Strange But True: Cannabis crop has long history


Q: Humans have been cultivating the stuff for at least 6,000 years and possibly twice that long, making it one of our earliest crops. Many today know it by one of its nicknames — pot, weed, Mary Jane, sticky-icky. Can you say what its more scientific name is?

A: The psychotropic plant is technically "cannabis," and until about a hundred years ago, that's what Americans called it, says Gemma Tarlach in "Discover" magazine. Now it's commonly known as "marijuana." According to research, "the first evidence of the plant's cultivation comes from East Asia, where the stems were used for fibers and the fruits eaten." The world's oldest pharmacopoeia compiled from Chinese oral tradition and dating back to 2700 B.C. mentioned cannabis, which was said "to relieve conditions ranging from constipation to malaria, though its hallucinogenic qualities were also noted." Other early cultures mentioning the plant include India, where it was considered a sacred plant; and the Talmud, Judaism's key ancient text.

In recent years, research into the various properties of cannabis has increased. For example, a 2014 study failed to confirm any association between recreational marijuana use and junk food cravings (the "munchies"). In fact, "long-term ingestion caused mice to eat less and lose weight," but, as Tarlach adds, that's "in a lab setting without access to Doritos or doughnuts."

Q: What does the sentence "John stood before me" mean to you?

A: The 18th-century nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" (about a pie full of blackbirds) ends with "Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?" Here the word "before" means "in front of." But in 21st-century English, this meaning of "before" is nearly extinct. In his book, "The Crucible of Language: How Language and Mind Create Meaning," linguistics professor Vyvyan Evans considers the sentence, "John stood before me." Informal experiments with native speakers suggest that what first comes to mind is the idea of time, meaning "John rose to standing position prior to me"; nowadays, the "John is in front of me" interpretation seems to demand more effort. "But the historical evidence demonstrates that the earliest meaning associated with 'before' was the spatial meaning, rather than the temporal one, which has come to usurp it."

Q: Have you ever noticed a two-digit number embossed into the bottom of a pop or beer can? It's shallow and hard to read, but it's there if you look closely. What's it for?

A: A typical can production line runs 24/7 at a rate of 30 cans per second, so a factory with multiple lines produces tens of millions of them per day. Each container starts life as a small disk of aluminum and is formed ("punched" and "ironed") into the shape of a can (sans top) by a machine called a body maker. Since there may be a dozen or more of these body makers on the floor, each has a unique ID number that gets embossed into the bottom of the cans it forms—vital in quality assurance. Typically, a few cans per thousand end up with defects such as dents or coating voids that may cause leakage or product spoilage. So the body maker ID tells the quality assurance folks which machine needs repair. (Look for a molding machine ID on the bottoms of glass bottles.)

Reassuringly, every metal, glass and plastic container we use is thoroughly inspected by sophisticated high-speed computer vision equipment. Nowadays the body maker and mold IDs are generally read by machine, not humans, and factory personnel are alerted when defects correlate with the forming process.

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