Tag Archives: Trivia

Accidental Discoveries in History: HEALTH / MEDICINE

Pill bottle spilledThose individuals who have “Eureka” moments are those who are prepared for that moment of discovery:  They begin with an inquisitive mind, which nurtures creative thinking, which is supported by collecting background information, educating themselves; to that they add the right tools, and an open mind that looks at the possibilities in what others might see as “mistakes.”  Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of health and medical discoveries, with others to follow over the next few posts:

 “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Thomas A. Edison


Who:  Alexander Fleming, Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate.

When: 1928

Why: He didn’t clean up his work station before leaving one day in 1928.  When he returned he noticed a strange fungus on some of his cultures, but it wasn’t growing near certain cultures.  His “bad science” mistake led to the discovery of the first, most important, and still-widely used antibiotic.


Who:  Wilson Greatbatch, American Engineer and absent-minded professor.

When: 1960

Why:  In 1958 he was trying to make a circuit to help record heartbeat sounds.  When he reached into a box of resistors he accidentally pulled out a 1-megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000 ohm resistor.  It pulsed to a familiar rhythm – a perfect heartbeat.  Actually, the first pacemakers go back as far as 1899; but Greatbatch’s invention was the first successfully implanted cardiac pacemaker.


Who: William Perkin, 18-year-old English chemist, eventually Sir William Perkin.

When: 1856

Why: He was trying to cure malaria, attempting to produce artificial quinine; his experiment produced a murky blob; but the more he looked at it, he realised the beautiful possibilities… he’d instead made the first-ever synthetic dye.  He’d inadvertently become the poster boy for money-generating science, making it interesting for the curious-minded; he’s known as the founder of science-based industry.  One of those curious minds just happened to be a German bacteriologist named Paul Ehrlich, who used that murky blog, now known as mauveine, to pioneer chemotherapy and immunology.


Who: Nicholas Terrett and Peter Ellis (the names on the patent); more generally, a group of pharmaceutical chemists working at Pfizer’s Sandwich, Kent, research facility in England.

When: 1996

Why: Originally attempting to develop a drug to treat Angina Pectoris – chest pains – they failed in their primary aim, but its side effects were startling, and now famous.


Who: Good question.  It seems to have developed independently on several occasions, from the 12th century onwards.  Laughing gas was discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestly, English scientist.

When: Good Question.

Why: In the 1800s, inhaling either nitrous oxide (laughing gas) or ether was considered a form of recreation; “ether frolics”, or “laughing parties” were popular, and several scientists, doctors and dentists noticed that people in such an affected state didn’t feel any pain, even when they injured themselves in the process.  Crawford Long, William Morton, Charles Jackson and Horace Wells observed such events (and probably took part in them too), and they began using the compounds during their dental and medical procedures.


Who: Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist

When: 1895

Why: In a series of coincidental observations while experimenting with what Röntgen temporarily called “X-rays”, using the mathematical designation for an unknown factor, he began to discover materials that both stopped, and allowed penetration of, these rays.  At one point the material was a piece of lead, and the first radiographic image was made; but at that point he decided to continue his experiments in secret in case he was wrong; he didn’t want to risk his professional reputation on reports of skeleton photography.  Even though the term X-ray is used in English, in German they are called “Röntgenbilder”, or Röntgen-images.


Who: Dr. Albert Hofmann, Swiss Chemist, at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland

When: 1938 (first synthesized); 1943 (discovered for its hallucination-inducing properties)

Why: As part of a large research project for finding useful ergot alkaloid derivatives.  Hofmann was re-synthesizing LSD-25 for a study, and took 0.25 milligrams, but became dizzy and had to stop working.  He asked his lab assistant to escort him home; they had to go by bike, and when he got home he lay down, sinking into a pleasant “intoxicated like condition” with an extremely vivid dreamlike stream of images (after an attack of paranoid anxiety that left him thinking he was going insane).  It lasted about 2 hours, and then faded. 19 April, 1943, is now known as Bicycle Day, celebrated as the birthday of LSD.


Who: Dr. Alan Scott, and Edward Schantz

When: late 1960s

Why:  Using small doses of the most acutely toxic substance known, Botulinum toxin (as one does), they applied it to treat “crossed eyes” eyelid spasms and other eye-muscle disorders; a noticeable side-effect was that wrinkles disappeared, as the muscles beneath the skin were paralyzed.  Canadian husband and wife ophthalmologist and dermatologist physicians, JD and JA Carruthers, were the first to publish a study on BTX-A for the treatment of frown lines in 1992.  The result?  Expressionless faces that become distorted and deformed with time, thanks to Botox addiction. I think the inventors of this “treatment” should be locked away in padded cells, personally.

