Here at Gowing Life, we are keeping our fun record of everything we learn in 2023, be it longevity-related or something else entirely. Here is a selection of our newly acquired neural connections for the month of March!
1: The evolution of colour: Research by the Science Museum Group based on objects from different periods of UK history shows how grey tones have become more predominant over time. This is down to the rise of plastics and metals and the decline of wood, as well as changes in aesthetic preferences.
2: The dark forest hypothesis: A proposed solution to the Fermi paradox (the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial intelligence despite the vastness of the universe). The dark forest is silent not because it is empty, but because it is safer for animals to stay quiet due to the existence of predators. The dark forest hypothesis posits that extra-terrestrial civilizations exist, but take precautions to conceal their presence, while those that attempt to reach out are found and destroyed by predatory civilisations.
3: According to one paper, we are probably among the first 10% of intelligent civilisations to exist in the universe, if not the first 1%. This estimate is based on calculations that take into account the number of hard steps that must be overcome for life to occur, as well as the average length of time during which a habitable planet would stay habitable. While we don’t know the exact values of these parameters, only ‘unreasonable’ estimates put humans as anything other than among the earliest of civilisations. The universe is about 13.7 billion years old, and life on Earth has existed for about 3.7 billion of those. An expanding universe would remain habitable for trillions of years.
4: SL-1, America’s first nuclear disaster and its only fatal one. Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One was an experimental nuclear reactor designed to be small and easy to transport. The accident happened during maintenance, which required the central control rod to be withdrawn by around 4 inches. Despite knowing that withdrawing this control rod too far would cause the reactor to go critical (as well as the fact that control rods often got stuck), the operators carried out this procedure by manually lifting the control rod. For reasons unknown, the rod was lifted about 20 inches, causing the fuel to vaporise and produce a steam explosion that killed all three operators.
5: Pluralistic ignorance: A phenomenon in which people mistakenly think that their opinion is unpopular, when it is in fact common or even the majority view. This may lead a person to act against their own beliefs for fear of social backlash or other consequences. This action further contributes to the perception among others that the beliefs in question are uncommon.
6: The curse of the fire horse: In 1966, the birth rate in Japan fell from 2.1 the previous year to 1.6, then climbed back to 2.2 in 1967. This brief but dramatic drop was not due to some natural disaster or policy change, but a centuries old superstition that women born in the year of the fire horse (which occurs every 60 years) would murder their husbands. It’s uncertain how many families actually believed in the curse, but they probably feared that others did, and that a potential daughter might have problems finding marriage later on. A case of pluralistic ignorance, perhaps?
7: Do you find that sleeping in hotels always seems to make you groggy the next morning? It turns out there’s science behind this. A study found that the left and right hemispheres of the brain don’t reach the same depth of sleep when someone sleeps in an unfamiliar environment for the first time. One hemisphere remains more ‘vigilant’ and is more easily aroused by external stimuli.
8: The saying ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat’ is not referring to the acquisition of feline pelts. ‘Skinning the cat’ is an athletic skill which involves hanging from a bar or set of rings and rotating the body through 360 degrees while the arms remain locked straight.
9: Until 1941, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Fleet was abbreviated to CINCUS. Shortly after the Pearl Harbour attack, the acronym was changed to COMINCH. Admirals feared that CINCUS would have a demoralising effect, as it sounded like ‘sink us’.
10: Der Fuehrer’s Face: Disney’s 1943 anti-Nazi propaganda film in which Donald Duck is put to work at an assembly line, where he must screw the heads onto artillery shells mixed in with portraits of Hitler that he must salute, all while being bombarded by Nazi propaganda. He eventually wakes up in his bed, and remembers to his relief that he’s a US citizen.
11: Disney theme parks have underground tunnel systems that allow actors to put on their costumes and appear in the appropriate parts of the park without shattering the illusion. The tunnels also contain staff cafeterias, rehearsal rooms, delivery trucks and medical vehicles. The parks contain some of the world’s largest utility tunnels.
12: Ice spikes and ice candles, while appearing to defy nature, are rare naturally occurring phenomena. They form over holes in surface sheets of ice. As water beneath the surface freezes, it expands, slowly pushing water up through the opening where it freezes into a spike or tower.
