30 Things We Learnt In May, 2021

Posted on 10 June 2021

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 May!

1: In 1918, the United States government balanced a cardboard cut-out of the US on a pin in an attempt to find the geographic centre of the country. They were correct to within 20 miles, though the admission of Alaska and Hawaii moved the location in 1959.

Are the Real Geographic Centers of the United States Incorrectly Marked? -  The GateThe Gate
Geographic centres of the US in 1918 and 1959.

2: On January 29, 1982, American sailor Steven Callahan departed the Canary Islands with the intention of crossing the Atlantic Ocean alone in his sailboat. However, 7 days after his departure, an unknown object put a hole in his boat and sank it, leaving him stranded on an inflatable raft in the middle of the Atlantic. The events that followed (recounted in the book Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea) make for a veritable rollercoaster of a story, and a gripping tale of incredible human ingenuity and exceptionally bad luck. And sharks.

3: The Mir mine in Siberia is one of the world’s largest diamond mines and also one of the largest excavated holes on the planet at over 525 metres deep 1,200 metres in diameter. Despite the harsh conditions (under which water and oil freeze), in the 1960s the Mir mine was producing a staggering 10 million carats (2 tonnes) of diamonds per year. For comparison, global rough diamond production during this period was around 40 million carats.
The mine also has a mysterious side: the Soviet Union restricted access to the mine by foreigners, aside from the De Beers executive and chief geologist, who were allowed to visit the mine for just 20 minutes in 1976. The airspace above the mine is also restricted, because warm air rising from the pit could create a vortex that would ‘suck in’ helicopters and low-flying planes.

Mirny: A Giant Diamond Mine that Sucks Helicopters In
The Mir mine

4: According to a 2017 survey of 5040 children by the British Nutrition foundation, nearly a third of 5-7 year-olds thought that cheese came from plants. Over 1 in 5 thought that pasta came from animals, and around 1 in 10 thought that tomatoes grow underground. Perhaps most troubling of all, just shy of 1 in 5 believed that fish fingers were made from… chicken.
Amusing though these answers are, perhaps the numbers are understandable considering the inclusion of 5 year-olds. What’s harder to understand is that a quarter of 8-11 year-olds also thought that cheese came from plants, while among 14-16 year-olds, 1 in 10 still believed that tomatoes grew underground – the same proportion as the 5-7 year-olds! It is unknown whether the maturation of a sense of humour confounded these results.

5: The ‘coastline paradox’: the higher the resolution used to measure the length of a coastline (or any irregular border), the longer it will appear to be. For example, Britain’s coastline is measured using units of 100 km, the total length is approximately 2,800 km, whereas if units of 50km are used, the total length is about 3,400 km. This is how Spain and Portugal came up with completely different values for their shared border length. While the coastline paradox has been annoying cartographers ever since it was noticed, it has also provided inspiration for mathematicians studying fractal geometry.

6: Gödel‘s incompleteness theorems: any consistent mathematical system capable of fundamental arithmetic will always have statements within it that are true, but that cannot be proven – for example, a formula that proves that it has no proof. This means that any mathematical system is either inconsistent (it includes contradictory statements) or incomplete (it includes true statements that are impossible to prove).

7: The game of life is a simulation in which there is an infinite grid of squares, each of which can either be ‘dead’ or ‘alive’. If a dead square is adjacent to exactly three squares that are alive, it comes to life, while any square that is not adjacent to either two or three squares dies. Depending on the starting configuration of the squares, the simulation may continue forever, or all of the squares may eventually become ‘dead’, or the simulation might reach a steady state. You might think that it would be possible to predict which state the simulation will reach based on the starting pattern, but it isn’t always. A simulation that is still running after a million iterations might still stop at 2 million or a billion iterations. Why not try it for yourself?

Top 30 Game Of Life GIFs | Find the best GIF on Gfycat
A game of life.

8: French philosopher and mathematician Nicolas de Condorcet imagined science would lead to humans transcending their bodies and, in the process, attaining immortality. In Outlines of an Historical View (1795) he wrote: ‘Would it even be absurd to suppose […] a period must one day arrive when death will be nothing more than the effect either of extraordinary accidents, or of the flow and gradual decay of the vital powers; and that the duration of the middle space, of the interval between the birth of man and this decay, will itself have no assignable limit?’

9: Tanning dependence, or Tanorexia, is a condition in which sunlight exposure induces the skin’s synthesis of β-endorphin, which enters the bloodstream and causes an opioid-like effect (opioids being the pain-relieving and addictive family to which morphine and heroin belong). In fact, 20% of beachgoers show signs of sun dependence that would satisfy the symptom criteria for addiction and substance abuse.

10: Vivipary – In plants vivipary occurs when seeds or embryos begin to develop before they detach from the parent. These strawberries (show in the picture below) are an example: they’re growing tiny green leaves from the seeds on their outer skin.

11: Why are communicable diseases called that? It’s not just because you can transmit them to others, but because historically, you would have to communicate to your local authority that you were sick with ‘that’ sort of infectious disease.

12: Pack hunting is not limited to animals: pack hunting was observed in common soil amoebae. This video shows how a group of common soil amoeba hunts and predates nematodes.

Amoeba taking down a nematode worm. Here is the associated research paper.

13: The Fat Controller of Thomas the Tank Engine fame was originally called ‘The Fat Director’ in The Three Railway Engines written in 1945 by Rev W Awdry. When the railways of Britain were nationalised in 1948, his name was changed owing to his new position.

