10 Surprising Facts About Alfred Kinsey

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Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images

Alfred Kinsey—who was born in Hoboken, New Jersey on June 23, 1894—grew up in early 20th century America, in a cultural climate that regarded concepts like homosexuality, masturbation, and the female orgasm with ignorance at best and revulsion at worst. He died in 1956 just as the Sexual Revolution was poised to take hold of the nation. Today many historians credit Kinsey with setting the event in motion. Here are some things you may not know about the controversial figure.

1. Alfred Kinsey was one of America's first Eagle Scouts.

Alfred Kinsey joined the Boy Scouts of America in 1911 when he was about 17. At the time, the club was barely a year old. After just two years of participation, he had earned the ranks required to become one of the young organization's first Eagle Scouts—the program’s highest achievement.

2. Alfred Kinsey grew up in a religious environment.

Kinsey was raised in a devout Protestant household. Every Sunday the Kinsey clan attended Sunday school followed by a church service in the morning and a prayer meeting at night. His father’s religious beliefs were so strict that he forbade his family, including visiting relatives, from doing any work on Sundays that didn't involve eating or going to church. Kinsey’s upbringing did little to dissuade him from publishing sex research later in life that directly contradicted the conservative principles he learned in Sunday school.

3. Alfred Kinsey considered becoming an engineer, a concert pianist, and a YMCA employee.

A career in human biology wasn’t always what Kinsey had in mind for himself. In high school, he was a dedicated piano player and even dreamed of becoming a concert pianist as an adult. But his father had other aspirations for him: He insisted his son go to college to study engineering. Alfred complied but never warmed up to the idea of working as an engineer full-time. Even as he was earning his degree, he entertained the idea of going to work for the YMCA (something he’d done in his youth) after finishing school. All of these plans fell through when he ultimately switched his educational focus to entomology, the study of insects

4. Alfred Kinsey collected millions of wasps.

Before Kinsey revolutionized our understanding of human sexuality, he studied the reproductive habits of gall wasps. The two subjects have some major differences: As just one example, gall wasps breed by embedding eggs into plants, causing growths to form that offer shelter and nourishment to their young. While his wasp work was a far cry from his later studies, it did help him develop his obsessive research style. Kinsey collected 7.5 million wasps during his time as an entomologist. Today those specimens are housed in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology of the American Museum of Natural History.

5. Alfred Kinsey taught a course on marriage.

During his wasp days Kinsey worked as a professor at Indiana University. There, he made the academic leap from insects to humans when he was asked to lead a class on marriage. In addition to covering subjects like family relationships and economics, he guided his students through the practical sciences of sexual stimulation, intercourse, and contraception. Kinsey sought empirical evidence to explain familiar sexual conventions and social mores, but he found little that was scientifically sound. He sensed a new challenge—one that would confront the repressive sexual attitudes he had experienced in his own family. As he had in his studies of insects, Kinsey launched a rigorous method of inquiry into the dynamics of human sexuality outside the classroom.

6. Alfred Kinsey asked thousands of people about their sex lives.

To conduct the groundbreaking sexology research, Kinsey and his colleagues interviewed more than 18,000 men and women. Their questions touched upon subjects like sadomasochism, extramarital relations, frequency of masturbation, and number of partners of the same or opposite sex. Once all the data had been gathered, Kinsey was able to break down sexual trends by age, socioeconomic status, and religion to assemble a portrait of human sexuality. The study demonstrated that some practices (like homosexuality, for example) that were considered socially unacceptable were actually quite common. Alfred Kinsey became a household name following the release of Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953), two books that are together known as the Kinsey Reports.

7. Alfred Kinsey had an open marriage.

In an era when divorce and premarital sex were judged harshly, Kinsey veered from the norm in his own life. He encouraged the scientists who worked for him to have open marriages, and he was no hypocrite. After he and his wife Clara wed in 1921, the couple agreed to open up their relationship to outside sex partners. In addition to being polyamorous, Kinsey was bisexual, having affairs with both men and women during his lifetime.

10. Alfred Kinsey left his mark on pop culture.

Thanks to the salacious nature of his work, Kinsey achieved pop icon status. One example of his fame is the tongue-in-cheek song “Ooh, Dr. Kinsey!” by comedian Martha Raye. The tune, whose lyrics include “Ooh Dr. Kinsey, I just read your essay on men’s behavior today, and men are great … like a hole in the head,” sold half a million copies. The Kinsey Reports are also mentioned in the song “Too Darn Hot” from the musical Kiss Me Kate, and a fictional portrayal of the scientist made an appearance on The Jack Benny Program.

9. Alfred Kinsey was no stranger to controversy.

Despite his success (or perhaps because of it), Kinsey attracted more than his fair share of angry critics during the 1950s. Scandalized conservatives claimed he was supporting a communist agenda by eroding sexual morality and family values in America. The controversy surrounding his name hasn’t let up since Kinsey’s death in 1956. One area of research in particular, his findings on sexual behaviors in children, remains the subject of intense scrutiny today. He gathered the information used in these sections from interviews conducted with a serial child rapist. The man agreed to speak with Kinsey under the condition that he wouldn’t be turned in for his crimes. In a possible move to protect his subject’s identity, Kinsey credited his data on children to many sources instead of just one, undermining the integrity of his work in the eyes of many scientists.

