Big Questions: 44 Things You Didn't Know You Needed to Know

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Some of the world's greatest minds spend their lives pondering the purpose of humanity. Others just wonder why we never see baby pigeons. We can't explain our existence, but we can help with some other mysteries. Browse our dossier of questions that have probably come to you in the shower. (Including why thoughts often come to you in the shower.)

1. What was Albert Einstein's IQ?

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Though IQ tests existed during Einstein's lifetime, he never took one, so his official IQ isn't known. Still, that hasn't stopped people from guessing. Lots of websites claim the physicist's IQ was 160, but there's simply no way of verifying that claim.

2. Why do the best ideas come to us in the shower?

You're in the shower, mindlessly lathering up, when—bam!—a prophetic thought pops into your head. Those aha moments aren't locked inside a bottle of lavender-scented shampoo, but research shows you're more likely to have a creative epiphany when you're doing something monotonous, like showering. Since these routines don't require much thought, you flip to autopilot. This frees up your brain to play a no-holds-barred game of free association.

Daydreaming activates the prefrontal cortex—the brain's command center for decisions, goals and behavior. It also switches on the rest of your brain's "default mode network" (DMN), clearing the pathways that connect the regions of your noggin. With your DMN switched on, you can make creative connections that your conscious mind would have dismissed.

3. Why is the American flag displayed backward on military uniforms?

The flag on the uniforms of military members may appear backward, but it's actually facing forward.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the observer's right, the flag on the right shoulder would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward. The position of the flag is noted in Army Pamphlet 670-1, which mandates that the star field should face forward. The official term for this is "reverse side flag."

4. Why isn't Walt Disney World overrun by mosquitos?


It would be a feat to get rid of pesky mosquitoes anywhere, but Walt Disney World is in swampy Florida, where insects are abundant. To deal with the pests, Disney employs a comprehensive program that includes spraying insecticides and maintaining natural predators—but they do it with a level of vigilance that's fearsome to behold.

The park has something called the Mosquito Surveillance Program. There are carbon dioxide traps everywhere. Once they catch something, the team at Disney freezes and analyzes the mosquito population to determine how best to eradicate them.

They also use sentinel chickens, which live in coops all over the park. While these feathered employees are going about their daily lives, their blood is being monitored for mosquito-borne diseases like West Nile virus. Lucky for the chickens, they don't get sick from the virus—but they do produce antibodies, so if they pick it up, the Disney team knows where in the park they got it from, and they can deliver a swift blow to the mosquitoes in that area.

5. Why do I always wake up five minutes before my alarm goes off?

Because your body's internal clock is just as good as the contraption shrieking atop your nightstand.

Your sleep-wake cycle is regulated by a protein called PER. The protein level rises and falls each day, peaking in the evening and plummeting at night. When PER levels are low, your blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, and thinking becomes foggier. You get sleepy.

If you follow a diligent sleep routine—waking up at the same time every day—your body learns to increase your PER levels in time for your alarm. About an hour before you're supposed to wake up, PER levels rise (along with your body temperature and blood pressure). To prepare for the stress of waking, your body releases a cocktail of stress hormones, like cortisol. Gradually, your sleep becomes lighter and lighter—and that's why you wake up before your alarm.

Your body hates your alarm clock. It's jarring, and it ruins all that hard work. It defeats the purpose of gradually waking up. So, to avoid being interrupted, your body does something amazing: It starts increasing PER and stress hormones earlier in the night. Your body gets a head start so the waking process isn't cut short. It's so precise that your eyelids open minutes—maybe even seconds—before the alarm goes off.

6. Why is there an "R" in "Mrs."

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In the 1500s, Mrs. was an abbreviation for mistress, the female counterpart of master. The word mistress had a more general meaning of "a woman who is in charge of something." The abbreviated form was used most frequently as a title for a married woman. Eventually, the title form took on a contracted, R-less pronunciation, and by the end of the 18th century, "missis" was the most acceptable way to say it. The full word mistress had by then come to stand for a paramour, someone who was explicitly not a Mrs.

7. Why is "Arkansas" pronounced like "Kansas"?

Kansas was named for the Kansa, a Siouan tribe that lived in the region. The Kansa people were called, in plural, Kansas, and that became the name of the state. But before it did, English, French, and Spanish speakers, as well as speakers of various Native American languages, all came up with their own ways of pronouncing the name of the tribe. Eventually, Kansas won out.

Arkansas was named for a related Siouan tribe, the Quapaw. The Algonquians called them akansa, joining their own a- prefix to the Kansa name. This name was picked up by others, and was also spelled in various ways. However, it was the French version, Arcansas, that became the basis for the state's name. The English speakers that took over after the Louisiana Purchase decided to use a modified French spelling. But the state’s two senators disagreed on the pronunciation, with one saying "arKANzis" and the other saying "ARkansaw." These disagreements led to a ruling by the state legislature in 1881 making the "ARkansaw" pronunciation official.

8. Why do honeycrisp apples cost so much?


Introduced commercially in 1991 after being developed by University of Minnesota scientists, the Honeycrisp tree demands very specific soil and maintenance requirements. The fruit can ripen at various times, necessitating more frequent harvests. The skin is thin and delicate, so the apples must be trimmed off by hand. Many of the trees are so fragile they require a trellis to support their branches.

All the extra labor means more time and money—the latter of which gets passed along to the consumer.

Growers who didn't anticipate the surging demand for Honeycrisps were caught off-guard by their popularity. Because trees can take up to six years to bear enough fruit for commercial purposes, the number of trees currently producing isn't really proportionate to the level of demand.

9. Why did cosmonauts bring shotguns to space?

Not to fight potential aliens. In case they landed in Siberia, they wanted to be prepared to fend off bears.

10. What is the Riot Act, and why don't I want it read to me?

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The idiom refers to the admonishment of a person or persons who have committed an error in judgment. But the origin of the term concerns a very particular wrongdoing: an unlawful public assembly that peace officers of the 18th century fought with a pre-written warning to disperse or face the repercussions. Like death.

The Riot Act was first passed by the British Parliament in 1714 and took effect on Aug. 1, 1715. At its core, the act served as what linguists refer to as a speech act: a word, phrase, or order that carries real weight. (Think of an ordained minister pronouncing a couple husband and wife.) If confronted with a rowdy crowd, an official would arrive and—this was crucial—read the act aloud in order to serve formal notice that the parties involved were overstepping their bounds.

The act was passed in haste because supporters of the Catholic Jacobite political movement had been voicing their disapproval of King George I. A riot was any group of 12 or more people engaged in public disharmony. Typically, the raucous formation would be given 60 minutes to take a hike. If not, their just punishment would be prison, labor or death. If the peace officer believed danger was imminent, he wouldn't have to wait the whole hour: He could deputize citizens to try and break up the gathering.

The Riot Act was officially repealed in England and Wales in 1967. Today, it's almost always used as a figure of speech, although Belize still recognizes it as a method of crowd dispersal. In 2017, police officers there drew criticism for launching tear gas into a People's United Party protest without first reading them the Riot Act. When questioned by a reporter, then-assistant commissioner of police Edward Broaster said that the incident didn’t "meet the threshold" for busting out the paperwork.

11. What's the difference between jelly and jam?

Jelly is made from the strained juice of fruit, with sugar and pectin added, while jam is made from the unstrained juice of the fruit, with fruit, sugar, and pectin added.

12. What's the difference between dinner and supper?

Dinner was historically the largest meal of the day, regardless of when it was served. Supper comes from the Old French word souper, meaning an evening meal; it's generally lighter than other meals served throughout the day.

13. What's the difference between vanilla ice cream and French vanilla ice cream?


Vanilla is made with milk, cream, sugar and flavorings, while French vanilla is made with milk, cream, sugar, flavorings … and eggs, for a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color.

14. Why do dogs' feet sometimes smell like corn chips?

If you think your dog's feet smell like popcorn or corn chips, you're not alone. Dogs have a lot of bacteria and yeast that grow on their paws as a result of moisture that gets caught in the many folds and pockets between their toes. These microorganisms create a variety of smells. The bacteria Proteus or Pseudomonas are the likely parties guilty of giving your hound's feet that distinct tortilla-like smell. There's no need to go wash your pet's paws just yet, though—a subtle smell is completely normal.

15. Is a dog's mouth cleaner than a human's?


It depends on the dog and the human. It's a common myth that a dog's mouth is a magically clean place, but a canine's mouth is brimming with bacteria. Fortunately, a lot of those germs are species-specific, so you don't have to worry if your pup goes in for a wet kiss. That said, there are some similar bacteria, so make sure your pet is up to date on all their shots and don't let them lick you if you have cuts or wounds.

