Why Do We Make New Year's Resolutions?

iStock.com/fotosipsak
iStock.com/fotosipsak

Every time a new year rolls around, people set out to better themselves. They promise they will lose weight, find a new job, or maybe even take that vacation they've always talked about. But why do we make these promises to ourselves, and where did this tradition come from? And why does this tradition live on when so many people fail to keep the resolutions they make? Well, we can start by blaming the ancient Babylonians.

Around 4000 years ago in Babylon, the earliest recorded celebration honoring the coming of a new year was held. Calendars weren’t as they are today, so the Babylonians kicked things off in late March during the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. The collective ceremonial events were known as the Akitu festival, which lasted 11 days. The festivities were dedicated to the rebirth of the sun god Marduk, but the Babylonians made promises in order to get on the right side of all of their gods. They felt this would help them start the new year off on the right foot.

Resolutions continued on with the Romans. When the early Roman calendar no longer synced up with the sun, Julius Caesar decided to make a change. He consulted with the best astronomers and mathematicians of the time and introduced the Julian calendar, which more closely represents the modern calendar we use today. Caesar declared January 1 the first day of the year to honor the god of new beginnings, Janus. The Romans celebrated the New Year by offering sacrifices to Janus.

To this day, the traditions of the ancient Babylonians and Romans continue on around the world. So much so that Google launched a Resolution Map in 2012 where people could add resolutions and see others adding theirs in real time. However, no matter how many people participated in Google’s project, the numbers are bleak when it comes to the amount of people who maintain their resolutions; only 9.2 percent of people are successful in sticking them out.

The most popular resolutions:
Lose weight/eat healthier
Get organized
Save more money
Quit smoking
Enjoy life
Spend more quality time with close friends and family members
Get—and stay—healthy
Learn something new
Help others pursue their goals
Find love

If those failed resolutions above look familiar and remind you that the whole concept is a bust, or if they inspire you to create your own list of promises for 2019, just remember that this tradition is destined to live on. We have 4000 years worth of history telling us so, and that's a statistic that's hard to argue with.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Why Are Barns Often Painted Red?

iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas
iStock/Ron and Patty Thomas

Beginning with the earliest American settlements and continuing into the 18th century, most barns weren't painted at all. Early American barn builders took sun exposure, temperature, moisture, wind, and water drainage patterns into account when placing and building barns, and they seasoned the wood (that is, they reduced the moisture content) accordingly. The right type of wood in the right environment held up fine without any paint.

Toward the end of the 1700s, these old-school methods of barn planning and building fell by the wayside. People sought a quicker, easier fix for preserving their barns—a way to coat and seal the wood to protect it from sunlight and moisture damage. Farmers began making their own coating from a mix of linseed oil (a tawny oil derived from the flax seeds), milk, and lime. It dried quickly and lasted a long time, but it didn't really protect the wood from mold and wasn't quite like the "barn red"we know today—it was more of a burnt orange, really.

Turning Red

The problem with mold is that it decays wood and, in large quantities, can pose health risks to people and animals. Rust, it turns out, kills mold and other types of fungi, so farmers began adding ferrous oxide (rusted iron) to the linseed oil mix. A little bit of rust went a long way in protecting the wood, and it gave the barn a nice red hue.

By the late 19th century, mass-produced paints made with chemical pigments became available to most people. Red was the least expensive color, so it remained the most popular for use on barns, except for a brief period when whitewash became cheaper and white barns started popping up. (White barns were also common on dairy farms in some parts of Pennsylvania, central Maryland, and the Shenandoah Valley, possibly because of the color's association with cleanliness and purity.)

Throughout Appalachia (a historically poorer region), many barns went unpainted for lack of money. In the tobacco regions of Kentucky and North Carolina, black and brown barns were the norm, since the dark colors helped heat the barn and cure tobacco.

Today, many barns are still painted the color traditionally used in a given region, with red still dominating the Northeast and Midwest.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This story was updated in 2019.

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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