10. The Kinsey Scale inspired other ways to measure sexuality.

Kinsey was one of the first scientists to suggest that sexual identity exists on a spectrum. According to his scale, people are either a zero (totally straight), a six (totally gay), or some number in between based on past socio-sexual interactions. The scale was radical for its time, but in the years since, many sexologists have taken the concept and expanded upon it. In 1980, psychologist Michael Storms introduced a two-dimensional grid that includes asexuality. Even more variables were introduced with Fritz Klein’s sexual orientation grid, including erotic fantasies, emotional preferences, social preferences, and self identity.

This story has been updated for 2020.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

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If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

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You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

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Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

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3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

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Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

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4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

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Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

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5. Gingerbread House; $212

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Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

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6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

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LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

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7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

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Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

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8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

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The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

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9. The White House; $100

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Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

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10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

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Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

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Why Your Christmas Lights Always Get Tangled, According to Science

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A Christmas tree isn't a Christmas tree without those pretty colored lights, right? OK, no problem. You stored them in a box marked "Xmas lights" 11 months ago. You know where the box is. Now you just have to open the box, grab the lights, and—

That's where it gets tricky. Unless you're very lucky, or extremely well organized, the lights are likely all tangled up; soon you're down on your hands and knees, struggling to untangle a spaghetti-like jumble. (And it's not just you: A couple of years ago, the British grocery chain Tesco hired temporary "Christmas light untanglers" for the holiday season.) But why are Christmas lights so prone to tangling in the first place—and can anything be done about it?

Why do Christmas lights get tangled in the first place?

There are really two separate problems, explains Colin Adams, a mathematician at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and the author of The Knot Book, an introduction to the mathematical theory of knots. First, the cord on which the lights are attached is prone to tangling—just as headphone and earbud cords are (or, in the past, telephone handset cords).

Several years ago, physicists Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith, then at the University of California, San Diego, did a study to see just how easily cords can get tangled. They put bits of string of various lengths in a cube-shaped box, and then mechanically rotated the box so that the strings tumbled around, like socks in a dryer, repeating the experiment more than 3400 times. The first knots appeared within seconds. More than 120 different types of knots spontaneously formed during the experiment. They also found—perhaps not surprisingly—that the longer the string, the more likely it was to become knotted (few knots formed in strings shorter than 18 inches, they noted). As the length of the string increased, the probability of a knot forming approached 100 percent.

The material that the string (or cord) is made of is important too; a more flexible cord is more likely to tangle than a less flexible one. And while the length of the cord matters, so does its diameter: In general, long cords get tangled more easily than short ones, but a cord with a large diameter will be less flexible, which reduces the risk of knotting. In other words, it's the ratio of length to diameter that really matters. That's why a garden hose can get tangled—it's relatively stiff, but it's also very long compared to its diameter.

But that's not the end of the story. If a cord has a metal wire inside it—as traditional Christmas lights do—then it can acquire a sort of "natural curvature," Jay Miller, a senior research scientist at the Connecticut-based United Technologies Research Center, tells Mental Floss. That means that a wire that's been wrapped around a cylindrical spool, for example, will tend to retain that shape.

"Christmas lights are typically spooled for shipping or packing, which bends metal wire past its 'plastic limit,' giving it natural curvature approximately the size of the spool it was wound around," Miller says. Christmas lights can be even harder to straighten than other wound materials because they often contain a pair of intertwined wires, giving them an intrinsic twist.

And then there's the additional problem of the lights. "Christmas lights are doubly difficult, once things get tangled, because there are all of these little projections—the lights—sticking out of them," Adams says. "The lights get in the way of each other, and it makes it very difficult to pull one strand through another. That means once you're tangled, it's much harder to disentangle."

How do you fix tangled Christmas lights?

What, then, can be done? One option would be for manufacturers to make the cord out of a stiff yet elastic material—something that would more readily "bounce back" from the curvature that was imparted to it while in storage. A nickel-titanium alloy known as Nitinol might be a candidate, says Miller—but it's too expensive to be a practical choice. And anyway, the choice of material probably makes little difference as long as the lights still protrude from the cord. Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in recent years has been the proliferation of LED "rope lights" that don't employ traditional bulbs at all; rather, they use LEDs embedded within the rope-like cord itself. Of course, these can still get tangled up in the manner of a garden hose, but without those pesky protrusions, they're easier to untangle.

A simpler solution, says Adams, is to coil the lights very carefully when putting them away, ideally using something like twist-ties to keep them in place. (Martha Stewart has proposed something similar, using sheets of cardboard instead of twist-ties.)

Meanwhile, the mathematicians have some advice if you find yourself confronted with a hopelessly tangled, jumbled cord: Find one of the "free" ends, and work from there.

"Eventually," Adams assures us, "you will succeed."