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30 Things We Learnt In April, 2021

Posted on 4 May 2021

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Here at Gowing Life, we have decided to keep a fun record of everything we learn in 2021, be it longevity-related or something else entirely. Here is a selection of our newly acquired neural connections for the month of April!

1: The scaly-foot snail Chrysomallon squamiferum is a species found only in deep sea hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean. It has a shell made of iron, as well as an iron-plated foot. Specifically, the shell’s outer layer is made from iron sulphide, and is built for the snail by bacteria. No other known animal uses iron in this way.

2: The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey pressing keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will eventually type any given text by chance, such as the complete works of Shakespeare. However, the probability of this occurring is so low that even if the monkey typed for hundreds of thousands of orders of magnitude longer than the age of the universe, the chances of producing even a single of Shakespeare’s works would still be extremely small. The infinite monkey theorem has been used to argue both for and against the theory of evolution.

3: The rusty-spotted cat is the world’s smallest wild cat, at 35 to 48 cm in length (tail not included).

4: The proportion of people who favour their left hand varies quite significantly between countries. It is possible that populations in some regions of the world have a genetic endowment toward left-handedness. However, some cultures also pressure left-handers to convert to right-handedness, and it isn’t known what the distribution of left handers would look like were this not the case.

5: The Hobbit began as a series of disconnected and purely oral tales for Tolkein’s children. One of his sons, Christopher (then 4 or 5), would complain of petty inconsistencies in the stories (one day Bilbo’s front door would be blue, the next it would be green). According to Christopher, this was one of the factors that led his father to start writing the stories down.

6: More people are dying due to ‘bad decision making’ than in the past, and by a lot. It is estimated that about 43% of people currently die as a result of their own bad decision making (such as drunk driving), compared with just 10% when these data started being collected. This is not because people are becoming more stupid, but rather because we have become better at tempting each other into making decisions that are bad for us.

7: Prior to the launch of Elon Musk’s Starlink, Earth was orbited by approximately 6,000 satellites. As of 2021, Sarlink has launched 1445, with an additional 40,000 coming over then next 5 to 8 years. Starlink is sending 100 to 120 satellites into low Earth orbit every month. Each one is the size of a table, weighs about 250kgs, and includes a reflective solar panel for power. These satellites are visible to the naked eye from Earth and from the ISS.

File:ISS-62 Earth's glow and Aurora australis with Starlink satellite constellation.jpg
A group of Starlink satellites seen from the International Space Station.

8: Thanks to 24 million satellite photos from the past 37 years, Google Earth can show you how our planet has changed in time lapse form.

9: Only 24 people have journeyed far enough to get a full view of the sphere of the Earth against the black of space.

10: The Bigmouth Buffalo, a fish native to North America, has joined the list of creatures found to undergo ‘negligible senescence’. Essentially, they grow bigger and stronger with age while remaining youthful and fit, even at the age of 100.

Figure 1
Bigmouth Buffalo total length, mass and age distribution (Source)

11: The Humour Cliff: According to research by Professor Jennifer Aaker, the average 4-year-old laughs as many as 300 times a day. The average 40-year-old, by comparison, will laugh that same number of times over about two and a half months. Finding fewer things humorous is an often overlooked aspect of ageing. We seem to fall off a ‘humour cliff” at around age 23, and the frequency at which we laugh or smile begins to plummet.

12: Mars 26 is an open-source, high resolution 3D map of Mars.

13: By 2050, most of the world’s elderly will live in developing countries.

14: Despite agreeing to pay one of the highest prices for vaccine doses out of any country, vaccinating the entire population of Israel is estimated to cost only as much as two days of lockdown costs the economy.

15: Diatoms are unicellular algae that make up nearly half of the organic material found in oceans, and produce up to half of the Earth’s oxygen each year. They have cell walls made of silica, and the shells of dead diatoms can reach a thickness of 800m (half a mile) on the ocean floor.

Microscope image of diatoms found within annual Antarctic sea ice.
By Prof. Gordon T. Taylor, Stony Brook University, (Link)

16: Intuitively, one would think that emigration from poorer countries would always result in a ‘brain drain’. After all, those with a better education are better equipped to successfully migrate to a country with better opportunities. However, research suggests that in many cases, emigration can actually help the country of origin. The opportunity to emigrate motivates many to study harder, and not all of these individuals will actually emigrate. Those that do sometimes return, bringing back their education, wealth and values.

17: There are world maps of light pollution, such as this one. Very useful for the astrophotography and for the amateur astronomer!

18: Before toxicology was standardised using the lethal dose (LD50), we used to use a unit called the frog unit. A frog unit is the amount of a compound required to kill a frog.

