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Book Review: Discover’s 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Everything by The Editors Of Discover Magazine and Dean Christopher

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Discover Magazine is dedicated to taking scientific topics and talking about them in ways that I can understand them. I’ve always enjoyed reading the magazine because it is like the scientific version of National Geographic.

My favorite column has always been on the back page, called “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Everything.” Unlike the loftier articles in Discover, this column takes an everyday thing, like duct tape, and delves into every aspect of it. Even if you know a lot about the subject, there is bound to be something you didn’t know before reading the column.

Like all good things, the editors at Discover Magazine decided to broaden their horizons and take the popular little column and turn it into a book. Discover’s 20 Things You Didn’t Know About Everything takes some of the most popular and unique subjects and digs deeper into them, and the results are outstanding.

For example, here are 20 things I didn’t know before reading this book:

1. The average person will blink about 6,205,000 times a year or about 17,000 times a day. It is knowing little facts like that which will make you popular at cocktail parties.

2. The queen in a bee hive is a virgin. When she does her mating flight, she will be inseminated by several drones. The mating kills the drones because his entire phallic area is torn from his body to remain inside the queen. Yes, read that again. Be happy Marquis de Sade never knew that little fact.

3. Ancient Egyptians and Indians used crocodile and elephant dung as contraceptives. I have to think that the smell was the best deterrent. Women living in the Middle Ages wore amulets filled with mule earwax and weasel testicles to prevent pregnancy. How big were these amulets, I wonder?

4. Ancient warriors were adept at using unique weaponry. The Chinese sent burning monkeys running towards their opponents during battle. Ancient Macedonians sent flaming pigs squealing at the Persian elephant troops, causing the elephants to panic and crushed the Persian army under foot in the ensuing chaos.

5. Going on a flight soon? Worried about terrorists? Never fear, the Air Marshals are there to keep us safe. Or are they? Exact numbers are classified but some experts estimate fewer than 5% of flights are covered by air marshals. An investigation by the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 uncovered 753 instances of air marshal misconduct in an eight month period.

6. Perhaps the reason there isn’t more evidence of alien visitation is that we are actually the offspring of the aliens. A current theory states that alien life moves through the galaxy like pieces of fluff off a dandelion. That makes me a little more thoughtful as I mow my lawn full of dandelions.

7. From the moment of conception to the delivery, human incubation takes about 38 weeks. That’s 266 days or 6384 hours. Despite nailing it down so precisely, only about 5% of births occur on the “due date”. Despite all the science, it’s the baby that decides when it’s ready, not the doctor or the mother.

8. The optimum balanced diet ratio for a human is 80% alkaline and 20% acid. Alkaline foods include fruits, vegetables, and beans. Acid foods include proteins like meat and fish as well as whole grains. It varies a little for each individual but the Atkins and vegetarian extremes should meet somewhere in the middle.

9. You really can die laughing. Greek philosopher Chrysippus (3rd century BC) died while he was laughing at a donkey eating figs. More recently, in 1989, Danish doctor Ole Bentzen suffered a cardiac arrest while watching the movie A Fish Called Wanda.

10. Despite what you see in the movies and television, in New York City there are more suicides than there are murders. Worldwide, there are between 850,000 and 1 million suicides each year. Women attempt more but men are more successful since men tend to use guns and women tend to try overdosing on drugs.

11. Nearly $100 million is spent annually on duct tape. That was before The Red Green Show went off the air. The number is sure to go down now. I saw a t-shirt that said, “When the going gets tough, the tough use duct tape.” To prove that point, a hunter in Alaska in September 2003 was attacked by a bear. He used his duct tape to close up the bite wounds before riding his ATV back to his truck and then to the hospital. No word on how many hairs came out when they pulled the tape off.

12. In 1675, Antony van Leeuwenhoek “discovered” bacteria but it took until Ignaz Fulop Semmelweis made the connection in 1848 between the little wiggly things and disease and realized that simply washing your hands could help prevent the spread of infections.

13. It’s no surprise that the most searched for word on the internet is “sex”. Around 372 million pages, or about 12%, of all web pages are pornographic. What is surprising is that 70% of all internet porn traffic occurs between 9 and 5 on workdays.

14. If you happen to stumble across a meteorite the next time you’re walking across the parking lot at the mall, you are required by the Nomenclature Committee of the Meteoritical Society, yes that one, to donate 20% or 20 ounces, whichever is smaller, to a laboratory for research. You can keep the rest for whatever you like. No word on how they enforce it or if there is a police force for the Committee. Unless you live in South Africa where you must turn it over to authorities. Meteorites fall under the National Heritage Law which protects antiquities as the cultural property of their country of origin. That’s right, they are holding the meteorites in case the original owner shows up to claim it.

15. Looking for the best recovery drink after exercise? A study showed that cyclists who drank chocolate milk after riding to failure were able to ride next time 50% longer than cyclists who drank Gatorade or Endurox.

16. Looking for some proof in the Theory of Evolution? In London, researchers in 1988 found a new species of mosquito in the London Underground. No, not the employees, an actual species that are an evolutionary offshoot of an above ground type that feed on birds. Now it feeds on what is available: rats, mice, and people. There are even different DNA variations from Underground line to line.

17. Here are some frightening statistics about obesity: 30% of America is overweight. 3.8 million Americans weigh over 300 pounds. 400,000 Americans, mostly men, weigh 400 pounds or more. Over 280,000 kids aged 1 to 6 are too fat to use child safety seats. A 2003 study in New York City showed the 21% of all elementary students, no matter what income bracket, were obese. It’s not just American though. Obesity in China has doubled since 1992. 20% of the UK is overweight.

18. In 1964, San Diego high school student Randy Gardner, supervised by Stanford University scientists, stayed awake for 264 hours and 12 minutes or a little more than 11 days. Despite worries that sleep deprivation of that length would cause serious mental damage, Randy slept for 15 hours and then returned to his normal sleep patterns with no ill effects.

19. Orbiting the Earth with the International Space Station are 11,000 pieces of man made space junk. It’s all rotating with the Earth at 18,000 miles an hour. But wait, that only counts the big stuff that is traceable. Add up all the small miscellaneous things like tools and gloves and there is an estimated 100,000 items 1 centimeter or larger out there. No big deal, right? A metal toothpick one centimeter long traveling at 18,000 miles an hour would slice through anything in its path.

20. The US leads the world in exporting sperm. I’m not talking about when we send out troops. I mean four of the five largest sperm banks in the world are located in the USA. Donors make good money too, up to $1000 a month if they are between 18 to 38 years old, have a four year degree, live close, and are willing to deposit two t0 three times a week after passing the medical tests. Canada banned payments for sperm donors. This led to the supply dwindling to a trickle. The Canadian government is legalizing payments again to stop the wave of American sperm washing northwards.

The book takes the best of the Discover Magazine column, digs deeper and fleshes out the subjects of the column. My list is just a few things that caught my attention. I didn’t even list anything from the chapter about sex in space.

There is something in here for everyone to learn. It’s the perfect accessory for the trip to the coffee shop, the bathroom, or the beach.

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About Russ Evenhuis

I'm a writer with a mid-life crisis. I'm into sports of all kind, a Seattle fan to my bones. A retired rugby player, now I punish myself with triathlons when I'm not hanging out with the family, drinking Guinness and playing PlayStation.