• Starlite / The mystery miracle heatproof plastic MP3

    In the early 1990s, magazine articles and television shows in Great Britain and the United States ran a series of stories about an incredible new invention: a type of plastic that could withstand virtually any amount of heat. The material’s properties confounded scientists, but even more amazing was that its creator, Maurice Ward, had no academic credentials—he was, in fact, a former hairdresser from No...

    13.02.2013

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    13.02.2013

  • Uffington White Horse / Ancient hillside chalk art MP3

    When I was a teenager, I once carved my initials and those of my girlfriend into a tree, something I thought of at the time as being a permanent statement of our eternal devotion to each other. When we broke up a year later, I felt obliged to return to the tree, put an X through our initials, and add the words “Null and Void.” The next time I went to find the tree, a number of years after that, it was go...

    11.02.2013

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    11.02.2013

  • Pie Funnels / A piecrust's best friend MP3

    Cherry pie has always been one of my favorite desserts, and this preference was only reinforced by my repeated viewings of the TV series Twin Peaks. A few years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Cokewell, erstwhile owner of the Mar T Cafe (now called Twede’s) in North Bend, Washington. The Mar T achieved fame as the “RR Diner” on Twin Peaks, and it was Pat’s cherry pies that inspired dir...

    11.02.2013

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    11.02.2013

  • Complaints Choirs / Setting the world's problems to music MP3

    The acoustics in my apartment are lousy. I have too many work deadlines. The dollar-to-euro exchange rate is depressing. It always rains when I want to go for a walk. It’s not hard to come up with things to complain about, but who wants to listen to someone else complain? The surprising answer: just about everyone, as long as the complaints are set to music and delivered in four-part harmony by a choral ensemb...

    08.02.2013

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    08.02.2013

  • Snow Crusts / A few words about the surface of snow MP3

    For decades there has been a popular belief—alternately debunked and defended by various linguists and anthropologists—that there are a great many Eskimo words for snow. More specifically, the belief is that while there are lots of specific words for different kinds of snow, there is no word that can be used to refer to any type of snow generically—that is, no direct synonym for the English word ...

    06.02.2013

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    06.02.2013

  • A Perfect Baguette / Daily bread as it was intended to be MP3

    Last spring my wife, Morgen, and I had the great privilege of spending a month in Europe. Our goal for that trip, unlike ordinary vacations, was not primarily to see lots of museums and tourist attractions; instead, we wanted to live like locals and see what ordinary daily life would be like in another part of the world. We rented an apartment in Paris so we could shop for fresh foods and cook our own meals rather t...

    04.02.2013

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    04.02.2013

  • Helioseismology / Listening to the inside of the Sun MP3

    Although in general I have tremendous faith in science, there are a few concepts I’ve always had some trouble grasping. For example, textbooks have told us for decades—with great certainty—details about the interior of the Earth. We know how thick the crust and mantle are, what the core is made of, and how hot it is (among many other facts), even though no one has managed to dig or drill even hal...

    01.02.2013

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    01.02.2013

  • Eye-to-Eye Video / Solving the eye contact problem MP3

    Perched atop my computer is a shiny, high-tech video camera. Through the miracles of modern technology, I can have live video chats with friends or business associates on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, without even paying long-distance phone charges. Although I could opt for an audio-only conversation or even the text-only format of email or instant messaging, there’s something a...

    30.01.2013

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    30.01.2013

  • White LEDs / How to make a blue light special MP3

    Thirty years ago, the most interesting thing I knew of was the digital watch. Never mind that digital watches were harder to read than analog watches, that they went through a set of batteries every few weeks, that they cost a small fortune. These things were not important. What was important was cutting-edge style. You could now wear a computerized device on your wrist that, at the press of a button, would display ...

    28.01.2013

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    28.01.2013

  • Grass Photographs / Photosynthetic art MP3

    When I was about 12 (give or take a couple of years), I had what I thought was a fantastic idea. I was going to build myself a volcano. I’m not talking about a little model made out of clay with vinegar and baking soda for the special effects. I wanted to construct a dirt cone in the backyard that was hollow inside and large enough to use as a clubhouse. I was a bit sketchy on the actual structural details, bu...

