Things I Learned in 2020

Inspired by Tom Whitwell’s annual lists of 52 things that he read in any one year (see 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020), I decided to make a list of interesting snippets from articles I’d read this past year, one for every week of the year.

a selection of the accidental photos of my foot taken this year

However, my 52 things list, like most of the extra-curricular projects I had planned to work on, was 2020’d, and currently sits at a meaningless and un-symbolic thirty-two things. Still, I think this wouldn’t be writing that emerged from the past year without acknowledging that I am lucky to have had the time to read these articles (and countless others that I didn’t take notes from).

So, without further ado, here is a bag of interesting facts I read in the past year.

  1. The word “fancy” was an early contraction of “fantasy”. Source: One Man’s Trash by Michael Friedrich for The Baffler
  2. More land and water in the USA are devoted to lawn grass than wheat and corn combined; the total lawn grass area is larger than Italy. Lawn grass also uses approximately 1/3 of all of the nation’s available drinking water to maintain. Source: Googling Strangers and Kentucky Bluegrass on The Anthropocene Reriewed by John Green
  3. If you want to be a bounty hunter, don’t wear leather – the chemicals they use in the tanning will infect the wound when you get shot. Instead, wear a silk shirt. Source: Walking Across America: Advice for a Young Man by Andrew Forsthoefel on the Transom podcast
  4. The novelist John Steinbeck was an observer during the US’s attempt to drill the deepest hole during the cold war. Their attempt took place on the floor of the Pacific near Guadalupe, Mexico. Source: The Deepest Hole We Have Ever Dug by Mark Piesing for BBC Future
  5. The preference for scarce objects begins at age 5. Source: The Development of a Scarcity Bias by Matar Ferera, Avi Benozio, and Gil Diesendruck. Child Development, Volume 91, Issue 5, Sep-Oct 2020, pp.1698-1708.
  6. The practice of “adversary air support” provides mock enemy planes for air forces to train with; the largest privately owned military fleet exists primarily for this purpose. Source: This Man Owns The World’s Most Advanced Private Air Force After Buying 46 F/A-18 Hornets by Tyler Rogoway for The Drive
  7. The first animals proven to have stereoscopic vision (the ability to interpret three-dimensional shape and form from visual inputs) were – unsurprisingly – humans in 1838. It then took 132 years to prove any other animals also had stereopsis. Cuttlefish were added to the list of stereoscopic animals in 2019. Source: What Scientists Learned by Putting 3-D Glasses on Cuttlefish by Ed Yong for the Atlantic
  8. “the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive today on Earth lived only around 3,400 years ago […] [with new, more conservative variables] the age of the most recent common ancestor of everyone alive went up to 3,600 years ago.”Source: You’re Descended from Royalty and So Is Everybody Else by Adam Rutherford for Nautilus Magazine
  9. Giraffe populations have decreased by 30 percent over the past three decades. Only 111,000 individuals remain. There are at least four African elephants for every giraffe. Source: How to Tackle a Giraffe by Ed Yong for the Atlantic
  10. The French Revolutionary (or Republican) Calendar was the official calendar of the French First Republic from 1793-1805. It promoted a “non-hierarchical and secular system of ten-day weeks (or décades) in thirty-day months, without days of religious or royal significance”, whilst “each day of the year also celebrated a different item of everyday rural life (although their precise distribution can vary), whether a herb, a foodstuff, a livestock animal, a tool or a utility: wild thyme, rhubarb, goat and beehive are just a handful of examples.” Source: The Fountain in the Forest by Tony White (book)
  11. There are still 158 toll collectors working for the Port Authority in New York. Source: The Last Toll Collectors by Winnie Hu for the New York Times
  12. The rivalry between three towns in North Dakota competing to be recognised as the ”Geographical Center of North America” (a trademarked phrase) has led to one of them creating the “International Center for Determining Centers”. Ironically one of the towns is actually named Center, and was so before this dispute – because it was deemed the centre of the state, not the nation. Source: Journey to the Geographical Center of North America by Kathering LaGrave for AFAR Magazine
  13. In the USA, rehabilitation centres can bill insurance companies up to $5000 per urine test – and frequently coerce patients into daily tests. Source: #121 Pain Funnel by Reply All
