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Everyone on Earth Is Your Cousin?
By Heath Shive
I was watching an episode of the TV show 30 Rock. On the episode “The Head and the Hair,” Liz Lemon meets a handsome man…only to find out that they are distant cousins. Lemon promptly breaks up with him.
But here’s something weird someone told me.
Technically, everyone on Earth is your cousin – your 30th cousin at least.
To the logic!
Cousins by Number
Imagine this. Your mom takes you to see your grandmother. While she’s there, your mom meets her sister. Your mother’s sister is your aunt, of course. Your aunt’s children are your 1st cousins. You are “1st” cousins because only 1 generation separates you and your cousins from your common ancestor (your grandmother in this scenario).
This is the cousin system of degree and removal.
Your children and your cousin’s children will be 2nd cousins, because 2 generations will separate them from a common ancestor.
(Incidentally, your 1st cousin’s children would be your 1st cousins-once-removed.)
Cousins to the Nth Power!
Every human on Earth needs 2 biological parents. That means every human has 4 biological grandparents, and 8 great-grandparents, and so on.
Follow the math? 2 times 2 times 2…
If you want to go back 30 generations, then you have to figure out the math of 2 taken to the 30th power.
If 2 is taken to the 30th power, then the number is 1,073,741,824.
That’s over 1 billion people!
But here’s the problem: 1 billion people did not exist 30 generations ago!
It has been estimated that the world human population did not reach 1 billion until around the year 1804.
So that means, sooner or later, everyone on Earth must share at least 1 common ancestor in the last 30 generations!
By this logic, everyone on Earth is at least a 30th cousin!
We Are Family
It hard to believe that you are a cousin to Oprah Winfrey, Jackie Chan, and Emilia Clarke. And you are a cousin to Presidents Barack Obama…and Donald Trump!
But, of course, that doesn’t mean that every marriage is an act of incest. Genetic variation distances our bloodlines pretty quickly!
So, for example, there’s no reason Emilia Clarke and I cannot get married (and I wonder if that’s why she’s not returning my phone calls).
But the human family is more well-connected than we like to think.
And doesn’t this put war in a weird perspective?
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The Moldy Melon That Saved the World! (And the Woman Who Found It)
By Heath Shive
Before the Second World War, millions died from bacterial infections. Global war only increased the death toll of these infections. And the world was saved by a rotten melon found by a woman named “Moldy Mary”!
Science credits Alexander Fleming with discovering penicillin. And he did! But the development of penicillin into a viable and mass-produced medicine was spearheaded by Howard Florey, Ernst Chain, and Norman Heatley.
Fleming, Florey, and Chain all shared a Nobel Prize for penicillin. Heatley’s contribution was ignored. It was Heatley who performed the actual testing and refinement of penicillin, but he was pushed out by Florey and Chain (both were kind of prima donnas).
During World War II, the development for mass-production of penicillin was performed in Peoria, Illinois. Heatley contributed greatly to the mass-production process. Dr. A. J. Moyer took all credit for himself, so he could have sole patents on the process – making him a fortune.
However, many people contributed to the success and development of penicillin, and all their names go unsung.
Today we sing to one more name – Mary Hunt.
And we sing to her magic melon too.
The Holy Grail…of Fungus
Penicillin is derived primarily from the mold called Penicillium notatum chrysogenum.
The biggest problem with penicillin was that it was very difficult to mass-produce. So scientists began to look for a miracle strain of P. chrysogenum that reproduced at a high rate.
Soil samples were sent to Peoria from around the world by military personnel. All without success.
The mycologist Kenneth Raper thought that local sources should be searched too. Raper sent Mary Hunt to search the local grocery stores for rotten fruit.
Mary Hunt brought back so much slimy fruit that they gave her the nickname “Moldy Mary” – proof that smart-asses can exist anywhere at any time.
While Peoria scientists were searching soil samples from around the world, Mary Hunt found a moldy cantaloupe – but her melon had a strain of P. chrysogenum that reproduced madly!
