Cyclopedia of Factoids - The Letter S

Entries written by Sam Vaknin for the Links and Factoids Study List


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Sahara Desert

The Sahara desert covers 8.6 million square kilometres (or 3.2 million square miles) – the size of the USA. Only 2.5-3 million people live in it – one hundredth the population of the United States. Contrary to its popular image, only 25% of this surface is covered by sand. The rest of the Sahara is made or rocks and desert varnish (weathered rock). The word "Sahara" in Arabic means "deserts", in the plural.


The Pacific Salmon, when sexually mature, return from the ocean to the freshwater stream of their birth to lay eggs and die. The trip is hundreds to thousands of miles long. The Atlantic Salmon make it a few times in a lifetime - the Pacific varieties (there are five) only once.

The Salmon do not eat until they reach their destination and built a nest. The US Fish and Wildlife Service describe the few survivors as "often gaunt, with grotesquely humped backs, hooked jaws, and battle-torn fins. The females are swollen with a pound or more of eggs. Both have large white patches of bruised skin on their backs and sides."

The ordeal continues in the spawning grounds - males fight over females, females over nesting sites.

Why do the Salmon die after spawning?

Probably because of stress. Their cortisol level surges as they struggle upstream. This potent hormone facilitates the provision of energy but also eliminates the appetite, destroys the immune system and adversely affects the digestive tract. The Salmon die of exhaustion, starvation, and infection - not because they are "programmed" to die.


Scientifically speaking, onions, apples and potatoes share the same taste molecules but emit different smell molecules. Their differing "tastes" are, therefore, actually, the way we experience their smells. 

In humans, the senses of taste and smell are connected. That is why we fail to taste well when we have a cold. But in snails the functions are separate. One pair of antennas is to smell with and another pair to taste with.

We can detect four tastes (sweet, salty, bitter and sour) - and, maybe, a fifth one (MSG or monosodium glutamate). 

But we can distinguish more than 10,000 separate smell molecules by their shape. Still, there appear to be seven primary odors—camphorlike, musky, floral, peppermintlike, ethereal (like dry-cleaning fluid), pungent (vinegarlike), and putrid. They correspond to the seven types of smell receptors in the olfactory-cell hairs

When the food is high energy, we taste it as sweet. When the food contains certain chemicals it tastes salty. 

Heated food releases more molecules to the air and to the saliva and thus is easier to smell and taste.

Children have more taste buds than adults. Women have more taste buds than men. They experience tastes much more intensely. Adults have c. 9000 taste buds on and around the tongue.

S/he (Etymology)

The widespread use of the word "she" as the female singular pronoun is astoundingly new.


The word "she" existed in both Middle English, where it was written as "scae", or "sche" and in Old English where it was "sio", or (as in Norsk-Viking languages) "seo", or, in the accusative, sie.


But women simply did not deserve a pronoun all their own.


Prior to the 12 century - when the English language was already 400 years old - the female pronoun was "heo" ("hye", or "hie" in Middle English). "Heo" was also was the plural of all genders. "She" as a noun (she-cousin) was not in acceptable use prior to the 14th century.

Even today, the plurals of all genders in English have no feminine forms, as opposed, for instance, to Semitic languages. "We" and "they" in English are unisex. In Hebrew, for example, "hem" is the male plural and "hen" the female plural.


"He" derives from the Indo-European word for "this (here)". Hence here, her, and ... hence.


Shooting Stars

The average meteor - a piece of a steroid or planet, or dust left by passing comets - is the size of a baseball and is moving through space at 50,000 kilometres per hours. Hence the myth that meteors burn upon entry due to friction with the Earth's atmosphere. The truth is that meteors do not burn - they vaporize due to "ram pressure".

Meteors do heat - to more than 3000 degrees Fahrenheit or 1649 Celsius - and, as a result, they glow. But this is not due to friction. The meteor's advancing front compresses the air and raises its temperature. It is this seething air that, in turn, vaporizes most meteors, transforming them into shooting stars, 100 kilometres above. Larger meteors splatter into exploding fireballs. But they all finally become meteorites - cold shreds of meteors found on the ground.

Sistine Chapel

Ross King published a book titled "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" debunking many of the myths attending to this masterpiece.

