Cyclopedia of Factoids - The Letters P-Q

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Under British rule, Pakistan was part of India. At the request of the Muslim League, the British decided, in 1947, to split it from India. Pakistan became independent one day before India did. West Pakistan was separated by 1600 kilometers from East Pakistan (today's Bangladesh). Three principalities, including Kashmir, chose not to join either country and to become independent. India annexed by force of arms two of these and Kashmir's Hindu prince joined India as well. As a result, a war broke between the two countries in 1948.


The word "parachute" means, in French, "fall-preventing". "Paratroopers" means parachute troopers. The Chinese used parachutes for entertainment purposes or attached them in the 11th and 12th centuries to prisoners and forced them off steep cliffs. Drawings of clumsy, square, parachutes can be found in Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks from 1483. The Thai king's tumblers vaulted from trees armed with umbrellas as late as 1687.

A Venetian, Fausto Veranzino, leaped, using a parachute from a tower. Louis-Sébastien Lenormand jumped from a tree with two parasols in 1783.

Another French Jean Pierre Blanchard parachuted a dog from a balloon in 1785. A more intrepid inventor, André-Jacque Garnerin, sprang, on October 22, 1797, from a hot air balloon over Parc Monceau in Paris, dangling from a cloth canopy. In 1802, in England, he jumped from 2.4 kilometers (8000 feet).

The Encyclopedia Britannica (2003 edition):

"Early parachutes—made of canvas or silk—had frames that held them open (like an umbrella). Later in the 1800s, soft, foldable parachutes of silk were used; these were deployed by a device (attached to the airborne platform from which the jumper was diving) that extracted the parachute from a bag. Only later still, in the early 1900s, did the rip cord that allowed the parachutist to deploy the chute appear."

Capt. Albert Berry of the United States Army was the first to hop from an airplane over St. Louis in 1912.


The Pentagon was completed in 16 months. It was built on a swamp and on the area of the old Washington airport. Trucks hauled some 5.5 million cubic yards (4.2 million cubic meters) of junk and soil and dumped it in the marshes. The building's foundation rests on 41,492 concrete piles.

The purchase of land cost $2.25 million (in 1943 dollars). The building itself cost c. $50 million, or $83 million with outside facilities. The Pentagon stands on 29 acres (=c. 120,000 sq.m.).

The center court alone occupies 5 acres (c. 20,000 sq.m.). The heating and refrigeration plant and the sewage structure sprawl on 1 acre each (c. 4,000 sq.m.). Fifty miles (=80 kilometers) of access highways were especially constructed, replete with 21 overpasses and bridges. The parking space is spread over 67 acres (c. 270,000 sq.m.) and can accommodate up to 8,800 vehicles.

Each wall of the Pentagon is more than 920 feet long (=300 meters). It is almost 78 feet high (or a little short of 25 meters). It should have been higher but the planners wanted to preserve the view of the neighboring Arlington National Cemetery. There are almost 18 miles (c. 29 kilometers) of corridors in the building, 131 stairways, 19 escalators, 13 elevators, 672 fire hose cabinets, 284 rest rooms (toilettes), 691 drinking fountains, 4200 electric clocks with sockets for another 2800, 16,250 light fixtures (250 bulbs are replaced daily), 7,754 windows, and 7 acres of glass - or c. 29,000 sq.m.

More than 23,000 people work in the Pentagon. It contains a heliport, huge restaurant and shopping mall, and bus and taxi terminals. The Pentagon has its own metro (subway) station.

This masterpiece of engineering was designed by George Edwin Bergstrom. Despite its gargantuan size, the distance between every two points in the complex never requires more than a 7 minutes walk. Plans to convert the Pentagon to a hospital after the second world war were abandoned with the outbreak of the Cold War.

The September 11 attack demolished 400,000 sq. feet of space and damaged another 1.6 million. To recover them would cost $700 million. About 1000 tons of limestone in 3700 separate pieces were quarried in Indiana to overhaul the facade. More than a 1000 laborers worked in three shifts for almost nine months until the facade was remade. Restoration will be completed in Spring 2003.

The State Department says that "a condolence book, a Presidential photo, and handmade sympathy cards written by children were included in a bronze box that was sealed into the limestone facade of the newly rebuilt section of the Pentagon. The capsule is not intended to be opened."


The irrational number Phi - the golden ratio or divine proportion of antiquity - is 1.6180339887. It is found in the arrangement of rose petals, mollusc shells, sunflower florets, spirals of pine cones, hurricanes, fractals, the breeding patterns of rabbits, the structure of crystals, the behaviour of the stock market, and the shape of the Milky Way.

It is - wrongly - said to be found in the proportions of the Great Pyramids, the Pantheon, the Mona Lisa, and in Stradivarius violins. It is present, though, in Dali's "The Sacrament of the Last Supper".

Phi is crucial to the drawing of the pentagram, a powerful magic symbol. The ratio enchanted scholars throughout the ages - from Pythagoras, Kepler, and Penrose to current mathematicians dedicated to studying the Fibonacci numbers (permutations of phi). Artists like Goethe, Cezanne, Bartok studied it obsessively.

Its discovery is attributed to Euclid (c. 300 BC) who postulated that phi is yielded by dividing a line into two segments such that the ratio of the length of whole line to that of the bigger segment is the same as the ratio of the length of the bigger segment to that of the smaller one.

If you divide phi by one you get 0.6180339887 - that is phi minus 1. Leonardo Fibonacci (1170-1240) developed his famous series in the 12th century. Each number in the series is the sum of the previous two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55. Dividing any number in the series by the preceding one yield almost-phi (the results of the division are phi-asymptotic).

Plane Crashes

September 11, 2001 was not the first time an airplane crashed into a skyscraper. Actually, such tragedies are more common than is thought.

On July 28, 1945, for instance, a U.S. Army B-25 bomber traveling at 200 miles (c. 370 kilometers) per hour in heavy fog crashed into the Empire State Building in New York City. Luckily it was a Saturday, though dozens were injured and 14 killed. People thought the city was being bombed:

Doris Pope, Boynton Beach, Fla. told The Palm Beach Post in 1999:

"We heard this terrible noise, and the building started to shake. … As we looked out our third-floor window, we saw debris fall on to the street. We immediately thought New York was being bombed."

Another eyewitness, Helen J. Hurwitt, from Greenacres, Fla., told the Post:


"I heard a horrendous noise. My husband and I were in a building directly opposite the Empire State Building. … Large plate-glass windows looked out onto 34th Street. The floor we were on was pretty high. At some point, we heard a horrendous noise and rushed to the windows. … We were horrified to see a B-25 half in and half out of the Empire State Building."

"The building shuddered, realigned itself, and settled. Probably instantly, although several witnesses said there seemed to be a moment's interval, came the explosion, and the top of the fog-shrouded Empire State Building was briefly seen in a bright orange glow. High-octane airplane fuel spewed out of the ruptured tanks and sprayed the building…The heat was so intense that partition frames within offices disappeared, and the shattered glass from windows and lamp fixtures melted and fused into stalactites….One engine, part of the fuselage, and a landing gear tore through the internal office walls, through two fire walls and across a stairway, through another office wall and out of the south wall of the building, with the parts coming to a fiery rest at 10 West Thirty-Third Street in the penthouse studio/apartment of sculptor Henry Hering, who was off playing golf in Scarsdale at the time"

John Tauranac, The Making of a Landmark, New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997, (originally printed in hardcover by Scribner, 1995)

One of the massive aircraft's engine crossed the entire skyscraper, from north wall to south wall, and landed on the roof of another building nearby. The damage was estimated at $1 million (that's 1945 dollars). It took 3 months to repair the 78th and 79th floors.

But the September atrocities provoked a wave of copycats and renewed awareness of such risks.

On April 18, 2002 a small airplane ran into the 26th floor of Milan's tallest building, the Pirelli Tower. Three people were killed, dozens injured and the building was severely damaged.

On January 5, 2002, a 15-year old deliberately crashed a small, single engine, craft into the 28th floor of the Bank of America Plaza in Tampa, Florida. The pilot dies. There were no other casualties.

At the beginning of May 2002, an Indian air force jet hit crashed into a bank building in northwestern India. Eight died in the ensuing fire.


The planets in the solar system rotate anticlockwise, except Venus, Uranus and Pluto which rotate clockwise. No one knows why.

In the case of Venus, the Sun's gravity may have slowed it down until its rotational period equalled its orbital period, a situation known as spin-orbit resonance. It would not account for its retrograde rotation, though. This may be the outcome of an impact with a large celestial body. Uranus' strange angle of rotation is almost certainly due to such a collision - but Venus' unusual direction of spin requires another explanation.


Polygamy refers to both polyandry - marrying more than one man - and polygyny, wedding more than one woman. Hard to believe, but the United States outlawed polygamy only in 1882.

Humans are not the only polygamous species. The Northern Fur Seal and the Baikal Seal, for instance, mate with all the females in their territory.

Examples of polygamous societies include the Kikuyu, Masai and Oromo in east Africa; Swaziland in southeast Africa; some Native American tribes (such as the Blackfoot and Illinois); some nations in the Philippines, Indonesia and Polynesia and, in west Africa, in Cameroon, Ghana, Mali and Niger; the Mormons in the United States and throughout the world (though they rarely practice it).


Corn pollen more than 80,000 years old was found in Mexico. Proper popcorn was known in China, Sumatra, and India for at least 5000 years. Popped popcorn and kernels 5600 years old were discovered in the "Bat Cave" in New Mexico in 1948-1950. Popcorn kernels - ready to pop - were unearthed in ancient Peruvian tombs. In a cave is southern Utah, fluffy, fresh looking, white popcorn was dated to 1000 years ago.

Popcorn was used by the Aztecs and Indians as a decorative motif in headdresses, necklaces, and ornaments on statues of divinities. In the 16th century, both Hernando Cortes (in Mexico) and Christopher Columbus (in the West Indies) described these unusual uses of the snack. Father Bernardino de Sahagun (1499-1590), a Franciscan priest with deep interest in Mexican culture, described a ritual in honor of the Aztec gods of fisheries:

"They scattered before him parched corn, called momochitl, a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower; they said these were hailstones given to the god of water."

French explorers in the early 17th century reported that the Iroquois Indians in the Great Lakes region drank popcorn beer and ate popcorn soup. In either 1621, or in 1630, popcorn was brought as a gift by the Indian Quadequina, brother of Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag tribe, to the colonists in Plymouth, Massachusetts at their first Thanksgiving dinner in the new land.

This may be an apocryphal story but, in any case, it would not have been popcorn as we know it today. An oiled ear was held on a stick over an open fire and the popped kernels would be chewed off. Popcorn later served as a morning cereal, eaten with cream or milk. The colonists called it "popped corn", "parching corn", or "rice corn".

Most of the world's popcorn ("prairie gold") is produced in Nebraska, Iowa and Indiana, in the United States. The kernel is a seed containing a plant embryo and its soft, starchy food. The seed is protected by a hard shell. Heating the kernel converts water held in the seed into pressurized steam which causes the kernel to pop and the starch to expand to 40 times its original size.

Potemkin Village

Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin (1739-1791) attained the rank of Count and Field Marshall at an early age. He was involved in a palace coup against Peter III, husband of Catherine the Great, whose lover Potemkin was rumored to have been between 1774-6.  He was appointed by her, long after their two year affair ended, to be governor of the new province of "New Russia" (southern Ukraine and Crimea). 

The apocryphal (untrue) story is that, in 1787 , anxious to prove his administrative skills, Potemkin organized a lavish royal tour of southern Russia for Catherine the Great. The tour took 4 years to prepare and covered 1000 miles along the river Dnepr. Throngs of peasants welcomed the queen. Yet, all the villages - and villagers - were fake. The houses consisted only of facades. The crowds were transported from one scenery to another ahead of the visiting monarch.

Hence the expression "Potemkin village" - a false political facade aimed to disguise unsavory facts.

President of the United States of America (USA)

The first president of the united States was not George Washington.

Washington was the first president under the Constitution of June 21, 1788, ratified by 1790.

The first constitution of the USA was titled "Articles of Confederation" and was in force between 1781 and 1788. It created a single house of Congress and no executive - but for one year during this period (1781-2, John Hanson served as "President of US in Congress Assembled" - or, in short, President of the United States. He was elected by his peers, including George Washington.

Hanson was followed by Elias Boudinot (1783), Thomas Mifflin (1784), Richard Henry Lee (1785), Nathan Gorman (1786), Arthur St. Clair (1787), and Cyrus Griffin (1788).

Washington was the EIGHTH president of the USA.

Many of the features of the American presidency are fairly recent. The length of the presidency was not limited to 2 terms until 1951 in the 22nd Amendment to the US Constitution. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was elected to 4 successive terms between 1932 and 1944.

The president's inauguration day used to be on March 4. After Roosevelt died in office in 1945, it was changed to February 20.

Blacks could not become president until 1870 and women not until 1920.

The presidential salary remained the same for almost 100 years. It was pegged at $25,000 per year until 1873 when it was doubled. The president had no expense account until 1907 when $25,000 were added to his compensation to cover expenses connected to his office. The salary today stands at $390,000 plus $50,000 in expenses.

Retired presidents were not eligible for a state pension until 1958. The Former President's Act gave them $25,000 a year, an office and minimal staff. The pension today stands at c. $161,000 - the same as a cabinet secretary.

Presidents are not elected by popular vote but by an electoral college representing the states. John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888) and George W. Bush (2000) lost the overall vote but won the presidency.


Prions are aberrant proteins that cause diseases collectively known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. Prions have normal, non-pathogenic forms, resident on the surface of brain cells, white blood cells, muscle cells and other tissues - but whose function is unknown. Prions are infectious and multiply. Not susceptible to enzymatic activity, they accumulate within the nerves, destroying them. The brain becomes potholed, like Swiss cheese or a sponge - hence, spongiform.

In humans, prions cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), Gerstmann-Sträussler-Scheinker disease, fatal familial insomnia (FFI), Alpers Syndrome and kuru. Animals are afflicted by scrapie, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease or BSE), transmissible mink encephalopathy (TME), and chronic wasting disease (CWD).

Prions have no nucleic acid (DNA or RNA) - they are not destroyed by ultraviolet radiation - and therefore are not a life form. They are also thought to cause hereditary and sporadic forms of disease. Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease or Parkinson's disease may be caused by prions as well.

"Proteinaceous infectious particles” or “prions” - about one hundred times smaller than any known virus - were isolated in the early 1980s by American biochemist Stanley B. Prusiner and others. Prusiner was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery.

Prions are controversial. Some scientists think that the encephalopathies are caused either by slow acting viruses or by another class of proteins called chaperones.


Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, discovered in 1886, causes an accelerated ageing of the body starting at the age of 18 months. By the age of 4, most patients are bald, their skin sagging and their bones brittle. Even ten years later, they weigh as little as 15 kilos and are no more than a meter tall. The afflicted die of old age - from a heart attack or a stroke - in their early adolescence. Most of them have above average intelligence. The syndrome is now thought to be caused by a misplaced amino acid (mutation) on a gene called LMNA and affects 1 in 4 to 8 million newborn - but it is not genetically inherited.


Prohibition - the legal enforcement of abstinence from alcoholic beverages - is not an American invention. The USA was preceded by the Aztecs, ancient China, feudal Japan, the Polynesian islands, Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Canada, and India, and all the Muslim countries (where prohibition is still the law). All secular prohibition laws have been repealed within 10-20 years from their introduction.

Some prohibition laws - Finland is an example - were the result of lobbying by breweries. These enterprises wanted to divert demand from stiff drinks to the softer varieties of alcohol - for instance, to beer.

