QI: A selection #14

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

Dolphins’ genitals are internal, in both sexes. The females have a built-in system of contraception: their organs contain two chambers – one for fun, the other for reproduction (the name “dolphin” comes from the Greek delphos meaning “womb”). Sex (including same-sex sex) is an important part of dolphin life, used for socialising and recreation, and they don’t form lasting pair-bonds. It’s not always cuddly. For all the foreplay and nuzzling, females are frequently coerced into sex by groups of males. Schools of dolphins batter porpoises to death for no obvious reason, and occasionally practise infanticide. In a comprehensive study of wild dolphins that seek out human company, three-quarters showed aggression, which sometimes lead to serious injury, and half indulged in “misdirected sexual behaviour” with buoys and boats, as well as humans. Given that an average male bottlenose weighs 40 stone and has a foot-long, solid-muscle organ that ends in a prehensile hook agile enough to catch an eel, you wouldn’t want to give off the wrong signals.

In the early 19th century, two Irishmen based in Edinburgh, William Burke and William Hare, killed 16 victims and sold their bodies to an anatomist named Dr Knox. Eventually, Hare turned Burke in, and the latter was executed. Dr Knox escaped but ended his days performing with a troop of Ojibwa Indians in a travelling circus.

“Painting the Forth bridge” entered popular lexicon to mean a never-ending job, but the development of new paint and the end of a 10-year painting and maintenance project in 2011 means it won’t need to be painted again for another 20 years.

The most plausible etymology for the Pope’s Latin title “Pontifex Maximus” is “chief bridge-builder” (whence also “pontificate”). This was the title given to the second highest-ranking priest in ancient Rome. As with the papacy, this was a political office as well as a spiritual one: Julius Caesar was elected Pontifex Maximus in 63 BC.

People who are lactose intolerant don’t produce lactase – but it is lactose tolerance, rather than intolerance, which is a genetic mutation. All Neanderthals were lactose intolerant; but 7,500 years ago a mutation among the European human population, who were already keeping cattle for meat, enabled them to digest cow’s milk more easily. As a result, there is great variation around the world – only 1 in 50 of those of Swedish descent are lactose intolerant compared to nearly everyone of Chinese descent.

Elephants aren’t afraid of mice, but, as Roman legionaries discovered, the squealing of pigs upsets them. They are also wary of bees. In 2010, a researcher named Lucy King worked out that East African elephants make an “alarm” noise when in an area filled with bees. To protect crops from marauding bands of elephants she attached beehives to fences on 34 Kenyan farms. As the elephants shook the fences, the bees emerged and the elephants fled.

Guerrilla knitting is not to be confused with extreme knitting. Extreme knitters knit while doing other things like running or riding a tandem. The world record for knitting a scarf while running a marathon is held by 55-year-old Susie Hewer; she also has the crotchet marathon record, and the one for knitting on the back of a tandem. She does it to raise money for Alzheimer’s research.

For many centuries, there were just four key components of scent. Musk is a red jelly found in deer-guts: it produces hormonal changes in any woman who smells it. Ambergris is a glutinous fluid found in the stomachs of sperm whales that protects them from the sharp beaks of the squid they swallow. It has a sweet, woody smell. Castoreum, a yellow secretion from the anal glands of mature beavers, has a whiff of leather. Civet is a honey-like goo exuded from the genitals of a nocturnal, fox-like, carnivorous relative of the mongoose. Nowadays, these are reproduced in the laboratory but there remains an enduring connection between bottoms and perfume. The organic chemical indole is widely used in the perfume industry. It smells floral in low doses, but at high concentrations it is what gives our faeces their characteristic smell

Plenty of Old Norse words permeated Anglo-Saxon, and so survived into the English that we speak today. Without the Vikings we wouldn’t have words such as anger, birth, cake, dirt, freckles, hell, ugly, weak, husband, wife, skill, skull or slaughter. The Tyn, the parliament of the Isle of Man, is named after the þing (pronounced “thing”), which was the public assembly of Norse culture. And the medical term for a hangover is “veisalgia”, an untidy tacking on to the Greek word for pain of the Old Norse kveis: “unease after debauchery”.

The American opossum (Didelphis virginianus), will try hissing, growling, baring its teeth and biting; but if all else fails it feigns death, known as letisimulation. It collapses to the ground, foams at the mouth and then remains motionless, with its teeth bared. It even produces a rank smell. It doesn’t choose to do this: it’s an involuntary response to stress. A letisimulant possum can stay comatose for hours, regaining consciousness only when the predator has gone.

Jelly gives the same reading on an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, used to measure brain activity, as a human brain. Jellies show the same rhythms that human brains display when the person is awake but has their eyes closed. Going by the EEG results, a jelly would qualify as alive enough to not have its life support machine turned off. The jelly appears to absorb electro-magnetic signals from the machinery in the room which gives it these “alive” readings.

Soon after come the crocuses, which are members of the iris family, Iridaceae. This makes it a member of the newly reclassified order Asparagales, which also includes snowdrops, daffodils, hyacinths, asparagus, onions, garlic and agave cactus, and all 26,000 species of orchid. As plant groupings go, it is second in economic importance to the cereals. One species, Crocus sativa, is the source of all the saffron in the world – it can take between 85,000 and 140,000 crocuses to make a single kilo of saffron. It is the world’s most expensive spice (the name is originally Persian: zaferân). The town of Saffron Walden in Essex was the centre of the English saffron trade from the 16th century onwards. Until than it had been called Chipping Walden. The industry supposedly owes its origin to a pilgrim from the Middle East who smuggled back a single stolen bulb, sometime in the 14th century.

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