CLOSE
Jason English
Jason English

How Do They Make the "Pope Smoke"?

Jason English
Jason English

When the Catholic cardinals meet to pick a new pope in the “papal conclave,” they’re sequestered in the Sistine Chapel so their deliberations aren’t influenced by the outside world and so their ballots, burned after each round of voting, remain secret. Updates from within the conclave, then, come not from press conferences or the pontifical Twitter account, but the chapel’s chimney.

For a bit more than a century, the cardinals have signaled their progress by sending colored smoke up the chapel chimney. Black smoke signifies a vote didn’t produce a pope, and white means it did.

When the tradition began, the light smoke was produced by the burning ballots and some dry straw, and the darker smoke by the ballots and wet straw. The results weren’t always black and white, though, and sometimes the smoke signal left the outside world confused. During the 1958 conclave, white smoke plumed from the chimney after one vote. The crowds gathered outside the chapel cheered and Vatican Radio announced that the church had a pope.

Just a few minutes later though, the smoke started to turn dark. The straw that the cardinals added to the fire didn’t take right away, and needed some time to get going.

To avoid this sort of confusion, the cardinals and Vatican officials have tried a few different things to make the two smoke colors, and the election results, more foolproof. They tried smoke bombs for the black smoke in the 1960s. While they left no question about the color, they also filled the room with smoke, sending the cardinals into coughing fits. After that, they tried Italian army flares, and while the color was clear at first, the smoke quickly turned gray, leaving some observers scratching their heads.

In 2005, the Vatican went high-tech, and introduced an “auxiliary smoke-emitting device” that was fed chemical cartridges that could produce clearly colored smoke for up to six minutes. What was in the cartridges was anyone’s guess. The Vatican was oddly secretive about them and would only say that they were prepared from “several different elements.”

Yesterday, though, the Vatican revealed their smoke recipe and technique. The smoke device has a compartment where “different coloured-smoke generating compounds can be mixed,” the Vatican press office said in a statement. “The result is requested by means of an electronic control panel and lasts for several minutes while the ballots are burning in the other stove.”

The black smoke is made from a mix of potassium perchlorate (an inorganic salt commonly used as an oxidizer in colored fireworks and other pyrotechnics), anthracene (a hyrocarbon component of coal tar) and sulfur. The white smoke is produced by mixing potassium chlorate (a similar compound to potassium perchlorate, used in fireworks and smoke bombs), lactose (the sugar found in cow’s milk) and rosin (a conifer resin).

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
iStock
iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
AFP, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios