The Gavel

Used by judges, presiding officers, and auctioneers, gavels are small ceremonial mallets often struck against a block to call for attention or punctuate rulings. Because it is often used forcefully and therefore broken, the gavel in the US House of Representatives is plain, wooden, and easily replaced. The US Senate gavel is made of solid ivory and is actually a replica. Which US Vice President splintered the original—which had been used since 1789—during a heated debate on nuclear energy? Discuss

Sea Routes of the Ancient World

Before the invention of modern navigational tools, sailors in the ancient world navigated sea routes using periploi, documents that list ports, coastal landmarks, and the approximate distances between them. The Greek Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, dated between the first and third century CE, details navigation and trading opportunities at Roman Egyptian ports on the Red Sea and along the coasts of E Africa and India. According to the document, where is the “Frankincense kingdom”? Discuss

Criminal Tattoos

Tattoos are used by many criminals to show gang membership and mark their personal history, skills, and convictions. The system of Russian criminal tattoos is perhaps the most elaborate—both the symbols themselves and their locations on the body carry meaning. For example, butterflies signify an escape artist, while a crucifix worn on the chest signifies a “Prince of Thieves,” the highest rank among criminals. In a criminal tattoo of a Russian church, what does each of the domes symbolize? Discuss


Whether it’s a face on Mars or the Virgin Mary’s image on a grilled-cheese sandwich, perception of the meaningful in the mundane is common. It is called pareidolia, the psychological phenomenon in which a vague and random stimulus, such as an image or sound, is perceived as significant. Common examples include images of animals in clouds, the man in the moon, and hidden messages on records played in reverse. What test uses pareidolia to attempt to gain insight into a person’s mental state? Discuss

The Deadly Seas of the King Crab Season

One of the deadliest jobs in the US, Alaskan crab fishing requires fishermen to avoid drowning, hypothermia, and injuries from heavy machinery while hauling their cargo from the freezing waters off the coast of Alaska. The approved fishing season for a single king crab species can be as short as 4 days, requiring crew to toil tirelessly in dangerous conditions; but since deckhands are paid a percentage of the ship’s profit, motivation is high. What is the fatality rate in this industry? Discuss

Tight Accommodations: Capsule Hotels

If a bed and a TV are all you need, try a capsule hotel. Developed in Japan in the 1970s, capsule hotels offer accommodations in modular blocks roughly 6.5 x 3.25 x 4 ft (2 x 1 x 1.25 m) in size. Capsules are typically stacked 2 units high, and luggage is usually stored in a separate locker. Used primarily by men, the hotels are frequented for their convenience and low price, often by those who missed a train or want to sleep off a night of drinking. How much do capsules cost for a night’s stay? Discuss


Occasionally erected as monuments to enemies killed in battle, balbals are a type of kurgan obelisk—an anthropomorphic stone image made in Central Asia and Eastern Europe from the Copper Age through the Middle Ages. Though they vary in design, balbals commonly depict a person holding a bowl in his upraised right hand or show a warrior holding weapons, usually in the left hand. In 1998, how many anthropomorphic stelae were discovered and excavated in Turkey? Discuss


Buddha believed that those who speak and act with a pure mind are sure to experience happiness. Aristotle reasoned that happiness results from man’s unique ability to contemplate reality. But the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi argued that it is this very ability to reason that prevents us from achieving true happiness. While happiness is a psychological state, there are those who believe that it can be objectively measured and quantified. What neural systems may be directly related to happiness? Discuss

The Harappan Civilization

The Harappan civilization is the name given to the mature phase of the Indus Valley civilization, an ancient society that inhabited the Indus and Ghaggar-Hakra river valleys in what is now Pakistan and western India. Named after its city of Harappa, the civilization flourished from 2600 to 1900 BCE, developing a technologically advanced urban culture that was likely the result of efficient planning and a government that emphasized hygiene. What modern convenience first developed in its cities? Discuss

Sleep Paralysis

Have you ever had a dream in which you felt frozen or unable to move? Well, the experience may actually have been real. Sleep paralysis is a condition characterized by temporary paralysis of the body shortly after waking or before falling asleep. Paralysis occurs normally during the sleep cycle to prevent the body from acting out dreamt movements; occasionally, this paralysis can persist as a person passes into a waking state. What is one technique recommended to end such attacks? Discuss