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May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, October 1998

By Hampton Sides

Where did the name "America" come from? I seem to recall an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci, but if the entire Western Hemisphere was named after him, why isn't he more famous?
— Katie Burford, Irvine, California

You remember right. For better or worse — probably worse — the New World was named after Florentine nobleman Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512). A contemporary of Christopher Columbus who helped finance and outfit numerous exploratory voyages, Vespucci was a so-so mariner who racked up a hat trick of expeditions to the Nuovo Mondo, but always as a passenger or as a minor officer — never as a ship's commander. To his credit, however, he was a fine writer and a meticulous field cartographer, and dispatches of his 1499 voyage to what is now Guyana circulated widely in Europe. Among his avid readers was Martin Waldseem’ller, a German cartographer who in 1507 decided to honor Vespucci by labeling the New World "America," the feminized and Latinized form of "Amerigo." (Amerigo is Italian for Henry, so technically speaking, we live in the United States of Henrietta.) In a later edition of his map, Waldseem’ller thought better of it and reverted to the noncommittal Terra Incognita, but by then the damage was done and the moniker — however dubiously conceived — had begun to stick. God Bless Henrietta!

Why are bats associated with the occult?
— Molly Stevens, Los Angeles, California

The western world's wholesale demonizaton of this order of mammals dates back to the Old Testament's Book of Leviticus, in which God warned against eating bats and other "unclean fowls." Shakespeare ratcheted the noir atmospherics up a notch with his famous "toe of frog, wool of bat" witch-talk in Macbeth. And things only got worse when Bram Stoker's blood-slurping Count Dracula arrived on the scene in 1897. (In truth, vampire bats account for less-than-half-of-one percent of all chiropterans and prefer bovine blood over ours any day.) Of course, bats' veiny wings, ratlike bodies, and nocturnal habits never did much for their reputation. "Until the invention of the lightbulb, we seldom went out at night, so bats were shrouded in mystery," explains University of Tennessee bat expert Gary F. McCracken. "But now that we've learned what they do through night vision and radio telemetry, it's helped their public image tremendously." Indeed. Of late, the bat has been gaining favor for its ability to devour 5,000 mosquitoes in a single night — reason, perhaps, why in parts of Asia, it's a symbol for happiness and good fortune.

Why does the skin on our fingers turn pruney in water? Does it hurt anything?
— J. Adams, Savannah, Georgia

Our fingers are unique among our body parts, thanks to the fact that they're wrapped in a thin, dry outer layer of skin called the stratum corneum. (Oddly enough, this epidermal tissue exhibits many of the same qualities found in animal horn. Dermatologists refer to it as the horny layer, but we won't go into that.) The pertinent point is that the stratum corneum is dead skin, and it's porous. During a prolonged pool workout or a steamy aprˆs-ski session in the hot tub, water molecules insinuate themselves into the desiccated tissue of the stratum corneum, causing it to stretch and expand. The result is a "pruning" effect that more or less follows the peculiar whorl patterns of our fingerprints. But don't worry, Madge: It's temporary, harmless, and only skin deep.

The planets of our solar system orbit the Sun in a common plane called the ecliptic. In October, Mercury and Venus — the planets closest to the Sun in the ecliptic — are lost in the solar glare and thus not visible. Jupiter and Saturn, meanwhile, rise at dusk and shine throughout the night all month. On the evening of the third, Jupiter will be visible a few degrees to the left of the nearly full Moon; the two will be together for the entire night, as the Moon approaches ever nearer to Jupiter before overtaking it on the evening of the fourth. This year, Saturn makes its closest approach to Earth on the 23d — only 771 million miles distant — and is at its brightest in nearly two decades. The Moon is full on the fifth.
— Jean Quashnock

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