Paula Poundstone is waiting to answer your questions about life’s little mysteries. E-mail her at paula@motherjones.com.

Bob Spark, West Sacramento, Calif.: Why, since Asia and Europe are obviously contiguous parts of the same landmass, are they referred to as separate continents?

A: I have a globe from 1972 standing in the front room of my house. I sleep with a globe that lights up beside my bed. I have an antique globe in my office. I watch “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” whenever I can, and I very much enjoyed crying throughout The English Patient. Yet I have never wondered why, since Asia and Europe are obviously contiguous parts of the same landmass, they are referred to as separate continents. I looked, though, and, by golly, you’re right.

This gave me a great excuse to call Rand McNally. A guy there pointed out that sometimes that landmass is called Eurasia. (I’d heard that term in the past, but I presumed the speaker was slurring his words and refused to get in the car with him.) Anyways, the Rand McNally guy turned me on to Professor David Woodward at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Woodward was smart, all right. He had a British accent, which always intimidates me because people with British accents sound so much smarter than me and may know Julie Andrews personally. He said that the Don River was the traditional boundary between Asia and Europe in the Middle Ages, but that the boundary has changed depending on historical circumstances. More importantly, he explained, medieval Christian history divided the world into three parts because Noah’s sons were each given a kingdom. His first son, Shem, took Asia; the middle son, Ham, took Africa; and his third son, Japheth, was given Europe. Apparently, Noah wasn’t interested in teaching sharing.

I got the sense that there could be a lot more to the answer than this, but Woodward found me too geographically illiterate to go into everything necessary to complete my understanding of this topic.

Later, when my kid’s preschool teacher made the mistake of asking what I’d been up to and I explained to her about Shem, Ham, and Japheth, she asked if Buddhist history would offer a different explanation. Of course, that’s an excellent question.

Write Paula c/o Mother Jones, 731 Market Street, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103. Fax her at (415) 665-6696; or send e-mail to Paula@motherjones.com

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.