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30 Things We Learnt In January, 2023

Posted on 31 January 2023

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Here at Gowing Life, we are keeping our fun record of everything we learn into 2023, be it longevity-related or something else entirely. Here is a selection of our newly acquired neural connections for the month of January!

1: The Amami rabbit is a rare nocturnal species of rabbit that evolved on the Amami Islands in Japan. They have an unusual relationship with a parasitic plant called Balanophora yuwanensis. These rabbits are the main consumers of this plant, which cannot photosynthesise and parasitizes the roots of other plants. The rabbits eat the plants, then burrow underground and defaecate, leaving the parasite’s seeds close to the roots of other plants.

2: Most people now consider venison to refer to deer meat. Originally, however, venison just meant any meat from a game animal. The Latin ‘venari’ means ‘to hunt or pursue’.

3: Terminal lucidity: a phenomenon in which a patient suffering from severe neurological disorders experiences an unexpected return of mental clarity shortly before death.

4: Urbach–Wiethe disease: A rare genetic condition with only around 400 reported cases since it was discovered almost a century ago. The disease can cause calcium deposits to form in blood vessels supplying the amygdala, a region of the brain thought to be involved in fear. Consequently, some people with this condition suffer from a partial or complete inability to experience fear or anxiety.

5: Many movies depict medieval archers aiming at the sky to rain arrows down on an opposing force. However, historians aren’t sure how often, if ever, archers actually did this. Almost all medieval art depicts archers shooting straight, unless aiming up at a fortification. With that being said, medieval art is not know for its photorealism.

6: The word fascism comes from the Latin fasces, which denotes a bundle of wooden rods that typically included a protruding axe blade, usually carried by leaders in Ancient Rome. In the case of fascism, the bundle represents a bundle of people organised under a monolithic state power.

7: Contrary to popular belief, Pong was not the first video game – merely the first commercially successful one. The first video game is thought to be Tennis for Two, and was created by Physicist William Higinbotham.

8: The ‘Super Mario Effect’: A term used by former NASA engineer Mark Rober to describe how the framing of a task can have a dramatic effect on one’s likelihood of success. Rober organised an experiment in which 50 000 of his YouTube followers were presented with a challenge: to arrange blocks of commands to steer a digital car through a maze. When participants got it wrong, they were presented with a message asking them to try again. However, some participants would also be told that they had ‘lost 5 points’ each time they failed. These participants were significantly less likely to successfully complete the task, not because they performed worse in their attempts, but because they gave up about twice as quickly as those whose messages didn’t reference points. The ‘Super Mario Effect’ comes from the idea that if a task is presented as a challenge or a game rather than a test, players are more likely to view failures (such as falling into a pit in a Super Mario game) as learning experiences, motivating them to reattempt until success is achieved.

9: Ksar Draa in Timimoun, Algeria, is an ancient fortress in the middle of the desert. Its history is mostly unknown, including who built it and what purpose it served.

Ksar Draa
Image source

10: The Zeigarnik effect: An effect named after psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, it describes a phenomenon in which people remember the details of interrupted or uncompleted tasks better than those of tasks that are finished. This tendency has been leveraged in order to promote learning, though some studies have failed to reproduce the effect.

11: Making a plan to achieve a goal can satisfy the cognitive drive to actually achieve that goal. From the linked study: ”Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended–allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease–and is resumed at the specified later time.” This suggests that if you are distracted by unfinished business, you can alleviate that distraction by making a plan to finish it. However, making a plan to do something could also rob you of motivation to actually go through with it!

12: The cerebellum contains ¾ of the neurons in the brain, despite representing only 1/10 of its size. This is probably related to its many functions, which include fine motor coordination, language and memory.

13: Lucid dreaming – the ability to become aware that one is experiencing a dream and potentially control its progress – was once believed to be a sham. Indeed, until relatively recently, its existence could not be definitively proven – after all, how can one even be sure that they were in control of a dream after the fact (as opposed to merely dreaming that they were in control)? That was until an experiment in which lucid dreamers were placed in an MRI scanner. Though most of the body is paralysed during REM sleep, the eyes are not. Researchers asked participants to move their eyes left or right in a specific pattern when they gained control of their dream, then to move their left and right hands in the dream in a specific sequence. The researchers saw the participants’ eyes move, following which the MRI scan showed motor activity as though they were moving their hands as instructed.

14: This infographic by theetymologynerd shows how different parts of the brain got their names.

Etymology of the brain

15: The spaced learning effect: A well documented effect in which learning is more effective when learning events are spaced out in time. In 2021, a study looking at this effect in the context of pressing a sequence of piano keys found that, when participants rested for ten seconds between attempts, the brain ‘replayed’ the practiced sequence of movements. This replay occurred at about 20 times the rate of practice, and correlated with improved performance when participants resumed learning.

16: The t haplotype, a sequence of genes on the mouse chromosome 17 that takes up over 1% of the entire genome. Male mice with two copies of the t haplotype are infertile. In males with just one copy, the t haplotype kills sperm that do not contain the t haplotype, ensuring that it is likely to be inherited. It does this by producing a poison to which sperm carrying the haplotype are partially immune to. Even though carrying the t haplotype is a clear evolutionary disadvantage, it is present in around 15% to 25% of the wild mouse population. It’s one of the best-known examples of a ‘selfish’ genetic element.