Smallpox Vaccination

Who: Edward Jenner, a British scientist and surgeon

When: 1796

Why:  Jenner had a brainstorm that ultimately led to the development of the first vaccine: A young milkmaid had told him how people who contracted cowpox, a harmless disease easily picked up during contact with cows, never got smallpox, a deadly scourge.  With this in mind Jenner took samples from the open cowpox sores on the hands of a young dairymaid named Sarah Nelmes and inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with the secretion he had extracted from Nelmes’ sores.  The boy developed a slight fever and a few sores but remained for the most part unscathed. A few months later Jenner gave the boy another injection, this one containing smallpox. James failed to develop the disease and the idea behind the modern vaccine was born.


Who: Canadian doctor Frederick Banting and Professor John MacLeod of the University of Toronto; Nobel Prize winners of 1923.

When: 1923

Why: In 1889 two German
physicians, Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski, removed the pancreas from a healthy dog in order to study the role of the pancreas in digestion. Several days after the dog’s pancreas was removed, the doctors happened to notice a swarm of flies feeding on a puddle of the dog’s urine. On testing the urine, the doctors realized that the dog was secreting sugar in its urine, a sign of diabetes. Because the dog had been healthy prior to the surgery, the doctors knew that they had created its diabetic condition by removing its pancreas and thus understood for the first time the relationship between the pancreas and diabetes.  After further testing they concluded that a healthy pancreas must secrete a substance that controls the metabolism of sugar in the body. Though other scientists attempted to identify the substance released by the pancreas, it was Banting and MacLeod who discovered that the mysterious substance was insulin.

Pap smear

Who: Dr. George Nicholas Papanicolaou

When: 1923

Why: In 1923 he was studying the vaginal fluid in women to observe cellular changes over the course of a menstrual cycle; one of his subjects just happened to have uterine cancer, and when he discovered the abnormal cells, plainly seen under the microscope, he quickly realized that doctors could administer a simple test to gather a sample of vaginal fluid and test it for early signs of uterine and other cancers.



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Obsoletus vocabularium, or: Up with Archaism!

Comic from xkcd used under a Creative Commons licenseEnglish is a relatively young language, as languages go; like a parasitic sponge, it absorbs words and meanings from other languages, soaks them in until it’s bursting to explode, and then – well perhaps I should use a more romantic notion for such a popular, diverse and divisive tongue:  English is a survivor.  It as survived attempts at destroying by the Danish Vikings, the French, and the Germans (and thus gives me high hopes that it will survive the age of the Cell Phone).  And with each encounter it came out stronger, more versatile and flexible.  Then the Pilgrims crated it off in their minds and hearts to the New World, locked as it were in a time capsule; British English absorbed a few bad habits from the French before they thought better of it and distanced themselves during the French Revolution, but in the meantime contentious pronunciation differences had crept in that persist to this day, e.g.:  American pronunciation of schedule (/skedju(e)l/) is from the original Greek pronunciation which was used in Britain for onk-years, until they took on the fancier French-ified pronunciation of /shedju(e)l/.  But I digress.

Words have been lost along the way:  Some words are known to us in one form, but not the other, while other words have been lost altogether due to a more convenient absorption or form arising.  You know of disgruntled (adj.), but what about gruntle (v.) or disgruntle (v.)?  And dis– in this particular case is not used to form the antonym of gruntle, but meaning very gruntled.  And I don’t know about you, but conject as a verb makes more sense than conjecture to me.  And shall we vote to bring back oliphant, as JRR Tolkien saved it from extinction through his use of it in Lord of the Rings?  What about pash (n.), contex (v.), or spelunk (n.)?  We know of fiddle-faddle, but what about plain ol’ “faddle” (to trifle)?  Some, admittedly, are not missed; toforan is better served with heretofore, in my humble opinion (IMHO).  Needsways is a Scottish word, obsolete in England and America perhaps, but alive and well north of the Borders.  There are some deliciously eccentric words that deserve surviving, such as loblolly, bric-a-brac, sulter, pill (v., to plunder, pillage – ought to come in handy, that), quib, bugbear (though I think children would rather see that one die out), uptake (as a verb), wist (intent), or sluggy.  If Sir Walter Scott can save words such as doff and don from extinction, so can we.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the word archaism, it means “retention of what is old and obsolete.”  So twinge your language to include these mobile words and their meanings, and revelate your intelligence!

