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30 Things We Learnt In September, 2023

Posted on 2 October 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 September!

1: Who is the deadliest hunter in the cat family? Is it the lion, the King of the jungle? Or perhaps the cheetah, the fastest land animal on the planet? The answer is neither – in fact, the deadliest cat on the planet is the adorable black-footed cat, the smallest cat in Africa. The black-footed cat catches about 60% of its prey, compared to around 30% for packs of lions. Single lions only have a 15% success rate, which is also lower than the house cat’s 30%. I’d still rather fight the cat, though.

2: Cats can’t taste sweetness, due the the deletion of a gene necessary for the production of sweet taste buds that occurred millions of years ago. It certainly helps explain why they’re such picky eaters.

3: Ancient Greeks and Romans often made tombs and wrote epitaphs for their pets, such as this one for a dog named Margarita (‘Pearl’).

4: Mach diamonds: AKA shock diamonds or thrust diamonds. They are a standing wave pattern that appears in supersonic exhaust plumes. They are caused by abrupt changes in air density.

5: After they’ve been dead for a few days, ant corpses begin to release various chemicals including oleic acid. These signals tell other ants that there is a corpse that needs to be hauled away. Ed Wilson, who was studying this behaviour, tried carefully depositing a drop of oleic acid on a passing ant. For the next two hours, the poor ant was continually grabbed and carried to the colony’s ‘graveyard’ by its sisters as it tried to go about its day.

6: The creators of Donkey Kong Country wanted the Kongs to be voiced by real gorillas. Staff spent hours at a zoo recording real gorillas, which they went on to described as a ‘complete waste of time’. It turns out that gorillas are actually very quiet. In the end, they had programmer Mark Betteridge do gorilla impressions for the game.

7: Fewer than 50% of American citizens have passports. This compares to about 70% in Canada and over 80% in the UK. Three decades ago, only around one in ten Americans had a passport.

Statistic: Share of American citizens per year who own a valid passport from 1989 to 2017 | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

8: The expected value of exploding dice: If you roll a 6-sided dice, you have an equal chance of getting each number from 1 to 6. If you keep rolling, the average score you will get is 3.5 – this is known as the expected value. If you do the same thing for two dice, the expected value will be 7. But what if the dice ‘explodes’: whenever you roll a 6, you get to roll the dice again and add the result to the previous score, and you continue to do this until the dice fails to explode. What’s the expected value of an exploding dice? You now have an infinitely small probability of scoring an infinitely high roll. Since the probability of reaching each explosion decreases by a factor of six, the expected value will converge towards a number. This number, it turns out, is about 4.2 – surprisingly low for a roll with infinite potential.

9: In the US, adult obesity rates are inversely correlated with altitude. This is due to a combination of factors like low oxygen, increased exercise levels, temperature and income differences.

10: NASA has a website that tracks thermal anomalies. Red dots can be caused by fires, hot smoke and agricultural activity.

11: How ‘super scooper’ firefighting planes work:

12: The maximum power output of the average horse is around 15 horsepower, while humans can achieve about 1 horsepower. When Watt came up with horsepower as a unit of measurement, he based it on the average power output of a horse throughout the day, probably to sell more steam engines. Had Watt based horsepower on maximum output, the steam engine would have had about one horsepower, which might have given people the impression that it was no better than a horse. Basing horsepower on daily power output made it a much more practical unit for comparing a horse to a steam engine in the context of a factory or mill, but not so much when comparing a horse to a car.

13: The Enigma machine is arguably the most well known encryption device, used by the Nazis in World War II to send enciphered messages between machines with the same configuration. One weakness of the machine was that no letter in the original text could be enciphered as itself. This helped the allies eliminate some solutions and crack the code, especially when some operators regularly used the same phrases. For example, Rommel’s Quartermaster started all of his messages with the same formal greeting. Another (apparently very boring) German outpost in North Africa repeatedly sent ‘nothing to report’.

14: Newton and the apple incident: It is sometimes said that the story of the falling apple, which supposedly inspired Isaac Newton to develop his theory of gravity, is a myth. However, several acquaintances confirmed that the story is actually true, at least according to Newton, though the significance of the moment may have been exaggerated over time, and the apple didn’t land on his head. Clones of what is believed to be the fabled tree have since been planted at various locations around the World.

Locations of some of the clones of Isaac Newton’s apple tree

15: The accident that changed aviation language. In 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger planes collided on a foggy runway at Tenerife airport. There were 583 fatalities, making it the deadliest aviation accident in history. It was largely down to the use of imprecise language, leading to a misunderstanding by the crew of one plane that they had been given permission for take-off. For example, when the first officer said ‘we are now at takeoff’, the controller thought they simply meant they were in position to take off and replied ‘OK’. In the aftermath, strict rules about language were introduced. For example, the word ‘takeoff’ is not spoken unless clearance for takeoff is being given – until then the word departure must be used.

16: When The Godfather author Mario Puzo adapted his work for the screen, he had never written a screenplay before. After adapting the first two Godfathers, he bought a book about how to write screenplays. In the first chapter, the book advised readers to study The Godfather.

17: Parkinson’s law: The observation that in matters of bureaucracy and administration, the duration of work will expand to fill the amount of time allotted, regardless of the amount of work. It has since been generalised to mean that there is an optimal time allocation for a task beyond which effort will decrease due to lack of urgency.