Michelangelo (1475-1564) collaborated with assistants on painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel . He did not paint his bits on his back, suspended inches from the ceiling. Aged 71 and already a wealthy artist, he got well paid for the job - though he had practically no experience with wet plaster (or, for that matter, painting). It took three and a half years to complete. It was unveiled, unfinished, in November 1509. It was restored 1979-1999.

Slavery (in USA)

Spanish settlements in the territory of the current-day USA owned slaves as early as 1526. Twenty one African chattel slaves were first brought to British North America ( to Jamestown, Virginia)  in 1619. They joined white indentured laborers (servants) from all over Europe as well as Indian (Native-American) and Caribbean slaves. All the colonies legalized race-based (black) slavery and introduced "slave codes" by 1670. In total, 10-13 million Africans were abducted (mainly by other Africans and Arabs) and sold as slaves (mostly in the Americas) between 1620 and 1880.

The slaves were transported across the ocean in especially fitted ships. They were kept lying on narrow ledges, chained, but were brought above deck in good weather. Women and children were not shackled. Even these harsh conditions did not prevent the would-be slaves from frequently attempting to rebel, though, usually, unsuccessfully.

Overcrowding, minimal and monotonous diet (two meals per day and a pint of water), poor hygiene, epidemics, and lack of physical activity decimated, on each and every 1-2 months long trip, a whopping one seventh to one fourth of the "cargo" and one sixth to one half of the crew. Another 10% of the slaves died during the process of "seasoning" - getting used to local conditions in their destinations.

Initially, all types of unfree workers, regardless of color, were treated the same way: bought, sold, and worked, sometimes to death. Gradually, starting in the 18th century, light-skinned slaves ("house negroes") and whites were tackled more leniently. Surprisingly, slave rebellions were rather rare - perhaps because cruel slave-owners were socially ostracized and miscegenation (white-black sexual liaisons) was frowned upon.

Most slave-owners regarded themselves as custodians of their slaves. They properly fed the working adults (though children usually went malnourished), allowed them to grow vegetables in their own garden plots, provided them with clothing (four suits) and housing (one wooden cabin per family). In wealthier and larger plantations, the slaves were cared for by qualified physicians. The master felt it his obligation and right to constantly intervene, interfere, and meddle in the lives of his inferiors.

Slave life was richer than portrayed in literature and cinema. Slaves belonged to churches and were ordained as ministers and preachers. A few learned to read and write. Music was a favorite pastime. Understandably, so was drinking. Slaves were allowed to moonlight or work on their own free time.

Actually, only a minority of the white population in the south were slave-owners (347,525 out of 6,000,000 in 1850). Only 1,800 people owned more than 100 slaves. There were 250,000 freed slaves in the south by 1860. The average cotton plantation had only 35 slaves, about 50-60% of them engaged in the production of the immensely profitable crop and its processing.

Still, slaves constituted more than half the population in some southern states (South Carolina, Mississippi) and two fifths of the total southern populace (compared to an average of 5% in the north and 10% in New-York). Of the first 12 Presidents of the USA, 8 were slave-owners. Some slave-owners were themselves black and former slaves.

The Law, even in the Deep South, recognized slaves as both chattel and human beings. Slaves were held responsible for criminal acts they had committed, for instance, and enjoyed many human rights (e.g., the right not to be killed, tortured, or beaten brutally, to be cared for in old age or sickness, to receive religious instruction, to bring suit and give evidence in some cases). Case law and non-binding custom endowed them with additional privileges: the right to marry, own private property (peculium), have free time, enter contracts, and (if female or child) be consigned to lighter labor.

Still, a minority of slave-owners ignored these legal protections and social censure and indulged their sadistic urges and sexual appetites. In some plantations, nutrition was so lopsided or deficient that slaves resorted to eating clay to supplement their diet. In others mutilation, branding, chaining, torture, murder, and rape - all criminal acts prohibited by Law - were common.

But while individual slaves were, at least theoretically, protected by law and social custom - not so the negro family. The owner had the right to sell his slaves separately, regardless of their familial ties. Some states, like Louisiana in 1829, passed legislation prohibiting the sale of children under the age of ten. Others (Alabama and Georgia) forbade the separation of inherited slave families. But these were the exceptions to the widespread practice.

