England’s White Cliffs Are Crumbling at an Accelerated Rate

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Diliff via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Buddhist nun Pema Chödron may have said it best: “Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—is always changing, moment to moment.” Though they often operate on a timescale that can be beyond our human perception, geological features are not exempt from the flow of time. In some places, that change happens fast. Geologists say chalk cliffs on England’s southern shore are eroding 10 times faster than they once did. The researchers published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The picturesque chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters swoop gracefully along the British coast, attracting tourists and photographers. Yet for their serene appearance, the cliffs are not exactly safe.

Chalk is one of the softest minerals and easily broken—especially when it’s being constantly pounded by the sea. The site saw major landslides in 1999 and 2001, and a massive cliff-fall in May 2016 sent tons of rock into the water below. (“While we would encourage people to enjoy the beautiful coastline of East Sussex,” reads the Seven Sisters Country Park website, “we would remind visitors that you do have a duty of care and responsibility for your own safety.”)

Understanding coastal erosion has become a big issue in a world facing rising sea levels. The tricky part is studying something that, by definition, is no longer there. Even tons of fallen rock will break down and be scattered by the sea.

But the ghosts of the old coastline still haunt the rock that remains. To find them, geologists used a technique called cosmogenic nuclide dating, which measures the extent of cosmic radiation in rock to determine its age and how long it’s been exposed. This, in turn, can paint a picture of how that rock has moved or been changed over time.

The white cliffs are studded with pieces of hard, chemically inert flint—a rock that makes a far more reliable historical witness than soft chalk. Working perpendicular to the cliffs themselves, the researchers pulled chunks of flint from exposed rock in a line beginning at the cliff and ending near the water’s edge.

They crushed the flint into microscopic pieces, then put them through a cosmogenic nuclide array to determine their age and history.

Next, the researchers fed that data into a mathematical model of the coastline, which allowed them to estimate the cliffs’ rate of erosion going back thousands of years.

They found that the coast is indeed crumbling fast—but they also learned that this pace is a relatively recent development. For most of the cliffs’ history, the authors write in their paper, the rate of erosion held steady at between 2 and 6 centimeters per year. But that rate has accelerated mightily in the last few centuries, now cruising along at 22 to 32 centimeters a year.

What changed (or changed more)? The authors can’t say for sure. Natural climate change is one possibility; wave action did become more violent during the so-called Little Ice Age, which took place from the 14th to 19th centuries. The cliffs have also become more vulnerable over the last few centuries, as ocean currents and human engineers picked away at the band of sediment protecting the coast from the ocean’s full force.

November 7, 2016 – 3:01pm

Is It Illegal to Take a Voting Booth Selfie?

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It’s election time again. And that means nothing but Instagram photos of people’s “I Voted” stickers, long lines at polling booths, and the occasional celebrity taking an ill-advised voting booth selfie.

Which begs the question: Is it illegal to take a voting booth selfie?

Short answer: Depending on where you live, possibly—although probably not for much longer. And, assuming you’re not taking the photo for some dark and evil purpose, your chances of being prosecuted are low. (But that’s not an excuse to do it!)

The reason for this has nothing to do with being a Luddite and everything to do with the integrity of the voting process in three main ways: vote buying, undue influence, and voter intimidation.


In 2012, a citizen of North Carolina brought his smartphone to the polling booth. He had made his notes of which candidates he wanted to vote for on his phone, took out his phone to read the list, and was immediately descended upon by election officials, who ultimately made him leave the room, make notes on a piece of paper, and then return to cast his vote. As local station WRAL explained, there were two problems: The first was that, by having a cell phone, he could be texting someone and receiving information about who to vote for.

The second point was that if some criminal spent large sums of money to buy votes, the only way they could tell if a voter followed his or her instructions would be with a picture (widespread vote buying in the late 19th century is the reason we now have secret ballots). WRAL even mentioned stories of criminal syndicates giving people cell phones to document their votes in the polling booth.

Of course, these points are weakened slightly thanks to the proliferation of absentee voting. In 2000, a satirical website, Vote Auction, appeared. The premise was that you would auction off your vote and then fill in an absentee ballot. That absentee ballot would be sent off, verified, and mailed to the correct polling place.

The website, of course, was ridiculously illegal and was quickly shut down (the webmaster claimed it was a protest against the role of money in government), but it became another example of the increasing worries of how the internet would affect voting.

A closely related sibling to vote buying is voter influence—and this is where it gets dicey for celebrities. If it’s obvious a major star is voting for Candidate X, their fans may want to emulate that celebrity. In countries with strong anti-influence-election-laws, such as New Zealand, posting a completed ballot selfie online on Election Day can result in heavy fines, and the Electoral Commission says, “It also potentially exposes the voter’s friends to the risk of breaching the rules if they share, re-share, or repost the voter’s ‘selfie’ on election day.”