To find out what any of the above words mean and where they come from, check out one of my favourite go-to websites:  The Online Etymology Dictionary.

[Comic from xkcd, used under a Creative Commons license.]

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Canadian Tourism Q&A

This was posted by Andy over at his blog, and I just had to repost it – the questions are priceless, but I love the answers.  True sarcasm is a fine art.

Obviously the answers are a joke; but the questions were (apparently) really asked.


Q: I have never seen it warm on Canadian TV, so how do the plants grow? ( England )

A. We import all plants fully grown and then just sit around and watch them die.


Q: Will I be able to see Polar Bears in the street? ( USA ) moose-emblem-on-canadian-flag-darren-greenwood

A: Depends on how much you’ve been drinking.


Q: I want to walk from Vancouver to Toronto – can I follow the Railroad tracks? ( Sweden )

A: Sure, it’s only Four thousand miles, take lots of water.


Q: Is it safe to run around in the bushes in Canada ? ( Sweden )

A: So it’s true what they say about Swedes.


Q: Are there any ATM’s (cash machines) in Canada ? Can you send me a list of them in Toronto , Vancouver , Edmonton and Halifax ? ( England )

A: No, but you’d better bring a few extra furs for trading purposes.


Q: Can you give me some information about hippo racing in Canada ? ( USA )

A: A-fri-ca is the big triangle shaped continent south of Europe Ca-na-da is that big country to your North…oh forget it. Sure, the hippo racing is every Tuesday night in Calgary Come naked.


Q: Which direction is North in Canada ? ( USA )

A: Face south and then turn 180 degrees Contact us when you get here and we’ll send the rest of the directions.


Q: Can I bring cutlery into Canada ? ( England )

A: Why? Just use your fingers like we do.


Q: Can you send me the Vienna Boys’ Choir schedule? ( USA )

A: Aus-t ri-a is that quaint little country bordering Ger-man-y, which is…oh forget it. Sure, the Vienna Boys Choir plays every Tuesday night in Vancouver and in Calgary , straight after the hippo races. Come naked.


Q: Do you have perfume in Canada ? ( Germany )

A: No, WE don’t stink.


Q: I have developed a new product that is the fountain of youth. Where can I sell it in Canada ? ( USA )

A: Anywhere significant numbers of Americans gather.


Q: Can you tell me the regions in British Columbia where the female population is smaller than the male population? ( Italy )

A: Yes, gay nightclubs.


Q: Do you celebrate Thanksgiving in Canada ? ( USA )

A: Only at Thanksgiving.


Q: Are there supermarkets in Toronto and is milk available all year round? ( Germany )

A: No, we are a peaceful civilization of Vegan hunter/gathers. Milk is illegal.


Q: I have a question about a famous animal in Canada , but I forget its name. It’s a kind of big horse with horns. ( USA )

A: It’s called a Moose. They are tall and very violent, eating the brains of anyone walking close to them. You can scare them off by spraying yourself with human urine before you go out walking.


Q: Will I be able to speak English most places I go? ( USA )

A: Yes, but you will have to learn it first.


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Musings on the Unsexy Side of Writing

WordItOut-Word-cloud-223251When someone discovers the avenue of writing as a way of expressing their creativity, I can guarantee you they don’t think, “Gee, I can’t wait to get to all those technical details it will take to launch a book!”  That technical nitty-gritty is what the Swiss would call the “unsexy” side of writing.  If you’re a writer, and you’re anything like me, it’s the last thing you want to spend your time doing – I’d much rather be working on the next manuscript than tackling things like blurbs, bios, and summaries, all in various lengths.  I’d rather not have to tackle the issues of pricing, cover art decisions, marketing (most writers enjoy the isolation it takes to be a good writer and concentrate on their craft – we are not born me-salesmen!), networking and promotion.  But that’s the phase I find myself in right now.  And perhaps my situation is a bit more challenging because I am an English-language writer living in an area of a country that speaks an unwritten language:  I live in the Swiss-German speaking area of Switzerland.  There are a variety of dialects here, none of which have an official written structure or spelling (it is usually spelled phonetically, which varies according to the dialect).  High-German is the language of the newspapers and magazines and television (for the most part), but it’s not the language you hear on the streets.  And I certainly don’t have a local writer’s group from which to draw inspiration or encouragement.  I can’t just zip down to the local bookshop and see which publishers are interested in which topics.  It’s just me, myself and moi when it comes to getting it done.

