21 Random Facts I Learned This Week That Sent Me Down Some Pretty Deep Rabbit Holes

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1.The Zodiac Killer murdered at least five people in Northern California between 1968 and 1969 (he claims to have killed 37), and he continued to send letters and ciphers to San Francisco newspapers throughout the early 1970s. The case remains unsolved, and for over 50 years so, too, did three of his ciphers — that is, until this past December, when a team of amateur cryptologists solved one of them, which the FBI then confirmed. And very recently, a French engineer claims to have solved the final two, one of which allegedly reveals the killer's identity.

A zodiac cipher

The first of the three cipers to be solved, known as the "340 Cipher," was cracked in December 2020 by a mathematician from Australia named Sam Blake, a code breaker/YouTuber from Virginia named David Oranchak, and a computer programmer from Belgium named Jarl Van Eycke. It reads:

"I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH METHAT WASN'T ME ON THE TV SHOWWHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT MEI AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBERBECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONERBECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR MEWHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICESO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATHI AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE ISLIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH"

The Z32 Cipher and the Z13 Cipher (the latter of the two begins with the words, “My Name is __”) are the only two that haven't been officially solved. In fact, some consider these ciphers unsolvable because they're very short and therefore lack the available context needed to determine an encryption key — but Fayçal Ziraoui claims to have done it.

These solutions haven't been officially confirmed, so take what they say with a grain of salt.

Z32 allegedly reads, "LABOR DAY FIND 45.069 NORTH 58.719 WEST" — these are the magnetic coordinates of a location in South Lake Tahoe, a city that the Zodiac Killer has referenced in other letters.

And Z13 is the big one. If solved, this cipher could end a more than 50-year mystery that has consumed the minds of law enforcement, amateur investigators, and even casual true crime fans. According to Ziraoui, that message reads, "My Name is KAYE" (It actually read, "My name is KAYR," which is believed to be a typo).

If true, this would be a massive revelation. One of the primary suspects was a man named Lawrence Kaye, who just so happened to live in South Lake Tahoe. In fact, Detective Harvey Hines, who worked the case, was totally convinced without a shadow of a doubt that Kaye was the Zodiac Killer, but he never had enough evidence to make an arrest. Lawrence Kaye died in 2010.

The validity of Ziraoui's solutions are still up for debate — some people close to the case have outright rejected them, while others (including some professional cryptologists) believe they should be seriously considered.

Bettmann / Getty Images

2.Apparently, space has a very distinct and powerful odor. Of course, you can't just stick your nose out there and give it a whiff, but the unusual smell has a tendency to cling to an astronaut's suit after they've completed a space walk.

An astronaut on a space walk

Astronauts have struggled to pin down exactly what space smells like, calling it "hard to describe" and "different than anything else." Some have called the odor "metallic," like the fumes of a welding torch or soldering iron in use. One astronaut even likened it to a "seared steak."

Nasa / Getty Images

3.Harriet Tubman, who was known by the code name "Moses" to those seeking passage on the Underground Railroad, was the first woman in American history to lead troops into battle. Her successful and daring raid on Combahee Ferry during the Civil War resulted in the liberation of some 700 slaves.

A portrait of a young Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is best known for her work with the Underground Railroad, through which she led 70 slaves to freedom, yet so many of her other achievements seem to be glossed over in the history books. Early in the Civil War, before shattering the glass ceiling in the US military, she also served as a Union spy — and a very effective one at that. Years spent navigating the forests and backroads in the slave-holding South made it easy for her to slip in and out of enemy territory undetected, and she managed to collect lots of intel that damaged Confederate positioning and strategy.

Years earlier, John Brown even attempted to recruit Tubman — along with Frederick Douglass — to assist in his botched raid on Harpers Ferry that he hoped would result in an armed slave revolt. By no means strangers to one another, Brown and Tubman — he referred to her simply as "General Tubman" — shared an intense mutual respect. She was, however, a shrewd and careful strategist, and she ultimately declined the request. Brown's raid was not expected to succeed, and historians believe Tubman had concerns that her participation would lead to the exposure and demise of the Underground Railroad.

In 2021, Harriet Tubman was finally recognized for her contributions as a spy and inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Universal History Archive / Getty Images

4.Scientists believe that the Moon was formed in the most terrifying way possible. The most widely accepted theory behind its formation is called the "giant-impact hypothesis," and it posits that an object the size of Mars once crashed directly into Earth, and huge chunks of both Earth and the object coalesced to form the Moon as we know it today.

An illustration of the giant-impact theory
NASA / JPL-Caltech

5.A rooster once survived for 18 months after his head had been cut off. His name was Mike, and after being beheaded on his Colorado farm one day in 1945, he just sort of stood around — and he continued to stand around for the next year and a half.

Mike, standing headless, with his severed head resting beside him

Mike the Headless Chicken, as he's affectionately called, was fed a liquid diet using a dropper — it was dripped directly into his exposed esophagus — and a syringe was used to clear his throat of any debris and mucus. Mike went on to become a minor celebrity (the photo above is a magazine spread he was featured in). He was even taken on a tour of the US.

Brian Brainerd / Denver Post via Getty Images

6.Major Walter Summerford was struck by lightning *three times* in his life — and if that's not unbelievable enough for you, his tombstone was struck by lightning after he died.

7.Serial killer Rodney Alcala murdered seven women in the 1970s. In 1978, while his spree was active, he appeared as Bachelor Number One on an episode of The Dating Game and ended up getting picked to go on a date.