16. Why do dogs walk in a circle before lying down?

Dogs get this behavior from their wild ancestors, who didn't have access to doggie beds. Walking in tight circles would push down tall grass and shape it into a snoozing spot. The motion would also scare off any critters hiding in the vegetation.

17. What do dogs dream about?

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Researchers believe that, yes, dogs do dream. Like humans, dogs have a sleep stage where their breathing slows and their eye movements become rapid—indicators that they're dreaming.

There's also the superficial evidence: Dogs often bark or twitch while they're sleeping in ways that imply they're dreaming of chasing an elusive target. That's because dogs, like us, probably dream about the events of the day—in their case, running or playing. Dreams can even be breed-specific, like a pointer who will go "on point." Smaller dogs tend to dream more than big dogs, and older dogs more than midlife dogs.

Apart from physical clues, it's hard to know exactly what goes through a pup's mind when it's sleeping. But if you leave them be, maybe they'll finally catch that squirrel or whatever else they've been chasing.

18. How big was the world's tallest dog?

On Oct. 4, 2011, Guinness World Records named Zeus—a Great Dane from Otsego, Michigan, who was 44
inches tall—the World's Tallest Dog. Though Zeus passed away in 2014, he maintains the record.

19. Why do cats "blep"?


You may catch your cat staring off into the abyss with their tongue lolling out of their mouth—a cartoonish expression that has been identified as a blep.

It could just be your cat "smelling" the environment with their tongue. But Ingrid Johnson, a certified cat behavior consultant and the owner of Fundamentally Feline, says that bleps may have several plausible explanations. "It's likely they don't feel it or even realize they're doing it," she says. "One reason for that might be that they're on medication that causes relaxation. Something for anxiety or stress or a muscle relaxer would do it."

A blep might even be breed- specific. Persians, who have fat faces, might dangle their tongues because they lack the real estate to store it.

Whatever the origin, bleps are generally no cause for concern unless the cat is doing it on a regular basis, which could be a sign of an oral problem with their gums or teeth. Otherwise, a blep can either be admired … or retracted with a gentle prod of the tongue (provided your kitty puts up with that kind of nonsense).

20. Why do cats love cardboard boxes?

Cats take comfort in cramped spaces because it makes them feel more secure and dominant. "Part of it goes back to when they were kittens and inside the womb, feeling safe and comforted," says cat therapist Carole Wilbourn. "There's a feeling of coziness, being able to do what they want to do, and just feeling untouchable."

Science supports this theory. Animal behaviorists have studied stress levels in newly arrived shelter cats and found that felines with access to boxes had lower stress levels and faster adjustment periods than those without.

21. Why are cats afraid of water?


According to John Bradshaw, Ph.D., author of Cat Sense, cats may have an ancestral fear of getting wet. "Domestic cats were descended from Arabian wild cats," he says. "Their ancestors lived in an area with few large bodies of water. They never had to learn how to swim."

A cat's displeasure extends to the physical sensation of being doused. According to Bradshaw, a cat's coat doesn't shed water easily, making it hard for them to dry off quickly.

Not all species of cat avoid swimming, however. The Van cats that live near the shore of Lake Van in Eastern Turkey are reared to dive in as kittens, with their mothers nudging them in.

22. Do cats fart?

They do! We just don't really hear it. The lack of audible farts is likely due to the fact that cats don't gulp their
food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract. So cats pass gas with the same grace and stealth with which they approach everything else.

23. Who is the world's loudest cat?

In 2015, a 13-year-old rescue cat named Merlin was named the World's Loudest Cat by Guinness World Records. His 67.8-decibel purr is as about as loud as an air conditioner or dishwasher.

24. Who is smarter, cats or dogs?


According to experts, comparing cat intelligence to dog smarts is like comparing apples to oranges: "Intelligence evolves to solve problems that are recurrent over an [evolutionary timescale]," Rosalind Arden, an intelligence researcher at the London School of Economics, says.

Experts know that cats have "object permanence," or the ability to know an object is there even when it goes out of sight (like a toy they've batted underneath a couch). They also seem to be able to figure out where the item has been moved, even if they aren't privy to the action.

