Dutch families care about American veterans. The secrets of cigarette filters. All early humans were “lactose intolerant” [r/TodayiLearned, Episode #16]

#1

TIL there’s a cemetery in the Netherlands consisting of 8,300 US veterans who died in WWII. For the past 70 years, Dutch families have come to the cemetery every Sunday to care for a grave they adopted. Hundreds of people are currently on a waiting list to become caretakers.

Located in the Dutch city of Margraten, the permanent American military cemetery is overseen by the American Battle Monuments Commission, an agency of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government. The cemetery contains 8,301 graves and a Tablets of the Missing memorial, which contains the names of 1,722 American soldiers missing in action. One of those graves contains the remains of Champaign County native John R. Emory, while the name of fellow county native, John H. Spriggs, is listed on the Tablets of the Missing.

Dutchman Sebastiaan Vonk is one of the thousands of residents of the Netherlands who currently adopts one or more of the 10,023 graves and/or names located in the cemetery. He adopted his first grave at the age of 13.

Unfortunately, many adopters have been unable to locate the one thing, in particular, they’ve sought out to find – a photograph of the American soldier who died so the Netherlands could be liberated.

Vonk has been helping his fellow Dutchmen put a face to the name of the soldier they’ve adopted through the Field of Honors – Database, a website he developed in 2007 at the age of 14 to collect and display information and photographs of the nearly 24,000 American soldiers buried in Margraten and two other American military cemeteries in Belgium (Ardennes and Henri-Chapelle).

#2

TIL that cigarette filters change color not because they are trapping part of the cigarette smoke, but because they are designed to change color to lead consumers to think that they are trapping part of the smoke

Americans had by then been puffing happily away on their mass-manufactured smokes for half a century, while at the same time lung cancer — previously quite rare — was becoming epidemic. It was only after the Second World War that scientists started putting the pieces together. As we know now, cigarette-industry players — Philip Morris, Lorillard, et al — were soon well aware of the link between their products and lung cancer; they just didn’t feel like sharing this info publicly. Manufacturers did, however, put some cash behind a project to mitigate, in earnest, some of the malign side effects of smoking: the cigarette filter. And they appealed to textile and chemical companies for help.

An early result was the Kent Micronite filter, designed by Lorillard; it used asbestos fibers to trap, uh, harmful substances. The fact that it was literally full of the carcinogenic matter wasn’t what made it unpopular. Rather, the thing worked too well: the Micronite, which removed 30 percent of tar particulate, also removed the cigarette’s flavor and forced smokers to pull harder on their draw. It also proved excessively tricky for mass production, as did filters using natural materials like cotton and wool, which have a non-uniform structure.

What manufacturers needed was something that could be made in volume and at low cost — Americans at the time were, after all, going through about 400 billion cigarettes a year.

The answer turned out to be a filter made of cellulose acetate. This did, indeed, block a little tar and toxic gas, but smokers, ever resourceful, responded by changing their behavior — smoking more, taking deeper puffs, etc. — thereby making the practical effect of the cellulose-acetate filter approximately nil.

At this point cigarette makers basically threw up their hands, yielding to the intractability of what was known as the “filter problem.” As a 2011 paper in the journal Tobacco Control put it, researchers had “confronted an engineering contradiction: to design a cigarette filter that would appreciably reduce the health hazards imposed by smoking (caused by tar, nicotine and gases) while preserving the taste and ‘satisfaction’ that smokers craved (provided by tar, nicotine, and gases).”

#3

TIL that all early humans were “lactose intolerant” after infancy. In 10,000 BC, a single individual passed on a mutation that has since spread incredibly fast, allowing humans to begin digesting lactose for life and causing the widespread consumption of dairy.

To repurpose a handy metaphor, let’s call two of the first Homo sapiens Adam and Eve. By the time they welcomed their firstborn, that rascal Cain, into the world, 2 million centuries of evolution had established how his infancy would play out. For the first few years of his life, he would take his nourishment from Eve’s breast.

Once he reached about 4 or 5 years old, his body would begin to slow its production of lactase, the enzyme that allows mammals to digest the lactose in milk. Thereafter, nursing or drinking another animal’s milk would have given the little hell-raiser stomach cramps and potentially life-threatening diarrhea; in the absence of lactase, lactose simply rots in the guts. With Cain weaned, Abel could claim more of his mother’s attention and all of her milk. This kept a lid on sibling rivalry—though it didn’t quell the animus between these particular sibs—while allowing women to bear younger. The pattern was the same for all mammals: At the end of infancy, we became lactose-intolerant for life.

Two hundred thousand years later, around 10,000 B.C., this began to change. A genetic mutation appeared, somewhere near modern-day Turkey, that jammed the lactase-production gene permanently in the “on” position. The original mutant was probably a male who passed the gene on to his children. People carrying the mutation could drink milk their entire lives. Genomic analyses have shown that within a few thousand years, at a rate that evolutionary biologists had thought impossibly rapid, this mutation spread throughout Eurasia, to Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, India, and all points in between, stopping only at the Himalayas. Independently, other mutations for lactose tolerance arose in Africa and the Middle East, though not in the Americas, Australia, or the Far East.

In an evolutionary eye-blink, 80 percent of Europeans became milk-drinkers; in some populations, the proportion is close to 100 percent. (Though globally, lactose intolerance is the norm; around two-thirds of humans cannot drink milk in adulthood.) The speed of this transformation is one of the weirder mysteries in the story of human evolution, more so because it’s not clear why anybody needed the mutation, to begin with. Through their cleverness, our lactose-intolerant forebears had already found a way to consume dairy without getting sick, irrespective of genetics.

#4

TIL doctors, nurses and Catholic clergy were involved in stealing ~ 300,000 babies during the Franco era in Spain. Children were moved from parents deemed “undesirable” and placed them with “approved” families. Birth mothers were told their baby had died.

The scale of the baby trafficking was unknown until this year when two men – Antonio Barroso and Juan Luis Moreno, childhood friends from a seaside town near Barcelona – discovered that they had been bought from a nun. Their parents weren’t their real parents, and their life had been built on a lie.

Juan Luis Moreno discovered the truth when the man he had been brought to call “father” was on his deathbed.

The pair went to the press and suddenly the story was everywhere. Mothers began to come forward across Spain with disturbingly similar stories.