20 Amazingly Random Facts We've Learned in 20 Years of Mental Floss
We've been celebrating Mental Floss's 20th anniversary all year, looking at everything from history's most memorable fart moments to novelty foods that have titillated taste buds since our 2011 debut to the stories behind inventions that changed the world. But no Mental Floss celebration (and no celebration of Mental Floss) would be complete without dropping a few fascinating facts and tidbits of trivia. In no particular order, here are 20 of our favorite amazingly random facts we've learned while working at Mental Floss. We encourage you to use them at your next cocktail party.
1. Pozzee-wallah was an early 20th century slang term for a man who was very fond of jam.
The delightful phrase apparently originated in the military.
2. Lobsters pee out of their faces.
The urine comes from glands located near the crustacean’s antennae. As Bob Bayer, the former head of the University of Maine’s Lobster Institute told us a few years ago, "They're greenish brown spots. They actually look like two pieces of snot—that’s the best way to describe them. You'd have to open them up to see them." Peeing at one another is part of both fighting and courtship for the crustaceans.
3. One of John Tyler's grandsons is still alive in 2021.
John Tyler is not generally considered one of the United States’ most impressive presidents. After coming into office following William Henry Harrison’s untimely demise in 1841, Tyler was sometimes called “His Accidency”—not quite “The Great Emancipator,” as presidential nicknames go. But Tyler did contribute one of our favorite presidential facts: One of his grandsons, Harrison Ruffin Tyler, is still alive as of this publishing. Not great-great-grandson—his dad’s dad was the 10th president of the United States. It helped that President Tyler’s son, Lyon Gardiner Tyler, sired his second son at a spritely 74 years old.
4. Mary Shelley kept her dead husband's heart after he died.
The Frankenstein author was so fond of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, that after he drowned at age 29, she was said to have kept his heart—which somehow survived cremation—in a poem wrapped in silk.
5. Andrew Jackson threw a big party for a big block of cheese in 1835.
The nearly 1400-pound cheese wheel was sent to Jackson by dairy farmer Colonel Thomas S. Meacham. At his last public reception as President, Jackson offered up his massive fromage to the masses, who quickly polished it off. As a contemporary spoilsport noted, “A day more disgustingly spent in the President’s house there could not with difficulty be ... Pockets, hats, handkerchiefs, everything was filled with cheese.”
That was, delightfully, not the end of Meachem’s impact on the White House. As then-Senator John Davis’s wife, Eliza, wrote in an 1838 letter, Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, “had a hard task to get rid of the smell of cheese, and in the room where it was cut, he had to air the carpet for many days.” Let that be a lesson to all those planning on cutting the cheese in the hallowed halls of government.
6. The Oregon State Highway Department once blew up a beached whale, and it did not go well.
When a dead beached whale sat on the shore just south of Florence, Oregon, in 1970, it began to emit a horrifying stench. The Oregon State Highway Department’s solution to this problem involved a half ton of dynamite. Yes, they decided to blow the whale up. A crowd of onlookers gathered at the scene, but their hopes for a wholesome whale-exploding diversion were soon waylaid. When the blast went off, the smell of putrid whale engulfed the area, and a large chunk of flying whale carcass did some serious damage to a 1969 Oldsmobile parked nearby. Even with the collateral damage, a large portion of the whale remained, and eventually it had to be buried in sand. It was not the finest moment for municipal problem-solving, but the area’s residents evidently have a good sense of humor about the whole thing. In 2020, Florence unveiled a new public space: Exploding Whale Memorial Park.
7. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game once used parachutes to get beavers to a new home.
In 1948, beavers near Idaho’s Payette Lake were proving to be a nuisance for the new (human) residents. Officials at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game wanted to relocate the critters, but driving them through the undeveloped, mountainous terrain would have been difficult—past experience had taught authorities that beavers don’t like traveling via truck or pack animal—especially when there aren’t any roads to traverse. Instead, they decided to parachute the animals to their new homes in the wilderness. A total of 76 beavers were eventually moved, via airplane and surplus World War II parachutes.
8. The Velociraptor barks in Jurassic Park are the sound of two tortoises getting busy.
Jurassic Park sound designer Gary Rydstrom was responsible, in part, for some awe-inspiring cinematic moments. Think about the noises made by the brachiosaurus in that iconic early scene, or the terrifying footsteps of the Tyrannosaurus Rex. But Rydstrom’s true genius best shines through when you hear the movie’s Velociraptors bark at one another. That sound was captured at the Marine World theme park—it’s two tortoises having sex. Showing commitment to his craft, Rydstrom explained to Vulture, “tortoises mating can take a long time. You’ve got to have plenty of time to sit around and watch and record them.” We salute you, Gary Rydstrom.
9. Thomas Edison gave his two eldest kids nerdy nicknames.
The elder Edison had worked in the telegraph industry early in his career, and it seems he had some fond memories of that time. He called his oldest kids, Marion and Thomas, Jr., “Dot” and “Dash,” like the Morse Code signals.
10. Wombats poop cubes.
A group of researchers may have determined the cause of this unique fecal shape. Wombat intestines are stretchy, but not uniformly so—the stiffer parts of the organs may help form the unusual sides of the fecal matter. And there may actually be an evolutionary benefit to this squarish stool. Science News suggests that the shape lends itself to stacking and doesn’t roll off of rocks as easily as other feces would. This helps when wombats mark their territory, and the smell may even act as a nighttime navigational aid for the adorable marsupials.