Rodney Alcala grinning after being asked a question on The Dating Game

Alcala reportedly told Bachelor Number Two backstage that “I always get my girl” — a statement that would prove to be false. While bachelorette Cheryl Bradshaw did in fact select him over the other two bachelors, the date never took place. She ended up telling the producers, "I can’t go out with this guy. There’s weird vibes that are coming off of him. He’s very strange. I am not comfortable."

A year later, Alcala would be arrested and charged with murder.

ABC / Everett Collection

8.The average African elephant brain has 257 billion neurons — that's three times as many neurons as the average human brain.

An elephant
Manoj Shah / Getty Images

9.Adolf Hitler and J. R. R. Tolkien fought on opposing sides in the Battle of the Somme — also called the Somme Offensive — which is one of the largest and deadliest conflicts of the first World War.

An old photo of the trenches in Somme

Other notable veterans of Somme include Otto Frank (Anne Frank's father), Harold Macmillan (future Prime Minister of the UK), and Ralph Vaughan Williams (famous composer). Close to a million soldiers died in combat during the Battle of the Somme alone.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

10.The Ferris wheel was invented for the sole purpose of one-upping the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

The Eiffel tower photographed during its world fair debut

The Eiffel Tower was built by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel to serve as both the entrance to and one of the primary attractions for the Exposition Universelle (the 1889 World's Fair) in Paris, France. At the time, it was the tallest tower in the world, and of the more than 32 million total fair attendees, almost 2 million people came just to see the Eiffel Tower. It was an unabashed success, and Paris was widely considered to have set the bar for World Fair greatness.

When it came time for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, an open competition was held for architects and designers to submit plans for a structure that would rival the Eiffel Tower — in fact, it became a great priority. America's pride was on the line, as was the city of Chicago's. The designs from a Pittsburgh engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. were selected, and thus the Ferris wheel was born.

Hulton Archive / Getty Images, Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

11.Moving at an approximate speed of 5 miles per second, it only takes the International Space Station 90 minutes to complete a single orbit of Earth.

the ISS over Earth
Nasa / Getty Images

12.There used to be a vintage Coca-Cola vending machine (pictured below) in Seattle, Washington that would spit out a mystery can of soda for only 75 cents. Occasionally, you'd even get something that was discontinued years, sometimes decades, earlier. The strangest thing is that no one knows who stocked and maintained the machine — the whole thing is shrouded in mystery.

The vintage Coca-Cola machine

And if you're wondering why I wrote all of the above in the past tense, it's because the machine up and vanished in 2018. It sat there at 918 E. John St. on Capitol Hill for almost 30 years until one day it just wasn't there anymore.

Kevin Schafer / Getty Images

13.Sperm whales sleep in a vertical position within groups of other sperm whales.

A group of whales sleeping
Alexis Rosenfeld / Getty Images

14.This 1,700-year-old wine is the oldest ever discovered that's still in liquid form. It was found inside an excavated grave in Speyer, Germany, and the reason it managed to survive for almost two millennia is because olive oil was poured into the bottle to seal the wine off from the open air.

Really old wine that's not looking very drinkable
dpa picture alliance archive / Alamy Stock Photo

15.Richard Nixon had a backup speech prepared in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became stranded on the Moon with no means of escape.

Buzz Aldrin just after planting a flag on the moon

The speech reads:

Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace.

These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice.

These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.

They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by their nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown.

In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man.

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations.

In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.

Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Nasa / AFP via Getty Images

16.In 1966, the FIFA World Cup Trophy was stolen in London only a few short months before the tournament was set to begin. A ransom note demanding £15,000 was sent to police, causing a general panic to ensue — but it didn't last long. Pickles, a collie mix who was out for his evening walk, found the trophy hidden in a bush only a week after it went missing, making him a worldwide hero.

Pickles the dog being held for a photo
Keystone / Getty Images

17.This is a zonkey — or what you get when you breed a zebra and a donkey:

A zonkey
Tiziana Fabi / AFP via Getty Images

18.This is Jonathan the Tortoise, and he's believed to be the oldest land animal alive. He was born in 1832, making him 189 years old.

Jonathan walking on grass
Afp Contributor / AFP via Getty Images

19.In 2016, archaeologists used a ground-penetrating radar to study the contents of Shakespeare's grave, and what they discovered shocked them: His head appears to be missing.

Shakespeare's grave

Even before this macabre discovery, there was an unconfirmed story that in 1794 — almost 200 years after the famed poet and playwright's death — a man named Dr. Frank Chambers, along with a group of thieves, broke into the grave, stole Shakespeare's head, and sold it for £300. We now have reason to believe this story might be true.

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

20.During prohibition, pharmacists were allowed to fill prescriptions for "medicinal whiskey," which essentially gave them a legal monopoly on the outlawed substance.

A group of men in a pharmacy pouring glasses of alcohol

Due to medicinal alcohol sales, running a pharmacy became an extremely lucrative enterprise during prohibition in the United States. In fact, in the Great Gatsby, we're briefly told that the source of Jay Gatsby's wealth was from "drugstores, a lot of drugstores" — turns out this was a subtle way of saying he was basically a legal bootlegger. To put it in a real-world context: In 1920, there were 20 Walgreens stores. In 1930, there were over 500.

George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images

And here's an extra-strange frog fact for you:

21.Prior to the invention of the refrigerator, people had to find creative ways to keep their food fresh. In Russia, that took the form of dropping a Russian brown frog in your milk to make it last longer — turns out, they were onto something. Russian brown frogs secrete a gooey substance that has strong antibacterial properties.

A Russian brown frog
Olga Kulikova / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Want to see what I learned last week? Click here to find out. And click HERE to see everything I learned in May.