Monday, May 25, 2009

10 Mini Mysteries

10 Mini Mysteries


1. Why is Friday the 13th unlucky?

The number 13 has long been stigmatized. In an ancient Norse myth, a dinner party of 12 is interrupted when a 13th guest crashes the event and kills the god of joy and gladness. Within Christian traditions, too, 13 is an unlucky number to have at a dinner party—there were 13 people at the Last Supper of Jesus Christ. And to top it all, a correctly tied hangman’s noose has 13 knots.
Meanwhile, Friday also carries negative connotations. Eve was rumoured to have given Adam the apple on Friday, thus bringing about the downfall of mankind. And to make matters worse, Jesus was crucified on a Friday. It is no wonder then, that when the two are combined, Friday the 13th is considered so unlucky that many people decide to stay at home.

2. Why do we drive on the left-hand side of the road in the UK?

The most common explanation for this British law again arises from the Middle Ages. The theory goes that knights riding on horseback would have wanted to keep their right hand, usually their sword hand, exposed to oncomers so that they would be prepared to attack. They would therefore keep to the left when travelling. This custom was transferred to the modern road and crystallized in the Highway Act of 1835, which declared a 20s or 40s fine for drivers not keeping the left or near side.

3. Why do we have bad breath in the mornings?

Almost everybody wakes up with bad breath. The unpleasant smell comes from bacteria living in your mouth. The bacteria are in fact in your mouth day and night, but while you’re sleeping, the flow of saliva—and thus oxygen—decreases greatly. This allows the anaerobic bacteria to multiply, feeding on leftover food particles and skin cells. The waste product of this process often contains sulphur, and this is what smells so unpleasant.

4. Why do we blush?

When you’re embarrassed or ashamed, your body releases a tiny amount of adrenalin. Adrenalin causes blood vessels in your face to dilate, allowing more blood to flow to your cheeks. This causes reddening, or blushing. Sociologically, blushing may be useful as a means of communication, as it can act as a wordless signal. For example, if we blush when we’re attracted to someone, we are allowing what’s on our mind to be known without having to say a thing.

5. Why do onions make you cry?

When you slice through an onion, you cause a series of chemical reactions to occur within its cells. A gas called propanethiol S-oxide is released into the air and travels upwards into your eyes. The gas then reacts with the water in your eyes to form a mild sulphuric acid, which causes itchiness. Your brain reacts by producing more water, or tears, to dilute the irritant and protect your eyes.

6. Why are wedding rings worn on the fourth finger?

There was an ancient belief that a vein, known as the vena amoris (vein of love), ran directly from the fourth finger of the left hand to the heart. It was thought that this direct blood-flow to the heart made it the perfect candidate for a wedding ring, as it solidified the union of love. However, in reality the veins running from the fourth finger are no different from those of any other finger, and it seems as if shrewd marketing, hearsay, and tradition have designated the fourth finger as the “ring finger”.

7. Why do geese fly in a “V” formation?

Because the one in the front has the map J.

When geese fly in a flock, they tend to form a “V” shape, with each bird flying slightly higher than the one in front of it. This causes a reduction in wind resistance, making the flock more aerodynamic and allowing those flying at the back of the formation to glide easily. The birds take it in turns to fall to the back, meaning that as a group they are able to fly for longer. Another benefit of the V shape is that every bird is visible and easy to track. For the same reason, fighter pilots use this “squadron” formation.

8. Why do gentlemen prefer blondes?

The science behind what people find attractive remains largely theoretical. However, a consensus emerges among theorists: We are generally attracted to people who are most likely to protect and preserve our genes as a human race. For example, we are more likely to be attracted to a healthy young face than an old diseased one because this increases the chances of producing healthy offspring. Following this theory, it is believed by some that the reason blonde hair, which is much rarer than brown or black hair, is deemed more attractive is due to a subconscious human desire for a bigger, and therefore healthier, gene pool.

9. Why are there seven days a week?

The root of our seven-day week lies in Babylonian mathematics. The Babylonians realized that a lunar cycle, i.e. a month, was 27.25 days long. However, they also realized that the number 28 is a perfect number—it is the sum of all the numbers that divide into it (1+2+4+7+14 = 28). They therefore designated a month as 28 days long, and eventually chose to split it into four cycles of seven days, giving us our seven-day week.

10. Why do we shake hands with people?

The origin of the handshake lies in medieval history. By offering a right hand to a stranger, a hand that could otherwise be used to draw a sword, men were overtly displaying their intentions of peace towards one another. Nowadays, from signing a treaty to settling a bet with friends, “shaking on it” remains a symbolic sign of agreement.

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