Prohibition in the USA was not sudden. Temperance movements flourished there in the 1820s - a century before the passage of the Constitutional Amendment. By that time, pure alcohol consumption per person reached 27 liters (about 7 gallons). Massachusetts had a prohibition law between 1838 and 1840. Maine followed in 1846-1851 and then was imitated by a host of other states. Alcohol consumption per head dropped to 8 liters (2 gallons).

The Anti-Saloon League spearheaded another successful drive to prohibit the manufacture and sale of liquor between 1906-13. It pointed to the existence of well over 100,000 drinking, prostitution, and gambling establishments (saloons) throughout the USA in 1870. In 1873 women across the country - the true victims of drunken men - marched from church services to saloons and demanded their closure (The Women's War).

The USA had a Wartime Prohibition Law during World War I (intended to conserve grain stocks). According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

"By January 1920 prohibition was already in effect in 33 states covering 63 percent of the total population. In 1917 the resolution for submission of the Prohibition Amendment to the states received the necessary two-thirds vote in Congress; the (eighteenth) amendment was ratified on Jan. 29, 1919, and went into effect on Jan. 29, 1920. On Oct. 28, 1919, the National Prohibition Act, popularly known as the Volstead Act (after its promoter, Congressman Andrew J. Volstead), was enacted, providing enforcement guidelines."

So the Volstead Act was not about the Prohibition. It merely dealt with the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. It was actually vetoed by President Wilson - but to no avail. It defined "intoxicating drink" as any libation containing more than 0.5% (that's HALF a percent) of alcohol. This draconic threshold was amended to 3.2%, just before the Amendment was repealed.

Prohibition inevitably brought on bootlegging. Criminals like Al Capone (see our First Book of Factoids) made 60 million US dollars a year in the 1920s. In 1933, Utah was the 36th state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution to repeal the Eighteenth. But prohibition continued to be enforced in a few states until 1966!

Contrary to distorted media reports, Prohibition was very popular. By 1934, annual alcohol consumption per capita slumped to 0.97 gallons (3.7 liters). Though the crime rate during this period did rise - it did not explode spectacularly. Actually, the Prohibition Party, established in 1869, still exists and fields candidates in most states of the Union.

The Amendment was repealed on two grounds:

I. Economic - Prohibition was said to inhibit economic activity and job creation during the Depression era.

II. Legal - The sporadic and arbitrary enforcement of the law threatened individual liberties and the integrity of police forces and the courts, claimed the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA).

Alcohol consumption never really recovered. In 1975, it stood at 10.2 liters (2.7 gallons) per head.

Amendment [XVIII] [1919]{15} Section 1--After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2--The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3--This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Amendment [XXI] [1933] Section 1--The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2--The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3--This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Puccini, Giacomo

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is known and loved today as one of the greatest opera composers ever. Suffice it to mention "Manon Lescaut" and "La Boheme". Yet, his early career was quite disheartening.

The first performance of his "Madame Butterfly" on February 17, 1904 in La Scala was an unmitigated fiasco. It was booed because the audience found it too much like his earlier work.

The crowd also recalled his elopement with a married woman, Elvira Gemignani, and the birth of his son, Antonio, out of wedlock in the late 1880s. This was, at the time, the cause of an enormous scandal. They married only in 1904, after her husband died.

Nor was "Madame Butterfly" Puccini's only failure. His second opera, "Edgar", also flopped badly in 1889. His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, was so desperate that he sent him to Bayreuth in Germany to listen to the works of Richard Wagner.

His marriage to the madly envious Elvira was tumultuous.

In 1908 the Puccinis returned from Cairo, Egypt to Torre del Lago. Elvira suspected Doria Manfredi, a young servant from the village and veteran employee of the Puccinis, of having an affair with her husband. She threatened to kill Doria, who then ran away and poisoned herself. An examination of the body, commissioned by the incensed parents, found her virginity intact.

The Manfredis charged Elvira Puccini with persecution and calumny and she was found guilty but used her husband's connections to avoid sentencing. Puccini paid an undisclosed amount to the grieving family and they withdrew their accusations. Elvira, blackmailed by her husband, agreed to grant him full freedom - presumably, also romantically.

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