Douglas Corrigan and his plane

On July 17, 1938, an American pilot named Douglas Corrigan landed his single-person plane in Dublin, Ireland after departing from New York over 28 hours earlier—heading for California. Corrigan claimed (until his dying day, in fact) that his error was due to a combination of heavy clouds and misreading his compass, though few believed him, not least because he’d been trying to get permission to fly to Dublin for three years and aviation authorities had repeatedly turned him down. As punishment, officials suspended his pilot’s license for a mere 14 days. Corrigan returned to the United States on a steamship, along with his crated-up airplane, arriving on the last day of his suspension. By that time he had become an international celebrity, and was honored with ticker-tape parades in both New York and Chicago. The nickname “Wrong Way” stuck with him for the rest of his life, and he was both the subject and star of a 1939 movie called The Flying Irishman, based on his adventure.

Whether or not Corrigan went the wrong way on purpose, this stunt resulted in both fame and fortune (not to mention getting to fly to Dublin, which had been his goal in the first place). So let that be a lesson to you. If you’re going to screw up, do so as boldly as possible.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Teams entering pool in wife carrying World Championships

Obstacles to a healthy relationship

I have never been much of a sports fan, which explains the scarcity of articles here dealing with sports-related topics. Truth be told, I’ve always had a hard time generating enthusiasm for any sort of game, whether as a participant or a spectator. There are a few notable exceptions: I can get quite worked up about Scrabble or beach volleyball, for example, not that I’m terribly skilled at either. Although I have the utmost respect for athletic ability, I do not myself possess any, and I don’t generally find it very interesting to watch other people competing.

But then, perhaps I just need to broaden my horizons. There is a whole class of sports that will never have a national league or Olympic status, but that have enough pure entertainment value to appeal to even a wet blanket such as myself. One such sport, which now includes fierce international championships, is the Wife Carrying Contest. Strange but true: this is an actual sporting event with participants every bit as serious and competitive as those who run marathons or, say…break hot dog-eating records.

Strong to the Finnish

The world capital of wife carrying (a dubious distinction, I must imagine) is Sonkajärvi, Finland. The first national championship was held there in 1992, and this small town has hosted the event every summer since—with international participation beginning in the late 1990s. (The North American championships, by the way, are held in Newry, Maine.) The basic idea of the contest is that a man carries a woman (usually on his back or shoulders) along a 253.5-meter sand-covered track, with two dry barriers and one water barrier. The woman need not be his wife—she can be someone else’s wife, or even a bachelorette. The only stipulation is that she be at least 17 years of age and weigh at least 49 kilograms (about 110 pounds)—or be weighed down with a rucksack to reach that total figure. (Prior to the introduction of the minimum weight, some men chose exceptionally petite partners and were therefore considered to have an unfair advantage.) The woman is required to wear a helmet in case she is dropped—an error which, apart from any injuries it may cause, results in no small embarrassment to the male competitor.

Although the sport as such is relatively new, organizers claim that it’s based on a tradition that stretches back to the late 1800s. Every description of the sport’s origin mentions two facts, which may or may not be apocryphal and may or may not have anything to do with each other. First, there was supposedly a bandit named Herkko Rosvo-Ronkainen who required wannabe henchmen to carry a large, heavy sack across a makeshift obstacle course including a fence and a ditch in order to prove their worthiness. And second, legend has it that in those days, it was common for men to steal women from neighboring villages. Some accounts conflate these two stories to describe Rosvo-Ronkainen as the leader of a wife-stealing gang. Whether or not any of this is true, the practice of wife carrying seems to have taken a century-long hiatus before reemerging as a spectator sport.

Feats of Beer Strength

Wife carrying, as originally conceived, was apparently its own reward, but these days the women are not the prize. Instead, the winning team gets a small amount of cash, some gadgets donated by sponsoring companies, and the woman’s weight in beer. No kidding.

Estonia dominated the championships from 1998 to 2008, after which Finland won eight of the next ten years (and a particular Finnish couple, Taisto Miettinen and Kristiina Haapanen, won six of those years). The 2018 champions were, for the first time, from Lithuania.

To my knowledge, no same-sex couples have yet challenged the seemingly sexist nature of the contest. I feel certain that the enlightened Finns would be happy to let a man carry another man or a woman carry another woman, but given the average sizes of men and women, the odds would tend to favor a man carrying a woman. Photos I’ve seen of various competitors usually show a rather burly man and a rather slight woman. Morgen and I are too similar in size to pose any threat to the reigning champs, but I’ll bet I could carry a hot dog and a Coke from the concession stand to our seat as quickly as the next guy.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on November 17, 2004.

Image credit: Visit Lakeland [CC BY-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Fresh spinach leaves

If you overdid it on National Ice Cream Day yesterday, now is the time to undo that damage. July 16 is National Fresh Spinach Day—and yes, fresh is the operative word there. No frozen, cooked, or canned spinach today (sorry, Popeye). But that’s OK because fresh spinach is delicious and full of wonderful nutrients—it’s especially high in vitamins A and K, low in calories and carbs, with both protein and fiber (and a long list of other vitamins and minerals). It’s also 91% water, which is why it practically disappears when you cook it. Which you’re not going to do today, for reasons already discussed. You are, however, welcome to enjoy your fresh spinach with some olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and bacon crumbles.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Freeze-dried ice cream

The amazing science of lyophilization

I remember where I was when I heard the news that Elvis died. On August 16, 1977, I was in Washington, D.C. on vacation with my parents and sister. We were watching TV in our hotel room while getting dressed for our day of sightseeing when the news was announced. Although they would not have said so, I suspected my parents were secretly relieved that the world was rid of a corrupting influence. As for me, I was only vaguely aware of Elvis from commercials pitching his records, and from the fact that he and my father had the same birthday. I was much more concerned that we have time to visit the National Air and Space Museum, which had just opened the previous summer, and which was to be—for me, at least—the highlight of this trip. The promise of getting to see a real spaceship, real moon rocks, and so on was, for this ten-year-old kid, incredibly exciting.