Though not recognized or protected by Law, many slaves accumulated property. A few hundred slaves even purchased their freedom from their white masters. Slave-owners in the USA usually retained ownership of sick, disabled, or infirm slaves and took care of them. Suicide among slaves in the USA was a rarity. Many slaves (especially in the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina) were free to do as they chose once they had completed their daily assignments (the "task system").

On the eve of the American Revolution, c. 400,000 slaves amounted to one fifth of the population of the rebellious colonies. Slavery in the USA was abolished in stages and decades after it was eliminated in Britain. Rhode Island banned it as early as 1774. Pennsylvania, New-York, and New Jersey followed suit. In 1787, the Continental Congress prohibited the practice in the Midwest. The slave trade - or, more precisely, the importation of slaves into the USA - was banned altogether in 1808. Even so, between 1808 and 1865, traders smuggled 270,000 slaves into the USA.

But the major engine of growth of the slave population was reproduction. Twenty thousand slaves were born every year during the 1790s - and 70,000 annually in the 1840s. As a result, the ratio between the sexes was equal and the slave population skyrocketed from 1.2 million in 1810 to 4 million in 1860. Some slave-owners even established "breeding farms" and sold the off-spring in the markets of "deficit" states.

Gradually, all the states north of the Ohio River and the Mason-Dixon line became slave-free. Northerners resented the presence of fugitive slaves (about 1000 per year) who crossed the Ohio River in what was known as the Underground Railroad, but they often clashed with federal authorities when the latter tried to extend their jurisdiction to the escapees under the Fugitive Slave Laws.

Most abolitionists - as well as President Abraham Lincoln (who was never one) - wanted to repatriate the blacks (return them to Africa) and, in any case, expel all free blacks from northern and, later, southern territories. The African nation-state of Liberia was established specifically to accommodate former North American slaves.

It was widely acknowledged that slave-owners should be compensated for the loss of their property. Not a single abolitionist supported or even discussed reparations (compensating the slaves for their free labor, denial of freedom, brutal treatment, and hardships). It was accepted wisdom that blacks - both slaves and free - should never be allowed to carry arms.

Slaves in the South (the Confederacy) were finally emancipated in 1863, during the Civil War. But, even then, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation did not apply to some states within the Union. These other slaves remained in slavery until December 1865, when the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted.


Smog - airborne smoke particles combined with solid and liquid fog - could be lethal. Among numerous other substances, smog also contains cyanide and sulphuric acid. During the autumn of 1909, there were more than 1,000 “smoke-fog” deaths in Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1952 smog killed more than 4000 people in Greater London within the three weeks. Los Angeles and Tokyo also suffer from smog pollution.

Photochemical smog has nothing to do with either smoke or fog. It originates from nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon emissions mainly from cars. These then undergo photochemical reactions in the lower atmosphere and yield the highly toxic gas ozone in the presence of sunlight.

Smog was so severe in London well into the end of the 1970s that winter sunshine hours were reduced by one third.

Soccer War

Wars were fought for strange reasons - but none as bizarre as the one that led to the 4 days long skirmish between El Salvador and Honduras in July 14, 1969. 

The former lost to the latter in a playoff game for the 1970 World Cup. El Salvador fans then proceeded to beat up their Honduran counterparts.  Soon, the two countries were engaged in a full-blown war, known ever since as the Soccer War. It left 3000 dead, 6000 wounded and more than $50 million in damages. It led to the election of Colonel Sanchez Hernandez as president of El Salvador a year later.

But this was merely the latest manifestation of constant friction between the two neighbouring polities. Their international border was never undisputedly demarcated. Honduras was the destination country for 300,000 impoverished El Salvadoran immigrants. Hondurans long campaigned to have them expelled. In 1968, thousands of them were. Honduran and Salvadoran businesses bitterly competed in the same markets. The Soccer War merely epitomized this deep-set rivalry.


Spam is a slang word. The official term is Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (UCE) - defined by the US Federal Trade Commission as "any commercial electronic mail message sent, often in bulk, to a consumer without the consumer's prior request or consent." Unsolicited non-commercial e-mail is also spam.

