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 December, and here’s to another year of learning new things!
1: NASA employs a team of 25 people to smell everything that goes into space. Since you can’t exactly open a window to let the smell out, it’s very important that nothing on board a spacecraft gives off an unpleasant or overly strong odour. In 1976, a Russian mission (Soyuz-21) was even aborted due to an unbearable acrid odour of unidentified origin, resulting in the astronauts returning to Earth one month early.
2: Uranium glass: Before its availability declined in the 20th century for obvious reasons, uranium (usually an oxidised form) was sometimes added to glass tableware and household items. This gave the glass a yellow or green colouration, made it fluoresce bright green under ultraviolet light, and of course made it radioactive, though not enough to be considered a health hazard.
3: Dutch pole-vaulting, aka Dutch canal jumping, aka Fierljeppen. It’s kind of like pole vaulting, except that it’s Dutch, and involves jumping over a canal. The sport is thought to have originated from farmers, who would frequently use long sticks to vault across bodies of water while traversing their lands.
4: Kowloon Walled City was an ungoverned Chinese enclave within Kowloon City, British Hong Kong, that was demolished between 1993 and 1994. The walled city was an architectural nightmare: it’s construction was unregulated, most of its 350 buildings were built with poor foundations and were squished so close that many of its alleyways were less that two metres wide. By 1990 it contained around 50 000 people within its 2.6 hectares, with the typical apartment being 23 square metres in size. The upper levels of the city had a network of staircases and passageways so extensive that one could traverse the entire city without ever touching the ground.
5: Depleted uranium is uranium with a fissile material content (material able to undergo nuclear fission) that is below what is found in natural uranium. Most depleted uranium is produced during the enrichment process. It’s useful due to its very high density: about 19 grams per cubic centimetre, which is 19 times heavier than water and nearly 70% heavier than lead for a given volume. This, perhaps ironically, makes it an excellent material for radiation shields. It’s also used in counterweights, military armour and armour-piercing projectiles.
6: Sun tunnels, or solar light tubes, allow the delivery of natural sunlight into buildings and can significantly cut energy costs – provided the sun is shining, of course.
7: OneZoom maps the connections between 2.2 million living species, the closest thing yet to a single view of all species known to science.
8: Energy scavenging devices are able to capture ‘leftover’ energy from ambient sources, such as by using energy from vibrations or temperature gradients to produce small amounts of electricity. Energy scavenging can even be used to recapture energy from radio waves, but doing so has been impractical due to the need for large antennae, which can only capture waves from a limited number of directions. This year, however, a team at Georgia Tech were able to develop a playing card-sized antenna that can collect six microwatts of power from 5G towers 180 metres away – not much, but enough to power most microchips and sensors. This could allow many ‘internet of things’ devices to be powered entirely through 5G, eliminating the need for batteries.
9: An accretion disk is a structure of diffuse material in orbital motion around a massive object, typically a star. Heated by gravitational and frictional forces, the disk emits energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation depending on the mass of central object. Within the accretion disk of a black hole, between 10% and around 40% of the mass of an object can be converted into energy. In comparison, nuclear fusion processes have a mass conversion of around 0.7%.
10: The large hadron collider was shut down for 3 days in 2009 when a bird dropped some bread on one of the capacitors in the electricity supply. This caused a power cut in one of the collider’s cooling plants, causing the superconductors in part of the tunnel to warm up.
11: There’s a very real possibility that black holes have passed through our solar system, and maybe even through Earth itself. Primordial black holes are a theoretical type of black hole that may have formed shortly after the Big Bang. The distribution of matter during the early stages of the universe may have allowed black holes to form with relatively small masses, similar to those of large asteroids or even lower. It has been proposed that these black holes could account for the ‘dark matter’ that makes up about 85% of the universe. Were this the case, these black holes would be very numerous, and would probably be passing though our solar system quite frequently. With an event horizon around the size of a hydrogen atom, an asteroid-mass black hole travelling at interstellar speeds would pass straight through the Earth, consuming a few thousand tonnes of matter on its way. The planet would remain practically unscathed, though that’s more than can be said for anyone standing in the black hole’s direct path.
12: Simpson’s paradox: A phenomenon in which a relationship within a set of data disappears or even reverses when that data is subdivided into smaller categories. Take for example this study, which looked at the success rates of closed vs open surgery for treating kidney stones. They found that overall, open surgery was successful in 78% of cases, while closed surgery was successful in 83% of cases. This would seem to suggest that closed surgery was more effective. However, when the researchers looked at success rates for small and large kidney stones individually, they found that for both sizes of stone, open surgery worked more often, making it the more effective treatment. How is this possible? When doctors received a patient with small kidney stones, they were much more likely to choose the less invasive but less effective treatment for the easier to treat condition. This meant that open surgery was used mainly on large kidney stones, which are inherently harder to treat, making open surgery appear to be less effective overall.