The museum was everything I had hoped it would be—and more. The last attraction we saw was, naturally, the gift shop, and I tried to get my parents to buy me as many of those amazing goodies as possible. One particular item near the checkout caught my attention: freeze-dried ice cream (“like the astronauts eat!”). At that time, Astronaut Ice Cream was not available just anywhere, and this curious novelty was too good for my mom, a confirmed ice cream junkie, to pass up. We bought a packet and marveled at how this warm, dry stuff nevertheless tasted exactly like ice cream. I had previously thought that the coolest thing about astronauts was that they got to go into space.

My experience with freeze-dried foods had, to that point, been limited to a jar of instant coffee that we kept in our cupboard for when my grandparents visited. That was the only time anyone in the house ever drank coffee (another corrupting influence, natch), and I think that one small jar must have lasted well over a decade. In later years I would come to believe that instant coffee (freeze-dried or otherwise) was an abomination, but then, as a ten-year-old, I still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea too.

Dry Ice?

Nevertheless, the idea of freeze-dried foods has always seemed somewhat incredible to me, and not just because that’s what astronauts eat. I’ve frozen lots of things and never had anything come out of the freezer completely dry and reconstitutable into its original form. And I guess I sort of carried that sense of wonder with me into adulthood, feeling that freeze drying was some mysterious black art that was always intended to be beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Then it dawned on me that I could find out exactly how it was done with a quick web search, so I did. I was a bit surprised at the answer—and also surprised at some of the other uses to which this process is put.

Freeze drying (also known as lyophilization) starts, logically enough, with freezing. The mundane process of converting the water molecules in a substance to their solid state is in fact much more of an art than I’d suspected. Depending on what you’re freezing and what its intended use is, you may prefer to freeze it very quickly (so that small ice crystals form) or very slowly (so that large ice crystals form). You may also choose immersion in a cold liquid such as liquid nitrogen, or simply using exposure to cold air. After freezing, though, the substance is subjected to a vacuum before being very gently heated. A precise combination of pressure and temperature causes sublimation, in which the ice crystals turn directly into water vapor without passing through a liquid phase. This vapor is then condensed and drained away, and the temperature and pressure returned to normal. Although this description is somewhat of an oversimplification, the result is a substance that is almost completely devoid of moisture, and yet not damaged in any other way.

Time Capsule

There are, of course, other ways to dry foods, such as setting them out in the sun for a few days or using a convection drying apparatus. But such conventional dehydration processes present some problems. For one thing, they can take a long time, during which bacteria and naturally occurring enzymes begin to degrade the quality of the food, or even cause it to spoil. For another, the heat can partially cook the food—perhaps not the desired result. And conventional dehydration is rarely complete, leaving some liquid water molecules still present in the food. Freeze drying, on the other hand, removes virtually all the water, which in turn prevents bacterial and enzymatic activity—locking the food into a state of suspended animation for as long as ten years. Add water, and the food assumes more or less its original taste, texture, and nutritional qualities—though some foods, such as lettuce, rehydrate poorly because they have such a high water content in the first place. (And I probably don’t have to tell you that adding water to freeze-dried ice cream won’t produce anything resembling the original product.) Interestingly, freeze drying so carefully preserves the cellular structure of animal and plant matter that any bacteria that were present before the food was dried may reanimate when water is added, restarting the spoilage process that freeze drying put on hold.

Although food—whether coffee, ice cream, or complete meals (for astronauts or campers)—is the best-known application of freeze-drying, other substances that can degrade too rapidly when moist are also candidates for the process. This includes pharmaceuticals, blood plasma, and even roses. The latest fad, though, is using the freeze-drying process on somewhat larger items: pets. You can’t freeze-dry Spot and bring him back to life later by tossing him in the shower, but if your pet has already died, some companies will preserve it using a taxidermy process that includes freeze-drying. From there, the inevitable next step was to human corpses, and sure enough, a Swedish company has proposed just such a service, which they claim is much more environmentally friendly than either embalming or cremation. They intend to immerse your corpse in liquid nitrogen, shatter it into tiny pieces with ultrasonic waves, dry these particles, and then bury the final, compostable product in a coffin in a shallow grave—so that you can be directly reincarnated as, say, a tree. Just think: If they’d done that with the King, he really could still be alive today.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on November 5, 2004.

Image credit: By Evan-Amos [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

An ice cream cone

We all know that most of these “National Whatever Days” were created for fun, profit, or both, without the faintest suggestion of being officially endorsed by any governmental entity. But today is different. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the third Sunday of July to be National Ice Cream Day. (He also made July National Ice Cream Month, and indeed, we’ll have more ice cream-related days on the 23rd and 25th). So whether you lean strawberry or blueberry (I’m a rocky road guy, personally), you can find an appropriate way to celebrate this important date. Lots of local and national chains are offering free or discounted ice cream today, so get out there and enjoy everyone’s frozen dairy product.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day