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 a mathematician and intellectual man-about-town. In 1729, he met François-Marie Arouet at a cocktail party. Arouet was better known as Voltaire, of “I will defend to the death your right to say it” fame, even though he never actually said that. Voltaire, in any case, was a world-class nose-thumber who spent the majority of his adult life pissing off the church, the polity, the judicial system, the academy, and everyone else he disagreed with or found disagreeable, which was mostly everyone. In fact, in 1729 he’d only recently returned to Paris after a three-year exile, and would later be exiled again. Condamine didn’t just meet Voltaire at the cocktail party: a mathematical genius met a person with an unrivalled desire to chicane the government. A great scheme was hatched.
Condamine had recognized a flaw in the French lottery system: though there were multiple ticket values, each offered roughly the same chance of winning. With a large enough bankroll, one could buy up all the cheaper tickets and turn a profit. Surprisingly, the mathematical foundations of probability were only a few decades old at this point; that the lottery makers did not realize the issue isn’t all that surprising. Of course, neither Condamine or Voltaire had the money, but lucky for them they were at a party with the power elite of Paris, and found a backer.
The plan worked, many many times over. The plot was only uncovered because of Voltaire, one of history’s great smirking wiseasses. It was common practice at the time to sign tickets for good luck, and Voltaire could not help signing ever more outlandish fake names and taunting in-jokes about their gaming the system—”Here’s to the idea of Condamine” and the like. Voltaire’s ability to piss everyone off is under-recognized. Shortly after he died, Mozart wrote in a letter “the arch-scoundrel Voltaire has finally kicked the bucket.” Saliere wrote a similar letter, but called Voltaire only a scoundrel; such is the fine line between talent and genius.
When the scheme was discovered, the lottery was shut down. Since they hadn’t technically violated any rules, the group was allowed to keep their winnings, which made Condamine and Voltaire “fuck you” rich. They put this to vastly different uses: Condamine for intellectual pursuits, Voltaire for shit-talking whomever he wanted without fear of reprisal.
Shortly thereafter, Condamine funded an expedition to Central America, with the goal of measuring the length of a degree of latitude at the equator, hoping to prove or disprove Newton’s hypothesis that the earth bulged at the equator. This should probably have been a straightforward expedition, but almost immediately, the relationship of the three main scientists became rancorous and hostile; they refused to share data and measurements with each other. Government funding dried up, and Condamine poured his lottery winnings into keeping the expedition afloat. They didn’t finish the measurements for eight years, by which time another group sent to Lapland had confirmed Newton’s hypothesis.
Somehow not chastened by the disaster, Condamine then took an expedition down the Amazon. He became the first westerner to describe the rubber tree, studied the anti-malarial properties of the cinchona tree, reported on the use of paralyzing curare on poison-tipped arrows, and wrote in favor of inoculation. He died in 1774.
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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). The Blackwell children were social reformers from a young age, even giving up sugar to protest the slave trade. Later, Elizabeth decided to become a doctor, and in 1849 became the first US woman to earn a medical degree. She went on to author some of the first medical texts intended for women (The Laws of Life with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls), advocate for abolition and nursing education during the Civil War, and found an academically rigorous women’s medical college in London. She was a grade-A ass-kicker.
Blackwell was a study in contrasts. While promoting women’s rights, she also argued against the moral atrocities of prostitution and contraceptives. A Christian socialist, she contributed to at least two failed utopian communities. She believed that disease owed not to microbes but amorality, and so she fought against germ theory, vaccines, and the employment of autopsies before retiring from medicine in 1877 to become a full-time reformer.
One of Blackwell’s students was Mary Putnam Jacobi. A member of the esteemed family of publishers, Jacobi, like Blackwell, was one of the first female physicians in the US and early proponent of women’s suffrage. Though both show up on lists headed with some variation on “Pioneering Women Physicians,” Blackwell and Jacobi were ideological opposites. Blackwell’s view of medicine was holistic—a means and explanation for social reform, but with no focus on the specific details of research and treatments. Jacobi, in contrast, advocated for expanded laboratory study and for viewing medicine through a narrower lens of treating individual patients and not curing social ills. The fundamental distinction is seen 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 The Prophylaxis of Insanity. Modern academics have suggested the Blackwell/Jacobi divide as a microcosm of larger ideological trends: the logical positivist push for pure objectivity and ever more atomized and specific observations (Jacobi), versus subjective and more global accounts as seen in Kuhn and critical theorists (Blackwell). Neat!
3. Kool-Aid was invented in 1927 by Edwin Perkins. , beginning life as a concentrated syrup known as Fruit Smack. For real! Perkins realized that he’d have higher margins if his product weighed less, so he converted the syrup to a powder. Now, his hometown of Hastings, NE celebrates Kool-Aid Days every summer, and people make pickles soaked in the stuff. 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?
What I was really after was the backstory on Kool-Aid knockoffs Flavor-Aid and Wyler’s. All I could find is that Flavor-Aid was invented in 1929, and Wyler’s, once owned by Borden, was traded to Lipton in exchange for Pennsylvania Dutch noodles (and a first-round draft pick). Also, there’s still debate over whether Jonestown/People’s Cult members drank Kool-Aid or Flavor-Aid in their final hours. I’ve been pondering for hours how advertisers would have capitalized on it if we’d known.
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. How I miss you.
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4. Around the turn of the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, noticed that dogs he studied would salivate in anticipation of food whenever his assistant entered the room. Based on this simple and largely accidental observation, Pavlov went on to demonstrate that when a neutral stimulus (like a ringing bell) is paired with one that automatically evokes a reaction (like food), the neutral stimulus may eventually elicit the reaction on its own. If a ringing bell accompanies food, dogs (and children) will eventually salivate when the bell rings, even if there’s no food. Pavlov had discovered classical conditioning—a finding so synonymous with him that it’s often called Pavlovian conditioning, and so important that his dogs were given their own monument. Because he measured salivation by connecting tubes to their salivary glands, the water in this fountain runs out of tubes connected to small dog heads, an admirably literalistic rendition:
But wait: in 1902, a full year before Pavlov’s paper, psychologist Edwin Twitmyer’s doctoral dissertation demonstrated that reflexive knee jerks could be elicited only with a ringing bell. Like Pavlov, Twitmeyer had stumbled into the finding mostly by accident, but what should have been a career and legacy-defining discovery was essentially ignored. Perhaps it lacked in the title department: his dissertation was called A Study of the Knee Jerk. Twitmyer had a lengthy but undistinguished career as a researcher, depriving us all of a world where Twitmyerian conditioning is a thing. At least we got that awesome dog monument out of it.