30 Things We Learnt In November, 2021

Posted on 1 December 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 November!

1: The ‘Leaf Sheep’ is one of the few animals that can photosynthesise. In addition to being perhaps the cutest slug in the world, the Leaf Sheep also has the amazing ability to absorb the chloroplasts (the cellular ‘organs’ responsible for photosynthesis) from the algae they consume.

2: Not all genes on a chromosome have a 50:50 chance of being passed on – some genes have ways of getting inherited more often than not. The ways in which they do this vary: some kill other sperm/egg cells that don’t bear the gene, while others cause the chromosome that they are part of to break in such a way that they are duplicated during repair. This is one of the ways in which a gene that is disadvantageous to an organism can still spread through the population: the selective disadvantage of carrying the gene is outweighed by the fact that a larger proportion of the organism’s offspring will inherit the gene.

3: How many calories in petrol? Petrol has a (chemical) energy density of 46 megajoules per kilogram, which translates to roughly 11000 food Calories (kilocalories). So, if you could digest and metabolise petrol (which we don’t recommend attempting), then you could run on about 180 grams of petrol per day if you were female, or about 225 grams if you were male. For comparison, olive oil contains about 7890 food Calories per kilogram, while sugar contains 4000.

4: Ève Curie, the youngest daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, chose not to pursue a career in science. Her parents, sister, brother-in-law, and husband all won Nobel prizes in their respective fields, and Ève won the national book award for her book ‘Madame Curie’, published in 1936.

5: The creation of carbon nanotubes: Although carbon nanotubes had previously been observed, it was the experiment of physicist Sumio Iijima in 1991 that truly revolutionised the field. An electric current was applied across two graphite electrodes, causing a spark to arc between them that vaporised the tip of the anode. The resulting cloud of carbon gas contained hollow tubes of carbon, some with walls only a single atom thick. These tubes were soon found to have the strongest tensile strength known to man. They also conduct electricity, are biocompatible, and are extremely light. These properties give carbon nanotubes the potential to form the building blocks for a range of futuristic technologies, from synthetic limbs to space elevators.

Helical microtubules of graphitic carbon | Nature
Sumio Iijima’s electron micrographs showing carbon nanotubes with varying wall thicknesses. Image b shows a nanotube just two atoms thick.

6: Humanity may be at risk of losing some species of bacteria that reside in our guts. Gut bacterial populations can have profound effects on our health, but changes brought about by modern medicine and technology (such as antibiotics, antibacterial soap and fewer vaginal births) might result in some beneficial microbes dying off.

7: Over 3000 clinical trials fail to report their results on time, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn’t doing anything about it. Drug companies and research institutions may withhold clinical trial results if they show that a drug is ineffective or has harmful side effects. Nearly 25% of trials overseen by the FDA still haven’t reported their results despite being legally required to do so, and not a single fine has been imposed.

8: Francis Drake’s brass plate, a story of confirmation bias: One day in Northern California, 1936, a shop clerk by the name of Beryle Shinn found an ancient-looking brass plate by the side of the road in San Rafael. The writing on the plate dated it 1579 and was signed Francis Drake – it appeared to match the description of the brass plaque that Drake posted upon first landing in Northern California. At a friend’s suggestion, Shinn took the plate to historian Herbert Bolton, who just happened to be obsessed with finding the historical treasure, to the point that he would urge his students to go out and look for the plate. Despite some inconsistencies, he was quick to declare the plate genuine, but in truth the plate was nothing but a practical joke gone wrong. A group of California history enthusiasts called ECV had forged the plate specifically with the intention of pranking Bolton, and had placed it at a site that he was known to frequent. Unfortunately, someone else had found it first, kept it for three years, then thrown it away, at which point it was found by Shinn. Now unable to openly reveal the prank due to the publicity the plate had received, the conspirators tried to drop hints to Bolton that the plate was fake, including forging a second, identical plate to show to the historian, and urging people to look for the letters ‘ECV’ printed on the back of the plate in fluorescent text. Despite practically admitting that they had made the plate, Bolton continued to believe that it was genuine.

Today In Mystery on Twitter: "#TodayInMystery 1937 Herbert Bolton announces  to the #California Historical Society that a brass plate found in the  #BayArea is a 350-year-old relic of a Francis Drake expedition.
Francis Drake’s brass plate: an elaborate prank gone wrong.

9: It’s ‘common knowledge’ that skipping breakfast is bad for you. While skipping breakfast may well impact your energy levels throughout the morning, there’s next to no solid evidence that skipping breakfast is actually bad for your health. Most associations between breakfast skipping and poor health probably occur because people who skip breakfast are less healthy in other ways.

10: Here’s an MRI scan of someone rubbing their eye. You’re welcome.

11: If you have to get up in the middle of the night, try to avoid turning the lights on. Studies suggest that even brief exposure to light during sleeping hours may be enough to supress melatonin and disrupt sleep.

12: The running joke about nuclear fusion is that it’s always 30 years away – but thanks to recent advances, a fusion reactor that produces more energy than it consumes might actually be here by 2025. Using 267km of high temperature superconducting tape, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a start-up called Commonwealth Fusion Systems created one of the most powerful electromagnets ever made, which could result in a much smaller and more energy-efficient reactor. This high temperature superconductor tape has actually been around since the 1980s, but was previously considered too fragile to be used for engineering purposes.

13: Glass delusion: the manifestation of a psychiatric disorder in which people feared that they were made of glass and might therefore shatter. It was recorded mostly in the 15th to 17th centuries and was most common among the wealthy and the educated.

