The Polymath Brigade

A deluge of history, science, and language.

The Beard Tax

    In 1705 Peter I of Russia, otherwise known as Peter the Great instituted a beard tax as a part of his government reforms in an effort to westernize Russia. He encouraged beard shaving as a part of this westernization movement. Those who wanted to keep a beard had to pay “beard tax” and were thus required to carry a “beard token” as proof of payment. 

    The token was a coin of typically copper or silver with a Russian eagle on one side and a nose, mouth, whiskers and beard on the other. On the token two phrases were inscribed: “the beard tax has been taken” and “the beard is a superfluous burden”. Costs of the beard tax varied by profession. Nobles and professionals paid around 60 rubles, wealthy merchants paid 100, and so on. 

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The Aka-name

    The Aka-name is a demon, or yokai, from Japanese folklore whose name means “filth licker” (or “red licker”, which is why it is often depicted as being red in colour). The monster first appears in Toriyama Sekien’s famous Gazu Hyakki Yako (“The Illustrated Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”). It is a long tongued creature who is said to come out at night and lick the filth off of unclean bathrooms. The Aka-name will leave an itchy saliva on the newly cleaned bathroom.

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Dark Matter and Dark Energy

    Our cosmos consists of more than 100 billion galaxies, each with somewhere between 10 million and 1 trillion stars in it. Despite the staggering amount of cosmic bodies in our universe, these only account for 4% of our universe. In fact, only 4% of our universe is made up of atoms!

   The amount of material in the universe was calculated by measuring gravitational pull and the amount of light being emitted by luminous objects. These calculations left 96% of the universe unaccounted for. Mysterious substances called dark matter and dark energy account for the remaining pieces of the universe. Their existence can be inferred based on their gravitational influence on what bits of the universe can be seen. Little is known about dark matter and dark energy by modern astrophysicists. 

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The Towton Rose

    The Battle of Towton on 29 March, 1461 was the bloodiest battle ever to be fought on English soil. The battle took place on the plateau between Towton and Saxton in Yorkshire as a conflict between Yorkist and Lancastrian forces during The Wars of the Roses. About 30,000 men were killed on that snowy day. In fact, the fighting was so aggressive that men in the front lines often had to stop and move bodies out of the way. 

    According to folk tales, a white rose splattered with red, the Towton Rose (Rosa Spinosissima), began to grow on the plateau where the bloody battle was fought. Following the legend, the red splashes on the flower are there to represent the many fallen in the battle. It is thought that the true Towton Rose which first flourished on the old battle ground became extinct over sixty years ago due to human interaction. The Towton Rose might only exist in gardens today. 

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Fairy Rings 

    A fairy ring is a naturally occurring arc of mushrooms that usually appear in forests, but may also grow in grasslands. While the name of this phenomenon and lore behind it vary by culture, the most widely recognized tale indicates that fairy rings were created by a circle of dancing fairies. Numerous tales caution against entering these rings for fear of being cursed to die at a young age, being lured away into the fairy realm etc. 

    Modern science now recognizes this phenomenon as the result of fungus (the most common of which is Marasmius oreades). The body, or mycelium, of the fungus grows underground in an outward circle and as it grows it steals nutrients from nearby grass. Mushrooms spring up around the outer edge of the mycelium. As the ring grows the fungus releases a chemical to break down outward organic matter, allowing for a surplus of nutrient the mycelium can use when it reaches it. This accounts for the darker, taller, thicker grass often seen with fairy rings. 

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