Question: Why did the first bicycles have one giant wheel in front and a tiny wheel in back?
Answer: The dorky bike with the giant front wheel was called the "Ordinary," (a.k.a. the "Penny-Farthing") and it debuted in 1879 to great acclaim. It had the big front wheel because the pedals were mounted directly onto the wheel, without a chain. The bigger the wheel, the easier it was to go fast.
This raises an obvious question: Why, in 1879, were people still so stupid? Cars and airplanes were only a couple of decades away and yet the inventors of the world still hadn't figured out how to make a bike that didn't look silly and dangerous.
In fact the Ordinary's biggest problem was that people kept falling off and hurting themselves. The seat was on top of the big front wheel, which was almost five feet in diameter. Meanwhile the back wheel was only about a foot and a half across. We are talking one dumb-looking mode of transportation.
The first primitive bike was a contraption ridden by a certain Count de Sivrac of France in 1791. He had no handle bars, no pedals. He propelled the device by alternately thrusting his feet at the ground. Sort of the Flintstone version of bicycling.
Why weren't bikes invented centuries earlier? The basic answer is: Because bikes look like they won't work. A bike looks like it will fall over. You have to ride one to realize that the centrifugal forces are on your side, and that the faster you go the more stable you are.
"No one had thought to think that wheels that were placed in a single line would do anything other than have you fall over," says Donald Tighe, spokesman for the League of American Bicyclists.
A similar assessment comes from Philip Sumner in his book "Early Bicycles." He writes that the technology for bikes and airborne gliders was around long before their invention: "Both these simple vehicles could well have been constructed a thousand years (earlier)."
There are probably similar things just waiting to be invented as soon as we realize they won't make us fall over on our side like an idiot.
Question: Why don't bananas have seeds?
Answer: You probably didn't realize that bananas lack seeds. This is because you always thought that bananas were seeds. Big, banana-shaped seeds.
Or maybe it's because you could tell that there's a place inside bananas, near the center core, where seeds could go. Seed cavities. Which seemed to you to be close enough to having actual seeds to eliminate any mystery.
(By the way, have you noticed that this column has turned into "Why Things Aren't"? Or perhaps "Why Aren't Things"? Or "Things Aren't. Why?")
Commercial brands of bananas are from the species musa acuminata (no relation to the species "hakuna matata"), and lack seeds because they are from a special seedless hybrid, a plant that horticulturists call a "triploid," with three sets of chromosomes. The female flowers on such trees develop into the nice pulpy seedless bananas we slice over cereal.
Wild banana trees still have seeds.
"It's like you are chewing sand. They are hard seeds. They are not soft seeds," says Hebre Irizarry, a horticulturist at the Tropical Agricultural Research Station in Puerto Rico.
How do seedless bananas reproduce? With suckers. A banana tree sends out suckers near its base. You can dig one up and plant it separately.
The commercial species is known as a "Cavendish" banana, after Lord Cavendish, some British guy who grew bananas in his greenhouse in 1826. But of course the British are just stealing the glory here. Bananas are not native to England last we checked. The Cavendish banana came to Britain from Saigon, by way of the Canary Islands.
Bananas have been cultivated in Southeast Asia for thousands of years. No one remembers the name of the Saigonese gardener who grew the original Cavendish banana. We are guessing this person didn't say, "I am going to go water my Cavendish banana."
Question: Why are corpses carried feet-first?
Answer: Is this a technique to avoid bumping the corpse's head? That seems a bit silly. Why not worry about the corpse stubbing its toe?
Let's go straight to an expert: Dan Buchanan, president of Gupton-Jones College of Funeral Service in Atlanta. He says the answer has to do with Egyptians.
The Egyptians believed that evil spirits were inside some bodies. They came out the nose and the mouth. Thus you would carry the body away from the exiting spirits.
"Kind of like the body going one way, the spirits going another," Buchanan says.
And the tradition just stuck, he says. Bodies buried at sea go feet first, always.
"Protecting the head of the deceased would not be that big of an issue, because they're already dead," Buchanan says, validating our opinion.
He adds, "A lot of the customs we have in funeral service today are based on ancient superstition and fear. They're kind of silly. There's no rhyme or reason."
Though we would say that evil spirits are reason enough.