As one commentator wrote, that strain of P. chyrysogenum “became the primogenitor of most of the penicillin produced in the world.”
Mary Hunt was as lucky to find that moldy cantaloupe as Alexander Fleming was to find P. chrysogenum in the first place!
You Never Know When You Could Change the World
Mohammed Ali once said: “If they can make penicillin from moldy bread, they can sure make something of you!”
But penicillin doesn’t come from moldy bread.
Penicillin came from a rotten cantaloupe that somebody threw away as trash – but which Mary Hunt found...and changed the world forever.
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Lax, Eric. The Mold in Dr. Florey’s Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle. Henry Holt and Company, 2004.
Back When America Hated Christmas Trees?
By H. Shive
Americans before 1850 never used Christmas trees! Only German immigrants used Christmas trees and only in the privacy of their homes.
Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Abe Lincoln lived their entire lives without a Christmas tree!
In 1851, the first publicly displayed Christmas tree in America was presented by a German immigrant and Lutheran pastor named Henry Schwan in Cleveland, Ohio. The uproar was immediate! Citizens in Cleveland protested! They hated the tree. It was called a “pagan throwback.”
America – as a whole – would not embrace the Christmas tree until the 20th century.
The Christmas tree was a custom brought to America by German immigrants, and - like most immigrant customs - it made the natives wary.
Christmas Tree Origin
The ancient Europeans used evergreens to celebrate the winter solstice. The fact that evergreens are still vibrant when all other plants are leafless made the ancients ascribe magical properties to these plants. Trees - including evergreens and the oak - were worshiped by the Celts and ancient Germans. Incidentally, mistletoe (an evergreen that grows on oaks) was used in fertility rites – hence the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
But all accounts agree that Christmas trees are German in origin! Early Church saints and popes tried to destroy the practice…and failed. By medieval times, the Germans were cutting only small fir trees (due to Europe’s chronic lumber shortage) and those small trees were kept on tables with fruits and candies hanging from the branches.
British Christmas vs German Christmas
European Christmas celebrations were boisterous affairs (maybe too boisterous) – filled with drinking and carousing. So when the Puritans took control of England, they waged a war on Christmas!
To the Puritans, Christmas traditions had obvious pagan roots, were excuses for debauchery, and had no biblical origin. Christmas decorations were banned and destroyed. Puritans fined those who celebrated Christmas – even fined businesses that were closed on Christmas Day!
Puritans controlled England and the early American colonies for 50 years. When the Puritans left, Christmas returned, granted with a more subdued tone.
British Christmas and early American Christmas were low-key affairs. Holly, wreaths, and mistletoe were still there. But no Christmas trees!
Christmas was a working day. Interestingly, the U.S. Congress met on Christmas Day for business from 1789 to 1855!
American Tree Haters?
Henry Schwan’s first public tree in Cleveland changed everything. Christmas trees could now be in the public’s eye!
And the public fell in love...eventually.
In 1851, the first Christmas tree lot was established in Washington Market in New York City.
The rest is history.
The “New” American Tradition
Some say Franklin Pierce was the first President to use a Christmas tree. Even if he did, the tradition did not take hold.
However, Benjamin Harrison was more likely the first President to use a Christmas tree in the White House. This time the tradition stuck.
Calvin Coolidge was the first President to make the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree an annual Presidential tradition.
According to The Christmas Encyclopedia, around the year 1900, only one in five American family homes featured a Christmas tree. By 1930, the practice was universal.
So maybe there is magic in an evergreen tree. At the very least, the tradition has a magical stamina!
Crump, William D. The Christmas Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, 2001.
Forbes, Bruce David. Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, 2007.
Canned Pumpkin is NOT Canned Squash: The Science
By H. Shive
Every year, someone thinks there is a pumpkin-conspiracy - like this article from Mental Floss entitled "Canned Pumpkin Isn't Actually Canned Pumpkin."