13: That time the Soviet Union put out a burning natural gas field with an atomic bomb.
14: While the South Korean constitution guarantees freedom of speech, behaviours or speeches in favour of the North Korean regime or communism are technically illegal under a law enforced since 1948, though in recent years prosecutions have been rare.
15: Check out this extraordinary footage of a giant phantom jellyfish, which was spotted about one kilometre below the surface in Monterey Bay in California. They have only been sighted about 100 times since their discovery in 1899. Their ribbon-like arms can grow to be over 10 metres in length.
16: The Anatomy Riot of 1788: One afternoon in 1788, a medical student at New York Hospital was dissecting a woman’s body, when he noticed a group of street urchins who had gathered at a window to stare. Annoyed, he waved the corpse’s arm at them and shouted ”This is your mother’s arm. I just dug it up!” Unfortunately, one of the observers was a boy who had recently lost his mother, and ran home to tell his father about the incident. Grave robbing was pretty common back then, and so when the enraged father marched to his late wife’s grave with shovel in hand, there was of course nothing there. This lead to a thousands-strong angry mob trashing the hospital in question, nearly doing the same at Columbia University before attacking a prison where some doctors had been placed for their own safety. The riot ended with the militia being called in and 20 rioters being shot dead.
17: Brocken spectre: the name for a magnified shadow cast upon clouds, mist or fog by a light source positioned behind the observer. It is typically visible from misty mountains or from aeroplanes, and can be accompanied by halo-like rings of light caused when water droplets in the clouds refract and backscatter the sunlight.
18: The equation describing the relationship between the refractive index of a substance and its density is called the Lorentz-Lorenz equation, because it was developed by Hendrick Lorentz and Ludwig Lorenz. But Lorentz and Lorenz didn’t work together on the equation – they each discovered the relationship independently within a decade of one-another.
19: Here’s a graph showing the relationship between chocolate consumption and Nobel laureates per capita as per this study. Certainly food for thought – we eagerly await the results from randomised, placebo-controlled trials.
20: Convergent evolution is the independent evolution of similar features in species during different epochs, creating shared characteristics that were not present in the last common ancestor of those species. A classic example is the capacity for flight, which evolved independently in birds, bats and insects. Another example is carcinization, in which different species of crustacean tend to evolve into crab-like organisms.
21: Most of the energy radiated by the sun is in the green spectrum, so why do photosynthetic organisms reflect more green light than other wavelengths? Wouldn’t blue or red plants have access to more energy? The answer may lie in the need for cells to maintain a steady energy supply during quick fluctuations in energy input, such as when a leaf falls briefly into shade. Modelling predicts that for this purpose, the best wavelengths of light for photosynthetic pigments to absorb are in the steepest parts of the intensity curve for the solar spectrum – that is to say, red and blue light.
22: Niel Armstrong brought small pieces of the Wright brothers’ plane with him to the moon.
23: A sun dog, mock sun or parhelion is an optical phenomenon where a bright spot appears to one or both sides of the Sun. It is caused by the refraction of sunlight by ice crystals in the atmosphere.
24: The ancient Romans banned Egyptian lawyers from accessing Alexandria’s courts because they would laugh at the judges, joke, and sometimes sing. According to Egyptologists, Egyptians were amused by nudity, drunkenness, slapstick and political satire.
25: The Malta cart ruts: a complex network of tracks carved in the rock at Misrah Ghar il-Kbir, a prehistoric site in the south of the Island of Malta. The age and purpose of the tracks is uncertain – none of them appear to lead to any notable destinations, and some of them run under the sea or straight off cliffs. Common theories state that they served as irrigation or were made by the passage of carts eroding soft limestone. The ruts contain no datable material, but there is evidence that they were already there when nearby Punic tombs were built, which are at least 2700 years old.
26: The eye colour of reindeer changes throughout the year. They are gold during the summer and blue during winter. The part of the eye responsible for this colour change is called the tapetum lucidum. It’s a shiny, mirrored layer behind the retina that helps some animals to see in the dark by reflecting any light that isn’t absorbed by photoreceptors. Scientists think that the colour change helps the eye capture more light during the long winter nights.
27: Vampyrella is a genus of amoeba named after their unusual feeding behaviour: perforating the walls of algae cells and sucking out their contents.
28: Learn how brain implant technology combines with machine learning to allow paralysed patients to control a computer using only their thoughts.
29: Here’s a video by Dr Lila Landowski of two neurons connecting to each other in a petri dish. When our bodies are developing, neurons use finger-like projections called ‘growth cones’ to find other neurons to connect with.
30: There have been no deaths in Australia from a confirmed spider bite since 1979, mostly thanks to antivenom. The ‘deadliest’ animals in Australia between 2001 and 2017 were horses at 172 deaths (more than half of which were from falls), followed by cows and bulls (82) and then dogs (53).