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30 Things We Learnt In August, 2021

Posted on 3 September 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 August!

1: In 1900, electric vehicles accounted for around one third of all vehicles on the road in the United States. In 2018, there were around 1 million registered electric vehicles in the US out of over 270 million vehicles in total. Electric vehicles were popular at the turn of the century because they were quiet, didn’t need to be manually started with a hand crank, and didn’t emit smelly pollutants. The mass production of the model T and the elimination of the hand crank began the decline of electric vehicles.

A woman charging an electric car.

2: There are around 700 known gene variants that affect height, and there are likely to be many more unknown ones. Together they are thought to account for between 60% and 80% of the variation in human height, but the effect of each individual variant is very small, usually contributing less than one millimetre. This means that we vary more in height over the course of a day than any single gene variant contributes – on average, we are about a centimetre shorter when we go to bed than we are when we wake up, possibly due to the compression of the cartilage in the spine throughout the day.

3: The Speaking Piano: With enough notes and the power of suggestion, you can make a piano speak in human languages. While one might assume that human voices produce just one frequency at a time, in reality what sounds like a single pitch is in fact many overlapping frequencies with different amplitudes. To make an instrument like a piano produce anything resembling human voice, many notes must be played very rapidly.

4: This website provides a real-time visualisation of the positions of all publicly registered satellites orbiting the Earth.

5: Screaming Frogs: Many species of frog emit a wide variety of screams when threatened, ranging from unpleasant to adorable. We don’t know exactly why frogs scream – we assume it serves to discourage predators and warn other frogs of danger. Another theory is that it might help attract other animals that will scare the predator away.

6: The Stopped Clock Illusion: Have you ever looked at the seconds hand of a clock and noticed that it appears to stand still for just slightly too long, as though some seconds are noticeably longer than others? It might not be the result of a faulty mechanism but rather the ‘stopped clock illusion’, which according to research, happens regularly when someone suddenly shifts their gaze towards an object moving at regular time intervals. This illusion is thought to occur because, contrary to our everyday assumptions, not everything that our brains show us is a 1:1 reproduction of what our eyes detect. When we make very fast eye movements (called saccades) to switch our attention from one object to another, there is actually a break in visual information. The theory is that to cover up this break and maintain the illusion of a smooth visual experience, the brain fills the gap with whatever comes after the saccade. So if you shift your gaze to a clock just after the seconds hand moves, it will appear to have been stationary for longer than one second.

7: The Feeling Of Being Watched is not some kind of sixth sense, but may be a product of the way our brains process visual information. The information leaving the eyes is not processed exclusively by the visual cortex – instead, different aspects of visual perception are handled by at least 10 different brain regions. Damage to the visual cortex can result in blindness, but aspects of vision processed by other brain regions are unaffected. These ‘cortically blind’ individuals have been shown to be capable of ‘guessing’ the presence and location of bright lights better than chance, reading emotions on faces and, indeed, determining whether a face is looking at them or away from them. This suggests that we do not need to consciously perceive the presence of an observer to know that they are there, hence the ‘feeling of being watched’.

What causes that feeling of being watched - BBC Future
You might not be consciously aware of the person watching you, but your brain may still detect that they are there.

8: According to number crunching by researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, producing a plastic bottle takes roughly three times as much water as that bottle can hold. They estimated that the environmental impact of bottled water was 1400–3500 higher than that of tap water.

9: Texas horned lizards can ward off predators by squirting blood from their eyes. They do this by increasing the blood pressure in their heads, rupturing small blood vessels around their eyes. The blood is foul-tasting to canine predators.

Horned lizards squirt blood to repel canines.

10: Many fruit trees, such as apples, are not ‘true to seed’. Being the result of sexual reproduction, the seeds from a tree of one variety will produce trees of many different varieties. Even self-pollination or pollination by a tree of the same variety is not guaranteed to produce a tree of the same type, for the same reasons that two humans with brown eyes may still produce a child with blue eyes. In the case of apples, the desired variety is usually produced through grafting.

11: Star colour as a function of temperature:

12: Woodlice aren’t insects but rather crustaceans. They even have gills.

13: The record for highest speed achieved on a bicycle under the rider’s own power is held by Denise Mueller-Korenek, who reached a speed of 183.931 mph (296.009 km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah. The gearing on her bike was so high that she had to be towed by a dragster to a speed of 100mph before pedalling the rest of the way to her top speed.

14: The Oklo reactor in Gabon, Africa, is a geological formation in which natural nuclear fission is thought to have occurred over 2 billion years ago. The formation would have contained a critical mass of uranium-235, allowing fission similar to that occurring in man-made nuclear rectors to take place provided there was a ‘moderator’ to slow down the neutrons, which in this case would have been water. As a consequence of this fission, rocks extracted from Oklo today contain slightly less uranium-235 than elsewhere in the world, which is what tipped scientists off to the possibility of natural fission having occurred in the first place.

15: Fire tornados, also known as ‘dragon twists’, are phenomena that usually occur during wildfires, away from heavily populated areas. One infamous fire tornado that did occur in a populated area happened in Tokyo in 1923 following the Great Kanto earthquake and subsequent tsunami, which were extremely deadly events in their own right. Because the disaster occurred at lunchtime, many were cooking over open fires, leading to a blaze as gas mains ruptured. The result was a ‘300-foot-tall fire tornado’. During wildfires, even larger fire tornados have been witnessed.