17: Otoacoustic emissions: Our ears don’t just detect sounds – they also emit them. These sounds are mostly inaudible and are produced in the cochlea – the spiral structure in the ear in which sound waves are picked up and converted into electrical signals. These sounds can occur spontaneously from time to time for no apparent reason, or in response to hearing a sound. Scientists aren’t in agreement about exactly what causes these emissions, whether they serve some purpose, or are simply a by-product of the functioning of the ear.

18: Fish hook ants: Some species of ant carry hook-like spikes on their backs. These hooks deter predators and can cause the ants to lodge in their throats, making them hard to eat. Ants can also hook onto each other, making them hard to pick off one at a time.

Bernard DUPONT from FRANCE, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

19: Pollinating insect populations are in sharp decline, and it’s much more than just a headache for farmers. Research suggests that loss of pollinators could be causing 500 000 deaths every year due to reduced production of fruits, vegetables and nuts, leading to increased consumption of less healthy diets.

20: The word ‘sleazy’, a favoured adjective for politicians meaning corrupt or immoral, originated over 350 years ago as a way to describe fuzzy or insubstantial fabric. One theory is that it’s an abbreviation or corruption of the word Silesia, a German region where thin linen was made for export.

21: ”Rods from God”: In 1967, the US and 106 other countries signed a treaty prohibiting nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons from being placed in orbit. In 2003, the US air force proposed a weapon called Hypervelocity Rod Bundles, colloquially referred to as ‘Rods from God’. The idea was to place 1 foot wide, 20 feet long tungsten rods into orbit to be dropped onto targets on the surface. These rods would be travelling at around Mach 9 (about 3km/s) on impact, and would carry kinetic energy equivalent to 11.5 tonnes of TNT. This idea had originally been formulated by Boeing scientist Jerry Pournelle in the 50s before he became a science fiction writer.

22: This image shows cracks in the outermost layer of a window in the International Space Station. It was most likely caused by a fleck of paint shed from a satellite or booster.

23: The birth rate in the United States was 1.64 in 2020 – the lowest it had been for 50 years. Yet contrary to common belief, young Americans do not want fewer children than the previous generation. According to a recent study, women born in 1995-1999 wanted to have 2.1 children on average when they were 20-24 years old, similar to the average of 2.2 children that women born in 1965-1969 wanted at the same age. The difference is that young Americans today are not having the children they want to have, and are probably delaying parenthood because of concerns about the future.

24: Gravity batteries: One of the biggest problems with renewable energies that are dependant on weather conditions (such as wind and solar power) is storing excess energy when power output exceeds demand. One proposed solution to this problem is to convert old mines into gravity batteries. Gravity batteries store excess energy by lifting large amounts of weight. When the energy is needed again, the weight is dropped, which spins a turbine to generate electricity. Unlike conventional batteries, gravity batteries do not lose energy over time. There are old mines available for conversion all over the world, and most are already connected to the electrical grid.

25: It is estimated that 4.5 trillion cigarette butts become litter every year, making them the most littered man-made item in the world. Cigarettes contain microplastics and other cancer-promoting substances which contaminate the environment.

26: In the second Tour de France, held in 1904, twelve of the twenty-seven riders who finished were disqualified for various reasons. These reasons included using cars and, in some cases, trains during the races. Indeed, the four highest-placed cyclists were all disqualified, leaving fifth-place Henri Cornet as the winner. Cornet had also been warned after he had received a lift by a car.

Henri Cornet, winner of the 1904 Tour de France after disqualification of the top 4 finishers.
Public Domain

27: Why are all the Moon’s craters circular? Shouldn’t some craters be elongated due to objects hitting the surface at an angle? A typical impact is so explosive that the shape of the object or angle at which it hits the surface has virtually no effect on the shape of the crater: the surface is displaced in all directions, with the final size of the crater being up to 100 times larger than that of the impactor. The only exception is when objects hit the surface at a very narrow angle – no more than a few degrees from the horizontal. In that case, the energy of the incoming object gets released along an elongated zone, resulting in an elliptical crater.

28: Left handedness is not associated with increased mortality. At least as far as we know. The statement that 2500 people die every year in accidents related to their left handedness has been circulating for over a decade. However, it’s not clear where this figure comes from, and there’s not even enough evidence to support the assertion that left handed people have shorter lives. One study in the early 90s suggested that left handers had lower life expectancy, but most studies since then do not support that finding. Left handed people do seem to suffer more injuries though, such as when driving and using power tools.

29: Active Flow Control (AFC) technology: A possible method of controlling aircraft that eliminates the need for external moving parts like ailerons and rudders. Rather than altering air flow by changing the shapes of the wings, AFC works by either changing the electrical charge of the air as it passes over the wing, or by injecting air into the airflow over the wing to alter the lift. Here is a demonstration of the former method:

30: Spencer Silver: A chemist and inventor who wanted to create a strong adhesive that could be used for aircraft construction. He failed, instead creating an adhesive just strong enough to hold papers together, but weak enough that they could be pulled apart without tearing. Thanks to this, the post-it note was born.

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