What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. For the remainder of 2019, that means October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury in Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

What's the Difference Between Yams and Sweet Potatoes?

Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images
Julia_Sudnitskaya/iStock via Getty Images

This Thanksgiving, families across the country will enjoy a traditional meal of turkey, stuffing, and sweet potatoes ... or are they yams? Discussions on the proper name for the orange starchy stuff on your table can get more heated than arguments about topping them with marshmallows. But there's an easy way to tell the difference between sweet potatoes and yams: If you picked up the tuber from a typical American grocery store, it's probably a sweet potato.

So what's a sweet potato?

Sweet potato and yam aren't just different names for the same thing: The two produce items belong to their own separate botanical categories. Sweet potatoes are members of the morning glory family. Regular potatoes like russets, meanwhile, are considered part of the nightshade family, which means that sweet potatoes aren't actually potatoes at all.

Almost all of the foods most Americans think of as yams are really sweet potatoes. The root vegetable typically has brown or reddish skin with a starchy inside that's orange (though it can also be white or purple). It's sold in most supermarkets in the country and used to make sweet potato fries, sweet potato pie, and the sweet potato casserole you have at Thanksgiving.

Then what's a yam?

Yams.
Yams.
bonchan/iStock via Getty Images

Yams are a different beast altogether. They are more closely related to lilies and grasses and mostly grow in tropical environments. The skin is more rough and bark-like than what you'd see on a sweet potato, and the inside is usually white or yellowish—not orange.

They're a common ingredient in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Because the inside of a yam is less moist than the inside of a sweet potato, they require more fat to make them soft and creamy. They're also less sweet than their orange-hued counterparts. In many regions in the U.S., yams aren't sold outside of international grocery stores.

Where did the mix-up come from?

Also sweet potatoes.
Also sweet potatoes.
Kateryna Bibro/iStock via Getty Images

So if yams and sweet potatoes are two totally different vegetables that don't look or taste that similar, why are their names used interchangeably in the U.S.? You can blame the food industry. For years, "firm" sweet potatoes, which have brown skin and whitish flesh, were the only sweet potatoes grown in the U.S. In the early 20th century, "soft" sweet potatoes, which have reddish skin and deep-orange flesh, entered the scene. Farmers needed a way to distinguish the two varieties, so soft sweet potatoes became yams.

Nearly a century later, the misnomer shows no signs of disappearing. Many American supermarkets still call their orange-fleshed sweet potatoes yams and their white-fleshed ones sweet potatoes, even though both items are sweet potatoes. But this isn't a strict rule, and stores often swap the names and make things even more confusing for shoppers. So the next time you're shopping for a recipe that calls for sweet potatoes, learn to identify them by sight rather than the name on the label.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the grave sites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

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