And if you’re anything like me, you’ve got several irons in the fire at any given time:  At the moment I have no less than six novels at various stages of completion.  The second novel of a trilogy is on next, but will soon get put on hold as I travel to Norway for historical research this summer, for another novel in the making.  Focusing on one project at a time is the most efficient way to work; but sometimes it’s not possible.  I actually like the variety, from 18th century fiction, to 8th and 21st century fantasy fiction, contemporary fiction, science fiction… I’ve got my fingers in a lot of pies.  For me the key is self-discipline; setting goals, priorities, and daily schedules so that I can reach those goals one step at a time, all the while not letting any of that quench my creativity.  It would be great to have a support network of writers with whom I could bounce ideas around, or glean encouragment from, or be inspired by.  But life is where it is, so I’ll take the encouragement in any form it comes.  And I’ll slog my way through the unsexy side of the craft, and maybe even learn to enjoy it along the way!



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Cover Art, Cover Art, Where Art Thou

For those of us who are writers, you know what I mean when I say that we’d MUCH rather spend our time writing, creating, moulding, researching characters and plots, and basically ANYTHING else than the dusty technical nuts & bolts of publication.  With the hurdles one has to leap in the publishing world, it’s no wonder that e-books are becoming THE path of choice.  I spent those required months writing cover letters, creating packages to agents, etc. only to get those letters back that said, “Great ideas!  We loved it!  But…” when they already have clients in that genre, they’re not about to take on competition for them…  So like many others, I’ve chosen the route of Kindle.  I’ve got one book ready to go, and another first draft just completed, as well as no less than 5 other projects at various stages of completion.  A meeting with an artist proved fruitless to my purpose; he knows art, but not all the aspects of doing cover art.  I’ve worked with graphic artists for album covers and artwork, but I’m not prepared to invest several thousand at a time when I’ve got dozens in my future… so…

That’s where www.Fiverr.com comes in!  For a fiver, you can find just about any service you can think of, from fake testimonials, to placebo-effect health talks, to business advertising on the back of a Harley, to language lessons over Skype,  to cover art for e-books.  If you find yourself swimming in the Maelstrom of publishing, check it out.

But a word to the wise:  You get what you pay for.  Take it as a springboard, an idea; but take it and own it yourself.  Take the time to invest your energy in learning all you can about each step of the publishing, editing, and artistic processes.  Also, such offers only cover e-book cover art; they are lower in pixel than will be required for a paperback cover, so it’s worth looking into a solution that covers both formats.

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Concerning Fairy Tales

“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

G.K. Chesterton


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Animal Idioms

Raining cats and dogs, 1817 caricatureI love idioms; they bring abstract concepts to life with vivid imagery, and range from the practical to the hilarious.  If I said someone was clumsy, that’s all clear and well enough; but if I said they were as clumsy as a cow on rollerskates?  I think you know where that one’s going…  Here are a just few of my favourite animal idioms:

“to be as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs” – very nervous

“to bark up the wrong tree” – to be mistaken in one’s goals or focus

“to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” – to be eager, lively (especially at unexpected times, e.g. morning)

“to have ants in the pants” – to be jittery, excited, animated, hyper

“to cry wolf” – to rouse others to action when it is not necessary

“to be raining cats and dogs” – to be raining hard

“in two shakes of a lamb’s tail” – very quickly

“to look a gift horse in the mouth” – to scrutinize or criticize a gift or an offer to help, etc.

“to look like something the cat dragged in” – to be very ill, to look ill

“not enough room to swing a cat” – a tight space, a small room

“to buy a pig in a poke” – to buy something without having seen its quality first (German:  “die Katze im Sack kaufen”, or “to buy a cat in a sack”)

“to cast pearls before swines” – to waste one’s efforts or investments on worthless schemes or people

“to fight like cats and dogs” – to fight with someone (regularly, or vehemently)

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On Writing

“True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read; and in so living as to make the world happier for our living in it.”
Pliny The Elder (Roman scholar & scientist, 23-79 AD)

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The Silent Scream of Oxymorons

munch-the-screamAn oxymoron is an expression that contains words with opposite meanings; sometimes, like idiot savants, we use them without even realizing how clearly confusing they might be, or how seriously funny they might sound to others.

