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30 Things We Learnt In October, 2023

Posted on 1 November 2023

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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 October!

1: The video below shows a series of perfectly normal human faces in quick succession. Yet look what happens when you focus your attention on the cross in the middle of the screen. It’s called the flashed-face distortion effect, and studying it could lead to important insights into how our brains process facial information. The brain is wired to recognise faces and even appears to have an area solely devoted to the task: the fusiform gyrus.

2: Cats’ brains appear to have shrunk since domestication. Studies find that domesticated cats have significantly smaller skulls (and brains) than their wild cousins, suggesting that domestication may have led to a reduction in brain size.

3: Why do cats roll and rub their faces in catnip? They could be using it as a form of insect repellent. Catnip and silver vine (another plant that cats like) contain the a compound called nepetalactol, which repels mosquitos. A study found that cat behaviour around silver vine effectively transferred nepetalactol to their heads and faces.

4: A cat species cannot both roar and purr. These two sounds are produced by structures within the larynx that are mutually exclusive. Cheetahs, cougars, lynxes and of course house cats can purr but cannot roar, while lions, jaguars and tigers can roar but not purr. While the evolutionary advantages of being able to roar seem obvious, scientists still don’t really know why some cats purr.

5: Tools are to humans what whiskers are to cats: Evidence suggests that humans utilize tools as an extension of the nervous system. For example, humans can subconsciously tell what part of a rod we are holding has been struck, based on the frequency at which it vibrates.

6: Brinicles: bizarre icy structures that grow downwards from Antarctic ice sheets.

7: Plant extinction has become a major threat to the future of human healthcare. While estimates vary depending on definitions, around half of drugs used in human healthcare were discovered in plants, including important compounds like aspirin and morphine. Yet according to some estimates, nearly half of all flowering plants are endangered, including many unstudied or undiscovered species.

8: How sulphur dioxide could be used to reverse global warming. Large scale efforts to manipulate the Earth’s climate are known as geoengineering. While simulations suggest that such initiatives would work, the consequences are ultimately unpredictable and would not reverse damage to our climate, though they would protect us from some of the consequences.

Sulfur in the Stratosphere

From Visually.

9: Avocados may have gone extinct alongside mammoths had it not been for human farmers. Avocados relied on now-extinct large mammals to eat them whole and disperse the seeds over long distances. Human cultivation may have helped avocados to survive despite the decline of large mammals.

10: Genomics has challenged the ‘neat and tidy’ understanding of the origins of humanity. A mere generation ago, we believed that a small population of humans from Africa spread rapidly across the world, outcompeting other groups like Neanderthals and rendering them evolutionary dead ends. Yet it seems that a sizeable chunk of the genome of non-Africans comes from so-called archaic humans, and even modern Africans have traces of Neanderthal DNA. Scientists have also detected DNA from ‘ghost’ populations, so-called because we know they existed thanks to genomics, but we have no fossils with which to identify them. So while the story of migration out of Africa remains true, these humans were not the exclusive ancestors of humanity. The history of modern Africans is also more complex than was once thought, as African populations continued to diversify and interact with non-African populations for some time after the migration occurred.

”A stylized representation of human lineages 50,000 years ago (excludes more distant ones, such as the “Hobbits” of Flores)” – Razib Khan, Here be humans

11: How the A-star pathfinding algorithm calculates the shortest route between two points, visualised in the streets of Chicago and Rome.

12: Paint Drying: a 10 hour and 7 minute-long film of white paint drying on a wall. It was created as a protest against film censorship and prohibitive costs for independent film makers. The purpose of the film was to force the British Board of Film Classification’s (BBFC) to watch every minute of it, which they presumably did, giving it a rating of U for Universal (“no material likely to offend or harm”).

13: New York is quite literally sinking under its own weight. On average, the metropolitan area of New York sinks by about 1.6mm per year according to NASA. Not everywhere is sinking at the same rate: the Arthur Ashe Stadium, for example, is sinking at a rate of 4.6mm per year.

