Have you ever found yourself surrounded by a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a plump of moorhens, or a parliament of owls? Perhaps a pandemonium of parrots or an ostentation of peacocks? Have you seen a crash of rhinoceroses meet a bloat of hippopotamuses and attack a shrewdness of apes? Maybe your parochial school days were marked by a superfluity of nuns, your boarding school days by a draught of butlers, or your apprenticeship by a drunkenship of cobblers. If so, pair off, team up, and band together for the trivia roundup.
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1. Charles Marie de la Condamine was an 18th century Frenchman, brilliant mathematician, and intellectual man-about-town. At a cocktail party in 1729, Condamine met François-Marie Arouet; better known as Voltaire, of “I will defend to the death your right to say it fame” (though he never actually said that). Voltaire was a world class nose-thumber and spent his adult life pissing off the church, the polity, the judicial system, and everyone else he disagreed with, which was everyone. In fact, in 1729 he had only recently returned to Paris after a three-year exile, and he would later be exiled again. At this fateful cocktail party, Condamine didn’t just meet Voltaire; Condamine’s mathematical genius met Voltaire’s unrivalled desire to stick it to the government, and a great scheme was hatched.
The details are inconsequential, but Condamine had recognized a fatal flaw in the French lottery system. Though there were multiple ticket values, each offered roughly the same chance at winning. With a big enough bankroll, one could buy up all the cheap tickets and be likely to win back more than the tickets cost (the mathematical foundations of probability were still new at this point; such a lapse by the lottery makers is not altogether shocking). Neither Condamine or Voltaire had the money, but luckily for them they were at a cocktail party for the power elite of Paris, and found a backer for their plan.
Which worked. Multiple times. Many, many times, and each time their winnings delivered in the form of a large ceremonial check. Unfortunately, their gaming of the system was eventually discovered, largely due to Voltaire, one of history’s great smirking wiseasses. People signed their tickets for good luck, and as they continued to win, the legendarily smug Voltaire began to use more and more outlandish fake names, adding little in-jokes like “Here’s to the idea of Condamine” and similar. Really, Voltaire’s ability to piss everyone right the fuck off is perhaps best exemplified in a letter from Mozart after Voltaire’s death, which read “the arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket.” Saliere had actually written a similar letter, but only called Voltaire a scoundrel; such is the difference between talent and genius.
When the scheme was discovered, the lottery was shut down, but the cabal was allowed to keep their winnings. Condamine and Voltaire were now “fuck you” rich; which they put to vastly different uses—Condamine for science, Voltaire for shit-talking whomever he wanted without fear of retribution.
Condamine funded an expedition to what is now Ecuador, the goal of which was to measure the length of a degree of latitude at the equator. There was at the time intense scientific debate over a theory proffered by Newton that the earth, rather than being a perfect sphere, actually bulges at the equator. What sounds like a straightforward expedition took a decade of Condamine’s life. The three main scientists (Condamine among them) had a fractious relationship that went south almost from the start; they refused to share measurements and data with one another and bickered constantly. Government funding dried up, and Condamine used most of his lottery winnings simply keeping the expedition running. They didn’t finish the measurements for EIGHT YEARS, by which time another group sent to Lapland had already confirmed Newton’s hypothesis.
Condamine then decided to take a scientific expedition down the Amazon, becoming the first Westerner to encounter and describe the rubber tree (this can’t be possible, can it?), studied the cinchona tree, whose bark gives us anti-malarials and gin-enhancing quinine, and reported on the use of paralyzing curare on poison-tipped arrows.
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2. Elizabeth Blackwell was born in 1821, the daughter of a socially liberal sugar refinery owner (the refinery burned down in 1836, I believe that BIG CARAMEL was responsible, so that they could collect the remnants). The Blackwell children were social reformers and abolitionists from a young age, at one point giving up sugar as a protest of the slave trade. Elizabeth decided to enter the medical profession—a field as yet unbrooked by women—and in 1849 became the first US woman to earn a medical degree. She went on to author some of the first books on medicine intended for women (The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls), advocated strongly for abolition and nursing education during the Civil War, and started an academically rigorous women’s medical college in London. She was a grade-A ass-kicking feminist:
Despite these laudable accomplishments, Blackwell was a study in contrasts. While promoting women’s rights she also argued against the supposed moral atrocities of prostitution and contraceptives (she advocated the rhythm method). A Christian socialist who contributed heavily to at least two utopian communities, both of which failed, she believed that disease came not from microbes but from amorality—thus she fought against germ theory, the use of vaccines, and the practice of autopsies. After retiring from medicine in 1877, she became a full-time social reformer.