SPAM (in capital letters) has been a trademark of the Hormel Foods Corporation since 1937 (acronym of "Shoulder Pork and hAM"/"SPiced hAM"). It is a kind of fluffy canned luncheon meat and it gained fame (or notoriety) during the second world war when it was served to American soldiers throughout the world. The Hormel Foods Corporation failed in its legal battle to block the use of the word "spam".

No one knows how the term originated. suggests that it is derived from a Monty Python skit in their Flying Circus television show in 1970. In it a group of Vikings harass two patrons in a restaurant with incessant chants of "spam, spam, spam..."

Spam may be an acronym of Simultaneously Posted Advertising Message. It was the derogatory phrase used to describe the April 1994 marketing campaign of the Canter and Siegel law firm. They posted an offer to every news group thus provoking an outcry and giving rise to - spam.


Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition is notorious for its prosecution and bestial torture of the Jews in Spain and its territories.  Yet, contrary to common "knowledge", the Inquisition  had no jurisdiction over the Jews. It did not detain or  torture a single Jew.

Its remit was, as the Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us:

"The Spanish Inquisition, however, properly begins with the reign of Ferdinand the Catholic and Isabella (at the  end of the 15th century). The Catholic faith was then  endangered by pseudo converts from Judaism (Marranos) and Mohammedanism (Moriscos).

On 1 November, 1478, Sixtus IV empowered the Catholic sovereigns to set up the Inquisition."

The Inquisition persecuted, tortured, imprisoned, and prosecuted only Jews and Moslems who converted to Christianity. Since the property of the "pseudo" converts was impounded, both the crown and ecclesia were happy to pursue this profitable vocation.

Spider Silk

Spiders are not the only insects to produce "webs" of silk. Centipedes, millipedes, and mites, among others, do it too. Spider silk is made of a protein called fibroin and is secreted from up to 7 glands in the spider's abdomen. The spider exerts abdominal pressure to force the silk out and varies the rate of flow by using muscles in the ducts and spigots at the extremities of the glands. Each gland produces a different type of silk intended for distinct purposes - wrapping prey, constructing the web, issuing sperm drops, and manufacturing the egg sac. 

Spider silk strands are more uniform in diameter that most man-made artefacts. Per same diameter and weight, spider silk is 5 times stronger than steel and one of the most elastic substances on earth. It does not break even if stretched to 4 times the original length.

It is water resistant. It does not become brittle even at minus 40 degrees Celsius.

Squid, Giant

On the morning of 25 March 1941, the 8799 ton passenger ship Britannia of the Anchor Line, carrying 500 passengers, was sunk by a German marine raider, Thor, off the west coast of Africa. The few survivors insisted that one of them was gobbled up by a giant squid.

Giant squids (Architeuthis dux) - up to 20 meters long and one ton (1000 kilograms) heavy - are not fabulous sea monsters. They exist. There have been more than 250 sightings of these behemoths, mostly stranded or dead. In 1874, Rev. Moses Harvey of Newfoundland displayed a dead giant squid caught by fishermen in his tub. The specimen was described in a scientific monograph written by Professor Addison Verrill of Yale University six years later.

Undigested pieces of giant squids have been found in the stomachs of sperm whales. Whale skins are often scarred by the tentacled suckers of their foes. The marks are between 2 and 5 centimetres in diameter.

The eyes of this beast - which stalks the darkness of the deepest seas, up to 1000 meters below the surface - are as big as human heads. The squid grows fast and attains full size in 3-4 years.

Giant squids eat deep sea fishes - as well as smaller squids. They use their very long feeding tentacles, equipped with "clubs" (suckers, or suction cups) to capture their prey. The hapless victim is then held by eight smaller arms ("arm crown"). The squid proceeds to bite chunks off the game, using its sharp and powerful beaks (the parrot-like equivalents of jaws).


On May 1, 1840, Great Britain was the first county to issue a postage stamp - the Penny Black, a one penny, adhesive, paper quadrangle. The government saw no need to print the country of origin on the stamps - as no other polity produced such. But it did carry the image of Queen Victoria.

All British stamps since bear the simile of the reigning royal and do not name the country of origin - the United Kingdom.