19: Graham’s number is an incomprehensibly huge number. It serves as an upper bound of the answer to a mathematical problem in the field of Ramsey’s theorem (which Ronald Graham himself explains below). It makes the googol (10 raised to 100) and the googolplex (10 raised to a googol) look insignificant in comparison. It is so large that is difficult to express without using mathematical operators that most people have never heard of. This post does a good job of explaining how Graham’s number is reached.

20: The Mandela effect is a phenomenon in which the same false memories are shared by multiple people. The effect was dubbed by self-professed ”paranormal consultant” Fiona Broome, who claimed that she and ‘perhaps thousands’ of people ‘remembered’ the death of Nelson Mandela in prison in the 1980s (when in fact he died in 2013). A more widespread example of the Mandela effect may be the line spoken by Darth Vader when he reveals his identity to Luke in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back. The line is ”No, I am your father” and not ‘Luke, I am your father” as commonly recalled.

21: The law of accelerating returns: perhaps unintuitively, the rate of technological evolution is not linear but exponential, as more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolution can be used to drive the next stage. That means that the extent of technological progress we can expect to see in the next century is roughly equivalent to the progress made between the birth of agriculture and the dawn of the internet – twice.

22: A whale which tried to mimic human speech – A beluga whale named Noc was deployed for two top-secret Navy surveillance and retrieval programs before sadly succumbing to meningitis in 1999 at the age of 23. Noc remained largely forgotten until 2012, when a recording of him featured in a publication in Current Biology: “Spontaneous Human Speech Mimicry by a Cetacean”. Spectrum analysis revealed that the rhythm, amplitude, and intervals of his vocal bursts were remarkably close to those of human speech. His fundamental frequencies also resembled those of humans at around 200 to 300 hertz (roughly the octave of middle C), and several octaves below the white whale’s usual sounds.

23: NASA have developed a new and improved $23 million dollar space toilet, which they say will help astronauts to ”boldly go” during space missions. The toilet works by using airflow to pull waste away from the body and into the toilet. But what about the smell? It’s not like astronauts can just open the window, so NASA have had to test various deodoriser options. How are these tested, you may ask? By a team of ”certified sniffers”, who are employed by NASA to smell the toilets after they’ve been used.

24: The world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge opens in Portugal: The record-breaking bridge measures 516 meters (roughly 1,692 feet) long and is suspended 175 meters (574 feet) above a river.

516 Arouca bridge, Portugal (source)

25: Cars are soon to become software platforms, complete with monthly subscriptions. For $12 a month, Porsche HQ will remotely activate the Porsche Taycan’s ”intelligent range manager”, a software update that tweaks the car’s navigation system and maximum speed to increase how far it will travel on a single charge. Audi, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes have all confirmed that these kinds of options will also appear on their flagship vehicles soon.

26: The world is expected to hit a new record for meat consumption in 2021. We currently eat an average of 275g of meat per day per person. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization projects that global meat consumption will rise by over 1% this year. Meat production doubled between 1988 and 2018, and has quadrupled since the mid 1960s. If the trend continues, global meat consumption will reach up to 570 million tons in 2050, which is about twice as high as the global meat consumption in 2008.

Global meat consumption history and projection (source)

27: The Dutch tragicomedy of Johanna the humpback whale: in 2012, a roughly 40 foot-long humpback whale (dubbed Johanna) washed up on a beach in the Netherlands. A rescue operation was planned, but sadly, Johanna re-beached on a sandbank during high tide, sustaining deadly injuries in the process. What followed was a tragically comedic ordeal lasting 4-days and involving ‘experts’ and NGOs from all over the world, a barrage of public emotions, and an unhealthy dose of wild accusations and conspiracy theories. “When it concerns whales, all critical thinking seems to recede” writes anthropologist Rob van Ginkel.

28: Uber hopes to to have electric-powered flying taxis operational in Dallas by 2023. The company already has 5 partners committed to providing electrical vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) that meet their requirements, which include being able to carry 4 passengers and one pilot at a speed of over 150mph. Uber has also partnered with NASA and the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to develop a traffic management system.

29: Everyone knows that Coca-Cola once contained cocaine, but did you know that 7-Up contained Lithium to for its mood-stabilsing effects? In the 1880s 7-Up, supposedly named after lithium’s atomic weight which is 7, was marketed as a soothing tonic for fussy babies. Due to the extremely small size of the lithium, the third element in the periodic table, lithium ions are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and exert their effects on neurotransmission. When Australian psychiatrist John Cade rediscovered lithium’s therapeutic ability to treat “mania” in 1949, it was banned from being added to beverages.

30: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – also known as the theory of recapitulation – is a historical (and now abandoned) hypothesis that the development of the embryo (ontogeny) of an animal goes through stages resembling successive stages of the evolution of that animal’s ancestors (phylogeny). Parallels to this theory have been drawn in other areas, such as in cognitive development and education (the idea that children should acquire different types of knowledge in the same order that human civilisation did).

We hope you enjoyed our list, and maybe learnt some new thing in the process!

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