14:The world’s oldest joke is reckoned to date back to 1900-1600 BC in Mesopotamia (now southern Iraq), and it’s toilet humour. Found in the Sumerian Proverb Collection, it goes: ‘Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.‘ Does this saying, passed down from Shuruppak to his son Ziusudra, contain some deeper meaning that we modern humans cannot parse? We may never know.

15:The Carrington event of 1859 was the largest recorded geomagnetic storm to affect the Earth. Caused by a coronal mass ejection hitting the planet’s magnetosphere, it caused the failure of telegraph systems across Europe and America, some shooting out enough sparks to start fires, while the aurora borealis was reportedly visible from Cuba. Were another Carrington event to occur today, it would wreak havoc on electricity grids. This nearly happened in 2012, when a solar storm narrowly missed Earth.

16: In stark contrast to Mary Shelley’s depiction of transhumanism in Frankenstein, her father William Godwin had a rather optimistic outlook. He envisaged a future world without war, disease, anguish or crime, requiring no government, and populated by disembodied humans who had achieved immortality.

17: Thomas Bayes (creator of the Bayes theorem that underpins AI and machine learning) wasn’t allowed to go to Oxford or Cambridge because he was a Presbyterian. Only people who were part of the Church of England were able to attend Oxford or Cambridge. Bayes went instead to Scotland to attend the University of Edinburgh.

18: The medieval rainbow had just five colours: red, yellow, green, blue and violet. It was Isaac Newton who added the last two, orange and indigo, so that the colours would be ‘divided after the manner of a Musical Chord‘.

19: We shared the planet with other hominid species as recently as 15 000 years ago, and may even have shared living quarters with 8 or more of them during the 300 000 years prior. There have been over 24 hominid species in the last 200 million years, yet now we are the only ones left – food for thought.

20: Mjøstårnet: the world’s tallest skyscraper built from timber. Located in Brumunddal, Norway, the building was completed in March of 2019, and has 18 storeys, measuring 85.4 metres tall.

Mjøstårnet in 2019
By NinaRundsveen – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89316966

21: Earlier this year, we learnt that all of the Sars-CoV-2 in the world (at its peak) would probably take up about 250ml – about the volume of a can of coke. But what volume of vaccine is needed to vaccinate the world against those 250ml? The answer is about 2-3 Olympic swimming pools.

22: The ideomotor response is a psychological phenomenon in which a person makes unconscious, often minuscule movements in response to thoughts and mental images. It is thought that certain phenomena deemed to be supernatural (such as water dowsing and Ouija boards) could in fact be caused by the ideomotor response.

What are divining rods and why are some UK water companies still using them  to find leaks? - The Irish News
Guide us to water, oh magic sticks!

23: The oldest person alive, Kane Tanaka, was alive when the Wright brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and when the first helicopter flew on Mars. She was born in 1903, the same year the Wright brothers flew. Hester Ford would also have shared this achievement, but sadly died a mere 24 hours before the Mars flight.

24: In 1500BC, the Shang dynasty was putting more effort into checking the reliability of the predictions made by their ‘oracle bones’ than newspapers put into checking the reliability of predictions made by their writers today. “The Shang dynasty succeeded the Xia around 1500 BCE. The Shange left an extensive historical record in the form of “oracle bones” and bronze inscriptions… Archives of oracle bones were maintained, recording the questions, answers, and outcomes of divination, which have been excavated in the 20th century, yeilding a vast amount of information about the Shang period.
“From Yao to Mao: 5000 Years of Chinese History” Course Guidebook. Professor Kenneth J. Hammond.

25: Contrary to popular sayings, money can buy happiness – at least according to several research papers. In one paper including 33 000 individuals, income was found to predict happiness all the way up the income scale, though gains were relatively small past $100k incomes. Another study with similar findings also suggested that the strength of this relationship has been increasing.

Household income, well-being and life satisfaction. Beware the log!

26: Indian logic and epistemology, or Nyaya logic, stands as one of the three original traditions of logic, next to Greek logic and Chinese logic. Naiyyayikka scholars approached philosophy with the view that anything that truly exists is knowable by humans in principle. Though after learning of Godel’s theorem, I’m not so sure anymore…

27: The Six Different Types of Disgust : 1. Disgust about hygiene; 2. Disgust about types of animals and insects; 3. Disgust about atypical appearances, deformed or “not normal”; 4. Disgust of people with lesions or infected wounds; 5. Digust of sex or sexual activities; 6. Disgust of foods that are rotten or smell bad.

28: Albrecht Dürer – the man who invented the selfie five centuries ago: More than five centuries ago, Albrecht Dürer painted images so detailed and exact that they seemed some kind of divine creation. One subject fascinated him above all: himself.

Albrecht Dürer: The Man Behind the Self-Portrait - Lutheran Reformation
Albrecht Dürer self-portrait.

29: The carbon footprint of the transporation of animal products, even from one side of the world to the other, still pales in comparison to the emissions produced rearing those animals. According to the United Nations, feed production and processing accounts for 45% of emissions associated with animal products, enteric fermentation from ruminants account 39%, and manure storage and processing represent 10%. The remaining 6% is the result of processing and transportation.

30: When you upload a photo to facebook (and most other social media sites, for that matter), you grant a ‘non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, and worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content’.

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