From Arbol de la Muerte to Zapf Dingbats: This Week's Curios

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Every day of the year, Curious.com CEO Justin Kitch writes a quirky fact, known as the Daily Curio, intended to tickle the brains of lifelong learners everywhere. This is a weekly digest.

Last week's Curios covered the uglier side of evolution, yellow stop signs, and the history of Zapf Dingbats.

Curio No. 990 | Meet a prehistoric Tully monstrosity
For over fifty years, paleontologists have been flummoxed by the Tully monster. Based on fossil evidence, the Tully monster was a marine animal that lived 300 million years ago. But it looked nothing like any other animals known to exist at the time. When Francis Tully, an amateur collector, brought the first known specimen to the Chicago Field Museum, the curator could not specify a species, genus, or phylum. As more fossils were discovered, it became clear the Tully monster once had a narrow, foot-long body with a long proboscis that ended in a claw-like mouth... keep reading.

Curio No. 989 | Recreating Earth's atmosphere is harder than it sounds
In 1984, an entrepreneur decided to build a prototype Mars colony in the Arizona desert. He called it Biosphere 2--the sequel to Biosphere 1, also known as Earth. Slowly but surely, he attracted financial backers and recruited a team of scientists. Their mission was to re-create the atmosphere of Earth, inside an air-tight 3-acre space. Completed in 1991, at the cost of $200 million, Biosphere 2 had its own rainforest, beach, savanna, marsh, desert, half-acre farm, and 3,800 species of life. Eight scientists volunteered for Biosphere 2's first mission, where they would live for two years. The media was in awe of the scale of the project, but skeptical the project was legitimate science. The skeptics would be proven right. Life inside Biosphere 2 turned disastrous quickly.... keep reading.

Curio No. 988 | Yellow used to mean stop
Stop signs didn't use to be red. There actually were no traffic signs in the days of horses and buggies. But not long after automobiles were invented, so were car accidents. Eventually, local towns realized the gentleman's traffic rules of the 19th century were not sufficient. The first stop sign was installed in Detroit in 1915, as the US auto industry was being born there. The sign was a white square of sheet metal with black lettering. By 1923, a few years after the first three-color traffic signal was installed, the first stop sign standards were created. The Mississippi Valley Association of State Highway Departments established the octagon shape. They rationalized that the more sides a sign had, the more danger... keep reading.

Curio No. 987 | A head-splitting riddle
Here's a riddle for your head. At the beginning of World War I, the British army began noticing extremely high rates of head wounds among its soldiers. Generals couldn't figure out why. Then somebody postulated it was because of the new method of trench warfare. Each side digs a trench and hurls bombs, trying to drop them into the trenches--and on top of the soldiers' heads--of the other side. Inevitably, one side would lose patience and leave the trench to charge toward the other... head first. Yet British soldiers had been issued woolen caps as a head covering... keep reading.

Curio No. 986 | What a picture of health looks like
Good news if you work for the man. Previous studies have found deleterious health effects from spending day after day staring at cubicle walls underneath fluorescent light. As most mid-level office workers do. The solution was thought to require getting out into nature--or at least into an open room with plentiful natural light. But new research from the VU University in Amsterdam indicates that simply looking at a nature photo can provide many of the same stress-reducing and health benefits as actually being in nature. Researchers had students perform a very challenging mental math test while monitoring their stress levels... keep reading.

Curio No. 985 | The tree of death
You've heard of the tree of life. Now meet the tree of death. The manchineel tree (Hippomane mancinella) is called the "arbol de la muerte" by Caribbean islanders. It bears a crabapple-like fruit that causes gastric bleeding, vomiting, severe diarrhea, unbearable pain and possible asphyxiation due to shock. Then there are its leaves. They can cause severe burns when touched by humans, or if you stand under them during a rainstorm. You can't even touch the bark without getting severe chemical burns. On the Caribbean islands where the trees grow freely, native people coated their arrowheads with the sap of the manchineel.... keep reading.

Curio No. 984 | Father of typography Herman Zapf was a dingbat!
Ever wonder why every computer you've ever bought came pre-installed with an all-image font like Wingdings? For this, you can thank Hermann Zapf, one of the grandfathers of computer typography. He designed many modern fonts including Optima, Palatino, and Zapfino. Unfortunately, he also decided to create a font as an homage to a printing trick from the 16th century: the dingbat. Dingbats were special printing keys used to produce symbols for ornamentation and formatting. Dingbats made it easier for Renaissance printers to include stars, flowers, and other decorative graphics that otherwise had to be hand-drawn. So, Zapf created a set of 100 icons that he thought could serve the same purpose for early word processors... keep reading.

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