Studies also show that felines can discriminate between quantities, follow a human-pointing gesture to find food, respond to their owners' emotions, distinguish between humans using only vocal cues and figure out simple food puzzles—all similar to dogs. (Unlike dogs, however, cats won't look up at their owners for "help" if they can't solve a puzzle.) However, we still have a long way to go before we figure out what felines are truly capable of—and when we do, we should compare them to other cats instead of dogs.

25. Why does "will not" become "won't"?

Most contractions in English are pretty straightforward: Two words are joined together, minus a few sounds. That isn’t the case for will not, which becomes won't instead of willn't. But there’s a good reason for it.

In Old English there were two forms of the verb willan (to wish or will)—wil- in the present and wold- in the past. Over the next few centuries there was a good deal of bouncing back and forth between those vowels (and others) in all forms of the word. At different times, will came out as wulle, wole, wool, welle, wel, wile, wyll, and even ull.

There was less variation in the contracted form. From at least the 16th century, the preferred form was wonnot from woll not, with occasional departures later to winnot, wunnot, or the expected willn't. In the ever-changing landscape that is English, will won the battle of the woles/wulles. But for the negative contraction, wonnot simply won out, and contracted further to the won't we use today.

26. Why do we laugh?

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Laughter, like crying, may have developed as a social tool. Laughter doesn't appear to be a uniquely human behavior, and it may not even be limited to primates. Rats produce laughter when tickled, for example. Many other social animals, such as dolphins, make specific sounds associated with play-fighting that have also been likened to laughter.

A leading hypothesis for why we laugh is that laughter promotes pro-social behavior by letting playmates know that the fighting is just a game. But even if our interpretations of these behaviors are correct, it's possible that humans evolved different uses for laughter after our evolutionary splits with other animal species, making the reason for human laughter another open question.

27. How does general anesthesia work?

Rolling into surgery, you probably assume that your doctors know how to perform the procedure, and understand how the drugs that knock you out actually work. Wrong. Scientists know that local anesthetics like Novocain block pain signals before they reach the central nervous system by altering the function of specific proteins on nerve cells. But the molecular basis of general anesthesia is more of a mystery. These drugs seem to interfere with the functions of a variety of proteins on nerve cells in the central nervous system, but how they accomplish this is not well understood. General anesthetics come in a variety of types, and likely don't all work the same way. Developing models of how the compounds work on the molecular level may continue to be a challenge.

28. How can I get rid of hiccups?

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Maybe you hold your breath. Maybe you chug water. Unfortunately, nothing has been found to reliably eliminate hiccups, despite the overwhelming number of folk remedies on the internet. This sad state of affairs is likely due to insufficient research: Serious cases of the hiccups are rare, and the mild cases are brief and don't usually cause major problems. Most of the treatments for severe cases of hiccups—doses of sedating antipsychotics like haloperidol, vagus nerve stimulation, digital rectal massage—aren't exactly things you could try on your own. For now, you'll have to endure hiccups or stick with unproven, but usually harmless, solutions. At least they give you an excuse to eat peanut butter by the spoonful.

29. What are sea-monkeys, anyway?

No, they're not monkeys of the sea. These starter pets are brine shrimp, which go into cryptobiosis—a state of suspended animation—when not in water. In the 1960s, inventor Harold von Braunhut figured out a way to treat tap water with a mix of nutrients (which he called “magic crystals”) to revive the shrimp in a tank at home. With marine biologist and microcrustacean expert Anthony D’ Agostino, he crossbred shrimp from the genus Artemia to make a heartier species, which they named Artemia NYOS, after the Long Island lab (New York Oceanic Society) where they were created. As for why von Braunhut called them sea-monkeys? He was reportedly inspired by the shrimps' long tails.

30. Why are some men's beards a different color than their hair?


While age can certainly influence hair and beard color, it doesn't explain why a younger man can sport a decidedly different beard tone than what's on the rest of his head. Other follicular forces are at work.

By default, scalp hair is white. It gets its color from melanin, with different types of melanin producing different hair colors. Pheomelanin infuses hair with red and yellow pigmentation; eumelanin influences brown and black. The two can mix within the same hair shaft. (Melanin production decreases as we age, which is why hairs start to appear gray.) But not all follicles get the same dose in the same combination. While you might have a light brown top, your beard could be predominantly dark brown, or sport patches of lighter hairs in spots. Eyebrow hair will often appear darker because those follicles tend to produce more eumelanin.