13: Precordial catch syndrome: A relatively common but not widely known cause of chest pain, mainly in children, teens and young adults. It’s a sharp and intense chest pain lasting a few minutes at most, often occurring during deep inspiration and forcing the use of shallow breaths. Pain aside, it’s harmless and has no link to any heart or lung condition. The exact cause is still uncertain.
14: Ice is blue, just as water is blue. We don’t get to observe the true colour of ice very often, as unlike water, ice is rarely observable in sufficient quantities for the blue colour to show. Ice also tends to form with air bubbles, making it appear white. Glaciers are an exception – compression under the weight of snow and ice squeeze out the air bubbles, making the underside of the glacier blue. When they flip over, we get to see a spectacular blue glacier.
15: Ever wondered what woolly mammoth meat tasted like? We may soon find out, as a cultivated meat company called Vow has unveiled their mammoth meatball. It was made by cultivating sheep cells engineered to overexpress mammoth myoglobin, an key protein in skeletal and cardiac muscles.
A giant meatball made from flesh cultivated using the DNA of an extinct woolly mammoth was unveiled at Nemo, a science museum in the Netherlands. Read more: https://t.co/G27Tu4U7OI pic.twitter.com/Wl0Ju8nIWR— Reuters Science News (@ReutersScience) March 29, 2023
16: Therac-25, described as history’s most deadly software error, is an example of what can happen when blind trust in software collides with a suspension of common sense. A particularly relevant tale, perhaps, in the context of the ongoing advancements in AI.
17: At least where group forming is concerned, opposites do not seem to attract. When strangers of different physical attractiveness are placed in a room, research suggests that the more attractive people seek each other out and congregate together.
18: The ability to foresee and prepare for mutually exclusive possibilities seems to be a uniquely human trait. By age four, most children understand that when the reward is quickly dropped into either of the mechanisms shown below, placing one hand under each tube exit will guarantee success. Chimps, orang-utans and younger children will cover only one exit.
19: Some physicists working in the Manhattan project were concerned that the atomic bomb could cause fusion of nitrogen in the atmosphere, setting off a chain reaction that would destroy the Earth. However, they calculated that the conditions needed to achieve this were essentially impossible to produce with an atomic bomb, even one that was unrealistically powerful. Fortunately, their calculations seem to have been accurate.
20: There are 118 elements in the periodic table, but none of them contain the letters J or Q.
21: No matter the discipline, small teams are more likely to develop innovative, disruptive ideas and technologies than larger teams. The nature paper suggests that while the efforts of larger teams earn more citations, they are less likely to shake things up for their field.
22: We now know more than ever about how Beethoven died, thanks to genomic analysis of his hair. The study suggests that Beethoven had a strong genetic predisposition to liver disease, and was probably infected with hepatitis B virus in the months prior to his death. The researchers did not find a genetic explanation for his hearing loss and gastrointestinal problems.
23: Some animals such as elephants and dolphins are known to ‘grieve’ for their dead young, sometimes carrying their carcasses for days or even weeks. This phenomenon is not that well studied – we don’t really know how common it is in the wild or what conditions make animals more likely to adopt this behaviour.
24: Here is an infographic showing mammal phylogeny. Most mammalian orders originated around the time of the K-Pg event, the extinction event that wiped out most dinosaurs.
25: The Sun orbits the centre of the galaxy roughly once every 250 million years. The extinction of the dinosaurs didn’t just happen 65 million years ago – it also happened about 100 light years away. Sort of.
26: One of the effects of the accelerating pace of technological advancement has been to make science-fiction increasingly hard to write, as summarised elegantly here by computer scientist and sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge in 1993. Speculation about what humanity could look like in a hundred years or so once seemed plausible. Now, the state of humanity and technology in even a few decades seems increasingly uncertain.
27: Earth is the only known place in our solar system where fire can occur, as nowhere else has enough oxygen.
28: Human stomach acid can dissolve metal. A 1997 study found that after 24 hours of immersion at 37 degrees, razor blades were reduced to 63% of their original weight.
29: The Eiffel tower can grow about 17cm taller during the summer due to expanding metal.
30: Laika, the Soviet space dog and first animal to orbit the Earth in 1957, was widely reported to have died when her oxygen ran out on day six of her flight (with conflicting reports that she was euthanised via her food). It wasn’t until 2002 that the true cause of death was made public: Laika died within the first 5-7 hours of her flight from hyperthermia, probably as a result of damage to the craft during launch and the failure of some components to separate as planned.