It's not true.
So don't attach paranoia to a pumpkin pie just yet.
To the science!
Pumpkin Aren't Squash Because Jack-o-Lanterns Aren’t Zucchinis!
Did you know that the classic orange pumpkin and the zucchini...are the same plant? They're both members of the species Cucurbita pepo!
But we don't call jack-o-lanterns "carved zucchinis," do we?
And we don't cry about a great zucchini-conspiracy, do we?
Canned pumpkin is primarily made with the Dickinson pumpkin. Libby’s brand of canned pumpkin is made exclusively of a variety of Dickinson pumpkin. That’s because the Dickinson pumpkin is the best tasting pumpkin. Pumpkin pies in the United States are overwhelmingly made from this cultivar.
Here’s the Science
The Dickinson pumpkin and the butternut squash are both members of the same species, Cucurbita moschata.
But that doesn't mean that they are both squashes!
Need another example?
Broccoli, cabbage, and brussel sprouts are all members of the same species, Brassica oleracea. But we don't say that sauerkraut is made of broccoli, and we don't say that cole slaw is made from brussel sprouts!
The Dickinson pumpkin is a pumpkin! Just because its species has the butternut squash doesn't make the Dickinson pumpkin a squash...anymore than a jack-o-lantern is really a zucchini...or a cabbage is really a broccoli.
In 2012, American Studies Professor Cindy Ott wrote an exhaustive book entitled Pumpkins: The Curious History of an American Icon - which details how the pumpkin went from poor people's food to an autumn idol of Americana.
Ott tells us that after the Civil War, some southerners thought the pumpkin pie was part of a Yankee conspiracy to corrupt Southern culture!
There was no conspiracy then...and there isn't one now.
Honestly, do you want there to be?
With all the outrage in American society today - constant outrage from every side - don't we all just want pumpkin pie to be honest, American, and delicious?
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Ott, Cindy. Pumpkins: The Curious History of an American Icon. University of Washington Press, 2012.
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On October 18, 1898, the United States officially took possession of Puerto Rico – a trophy from the recent Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines represented the last grab of 19th-century manifest destiny – which even then was controversial.
The Philippines were granted independence after World War Two. Hawaii became a state (the 50th state) in 1959.
But Puerto Rico has been a territory ever since.
The Unincorporated Territory: The Almost-State of America
Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States of America. The term “unincorporated” means that Puerto Rico is not properly a part of the U.S. All natural-born Puerto Ricans are automatically U.S. citizens. In a series of Supreme Court decisions – known as the Insular Cases – it was decided that the U.S. Constitution extends to all territorial citizens ex proprio vigore (by its own force).
However, since Puerto Rico is not a State, it does not have voting representatives in Congress. Therefore, Puerto Ricans do not vote in national elections – including Presidential elections.
Since Puerto Ricans have no vote in Congress, Puerto Rico does not have a federal income tax on island-based income. The old “no taxation without representation” legal adage still applies! Puerto Rico still pays Social Security taxes and Medicaid.
Even without a formal federal income tax, Puerto Rico still pays some federal revenues and enjoys federal services. The FBI, the military, Department of Transportation, the EPA, etc., all have offices there. This is why the federal government can (and should) be involved in aid and recovery after hurricanes.
The Future 51st State?
In a 2012, territory-wide referendum asked two questions: (1) whether Puerto Rico should maintain its current status, and (2) if Puerto Rico should change, should it become a state, independent, or in a free association.
The results? On the first question, about 54% of the voters wanted a change in political status. On the second question, about 62% wanted statehood, 33% wanted free associated status, and only 5% wanted independence.
So barely more than half of the voters wanted a change in status, but if they did change, the majority preferred statehood.
If Puerto Rico did become a state, its population of 3.4 million would make it the 30th largest state in the nation – bigger than Iowa and smaller than Connecticut.
Will you ever see an American flag with 51 stars? The future is wide open.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.