There’s another worry about selfies at polling places: other people. According to The Huffington Post, in 1994 there were concerns that videos of polls in the South were “thinly veiled attempts to intimidate black voters at the polls.” And in the 1960s, there were reports that Texas Rangers were “in Mexican-American districts and used cameras, apparently taking pictures of the voters.” While these cases were never pursued, they helped create a wave of photographic restrictions not just in the polling booth, but in the area around them as well. Which makes sense, as the person behind you in line may not want anyone to know that they’re voting.


Tough to tell. Several states don’t even really have enforcement mechanisms for the law (for a list of state laws, see here). And most states don’t care if you’re just posting it for your own benefit, as legitimate political speech was never supposed to be the target, although it’s never a good idea to gamble on the kindness of bureaucrats.

But they might soon be legal. The ACLU has been fighting several high-profile cases regarding these bans, with varying levels of success. So whether you take a selfie or not, you’re participating in the long struggle between freedom of speech and a free election.

Have you got a Big Question you’d like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

November 7, 2016 – 3:00pm

A Medieval Bestiary That Once Belonged to Henry VIII Has Been Digitized

filed under: art, books, History
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University of Aberdeen

For nearly four centuries, the University of Aberdeen has housed one of the best-preserved medieval illuminated manuscripts in existence. The “Aberdeen Bestiary” depicts birds, bats, and other colorful creatures painted against backgrounds of brilliant gold leaf. Having once belonged to King Henry VIII, it was long believed that the book was published exclusively for the wealthy elite. Details revealed by high-definition digitization suggest that the manuscript was instead created as a teaching tool, Live Science reports.

The bestiary was published in England around the year 1200, and was first documented in the royal library of King Henry VIII in 1542. Recent digital enhancement provides several clues as to the book’s original purpose: On one page, dirty fingerprints indicate a spot where the teacher turned the book around to show his students. Accent marks throughout the text are believed to signify emphasis when read out loud. The high-definition photography also uncovered notes and sketches left in the margins by the manuscript’s creators.

So if the Aberdeen Bestiary came from such humble beginnings, how did it end up in the hands of royalty? Researchers from the university now believe it was ransacked from a monastery during the Reformation. Illuminated manuscripts were originally used by priests and monks, with the earliest copies dating back to the 5th century. It wasn’t until the 12th century that they gained popularity with more secular crowds.

Now, after remaining largely inaccessible for centuries, the book is being used for teaching once more—this time online. Every detail of the newly digitized publication, from the imperfections to the brushstrokes, is available to view through the university’s website.

[h/t Live Science]

All images courtesy of the University of Aberdeen.

November 7, 2016 – 2:30pm

6 Downsides of Human Evolution

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Qais Usyan/AFP/Getty Images

The phrase “survival of the fittest” makes it tempting to think of natural selection as an unequivocal engine of progress, one that only makes humans stronger and healthier specimens. But, in reality, the process is more complicated.

“I preach about this in my classes all the time,” Karen Rosenberg, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Delaware, tells mental_floss. “We think of ‘fit’ to mean aerobically fit, or able to run far, but in evolutionary biology, ‘fit’ means being reproductively successful.” In other words, you just need to be able to survive long enough to pass on your genes to the next generation.

To achieve reproductive success, natural selection sometimes makes compromises, and as a result, humans have developed some traits that pose real challenges to our health today. From back injuries to difficult childbirth, here are six downsides of being human that you can blame on evolution.


The birth of bipedalism was a high point in human evolution. Standing upright allowed us to travel long distances and freed up our hands to use tools and carry food, but it also came at a cost.

In chimpanzees and our other quadrupedal cousins, the vertebral column acts like a suspension bridge. “But if you take that horizontally stable structure and tilt it vertically, it loses its stability,” Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist at Dartmouth College, tells mental_floss.

The most obvious way to make a structurally sound spine in an upright creature would be a straight stack of vertebrae. But this arrangement would block the birth canal, and clearly you need to have babies to ensure the survival of your species. So the human spine had to evolve into the “curved mess” that it is today to make way for our big-brained babies to be born, DeSilva says. The price we pay is back pain—and prevalent injuries like slipped disks and spontaneous compression fractures.


If you look at the most high-tech prosthetic feet available today, their structure is more like an ostrich’s foot. They don’t replicate human anatomy because the anatomically correct human foot is sort of awkward.

“Humans were not designed from scratch,” DeSilva says. “We’ve inherited a lot of the anatomies we have from our ape ancestry, and the foot is a wonderful example.”

When we starting walking on two feet, we no longer needed the flexible feet that our ape ancestors required to climb trees and grab branches. In order to give us more stability and allow us to better push off the ground, evolution took a “paper clips and duct tape” approach, DeSilva says. But because we walk around on modified ape feet that can twist and roll quite easily, we sprain and break our ankles. We get shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and collapsed arches. This isn’t just a modern phenomenon; scientists even see some of these common foot injuries in the fossil record.