Colour map of yearly elevation changes in New York. Blue regions are sinking while red regions are uplifted.

14: What does the international space station smell like? Not good, apparently. Unlike on Earth, stinky smells like those of sweat and farts don’t really have anywhere to go, and accumulate over time. Astronaut Scott Kelly described the smell on the ISS as “combinations of antiseptic, garbage, and body odour.” NASA takes bad odours on space missions seriously, even employing professional sniffers to assess the smell of anything that will be sent into space with astronauts. They are also working on things like better trash bags that will more effectively retain garbage smells.

15: This is what a solar eclipse looks like from the seat of an airplane:

16: When Jaguar cars was founded in 1922, it was called the Swallow Sidecar Company, or SS cars. Jaguar was a model name. The company changed their name in 1945. While this might sound unnecessary, it’s worth noting that this was the logo of the first Jaguar model:

17: You may have heard the advice that you should change passwords every 90 days. Some companies enforce this policy strictly, but the man behind this advice says he now regrets giving it. While this practice does technically make accounts more secure, forcing people to change their passwords more often encourages the use of weaker passwords that are easier to remember, the reuse of passwords across multiple accounts, and the insecure recording of passwords (on post-it-notes stuck to a laptop, for example).

18: The distribution of water on Earth.

19: Spider silk is an incredible material – it’s stronger than steel by weight, flexible, biodegradable, and more resilient than any synthetic fibre. So why don’t we harvest and use spider silk, as has been done with silk worms for millennia? It turns out that spiders really don’t like other spiders, making them extremely hard to farm, as each individual spider needs their own enclosure so that they won’t try to kill each other. Spiders also don’t produce a lot of silk. That’s why scientists in China had the idea to put spider genes into silk worms. The result: silk six times as tough as Kevlar and ten times as strong as nylon.

20: Hubbert’s peak theory: The proposal by a Shell geophysicist in 1956 that fossil fuel production in a given region would follow a bell shaped curve, and that US oil production would peak by 1970. While this prediction was technically correct, he did not predict the development of new ways to extract oil. Here is a comparison of Hubbert’s prediction vs actual oil production in the US:


21: A large amount of social science and marketing research relies on crowdsourcing websites like Amazon Mechanical Turk. These are platforms on which employers can post tasks like image identification or surveys, and have humans answer them for a fee. Yet it turns out that over 30% of workers on such platforms are just using AI.

22: A majority of CEOs discourage the use of generative AI within their company. Here’s a breakdown of executives’ attitude to AI.

23: The word ‘vandal’ comes from the Vandals, a Germanic people who sacked Rome in 455 and intentionally damaged statues in the city. The use of the word to describe destruction for the sake of destruction began in the 1660s and was popularised by French revolutionary leader Henri Grégoire when he used it to describe the senseless destruction of artwork during the revolution.

24: This video shows how concussions affect brain cells:

25: For the 50th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1987, an estimated 800,000 people gathered of whom 300,000 walked across the bridge, causing it to sag 7ft. There were a few injuries but miraculously no deaths, though some people reportedly started throwing bicycles off the bridge, worried about the weight limit. The event was organised by Friends of the Golden Gate Bridge, who expected a crowd of 80,000.

26: A social experiment in Denver gave around 800 homeless people in the city between $50 and $1000 per month. They found that homelessness and unemployment decreased as a result. Recipients used the money to pay off debt, repair their car, secure housing and enrol in a courses. The number of participants living in their own home or apartment went from less than 10% to more than a third within six months. While factors like addiction and mental health are often considered major drivers of homelessness in the US, some research suggests that housing prices are actually a much more important factor.

27: Bobi has surpassed Bluey as the oldest dog in recorded history.

28: Bardcore: a musical microgenre consisting of medieval-inspired remakes of popular songs.

29: Tunnel rats: the soldiers tasked with exploring Viet Cong tunnel systems during the Vietnam war. Tunnel rats had to be short and more importantly brave, as the job often required crawling through claustrophobic, dark tunnels for hours.

30: Hadrian X, a bricklaying robot:

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