30 Things We Learnt In February, 2022

Posted on 1 March 2022

Here at Gowing Life, we have decided to keep a fun record of everything we learn in 2022, be it longevity-related or something else entirely. Here is a selection of our newly acquired neural connections for the month of February!

1: A gas bladder, aka swim bladder, air bladder or fish maw is a gas-filled organ possessed by many bony fish that allows them to control their buoyancy. Such fish are able to adjust the amount of gas in the gas bladder, allowing them to remain at their current depth without spending much energy swimming. Charles Darwin thought that lungs might have evolved from gas bladders, but biologists now believe that lungs evolved before gas bladders.

2: Here’s a collection of graphs showing how the popularity of different film genres changed over the past century:

Film Genre Popularity Infographic
Film genre popularity over time

3: Australian ”firehawks”: Raptor species are well known for hunting near forest fires, using them as an opportunity to catch small prey as they flee the flames. Research suggests that at least three species of raptor in Northern Australia (the Black Kite, the Whistling Kite and the Brown Falcon) occasionally start fires by carrying smouldering branches to unburnt areas, though reports suggest it doesn’t happen very often. It’s not known if this is deliberate behaviour to aid hunting, or whether the birds are accidentally grabbing the branches as they try to catch prey.

4: Bugs Bunny gained his name by accident when animator Ben (“Bugs”) Hardaway’s sketch was labelled ‘Bug’s bunny” by a colleague.

5: The NASA-funded lab that tried to teach dolphins to speak English: Opened in 1963, the lab aimed to nurture a closer relationship between man and dolphin. While the lab’s director, Gregory Bateson, focussed on dolphin-to-dolphin communication, neuroscientist John Lilly had a more ambitious goal – teach the dolphins to speak English. Radio was played to the dolphins and they were encouraged to make human sounds. The lab was even waterproofed and flooded so that the dolphins could move freely throughout the building. At one point, astronomer Carl Sagan visited the lab. NASA reasoned that studying communication in an intelligent species like the dolphin might hold lessons for communicating with extraterrestrials. However, funding was cut and the lab was closed when John Lilly started to give some of the dolphins LSD (to no notable effect).

6: Rabbits can swim. Some breeds even enjoy it.

Just a bunny doing his float - Animals | Cute funny animals, Cute baby  animals, Baby animals
A rabbit swimming.

7: Were Winston Churchill to die or become incapacitated during the Second World War, it was planned that the prime minister of South Africa, Jan Smuts, could replace him.

8: The Assassin’s teapot: an invention that can be used to inconspicuously poor one of two liquids from the same teapot. It’s ideal if you want to get the perfect milk-to-tea ratio or if you need to murder your guests.

9: When the US postal service began delivering packages in 1913, there were no rules specifying exactly what could be mailed, so people stamped and mailed their children. Such children were delivered by trusted postal workers, often designated by the parents, to family elsewhere in the country. At this time, travelling long distances to see relatives was still difficult or unaffordable for most Americans. The Post Office Department officially banned the mailing of humans in 1915, putting an end to the practice. Fortunately, no children were ever lost in transit or delivered to the wrong address.

10: The St Scholastica Day riot: On the 10th of February in 1355, two students from the University of Oxford complained about the quality of wine served to them in the Swindlestock Tavern, which stood in the centre of the town. The argument with the taverner escalated into a fight, with customers joining on each side. This fight then spilled onto the streets and became a riot that lasted 3 days, with armed gangs from the countryside coming to help the townsfolk fight the university. Around 30 townsfolk and 63 members of the university were killed. Following the violence, King Edward III’s judges ruled in favour of the university, and 60 townspeople and officials were made to perform an annual penance, while the town was fined one penny per scholar killed. This practice lasted until 1825.

The St Scholastica Day Riot | University Church of St Mary the Virgin
Depiction of the end of the St Scholastica Day riot.

11: Benford’s law: What proportion of numbers have the number 1 as their first digit? Well, there are 9 available digits, so you might expect 1 in 9 numbers to begin with a 1. Yet in many real-life datasets, 1 actually appears as the first digit around 30% of the time, while larger numbers are progressively less likely to appear as the first digit, with 9 appearing less than 5% of the time. Such a dataset is said to follow Benford’s law. Data is more likely to follow this law if it spans multiple orders of magnitude. For example, human settlement populations tend to follow Benford’s law as they can range from the hundreds to the millions.

12: Epidemiology used to be called vital statistics.