“It works well enough, and that’s all you really need in evolution,” DeSilva says. “What we have as a consequence of a just-good-enough foot is a billion-dollar podiatry industry.”


Compared with other apes, humans experience very difficult childbirth. That’s largely because the human pelvis is very narrow relative to the big heads and broad shoulders of our babies.

“The pelvis serves two conflicting functions in humans: allowing us to walk on two legs and allowing us to give birth to big-brained babies,” Rosenberg says. The shape of the pelvis is a compromise between those two things.

But humans have come up with an interesting cultural answer to the problem of long and painful birth. While birth is a solitary event for most mammals, Rosenberg pointed out that virtually all human mothers seek delivery assistance from relatives, midwives, or doctors.

In a paper in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Rosenberg and her colleague Wenda Trevathan wrote that natural selection likely favored the behavior of seeking assistance during birth. This probably wasn’t a conscious decision by expectant mothers. Rather, seeking help might have been driven by fear, anxiety, and pain, but over time, this led to reduced mortality.


There’s a good reason it’s hard to give up fast food and candy. Sugar is a basic form of energy, and excess sugar is stored as fat to get us through times of hardship. Before the rise of agriculture and industrialization, when food sources were scarce or unreliable, a taste for sugar was necessary for survival. But now that processed sugar is readily available in grocery stores, humans are overdoing it. As a result, we’re facing an obesity epidemic and a rise in conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

“The food industry has made a fortune because we retain Stone Age bodies that crave sugar but live in a Space Age world in which sugar is cheap and plentiful,” Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times a few years ago. (He was arguing at the time that New York City’s proposed ban on big sodas might actually help restore the healthy constraints of a hunter-gatherer world.)


Natural selection didn’t weed out potentially harmful conditions like schizophrenia and depression, even though many of these disorders are associated with lower birth rates. Some scientists have theorized that the unaffected siblings of the people with mental disorders might be responsible, as they may pass the mutations on to their own children, keeping these disorders in the gene pool. Other scientists have looked at the origins of mental disorders, showing that while devastating, some of these illnesses seem connected to an evolutionary advantage.

For example, while some symptoms of depression can be debilitating, some researchers have argued that the condition can also promote an analytical style of thought that can be very productive at solving problems. Other research has shown that schizophrenia-related genes may have helped humans achieve complex cognition.


After humans started walking upright, we underwent another major transformation: Our brains got much bigger. To accommodate a larger brain, the shape of our faces changed, and our jaws had to become narrower. But for many people, this means that their third molars, or wisdom teeth, once vital for chewing, have no room to erupt through the gums, so they become impacted. If these impacted teeth are not extracted, they can become extremely painful or cause infections.

But natural selection is still at work: A genetic mutation that stops wisdom teeth from forming has been spreading, and more people today are born without third molars.

November 7, 2016 – 2:00pm

Scientists Are Finding More Two-Headed Sharks

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Courtesy of Shark Defense

Overfishing and a correlating rise in inbreeding may be one of the factors responsible for an uptick in two-headed shark sightings, according to a new paper in the Journal of Fish Biology.

The study’s authors recently discovered a dual-faced Atlantic sawtail catshark (Galeus atlanticus), which joins earlier discoveries of a bull shark fetus with two heads and blue shark conjoined twins. The bull shark was examined in 2011 by staff at Michigan State University: an x-ray found that the specimen had two heads, two hearts, and two stomachs.  

A two-headed bull shark found in Key West in 2011. Image Credit: Courtesy of Shark Defense

While seemingly fit for a Syfy Channel movie, these fish typically don’t live long enough to terrorize anything: The two heads make it more difficult to swim and gather food. As NatGeo notes, most don’t even survive birth. The abnormalities are often discovered by fishermen who capture sharks and then examine the offspring they’re carrying rather than ensnare live samples.

Scientists believe metabolic disorders, viral infections, and pollution could also be possible contributors.

If that wasn’t disturbing enough, in 2011 a fisherman caught a dusky shark and discovered it was pregnant with a one-eyed embryo—a.k.a. the “cyclops shark.”

[h/t NatGeo]

November 7, 2016 – 1:30pm

Adobe Creates Software That’s Like Photoshop for Audio Recordings

In the future, editing audio might be as easy as opening up Photoshop and cropping a picture. Adobe’s Project VoCo, two years in the making, is designed to make audio editing “really easy for the average person” according to Zeyu Jin, an audio researcher and intern at Adobe’s Creative Technologies Lab. With Project VoCo, you can easily crop out certain words by searching through a transcript—and even generate new words in the speaker’s voice.