14: Watch 105 year-old Julia ‘Hurricane’ Hawkins set a new track and field record:

15: The difference between converse, inverse, and contrapositive. If we begin with a conditional statement – for example, the statement ‘if you are in France, you are in Europe’, then the converse statement is the reversal of cause and effect: ‘if you are in Europe, you are in France’. The inverse statement is the original statement, but with cause and effect restated in the negative: ‘if you are not in France, then you are not in Europe’. The contrapositive statement is the inverse statement with the cause and effect reversed (the converse of the inverse): ‘if you are not in Europe, then you are not in France’. Out of the three, only the contrapositive produces a statement that is guaranteed to be true so long as the original statement is true. Furthermore, if the converse of a statement is true, so is its inverse.

16: Almost 25 years ago, a Swiss art collector bought a Lucian Freud painting at an auction. The painting was a full length male nude, possibly a self-portrait of Freud himself. The collector soon received a call from the artist, who asked to buy the painting back from him – an offer which the collector politely declined. Freud threatened to deny responsibility for the painting if the collector continued to refuse his offer, which is exactly what happened – the Freud estate refused to authenticate Standing Male Nude. Now, after years of research, three independent studies have concluded that portrait is very likely to be Freud’s work.

Standing Male Nude, by Lucian Freud. Photograph: Thierry Navarro

17: How a mosaic from Caligula’s party boat became a coffee table in New York: In 2013, an Italian architect named Dario Del Bufalo was at a bookstore in New York, signing copies of his book about the red stone popular with Roman Emperors, when he overheard a conversation between two store-goers. A young man remarked to the woman he was with that one of the mosaics shown in the book looked similar to one that she owned. The mosaic turned out to be a missing piece of a dance floor made for one of two extravagant boats commissioned by Emperor Caligula, both of which were sunk after his assassination. The mosaic is thought to have been stolen during the chaos of the 2nd World War. At some point the woman at the bookstore, an antique dealer called Helen Fioratti, bought it from an Italian family in good faith. The mosaic now resides at the Museum of the Roman Ships in Nemi.

18: Why are honeycombs hexagonal? You might think it’s because hexagons pack together perfectly without wasting space, but then why don’t bees make squares or triangles? This question took over 2000 years to answer: in 36 B.C., Marcus Terentius Varro, a Roman scholar, hypothesised that hexagons would be favourable over triangles or squares because they would produce a honeycomb with the smallest total perimeter. However, he was unable to prove this idea mathematically, nor was anyone else until 1999. That year Thomas Hales, a mathematician at the University of Michigan, produced the “Honeycomb Conjecture”: a long and complicated paper mathematically confirming that a grid of hexagons would indeed produce a smaller total perimeter than any possible structure comprised of triangles or squares. So, did bees evolve to build hexagons because they use less wax overall? Not necessarily: some biologists think bees don’t ‘deliberately’ build honeycombs in hexagons. Rather, the bees build circles, but the wax hardens into hexagons because they are a stronger and more energetically favourable shape.

19: Lightning may have helped to kick off life on Earth by generating water-soluble phosphorous – a key ingredient for life.

20: The Milky Way like you’ve never seen it before: It took astrophotographer J-P Metsavainio nearly 12 years to create this photo – a 1.7-gigapixel image of the Milky Way with a cumulative exposure time of 1,250 hours.

Head here for larger images.

21: Upon proving the existence of radio waves, Heinrich Hertz stated that his experiment was ”of no use whatsoever”.

22: Following the 1941 invasion of Yugoslavia, the Nazis in Belgrade used a fence to separate functional aircraft from those destined to be scrapped. In June, local communists moved the fence while the guards were distracted listening to news of the invasion of the Soviet Union. This resulted in all of the functional aircraft being scrapped.

23: Remember xenobots? Well now they can reproduce.

24: The lead-crime hypothesis is the hypothesis that the sharp reduction in crime during the 1990s in the United States may be partly explained by reductions in lead pollution since the 70s, such as the removal of lead from paint and petrol. Children exposed to lead are more vulnerable to learning disabilities and problems with impulse control and aggression, which may lead to increased likelihood of committing crimes during adulthood, especially violent crimes.

25: Tragedy of the commons: a situation in which individuals each act in their own best interests, but inadvertently harm their own interests and those of others by depleting common resources through uncoordinated action. A modern example of this is city transportation: on an individual basis, picking the fastest mode of transportation to get to work is a smart decision. However, if everyone picks the fastest mode of transportation, that system becomes congested and is no longer fast. Without laws to restrict individual choice, city transportation will always be less efficient than it could be.

26: Human ectogenesis – the partial or complete gestation of a human embryo in an artificial environment outside the body (aka the artificial womb) – may be fast approaching. An artificial womb would provide a more favourable environment for premature babies than an air-based neonatal unit. Complete artificial gestation would also eliminate any exposure to pollutants, alcohol, drugs or infectious diseases that might occur as part of pregnancy, while giving women the option to avoid a process that remains dangerous even in developed nations. Scientists have estimated that this technology could be ready for human testing in a limited capacity in 5-10 years.

27: For the first time on record, church membership in the United States fell below 50% in 2020.

28: In Croatia, drones are being used to replant forests destroyed by wildfires.

29: Wormholes – hypothetical shortcuts through space-time between black holes – might be stable after all. Previous predictions said that such wormholes would instantly collapse, but the specifics of the mathematics used to analyse wormhole stability can drastically change predicted behaviour.

30: Flowers may be able to ‘hear’ the sounds of bees approaching. Within minutes of sensing vibrations from nearby bee wings through flower petals, the concentration of the sugar in evening primroses’ nectar rose by 20% on average.

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