13: Long before they were an impractical item of women’s footwear, high heels were a highly practical item of men’s footwear. In the 10th century, Persian soldiers on horseback wore heels, as they helped to keep their feet in the stirrups when standing to fire arrows. As high heels spread to Europe, they became a symbol of wealth and high status for men, as they made the wearer taller. So, what changed? High heels’ popularity declined following the French revolution, as people no longer wanted to be associated with nobility. Following the enlightenment, the idea of rationality as a male virtue lead to the perception of high heels as an extravagant fashion item more suited to women.

Louis XIV - Wikipedia
Portrait of French King Louis XIV
Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701

14: Microfluidics: The behaviour and precise manipulation of fluids at a small (typically sub-millimetre) scale. At this scale, surface tension forces dominate and can be used to passively control the movement of fluids for various applications.

15: A reactor is being built in Belgium that could transmute long-lived radioactive waste into materials with much shorter half-lives, generating energy in the process.

16: The first known use of the abbreviation ‘OMG’ was in a letter from admiral John Fisher to Winston Churchill in 1917:

17: Research suggests that making predictions impedes the formation of memories. Trying to predict the future at any given moment decreases the brain’s ability to encode the current moment in memory.

18: Scientists have calculated that DNA has a half-life of 521 years – that is to say, the number of surviving bonds in the backbone of a DNA sample halves every 521 years. This would result in the DNA becoming unreadable after around 1.5 million years (as the remaining strands would be too short to hold meaningful information), while it would take 6.8 million years for the DNA molecule to be completely destroyed under ideal preservation circumstances.

19: Toyko Narita airport was built on top of former farming villages. Though most inhabitants chose to leave, 5 households remain on the airport’s grounds. One inhabitant still farms his land, despite being offered a settlement worth over $1.6 million. A runway, which was supposed to run through his farm, instead routes around it.

20: Scientists can now detect and identify the origin of nearby DNA just by sampling the air. In two studies published in Current Biology, researchers studied environmental DNA (or eDNA) in air samples taken from zoos. They were able to use that DNA to identify animals, and even what kind of meat they were being fed, from air samples collected several hundred metres from the source of the DNA.

21: The Pollyanna principle refers to the tendency to remember positive events more accurately than negative ones. The Barnum effect, aka the Forer effect, is a phenomenon in which people give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality if they believe those descriptions are specifically tailored to them, even if the descriptions are vague and generalised. This may be because we have evolved to take in information that is relatable (and therefore more likely to be useful in our lives) while filtering out other information. Together, these effects help explain many biases and some paranormal beliefs such as horoscopes.

22: Why most people have a skewed understanding of the world (and how to fix it):
– Personal experiences result in personal bias.
– A large proportion of available information is outdated.
– Exceptional cases receive more media attention than the unexceptional
– People assume that everything gets worse. In reality, most things improve.
– People assume that most people are either rich or poor. In reality, most people are in the middle.
– People assume that wealth is required for social progress. In reality, social progress promotes wealth.
– People exaggerate the threat posed by things they fear or dislike.

23: Inteins are enzymatic sections of a protein that catalyse their own removal from said protein completely independently, without the need for the cellular fuel ATP.

24: Sonogeneitcs: You might have heard of optogenetics, in which neurons are made to express photosensitive proteins, allowing the firing of that neuron to be triggered by light exposure. Now, scientists have done the same thing with a mechanosensitive protein, allowing neurons to be activated using targeted ultrasound.

25: The migrasome: a long trail of thin fibres left by cells as they migrate.

26: The Implicit Associations Test (IAT) is a test designed to detect biases that the respondent may be unaware of or unwilling to report. The test involves a series of tests in which the respondent must classify words or images into one of multiple categories. For example, a respondent might be asked to classify words as ‘white’ or ‘black’, ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’, and then into some combinations of these categories. The IAT is designed to detect unconscious bias, but some argue there is no proof that it can accurately distinguish between true bias and simple cultural associations/stereotypes without endorsement of said stereotypes. If you’re interested in taking the IAT, you can do so as part of this research project.

27: Planetary boundaries: A concept that defines a ‘safe operating space for humanity’ on planet Earth. A planetary boundary is described as as a threshold that, if crossed, risks triggering ”non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental-scale to planetary-scale systems”.

Chart showing current risk level in 9 planetary boundaries.
Designed by Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, based on analysis in Persson et al 2022 and Steffen et al 2015

28: There are three types of twilight. Civil twilight occurs when the Sun is less than 6 degrees below the horizon. Nautical twilight occurs when the centre of the Sun is between 6 degrees and 12 degrees below the horizon. Astronomical twilight occurs when the Sun is between 12 degrees and 18 degrees below the horizon.

29: There are now more Spanish speakers in the United States than there are in Spain.

30: The city of Stockholm in Sweden trialled a ‘speed camera lottery’, in which those driving under the speed limit were entered into a lottery to win a prize drawn from speeding fines. The average speed fell by 22%.

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