One of the "Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake" by Japanese artist Nishimura Goun
One of the “Scenes of the 1923 Earthquake” by Nishimura Goun

16: In ancient Rome, hours really did grow longer in the summer. Many ancient civilisations divided daytime into 12 hours, regardless of when the sun rose and set. Thus, hours would vary in length throughout the year between 44 and 75 minutes. Even timepieces that didn’t depend on the sun, such as water clocks, had different ‘settings’ for different months of the year.

17: The stones used to build Stonehenge are exceptionally durable. Made from 99.7 percent quartz crystals, scientists think their geochemical composition may have made them uniquely well-equipped to survive the 5000 odd years since its construction. Could the builders have known about the stones’ properties?

A microscope image of the sample from Stonehenge's Stone 58 shows a tightly interlocking mosaic of quartz crystals. The outlines of quartz sand grains are indicated by arrows. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum.
A microscope image of a sample of stone 58, showing a mosaic of quartz crystals.

18: Born in 1265, Peregrine Laziozi was a young priest who became afflicted with cancer the tibia. The tumour grew large and became severely infected, requiring amputation of the leg. Yet when the physician came to operate, he found that seemingly through some miracle, the cancer had disappeared. We now think this was probably a case of spontaneous cancer regression, a once controversial but now well established phenomenon in which a malignant tumour is destroyed without any medical intervention. This has been estimated to occur in roughly 1 in 100 000 cases, and usually occurs in the presence of an acute infection which spurs the immune system to action, enhancing its ability to recognise and kill cancer cells.

19: In 1933, on Adolf Hitler’s birthday, the soon-to-be Führer met and befriended a young girl called Rosa Bernile Nienau outside his Berghof alpine retreat. Upon discovering they shared the same birthday, he invited her and her mother Karoline up to the house, where they took photographs. It was soon discovered that Karoline’s mother was Jewish, making Rosa Jewish according to the Nazis. Despite this, Hitler maintained his friendship with the girl for another five years, until his private secretary intervened, telling Rosa and her mother to cut off contact. Hitler reportedly complained that “There are people who have a true talent for spoiling my every joy”. This is far from the only example of Hitler being flexible with his ideology when it suited him.

Adolf Hitler hugs Rosa Bernile Nienau in a signed picture
Hitler with Rosa, April 1933

20: Contrary to popular belief, cats rival dogs in many tests of ‘social intelligence’ – it’s just that few scientists have the patience to work with them due to their uncooperative nature. For example, a study in 2005 compared the performance of cats and dogs in the ‘pointing test’. In this test, a human indicates the location of hidden food by pointing. The animal passes the test if they follow the human’s directions, suggesting that they understand the intention of the human. Surprisingly, the cats performed just as well as the dogs – at least, when they were paying attention. Unlike the dogs, however, many cats simply walked away from the testing site. One of the study’s authors, Ádám Miklósi, vowed never to work with cats again. Luckily, science has not given up on cats – there is now evidence to suggest that cats prefer interacting with people over food and toys, spend more time with humans who pay attention to them, and use human behaviour to inform their own decisions.

21: The first grasses evolved ‘only’ 66 million years ago at the earliest. For the vast majority of their existance, the dinosaurs would have roamed plains of ferns.

22: Tamám Shud – the bizarre case of a man found dead in 1948 on the Somerton Park beach, just south of Adelaide in South Australia. He was found lying back as though he had died while sleeping. The authorities weren’t able to identify him and no traces of poison could be found. In his pocket was a scrap of paper with the printed Persian phrase ‘Tamám Shud’, meaning ‘finished’. It had been torn from the last page Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám by 12th century poet of the same name. Police later located the exact book from which the page was torn. On the inside of the book’s back cover, they found indentations left from previous handwriting: text resembling an encrypted message that was never deciphered, and a phone number belonging to a woman who lived not far from where the body was found. She claimed not to know the dead man.

Police scan of the handwritten code found on the back cover of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám.
By Australian police. File originally uploaded on English Wikipedia in January 11, 2009 by Bletchley – Public Domain,

23: Kleptotrichy is a behaviour adopted by several bird species in which they will steal hair from living mammals for use as building material for their nests.

24: Contrary to what is often assumed, it appears that metabolic rate doesn’t really change between the ages of 20 and 60. This suggests that the tendency to gain weight during mid-life might be more to do with diet than energy expenditure.

25: In the United States, over 95% of COVID-19 deaths are occurring amongst people who are not fully vaccinated.

26: If the universe continues to expand, then it is likely that the period during which stars exist will represent an infinitesimally small fraction of the total duration of the universe. Star formation may cease to occur in around 100 trillion years, but it will take countless trillions of times longer than that for the universe to reach it’s maximum state of entropy.

27: The world’s most deadly animals: the approximate number of humans killed by different animals every year.

Approximate number of humans killed per year.

28: In 1960, smoking in the United States was so widespread that adults each bought an average of 10 cigarettes per day.

29: In order to assess the tradeoff between mortality and monetary spending, policy analysts use a metric called the value of statistical life (VSL). This does not refer to the value of some lives being greater than others, but rather is used to calculate the economic value of a change in the likelihood of death. Suppose you asked 100 people how much they would be willing to spend for a 1% absolute reduction in their risk of dying over the course of the next year (for example, to take their risk of death from 5 in 100 to 4 in 100). We would expect such a reduction to save one life in a sample of 100 people. Therefore, if those 100 people had paid $100 000 between them, that would be the value of one statistical life.

30: There are times of day during which nearly 80% of the world’s population is asleep.

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