    25.01.2013

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    25.01.2013

  • Lightsabres / The myth and technology of the Jedi weapon MP3

    Like most people, I thoroughly enjoyed the three original Star Wars films, and like most people, I found the prequel installments rather disappointing. The special effects and visual quality were dramatically improved, but the stories left much to be desired, the acting was mediocre, and the writing had none of the intensity or sparkle of the originals. After “Episode I: The Phantom Menace” appeared, I wa...

    23.01.2013

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    23.01.2013

  • Light Pollution / Urban assault on the night sky MP3

    I used to go for a walk every night. It was a pleasant habit—exercise, fresh air, quiet time alone to think. I made a point, whenever possible, of walking in an area away from the city lights, where the sky was dark enough that I could get a good look at the stars. I knew how to pick out some of the constellations, though I could never quite understand how anyone could see a goat or an archer in the patterns o...

    20.01.2013

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    20.01.2013

  • Pastis / The noble successor to absinthe MP3

    It’s all Peter Mayle’s fault. Before I fell under his nefarious influence, I had very simple tastes. Food was food; a burger and fries eaten on the run was a perfectly satisfactory dining experience. But then I read A Year in Provence and its sequels, books that tell colorful tales about ordinary life in the southern French countryside. To hear Mayle describe life in Provence, every waking hour is conc...

    17.01.2013

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    17.01.2013

  • Peanut Milk / The magic peanut elixir MP3

    Every child who grows up in the United States hears the story of George Washington Carver, a former slave who became a botanist and agriculturalist. Carver is best known for devising over 300 uses for peanuts—from ink to glue to soap, not to mention a great many recipes for peanut-based foods. Although I’ve often wondered why I don’t see peanut paint or peanut insecticide at my local hardware sto...

    15.01.2013

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    15.01.2013

  • Palais Idéal / The postman's palace MP3

    The topic of weird, elaborate structures built by wealthy eccentrics has come up repeatedly here at Interesting Thing of the Day—think of the Winchester Mystery House, Neuschwanstein Castle, and Hearst Castle, for instance. Today we add to that list a palace constructed in its entirety by an eccentric of modest means: a postman named Ferdinand Cheval. The story begins in 1879. Cheval, then 43 years old, had b...

    11.01.2013

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    11.01.2013

  • Planning Your Own Funeral / Having the last laugh first MP3

    When my mother returned from a vacation to Florida with her sister a number of months ago, I called to ask how it went. “Oh, we had the best time!” she said. “We spent most of the trip planning our funerals. It was hilarious!” Well, that wasn’t quite what I was expecting to hear. On previous vacations my mom has gone on cruises, even tried parasailing, and I thought I had a pretty good ...

    08.01.2013

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    08.01.2013

  • Cochineal / Insect-based color MP3

    by Morgen Jahnke When I was a kid, there was a time when artificial red food dyes came under intense scrutiny because of their purported health risks. In 1976, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the dye FD&C Red #2 because scientific studies showed it had carcinogenic effects on female rats. In response to the public concern about red food coloring, food manufacturers discontinued some of their red prod...

    07.01.2013

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    07.01.2013

  • Tiki / The imaginary Polynesian culture MP3

    One day last summer I walked into one of my favorite mom-and-pop variety shops in San Francisco and saw a big display of everything Tiki—a Tiki bar, Tiki glasses, Tiki masks, Tiki statues, Tiki books. My initial reaction was, “Ah, another cheesy American fad is reborn,” followed quickly by, “Cool! I need to own this stuff.” What can I say? I’m a sucker for faux culture, especial...

    03.01.2013

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    03.01.2013

  • Icewine / How a little frost can do wonders for wine MP3

    I may not be the most agriculturally sophisticated person in the world, but I always felt pretty confident in my basic belief that frost was a Bad Thing when it came to growing produce. If whatever crop you’re growing hasn’t been harvested by the time temperatures dip below freezing, serious damage can be done, right? Common sense, however, frequently turns out to be wrong. At least for grapes, freezing...

    01.01.2013

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    01.01.2013

  • Paris Plages / Bringing the beach to Paris MP3

    August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared ...

    30.12.2012

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    30.12.2012

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