18: Nocturnal bottleneck: An evolutionary theory put forward to explain certain mammalian traits. It proposes that, prior to the extinction of the dinosaurs, mammals were primarily if not exclusively nocturnal species for a timespan of at least 160 million years. This might explain why even diurnal mammalian species (which are still in the minority) appear to lack diurnal adaptations present in non-mammals. For example, mammalian eyes are generally much less protected against UV light than in other animals and have worse visual acuity than in birds and reptiles. Most animals and microorganisms also have a light-dependant DNA repair enzymes called photolyases, but this system doesn’t work in mammals. On the flip side, diurnal mammals retain nocturnal adaptations like enhanced senses of hearing, smell and touch, and the ability to control body temperature independently of solar radiation.

19: Triboluminescence: Rubbing certain crystals together, such as quartz, can produce light. This is because when small breaks occur, fragments don’t always have the same charge distribution. Electrons jump from one fragment to the other, which causes the sparks.

20: Tetrachromacy: The presence of four cones in the eye, allowing four independent channels for conveying colour information to the brain. Though the common ancestor of all vertebrates was a tetrachromat, mammals lost the fourth cone, probably due to the nocturnal bottleneck. However, it is thought that a small percentage of humans may actually be tetrachromats.

21: Purple and ‘hot pink’ only exists in your brain. We only have three cones in our eyes, capable of detecting red, green, and blue light. Other colours are produced by the brain according to the relative activation of these cones. For example, yellow light with a wavelength of 570–580 nanometres will activate both green and red cones, and the brain will interpret this as yellow. However, there is no single wavelength of light that will activate both red and blue cones without activating green cones more. The longest wavelength of light we can perceive is about 700nm and will activate red cones only, appearing red. The shortest is around 380nm and will only activate blue cones, appearing violet-blue. To get purple/hot pink, multiple wavelengths of light in the blue and red zones are required. It is only thanks to this cone-based system of encoding colour that we are able to arrange the visible spectrum as a wheel, despite the electromagnetic spectrum being linear.

The colours of the colour wheel that ‘bridge the gap’ between blue and red are not part of the electromagnetic spectrum. They exist only in the brain as the result of the activation of blue and red cones.
By 8-leaf clover – Own work, CC0,
By BenRG – Own work, Public Domain,

22: The Pornocracy was a chaotic period in the history of the Papacy following the death of Pope Formosus in 896 AD. During this period of about 60 years, the many Popes (one papacy lasted less than a year) were heavily influenced or controlled by a powerful aristocratic family, the Theophylacti. Several female relatives of the Theophylacti had sexual relationships with the popes, and allegedly used this to manipulate them and advance their own interests. The term ‘pornocracy’ was coined by German theologians in the 19th century.

23: Toilet Gods: Several cultures have at some point worshipped toilet gods. Ancient Romans had the goddess Cloacina, who presided over Rome’s sewers. One early ruler of the city, Titus Tatius, built a shrine to her in his toilet and invoked her help with blockages. Stercutius, god of dung, was popular among farmers. The Japanese meanwhile had Ususama-myō-ō, a many-armed god whose protection was sought before entering toilets where falling in was a risk.

24: On the 3rd of September 1967, Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to the right. It was the largest logistical event in Swedish history – in the run-up to the day of the switch, alternate signs and road markings were installed and covered with black plastic or tape, to be removed when the change was to take place. Then, on the 3rd, only essential traffic was allowed between 01:00 and 06:00. At exactly 4:50, all vehicles on the road had to come to a complete stop, switch over to the other side of the road, then wait 10 minutes before moving.

Stockholm, 3rd of September 1967
By Jan Collsiöö – Så var det, Public Domain,

25: Order force is an English grammar rule that states that multiple adjectives describing the same noun must be arranged in the following order: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose. Thus, ‘the big old red wooden toy car’. Phrases like ‘the old red wooden big toy car’ or ‘the wooden big red old toy car’ would never be spoken by most native English speakers, yet almost no one can explain why these word orders are wrong as most people don’t know this rule exists. There are a few exceptions though, such as the ‘Big Bad Wolf’. That’s because this phrase is subject to another, more important grammar rule: Ablaut reduplication.

26: Ablaut reduplication is a grammar rule in English and several other languages. When up to three words are said together as part of a phrase, they must be arranged in order according to their vowels: I, A, O. So it’s ‘chit-chat’, ‘crisscross’ and ‘Big Bad Wolf’.

27: In the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘set’ has 430 listed meanings, and has the longest entry in the book at 60,000 words long.

28: New research suggests that the evolution of neurons may be traced back to Placozoans – tiny marine animals that first appeared on Earth 800 million years ago. Though neurons did not appear until many millions of years later, scientists found that some cell types within Placozoans shared similar characteristics with neurons, such as chemical signalling via GPCRs (a type of receptor found in neuronal synapses). Placozoans may later have gained genes allowing these cells to form axons and dendrites, forming the neurons that we now know.

29: Bacillus stratosphericus: The title of highest-flying organism on Earth goes not to a bird but to a bacteria. As its name suggests, B. stratosphericus has been found in the stratosphere, which begins at an altitude of between 7km and 20km.

30: At official tournaments for the card game Yu-Gi-Oh, judges can penalise players for poor body odour or dirty clothing. The game also used to sell branded shower products.

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