The stamp was good for use from May 6. Thus the first letter bearing the Black Penny is dated May 6 - and not May 1. On May 8, 1840 another stamp - a two pence blue Victoria - was disseminated. Both the Black Penny and the Blue Victoria enjoyed print runs of millions and so - contrary to urban legend - are not rare, though highly valued by philatelists. The two immediately became collectors' items. Perforation was introduced only in 1848-54.

Stamps were first proposed by a schoolmaster and civil servant, Rowland Hill, in 1837, in his manifest "Post Office Reform". He was knighted for the idea - but it wasn't his. Some countries in Europe printed stamps as early as a century before. They were used to pay a tax on newspaper delivery. At first he proposed pre-paid envelopes - but they were largely ignored by the public, partly due to their flawed design.

Star of David

The "Magen David" ("Shield of King David") - two interpenetrating triangles that form a six-pointed star - has been the symbol of the Zionist movement since 1897. It is an important part of the flag of the State of Israel. It has been a Jewish symbol for a mere 400 years, though. It appears, for instance, on medieval cathedrals.

The symbol in known in India as the Sri-Yantra ("the complete interpenetration of the sexes"). The pupils of the Christian mystic and alchemist Jacob Bohme, who lived in the early part of the 17th century, believed that it symbolized Christ who, as a second Adam, restored the first Adam's androgyny (bisexuality).


The United States boasts a few statue-related records. The Statue of Liberty is the largest copper sculpture in the world. Mount Rushmore - in the Black Hills near Keystone - is both the largest monument and the most sizable figure carved in a rock. Each of the four heads of the U.S. Presidents measure 18 meters tall. Compare it to the Zizkov Monument in Prague, the biggest equestrian memorial. It stands a mere 9 meters tall.

There are rules regulating the appearance of horse-mounted military men. If the person died in battle, the two front legs of the horse must be extended in the air. If only one of the horse's front legs is lifted, the person was merely wounded in battle, though he died later of his wounds. All four legs firmly on the ground - the person died of natural causes.


According to British law, there were two types of suicide: an act committed by a person of unsound mind and "felo de se" ("felon upon himself") - an ct of self-destruction committed knowingly and willingly by a person of sound mind:

 “A felo-de-se, therefore, is he that deliberately puts an end to his own existence.”—Blackstone: Commentaries, book iv. chap. xiv. p. 189.

 But killing oneself inadvertently, while trying to kill another, is also considered felo-de-se:

 “If one commits any unlawful malicious act, the consequence of which is his own death, as if attempting to kill another he runs upon his antagonist’s sword, or shooting at another the gun bursts and kills himself.”  

Prior to 1870, the estate of a feb-de-se - except his land - reverted to the crown. The relatives could redeem the chattels and goods for a fee. The body was subjected to an “ignominious burial on the highway, with a stake driven through the body.” The Burial Act of 1823 forbade such practices and ordered to bury the feb-de-se within 24 hours after the coroner's inquest, between 9 PM and midnight, and without Christian last rites.

The Interments act of 1882 permitted to inter the culprit in a churchyard or parish burial grounds, again without rites - though a special kind of rite was allowed.

British law did not cross the ocean. Thus, William Penn included this clause in the charter of privileges he granted to the inhabitants of Pennsylvania:

"If any person, through temptation or melancholy, shall destroy himself, his estate, real and personal, shall notwithstanding, descend to his wife and children, or relations, as if he had died a natural death."

The "winter blues" are supposed to cause suicidal ideation. There is even a mental health syndrome called Seasonal Affective Disorder, supposedly alleviated by bright light therapy (therapy using artificial sources emulating daylight).

But suicide rates are highest in the spring and summer months. They are lowest in winter. The propensity to commit suicide INCREASES with increasing hours of daylight. It is not correlated with any other meteorological variable, such as rainfall or temperature.

Suicide rates appeared to increase with increasing hours of daylight, and showed no connection to other meteorological factors such as changing temperature or rainfall.

Surprisingly , sunlight is known to indirectly induce heightened brain levels of serotonin, a biochemical inversely linked to depression. The lower the levels - the deeper the depressive episode. Serotonin drops during winter months.

SOURCE: American Journal of Psychiatry 2003;160:793-795.

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