The program debuted as one of 11 experimental projects at Adobe Sneaks, an event where the company shows off new technology “that doesn’t have a place in a product yet—or may never,” as Adobe Senior Research Scientist Stephen DiVerdi explains it.

Project VoCo just needs an audio sample and a transcript of the recording, then you can edit the transcript and let the program handle the audio, instead of cropping and stitching together the recording yourself. If you need to edit out curses or misspoken words, it’s just a matter of searching the text of the transcript. More impressively, the program can analyze a person’s voice and create new speech that sounds just like them, by cobbling together syllables and sounds the person used in the initial recording. (Because of this process, you can’t insert words that require sounds that person never used in the audio sample provided.)

For instance, you can change this first sentence below into one with a whole different meaning:

See a live demonstration at the recent Adobe Max conference in the video below. The meat of the demonstration starts just before the one-minute mark.

It doesn’t take much data for the program to be able to synthesize someone’s voice—it can do it with 10 minutes of audio, though for a really good mimic, 30 minutes is better.

In the ideal use case, you could fire up this program to fix speeches or podcasts or voice-overs where there was a mistake in the initial recording, and you need to re-record. Since audio is so sensitive, changes in the sound of the room or in the person’s voice (say, if they’ve developed a cold) make it next to impossible to re-record just a segment of the audio clip in question—to make it sound really good, you need to re-record the whole thing. Here, you can make corrections that sound seamless. That said, the ability to create audio featuring someone’s voice saying words that never came out of their mouth is ripe for serious misuse. But the Adobe researchers say that it’s not unlike the ability to Photoshop misleading images, like the fake viral images that circulate on the web.

Still, Jin says they “are looking for a technological solution to prevent misuse. We are investigating deep learning detectors to find the edited part [of the audio]” and create some sort of watermark for it.

All images courtesy of Adobe

November 7, 2016 – 1:00pm

New Cabbage Patch Kid Doll Straddles the Line Between Scary and Cute

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Some kids’ toys are more creepy than cute. Case in point: The “Baby So Real” doll from Cabbage Patch Kids, created by toy company Wicked Cool Toys. The realistic-looking robotic baby doll—which, as Vocativ reports, recently went on sale in the U.S.—straddles the line between artificial and real so effectively that it’s hard to decide whether you want to cuddle with it or have nightmares about it.

The Bluetooth-controlled doll has wide, animated LCD eyes that blink and close, and it burps, laughs, and even snores while falling “asleep.” It also talks, drinks from a bottle, slurps medicine from a spoon, plays Peekaboo, and wets itself.

Kids can nurture and care for the doll with a downloadable app. But even if your child loves the toy, it’s understandable if you can’t shake the creepy feeling that it might be watching you.

The new Cabbage Patch doll costs $100, and is available at major toy retailers. Learn more about it in the video below.

[h/t Vocativ]

November 7, 2016 – 12:30pm

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10 Facts About Egypt

Egypt is a country located in northern Africa and boarders Gaza Strip, Israel, The Red Sea, Sudan and Libya. It is considered to be part of the Middle East because of its geographical borders as well as being part of the Arab world. Egypt is one of the countries with the longest histories as well as the cradle of civilization with its early breakthroughs in agriculture and urbanization. Here are some interesting facts about Egypt. 1. Religion Most Egyptians are Muslims who comprise 90 percent of the entire population. Most Muslims belong to the Sunni sect. Shia Muslims make up

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Bloody Battle Breaks Out When Penguin Finds His Wife With Another Bird

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By David via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

A video that sent the internet abuzz over the weekend tells a familiar story: A husband comes home to find his wife cheating with another man and a violent brawl to win her love ensues. But unlike in more common tales, all the players involved in this saga are penguins.

NatGeo Channel tweeted the clip, titled “Homewrecking Penguin,” on Friday, November 4 and it’s since racked up 300,000 likes. Dramatic music and narration set the mood as the male Magellanic penguin returns to his nest only to discover he’s been replaced. The scene plays out violently from there, with the males swinging their solid-boned wings “like baseball bats,” according to the narrator, and using their beaks to peck at each other’s eyes. The original mate eventually concedes to losing both his wife and children. Toward the end he makes a final plea for the female to reconsider, but as the narrator cruelly notes “she’s got no time for losers.”

Because the only thing the internet loves more than cute animals is juicy drama, the domestic dispute immediately took Twitter by storm. Numerous memes have been shared and @husbandpenguin and @wifepenguin Twitter handles have been created (based on follower count alone most people seem to be siding #teamwifepenguin).

The video is difficult to watch but viewers shouldn’t feel too bad for the scorned penguin—as NatGeo points out, a colony of 200,000 provides him with plenty of chances to meet someone new.

[h/t National Geographic]

November 7, 2016 – 11:30am