June 28, 2011 at 8:41 am | Posted in I didn't know that!, Origin of phrases | Leave a comment

16th Century illustration of Archimedes' "Eureka moment"

Why is the word “Eureka” said when someone has found the solution to a problem, or something they’re missing?

The word – which stems from the ancient Greek for “I have found it!” – was first attributed to Archimedes. It is believed he said “Eureka” when the water level rose as he stepped into a bath – he suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the part of his body in the bath and that he could now measure the volume of irregular objects precisely.

Legend has it he was so excited to share his sudden realisation that he leapt out of the bath and ran through Syracuse naked.

Archimedes was asked by the local king to detect whether a crown was pure gold, or if the goldsmith had added silver – by measuring the density of the crown compared to a bar of gold, Archimedes could have determine if the crown was pure gold.

However, it’s though that this is a myth, as the story was first mentioned by Roman writer Vitruvius nearly 200 years later

The eureka effect – also known as the “aha phenomenon” – is often related to scientific discovery. Einstein is often said to have had a eureka moment when developing the special theory of relativity, although he disputed this:

“Actually, I was led to it by steps arising from the individual laws derived from experience.”

In 1984, Sir Alec Jeffreys also had a eureka moment – after looking at the x-ray film of a DNA experiment, he saw both similarities and differences between the DNA of different members of his technician’s family. He had developed DNA fingerprinting – using variations in the genetic code to identify individuals – a method constantly used in forensic science.


An apple a day

May 12, 2011 at 9:27 am | Posted in Origin of phrases | Leave a comment
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“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” but is there any truth in the old saying?

It turns out apples are one of the few fruits who’s health claims can be justified. They’re low in calories and full of antioxidants, flavonoids and fibre (as our sister MedLabNews covered last year).

A group of researchers from Cornell University in America suggest quercetin – a flavanoid  found in apples – can actually help protect brain cells against neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s.

Apples also contain vitamin C to aid the immune system, and phenols to help reduce cholesterol and animal studies have shown pectin and polyphenols improve lipid metabolism and lowers the production of pro-inflammatory molecules.

A study of 160 postmenopausal women aged 45-65 – one group eating 75g of dried apple a day for a year, another eating dried prunes – showed eating an apple day lowered LDL cholesterol by 23% and lipid hydroperoxide levels and C-reactive proteins. It also reduced body weight, with women losing on average 3.3lbs!

Apples also help reduce tooth decay – by killing bacteria and cleaning teeth – meaning the word doctor has sometimes been replaced with dentist.

But all these health benefits weren’t known when the phrase was first coined. The earliest use of the proverb was in Wales in the February 1866 issue of Notes and Queries:

A Pembrokeshire proverb. Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.

The phrase is also thought to originate from the following nursery rhyme found on

Apple a day keeps the doctor away,
Apple in the morning, doctor’s warning.
Roast apple at night, starves the doctor outright.
Eat an apple going to bed – knock the doctor on the head.
Three each day, 7 a week – ruddy apple, ruddy cheek.

It’s not rocket science

April 13, 2011 at 11:56 am | Posted in Origin of phrases | Leave a comment
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Out of this world

Its not rocket science

We’ve all heard it, and probably said it, thousands of times: “It’s not rocket science!” But where did this clichéd phrase come from?

The phrase means “whatever the subject or problem is, it’s not as hard to understand or difficult as rocket science”.  However, trying to find the origins of the phrase is almost as hard as rocket science itself – it seems there is no consensus on where the overused expression came from.

The best answer I found came from The phrase was first coined in the 1950s by America, who was the first country to adopt a sustained programme for the development of ‘rocket science’.

The first ‘rocket scientists’ weren’t actually American – they were German military technologists. These rocket scientists – led by Werner von Braun – were responsible for developing the V2 rockets which destroyed London during the Blitz. Many were captured in 1945 and transported to the US, and the USSR and UK.

However, in article on the Providence Journal website – written by Diane K Fisher – NASA’s Space Place says there’s no such thing as rocket science or rocket scientists. Fisher – who was writing under contract with NASA – said engineers design, test and launch rockets not scientists. However, they have to work with scientists to produce a rocket that meets their needs – so they also need to know a lot of science.

Another blog said the term ‘rocket science’ was coined by John F Kennedy when he was ploughing the nation’s taxes into NASA as the space race began heating up.

Whether rocket science and rocket scientists exist doesn’t matter – by 1950 it was generally accepted that developing space craft was hard and outside the intellectual capabilities of the ‘average Joe’.

However the earliest use of the phrase was in the 1980s – and to describe football!

“Coaching football is not rocket science and it’s not brain surgery. It’s a game, nothing more.”
Pennsylvania newspaper The Daily Intelligencer, December 1985

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