31. Why do people hate the word moist?

In 2014, researchers from Oberlin College and Trinity University ran three experiments to figure out whether people truly hate the word moist, and why. They found that more than 20 percent of the participants were averse to the word, but not because of the way it sounds. Rather, it's the association with bodily functions that seems to turn most people off.

They found the word moist most disgusting when it was accompanied by unrelated, positive words like paradise, or when it was accompanied by sexual words. By contrast, when it accompanied food words (like cake), people weren't as bothered by it. The younger and more neurotic the study participants were, the more likely they were to dislike the word—and the more disgust they associated with bodily functions, the less they liked moist.

32. Where are all the baby pigeons?

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Rest assured, baby pigeons, or squabs, do exist—and there's a good reason you're not seeing them. It's partially because pigeons build nests in places that mimic the caves and cliffs their ancestors used. In New York City, for example, you might find nests in any partially protected place, like on a rooftop, keeping them largely out of sight of passersby.

The other reason why squabs are rarely seen is because of how long they stay in the nest—for about a month to six weeks, which is about how long it takes them to grow to an adult size.

33. Why are public toilets U-shaped?

There's a difference between a public toilet and the one in your house, and it's not necessarily the level of cleanliness: Their seats are shaped differently. While most private bathrooms have oval or round toilet seats that wrap all the way around the toilet, almost all public restrooms have what are called open-front toilet seats, which are shaped like the letter U and have an opening at the front.

The two-prong, open-front seat is required by the plumbing codes adopted by most public authorities in the U.S. This is largely a matter of hygiene: No matter what kind of junk you're packing, U-shaped seats give you a little breathing room to avoid touching the seat with your genitals, and provide one less place for urine to splash. (They also allow women to more conveniently wipe after going to the bathroom.)

34. How can I beat a claw machine?

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Conquering a claw machine—especially one rigged in the owner's favor—requires a little luck and a fair amount of skill.

1. Scope out the prize pit. If it's stuffed too tight, you'll never get a toy out. Skip it. 2. Watch someone else play first and observe how the machine reacts. Is the claw loosey-goosey? Does it jiggle? Use that information when it's your turn. 3. Pick your target carefully. Avoid round things and instead look for a toy that's sticking out a bit and isn't too close to the side. The closer it is to the chute, the better. 4. Play once before going for the toy you want—it'll give you a feel for the claw. You can also drag your chosen toy closer to the chute. 5. Don't drop the claw right away; spend some time maneuvering it to increase your chances for success. Let the clock run down, and once you're in the absolute best position, drop it.

35. What's that small pocket in your jeans for?

You've probably noticed that some of your jeans have a small pocket located in one of the front pockets. Many people think it's meant to hold coins, but according to Levi's, they created it to provide extra protection for pocket watches.

36. What's that hole in a pan's handle for?

Most pots and pans are designed with a small hole at the end of the handle. While they make for an easy way to hang your pans when they're not in use, they also have another function: as a way to hold your spoon or spatula in place over the pot itself.

37. How long should I dunk an Oreo?


In 2016, members of Utah State University's Splash Lab—an academic group studying the behaviors of fluids—put Oreos (and a few other cookies) to the test. They dipped the cookies halfway in 2 percent milk for half a second to seven seconds. After dunking, the team weighed the treats and measured how much milk had been absorbed. The results: Oreos absorbed 50 percent of their potential liquid weight in just one second. After two seconds, they absorbed 80 percent. The number flatlined briefly for a second. After four seconds, the cookie absorbed all its possible milk.

"This data indicates that for the tested cookies, keeping your cookie in the glass any longer than five seconds does not lead to any additional milk entering the cookies," their study suggested. The takeaway: Three seconds is enough time to saturate most of an Oreo. There's no benefit to dunking longer than four seconds—unless you want to watch your delicious cookie crumble into the milk.

38. What's that loop on some dress shirts?

If you look below the collar and between the shoulders on the back of many men's dress shirts, you may spot a little loop. It's there to provide a convenient way to hang up the shirt when a hanger is unavailable.