11. If you enjoy pumpkin pie with your Thanksgiving meal, you may want to save a word of gratitude for mastodon poop.
Tens of thousands of years ago, North American megafauna had an affinity for wild gourds—the ancestors of squashes and pumpkin. This made the giant creatures somewhat unusual amongst animals, as the plants had a bitter-tasting toxin in their flesh that kept many would-be gourd gourmands away. By dispersing gourd seeds through their feces, creatures like mastodons helped widely propagate the crops until humans decided to domesticate them (the squashes, not the mastodons).
12. Italian Filippo Tommaso Marinetti once called for the abolition of pasta.
Marinetti was a leading figure in the Futurist movement, which was a far-ranging school of thought that began in the art world and spread to other parts of society. Eventually, Futurists were advocating for a future in which the government replaced all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes. Until chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists advocated swapping out pasta with rice, which was easier to produce in Italy. They thought this would “free Italy from expensive foreign wheat.” Marinetti co-wrote the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking” with Luigi Colombo. In it, they described pasta as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and accused pasta lovers of being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.” Like that's a bad thing?
13. Jane Austen was fond of brewing beer.
One of Austen’s specialties—aside from devastatingly romantic comedies of manners—was her spruce beer. She was also a big fan of mead, apparently. It might sound like an odd hobby, but in the Regency era and years prior, it wasn’t unusual for women to brew beer.
14. Nacho cheese is often made possible by an ingredient with the chemical formula Na3C6H5O7. Seriously.
When Frank Liberto, the owner of Ricos Products, had the idea to sell nachos at sporting events in the late 1970s, he knew customers wouldn’t wait around for cheese to melt. Adding a specific kind of salt allows the proteins in the cheese to become more soluble. That means the emulsified liquid and fat is less likely to separate when melted, creating a cheese that melts more easily and stays liquidy. One of the most popular compounds used to achieve this perpetually melty cheese is sodium citrate, whose chemical formula spells out NACHO.
15. The world's no. 1 producer of tires isn't the company you think.
You might think that Goodyear is the world’s leading producer of tires, but to identity the real #1 in that field you have to think bigger. Or, smaller. They won’t help you when your car pops a flat, but the LEGO company actually makes around 381 million tiny tires for their sets each year, making them, technically, the world’s most prolific tire manufacturer.
16. Monopoly helped soldiers escape German POW camps during World War II.
Christopher Clayton Hutton was an intelligence officer during World War II who helped supply Allied soldiers with tools to escape German POW camps. Hutton’s clever methods included hiding piano wire in a pair of trousers and a flashlight in a bicycle pump. While German authorities were eventually able to stymie many of Hutton’s methods, one particular strategy evaded Axis interference. With the help of a Leeds-based manufacturing company, Hutton hid escape kits for POWs in ordinary-looking board games like Monopoly.
Games like Monopoly were often allowed in the prison camps, as Germans believed it was a diversion for soldiers who might otherwise use their free time to plot escapes. Unbeknownst to them, some prisoners were actually receiving contraband within the game sets like silk maps—which could help them navigate to safety once outside of the prisons, and were quieter than paper maps. Along with the maps, the Monopoly boards could contain a small compass, a saw, and a file. Real money could even be concealed within the play money of the game. It’s a fascinating story, laid out in greater detail in Hutton’s biography, Official Secret. In total, according to historian Philip Orbanes, more than 700 airmen used kits like the ones prepared by Hutton to escape.
17. You can bring your pet fish on your flight.
If you want to bring a pet fish aboard your next flight—and who doesn’t?—there’s no need to hide her inside a board game. The TSA allows people to fly with live fish, as long as they’re contained in water and inside a transparent container. And yes, it seems that water can exceed the usual 3.4-ounce limit.
18. If you want photographic evidence of Neil Armstrong’s time on the lunar surface, you have a surprising dearth of options.
Buzz Aldrin’s suit lacked the special camera holder that Armstrong’s had, so Neil handled most of the photography after Apollo 11 landed on the moon. As the astronauts had a limited amount of time on the surface, Armstrong focused on taking incredible photographs of his surroundings. Aldrin did spend a bit of time as a lunar shutterbug, providing us with a shot of Armstrong from the back, but we do have a photo of Neil from the front, as well—and it’s hidden inside a very famous photo of Aldrin. If you look closely at Buzz’s visor in this shot, you’ll see that it contains the reflection of Neil Armstrong. The first moon mirror selfie: an incredible achievement of human ingenuity, courage, and collaboration.
19. Mr. Belvedere actor Christopher Hewett once sat on his own genitals.
That ridiculous story was confirmed by Mr. Belvedere producer Jeff Stein. “He fell backwards riding in a convertible in the Hollywood Christmas Parade,” Stein said. The incident forced the cast and crew to briefly halt production on the 1980s sitcom.
20. Over the years, a lot of suggestions have been made on how to salvage more of the Titanic.
The best, in our opinion, dates back to 1985, when an expert proposed filling the wrecked ship with 180,000 tons of Vaseline in polyester bags. Theoretically it would have hardened in the cold waters of the Atlantic and floated the Titanic up to a more accessible depth. Sadly, the petroleum jelly plan never came to be.