  14. In 1951, Dr. William L. Davidson invented a “golf ball that can’t get lost”. Its secret was the radioactive material embedded under its surface – so that with the aid of a portable Geiger counter, the Bali could easily be found. Source: Atomic Golf Ball, Modern Mechanix story from 1951 – found via We Make Money Not Art
  15. The USA’s first water park – the Wet N’ Wild – opened in 1977 in Orlando, Florida. Source: Disney’s Empty Promise by Kent Russell for the Paris Review
  16. Wild Wild West by Will Smith is “fading far faster than any other ’90s hit with comparable starting popularity.”Source: Defining the ’90s Music Canon by Matt Daniels for The Pudding
  17. There were 248 episodes of the Love Boat, which is remarkable if you’ve spent any time at all watching even one of them. (There was one feature-length film too.)Source: Wikipedia
  18. Shops in New England in the early 19th Century didn’t sell nuts and bolts – “instead, blacksmiths were commissioned to make them on demand, as non-interchangeable custom sets.” Source: Community Plumbing: How the hardware store orders things, neighborhoods, and material worlds. by Shannon Mattern for Places Journal
  19. Octopuses on MDMA tend to hug each other (like humans). Source: What Ecstasy Does to Octopuses by Ed Yong for the Atlantic
  20. About 56 million Americans believe they have seen a UFO; 33% of Americans believe that aliens have visited this planet, and 60% believe that the US goverment is “hiding something”. Source: How UFO culture took over America by Stephen Rodrick for Rolling Stone
  21. There is only one known Maltese serial killer. Source: Wikipedia
  22. The widespread fear of clowns was sparked by the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s It, leading to the coining of the term coulrophobia in the 1980s to denote a fear of clowns. Source: Having a laugh: is this the end for clowning? by Mark Wilding for the Guardian
  23. First Nations people were denied the right to vote unless they legally renouced their indiginous status in Canada in the first half of the 20th Century. Source: The Map and the Territory by Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil for the Baffler
  24. Surgeons are more likely to make mistakes on their birthdays. Source: Christmas, Death and Surgeons’ Birthdays by Neuroskeptic for Discover Magazine
  25. Winning the Nobel prize adds an average of 1-2 years to your lifespan but confers no overall financial gain (or at least, this was the case for winners in the 19th Century). Source: Mortality and Immortality by Matthew D. Rablen and Andrew J. Oswald
  26. The first Arabic novel was written in the 12th Century by Ibn Tufal, and is about a lone child on a remote island who is raised by a gazelle and has no access to human culture until he meets a castaway. Source: This is the Muslim tradition of sci-fi and speculative fiction by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad for Aeon Magazine.
  27. The term “used future” refers to an image of the future “unconsciously borrowed from someone else”, mimicking “what everyone else is doing.” Source: Theories of change and theories of the future by Andrew Curry on The Next Wave
  28. “[…] three conditions are essential to making friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in others.” Source: Death of the Neighborhood Bar by Gabriel O’Malley for Boston Magazine
  29. Swifts sleep in the sky, and are capable of seeing the movements of clouds from a great height to forecast weather. Source: The Mysterious Life of Birds Who Never Come Down by Helen Macdonald for The New York Times Magazine
  30. The number of inmates in solitary confinement in the United States is equivalent to the entire general prison population in the UK. Those who are in solitary confinement “frequently experience psychological distress, with symptoms including perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, anxiety and panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, revenge fantasies, diminished impulse control, hypersensitivity to stimuli, paranoia, and self-mutilation. More recent reviews of the California, Alabama, and New York City prison systems demonstrate that people in solitary are many times more likely than their incarcerated counterparts to commit suicide.” Source: The Solitary Garden by Anya Groner for Orion Magazine
  31. The Dutch tradition of “dropping” consists of leaving children nearing their early teens somewhere they don’t know, so that they can find their way home. Source: A Peculiarly Dutch Summer Rite: Children Let Loose in the Night Woods by Ellen Barry for the New York Times
  32. A man dressed as a clown on a cruise ship sparked a “mass brawl” on a P&O cruise ship in 2019, as another passenger had “specifically booked a cruise with no fancy dress.” Source: Simon Murphy for The Guardian


Note that this is cross-posted on Medium.