Literally rolling the dice wasn’t always the game of chance it is today
Q. Dice aficionados, how much do you know about your favourite game? For example, how far back do dice date? How did their shape and configuration change over time? A. The earliest Romanera dice, some 2,000 years old, are largely asymmetrical and wouldn’t roll randomly, says Colin Barras in “New Scientist” magazine. Archaeologists Jelmer Eerkens and Alex de Voogt, in examining 110 dice from the Netherlands, discovered that “only from about AD 1450 were most dice more or less symmetrical,” perhaps reflecting an increasing awareness of the importance of chance.
Also, the number configurations on dice changed from “primes” (1 opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, 5 opposite 6) to the modern arrangement of “sevens” (1 opposite 6, 2 opposite 5, and 3 opposite 4). It may be that primes were viewed as “unbalanced” (1 + 2 = 3, 5 + 6 = 11), while sevens always add up to the number 7, making them seem more likely to roll fairly. Says Barras, “This hints that medieval Europeans — particularly gamblers — were thinking about factors governing the outcome of rolls long before mathematicians like Blaise Pascal grasped how probability works.” Q. They can take the shape of a tiny marble, a hamburger, even a parachute, though the formation is in constant flux. What is being described here? Clue: They are not teardrop-shaped, as is often depicted. A. Did you guess raindrops? High in the atmosphere, raindrops form when water clings to tiny particles of dust, taking on the shape of a sphere since it has the smallest surface area, reports “Amazing Science.” Surface tension causes water molecules to cling together, and as the drops fall, they encounter air pressure that flattens out the bottom edge, creating the hamburger shape. The largest raindrops, unable to hold themselves together, start to distort into the shape of a parachute. Raindrops larger than 4 millimeters (0.16 inch) break up as they fall, with the smallest droplets remaining spherical in the final descent. Q. “Earthworms, dogs, monkeys and humans. We are all cousins in the great journey of evolution,” writes Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website. And the English language reflects this close relationship, with words like “black dog,” “gobemouche,” “mooncalf” and “railbird.” Do you know their meanings? A. Metaphorically, “black dog” referred to a counterfeit coin, perhaps because it was made with base metals that turn black over time, Garg explains. It eventually came to mean “depression,” and both 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson and 20th-century statesman Winston Churchill used the term to describe their own depression. “Gobemouche” (GOB-moosh), comes from the French for “flycatcher” or “sucker”, from “gober” (to suck or swallow) + “mouche” (fly) and describes a gullible or credulous person.
Then consider “mooncalf,” based on an early belief that a misshapen birth stemmed from the effects of the moon. Hence, the word can mean “a daydreamer,” “a fool” or “a congenitally deformed person.” Finally, “railbird” has its origin in a bird being slang for “a person with a specific character” or “a peculiar person” and refers to “someone who watches horse-racing from the railing along the track.” More generally, it can mean “a horse-racing enthusiast,” “a spectator at a contest” or “an observer who offers unwanted advice or criticism.”