One of Blackwell’s students was Mary Putnam Jacobi (of the publishing Putnams), also one of the first female physicians in the US and an early proponent of women’s suffrage. Despite both of them showing up on lists headed with some variation of “Pioneering Women Physicians,” Blackwell and Jacobi were ideological opposites. Blackwell had a global view of medicine, treating it as a means to social reform but with less focus on the nitty-gritty of medical practice. In contrast, Jacobi advocated for improved laboratory study (including autopsies), viewing medicine through the narrower lens of treating individual patients without regard for larger social contexts. This fundamental difference is shown even in the titles of their works: Blackwell’s Medicine and Morality and The Religion of Health vs. Jacobi’s The Question of Rest for Women During Menstruation and Acute Fatty Degeneration of Newborn and (awesomely) The Prophylaxis of Insanity. Some modern academics view the Blackwell/Jacobi clash as a microcosm of larger ideological trends: the late 19th-century drive for the purest possible objectivity (the Jacobi side), versus the subjectivity of Kuhn’s discussion of scientific paradigms and critical theorists. Neat!
3. Kool-Aid was invented in 1927 by Edwin Perkins. It had actually started as a concentrated syrup known—and I am not making this up—as “Fruit Smack.” Perkins realized that a higher margin could be realized by reducing the weight of his product, so he converted the syrup to a powder. His hometown of Hastings, NE celebrates Kool-Aid Days every summer. Anthropomorphic juice pitcher, unrepentant property destroyer, and nightmare fuel Kool-Aid man didn’t come along until the 1950s, and not in wall-crushing “OH YEAH” form until the mid-1970s. Incidentally, did you know there were TWO Kool-Aid man video games, for the Atari and Intellivision, and a Kool-Aid Man comic book?
Unfortunately, precious little information is available about Kool-Aid knockoffs Flavor-Aid / Wyler’s, except that Flavor-Aid was invented in 1929, and Wyler’s, which was once owned by Borden, was traded to Lipton for Pennsylvania Dutch noodles (and presumably a food product to be named later). Considerable debate still exists over whether the Jonestown/People’s Cult members drank Kool-Aid or Flavor-Aid during their last hours. I wish we knew, if only to see how advertisers would have capitalized on it.
Actual Kool-Aid flavors include: Triple Awesome Grape, Candy Apple, Chocolate, Cola (?), Root Beer (??), Golden Nectar (???), Grape Tang, and the collection of mascot based flavors that defined my childhood: Incrediberry (an amorphous, flying, blob-like berry superhero), Great Bluedini (an octopus magician), Rock-a-dile Red (a saxophone playing, tie-wearing crocodile), Pink Swimmingo (a beach-going, sunglasses-wearing flamingo), Purplesaurus Rex (a congenial purple dinosaur), and SHARKLEBERRY FIN. Oh, sharkleberry fin. Oh how I miss you.
4. Around the turn of the 20th century Ivan Pavlov was performing what would become his most enduring scientific work. He noticed that the dogs he studied would salivate in anticipation of food whenever an assistant entered the room. Based on this simple and largely accidental observation, he went on to demonstrate that when an arbitrary neutral stimulus (say, a ringing bell) is paired with one that automatically induces a reaction (like delicious food), the neutral stimulus may eventually elicit that reaction on its own. If the ringing bell accompanies food, dogs (and children!) will come to salivate when the bell rings, even if no food is present. He’d discovered classical conditioning, which he reported in a 1903 paper—a finding that would become so synonymous with him that it is often called Pavlovian conditioning, and a finding so important that his dogs would be given their own monument (because Pavlov connected tubes to dogs’ salivary glands, the water in the fountain monument runs out from tubes connected to 8 small dog heads, which is admirably non-symbolic):
Except, wait a second. In 1902, psychologist Edwin Twitmyer’s doctoral dissertation had demonstrated reflexive knee jerks elicited only with a ringing bell (Twitmyer, like Pavlov, had stumbled into this discovery essentially by accident). It should have been a career-defining discovery, but it was, for some reason, mostly ignored (maybe because it was titled A Study of the Knee Jerk, to which Twitmyer’s advisor responded “you’re a knee jerk!”). Twitmyer went on to a lengthy but generally anonymous career as a researcher, sadly depriving all of us of a world in which Twitmyerian conditioning is a thing.