capturing extremely fine details (surpassing the resolution of some modern digital cameras), and even appeared slightly three-dimensional depending on the viewing angle.
- etymology -
The English word "companion" derives from the Late Latin word "compāniō". Based on the roots "com-" ("with") and "panis" ("bread"), it is a Latin translation of an old Germanic term for someone with whom you'd eat a meal. In other words, you would share bread with a companion.
- geography -
At the border of Ontario, Canada is a lake (Lake Huron). On Lake Huron there is an island (Manitoulin Island). On Manitoulin Island there is a lake (Lake Mindemoya). On Lake Mindemoya there is an island (Mindemoya, a.k.a. Treasure Island).
With a land area of more than one hundred acres (about 0.44 square kilometers, roughly the size of Vatican City), Treasure Island is thought to be the largest island-on-a-lake-on-an-island-on-a-lake in the world.
- biology -
While tomatoes are botanically classified as "fruit" (defined as fleshy seed-bearing ovaries of a flowering plant) they also qualify as "culinary vegetables" based on their usage. Bell peppers, pumpkins, zucchini, and eggplants have a similar dual status.
So when you and your friend argue over whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable -- good news! You're both right.
- etymology / history -
The word "calendar" derives from the Latin term "kalendae" (or "calends" in Middle English). In the old Roman calendar, the day of the new moon was known as the calends, and signified the start of a new month. When calendar reform desynchronized the months from the lunar cycle, the calends remained as the first day of each month, regardless of the moon phase.
Several modern languages retain the phrase "Greek calends" based on a Latin expression; the Ancient Greeks didn't observe a calends, so the Greek calends was a day that would never actually arrive. "It will be done on the Greek calends" would be comparable to saying "I'll do it on the 12th of Never."
- linguistics -
Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconeosis -- defined as a lung disease contracted from inhaling volcanic dust -- is frequently listed as the longest word in the English dictionary. Its title is disputed, though, as it was coined in 1935 with the specific intent of creating the longest word, and its usage is mainly limited to examples of long words.
Another disputed term is the full name of the protein titin ("methionyl[...]isoleucine") which clocks in at 189,819 letters. As it is derived from a systematic method of describing chemical compounds instead of standard linguistic use, it is not considered a real English word.
The Vegetarian Spider
- biology -
One species of Central American jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi, has a diet that's ninety-percent vegetarian. It mainly lives off Beltian bodies -- lipid- and protein-rich growths found on the leaves of some types of acacia trees.
This herbivorous lifestyle is not without risks. Most acacia trees have evolved symbiotic relationships with ants, who protect the trees in return for defensible shelter and the edible Beltian bodies. To harvest its meal, B. kiplingi must dodge the ant guards, steal what food it can carry, and dash off to a secluded area to eat in peace.
- etymology / history / technology -
In the early days of sailing, a "log-chip" was a floating wooden device used to measure a ship's speed. The speed (expressed in "knots" due to the knotted log-line), heading, and any other important details were then recorded in the "logbook".
Over time, "logbook" (or simply "log") began to refer to any medium used to record information, whether it be scientific data, financial figures, or personal diaries.
The term "weblog" was first used by internet writer Jorn Barger in 1997. Successive writers shortened the word to "blog".