Having friends around the world, I’m quite aware of cultural issues; for instance, British fashion might sound like an oxymoron to a French designer, while French deodorant might sound like one to the Brit.  There are the usual internationally recognized oxymorons like good airline food, or train schedule, and then there are locally-limited ones such as funky white guy that might not make any sense to someone from the African continent.  A divorcee might think that marital bliss is an oxymoron, but then I’ve been married nearly 20 years and I can confirm that it is NOT a contradiction in terms.  Comfortably dressed might seem an oxymoron to a nudist colony, and Wall Street might think that business ethics is a tragic comedyCalm wind may sound like a contradiction, but I’ve spent enough time along the northern coast of Scotland to confirm that wind can indeed seem calm… anything less than gale-force winds would suffice on that count.

But it’s the universally understood oxymorons that are the most fun, such as military intelligence or Arabian democracy, government organization or industrial park.  How many times have you been alone together with a friend and heard them say, “Just act naturally” as someone you’re attracted to walks by… when you’d rather be whispering bittersweet nothings in their ear?  Have you ever gained weight after having a lite beer? Yep.  Ditto for diet ice-cream, non-alcoholic beer or non-alcoholic wines.  Some oxymorons are clearly ambiguous, while others are an exact estimate of feelings, such as acute dullness, feeling almost exactly like a cowardly lion or an unsung hero.  Groucho Marx proved that educational television is not necessarily an oxymoron; he said, “I find television very educational; every time someone turns it on, I go into another room and read a book.”

And don’t even get me started about politics:  Do you have fun at a political party?  What about moral majority – they took God out of society and must now live with the consequences; moral has never been majority, but rather the discriminated minority, in my unbiased opinion.  And there will never truly be united nations – I’ve lived smack in the middle of Europe for 25 years and have watched the EU decay from idealistic dreams to cooking the books just to stay afloat.  There’s really no such thing as modern history, holy wars, conservative liberals, socialist market economies, humanitarian invasions, peace force,  peace offensive, or peacekeeper missiles, though sometimes I get the impression that criminal justice is more alive and well in America than is common sense.

There are some oxymorons that sound accurate, but using the term non-working mother may land you in the emergency ward through a display of passive aggression!  And how many know the truth of the oxymoron Microsoft WorksNow thenOld news, near miss, extensive briefing, advanced basics, even odds, federal budget, free trade, friendly fire, homeland security, paid volunteers, least favourite and software documentation… our lives are permeated with them.

I’m terribly pleased that I’m a private citizen with a home office, but working holidays are a virtual reality in such a situation, as the line between work and private life is obviously obscured.  I don’t miss facing all those rolling stops of rush hour, though I’m vaguely aware of the deafening silence of Tinnitus more when I’m home alone.  I call it a qualified success when I’ve managed to do a bit of writing, cleaning, editing, cooking and blogging in a day.  I can listen to music, whether soft rock, light rock, instant classics, rap music, or rock opera, and I’m the uncrowned queen of dancing with my cats.

Some oxymorons just make me shake my head in sympathetic  pain:  There are actually those who somehow think that non-dairy creamer is either dairy, cream, or a wholesome substitute, when I think they’re rather dangerously safe at best, and misanthropic humanitarianism at worst.  One should never be deliberately thoughtless when it comes to genuine imitation nutrition; when vitamins and minerals are found missing, it can’t be healthy; it may even lead to a great depression!  And what is it with “masterpiece of evolution”?  Follow that to its logical conclusion.

What about those who feel intense apathy or feel clearly misunderstood, or second best?  And is ill health the same difference as good griefCheerleading scholarship?  Really?  Is there ever real potential for a minor crisis?  Either it is or it isn’t.  And how many have experienced the headache of trying to open a childproof container as an adult?  It’s a minor miracle to open some of them.

I could go on and on ad infinitum – that’s why I love the English language!  There are so many glorious contradictions – almost as many as there are people with different perspectives!  So let’s organize a friendly takeover of the English language, reclaiming ground lost to the insipidity of poor grammar, apathetic vocabulary and lazy spelling!

If you’ve got any more great oxymorons, please let us know in a comment below!  Happy hunting!


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