39. Do realtors have to disclose that a home is supposedly haunted?

While realtors are generally obligated to disclose material defects like black mold and leaky roofs, the law gets fuzzy when it comes to alleged ghosts living in the attic. Haunted houses are officially classified as "stigmatized," which means that though there may be nothing wrong with the physical structure itself, something about a house’s background could turn off potential buyers. (Homes that have hosted murders or other criminal activity fall under this category.)

The law surrounding property stigmas changes depending on which state you're in. In Massachusetts, for example, Realtors aren't required to inform clients of a house’s potentially disturbing history unless they ask about it. According to California law, sellers must disclose any deaths that have happened on the property in the past three years.

What constitutes a "haunted" house has proven tricky to legally define. In the 1991 case of Stambovsky v. Ackley (also known as the "Ghostbusters ruling"), New York State declared that sellers must disclose to buyers that they think a house is haunted only if they've already shared this opinion to "the public at large." But as long as they keep their paranormal encounters to themselves, they're under no obligation to speak up when it's time to sell the home.

40. What do stink bugs smell like?

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Skunk. Old socks. Cilantro. These are just some of the things the smell of the brown marmorated stink bug has been compared to. The two main chemicals responsible for the bug's stinky spray are trans-2-octenal and trans-2-decenal—with the latter being what gives cilantro its unique smell. The chemicals in the spray might have a purpose besides scaring away predators: According to a 2016 study, they "inhibit the growth of bacteria"; the results of the study "suggest that brown marmorated stink bug aldehydes are indeed antibacterial agents and serve a multifunctional role for this insect."

41. What is Mercury Retrograde and why do we blame things on it?

A person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect chaos when Mercury is in retrograde. But there's no scientific evidence to back this up.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people,” Mark Hammergren, Ph.D., an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, says.

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,” Hammergren says.

He 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 in 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 there's no correlation. But as Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn’t in retrograde, "We don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

42. How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

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The world may never know. But on average, a "licking machine" designed at Purdue University needed 364.

43. What happened to Bob Ross's paintings?

Iconic painter Bob Ross said he created over 30,000 paintings in his lifetime. If he didn't sell them, where did all those happy little clouds go? "Most of these paintings are donated to PBS stations across the country," Ross once explained. "They auction them off, and they make a happy buck with 'em."

If that's true, Ross probably donated around 1200 paintings. Ross shot 403 episodes of The Joy of Painting and made three copies of each painting per episode. As for the 28,800 paintings Ross made outside of TV? We have only a vague idea of where they might be.

Before becoming a TV star, Ross was an Air Force master-sergeant in Alaska. There, he painted and sold gold pans. Later on, Ross taught lessons year-round, and regularly gave paintings to his students.

Sometimes Ross donated his work to charity. A couple of his pieces even found their way onto the black market: In 1983, a burglar stole 13 reference paintings from his van.

44. Who invented the cardboard box?


In the 1st and 2nd century BCE, sheets of bark from the mulberry tree were used to wrap and protect food, an early example of a sturdy wood-based product being repurposed for packaging. But what we’d recognize as a cardboard box didn’t appear until the early 19th century, with an open box that held the 1817 German board game The Game of Besieging. Companies used the boxes to store and transport goods, but an additional twist—or pleat—to create the flaps was needed. In 1856, tall-hat peddlers Edward Allen and Edward Healey used stiffer paper made with a fluted sheet in the middle of two layers to create a precursor to corrugated cardboard.

The real breakthrough came in 1879 thanks to Robert Gair, owner of a Brooklyn paper factory, who figured out he could both score a single sheet of cardboard and then have his printing press cut it at the same time, eliminating laborious hand-cutting. With the flat pieces folded together, the cardboard box as we know it was born. Gair pitched companies on this handy new form of storage and scored a 2 million-piece order from the cracker czars at Nabisco. Snack foods could now travel without danger of being crushed, and soon, the cardboard box was migrating from kitchen cupboards to anywhere a cheap, effective form of packaging was needed. In the 1930s, the Finnish government even adopted the boxes as part of a take-home maternity package for new mothers who may not have been able to afford cribs. Babies took their first naps in the confines of the mattress-lined box, a practice that continues today.

By Kathy Benjamin, April Daley, Michele Debczak, Kirstin Fawcett, Shaunacy Ferro, Nick Greene, Nicole Haloupek, Sean Hutchinson, Erin McCarthy, Arika Okrent, Emily Petsko, Madeline Raynor, Lucas Reilly, Jake Rossen, Matt Soniak.