The Weekender, May 26, 2017

1) “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of​” (Mental Floss, 50 minutes, May 2017). The sub-head: “For 60 years, American drivers unknowingly poisoned themselves by pumping leaded gasoline into their tanks. Here is the lifelong saga of Clair Patterson—a scientist who helped build the atomic bomb and discovered the true age of the Earth—and how he took on a billion-dollar industry to save humanity from itself.​”

[Clair] Patterson knew that if he compared the lead levels in shallow and deep water, he could calculate how oceanic lead has changed over time. Recently deposited by rain storms and rivers, water churning near the sea’s surface is younger than water that has sunk to the seafloor. The same strategy applied to sediment. Sand resting atop the seafloor is relatively new, but sediment buried 40 feet below is older. In geology circles, it’s called the Law of Superposition: the deeper the strata, the older.

Patterson collected samples from all depths and returned to his ultraclean lab. “Then a very bad thing happened,” he recalled. He found that the samples of young water contained about 20 times more lead.

This was not normal.

Mining the literature for an explanation, Patterson stumbled on data about leaded gasoline. The numbers correlated. “It could easily be accounted for by the amount of lead that was put into gasoline and burned and put in the atmosphere,” he later explained.

With oil companies financing Patterson’s work, he couldn’t help but think, We’re in serious trouble. Then he published the numbers anyway.

2) Sponsored: Today’s Now I Know is sponsored by Make Your Point, a great free, daily vocabulary email. Did you know that the typical English-speaking adult knows between 20,000 and 35,000 words–and yet there are over 171,000 English words in current use? If you’d like to know more words and use them better, subscribe to Make Your Point. (It’s free.)

3) The Now I Know Week in Review:

And a bonus item: Mr. Bubble. Four years ago, a tugboat capsized, sending its 12-man crew members overboard and likely to their demise. But two days later, one was found, alive, due to some very lucky physics.

4) “How a Retired Nurse Provides Her Small Vermont Town With Internet” (PC Magazine, 9 minutes, May 2017). A neighborhood builds a public wifi network for itself. Pretty neat, on a number of levels.


5) “The Exquisitely English (and Amazingly Lucrative) World of London Clerks ” (Bloomberg, 16 minutes, May 2017).

At Fountain Court Chambers in central London, the senior clerk is called Alex Taylor. A trim, bald 54-year-old who favors Italian suiting, Taylor isn’t actually named Alex. Traditionally in English law, should a newly hired clerk have the same Christian name as an existing member of the staff, he’s given a new one, allegedly to avoid confusion on the telephone. During his career, Taylor has been through no fewer than three names. His birth certificate reads “Mark.” When he first got to Fountain Court in 1979, the presence of another Mark saw him renamed John. Taylor remained a John through moves to two other chambers. Upon returning to Fountain Court, in 2008, he became Alex. At home his wife still calls him Mark.

Alex/John/Mark Taylor belongs to one of the last surviving professions of Dickensian London. Clerks have co-existed with chimney sweeps and gene splicers. It’s a trade that one can enter as a teenager, with no formal qualifications, and that’s astonishingly well-paid. A senior clerk can earn a half-million pounds per year, or more than $650,000, and some who are especially entrenched make far more.

Clerks—pronounced “clarks”—have no equivalent in the U.S. legal system, and have nothing in common with the Ivy League–trained Supreme Court aides of the same spelling. They exist because in England and Wales, to simplify a bit, the role of lawyer is divided in two: There are solicitors, who provide legal advice from their offices, and there are barristers, who argue in court. Barristers get the majority of their business via solicitors, and clerks act as the crucial middlemen between the tribes—they work for and sell the services of their barristers, steering inquiring solicitors to the right man or woman.

6) “The Secret Life of Urban Crows” (Seattle Met, 13 minutes, May 2017). Crows — they’re weird.

Have a great weekend!