Posted in History & Literature

Stigler’s Law

In 1980, statistician Stephen Stigler suggested that in the history of science, no scientific discovery is really ever named after its original discoverer. This is because eponymous laws and discoveries tend to be named after the person that made it widely known.

Take the example of the famous Pythagorean theorem, which was known to Babylonians before Pythagoras was even born. Halley’s comet had been documented by astronomers since 240 BC. Fibonacci numbers were well-known to Indian mathematicians since 200 BC – 1400 years before being described by Fibonacci.

You could make the argument that these discoveries could not be traced to the original discoverer as it was too long ago and the discoverer’s name was never documented. This is certainly one reason for Stigler’s law being true. Usually, scientific discoveries tend to be popularised and named after the discoverer has already died, meaning that there is a chance they could be forgotten already.

There are plenty of examples where the original discoverer is known, thanks to historians of science, but it is too late to reverse the eponym as the name has firmly rooted itself into people’s vocabulary.

Take Alzheimer’s disease, which was discovered by Beljahow in 1887, but named after Alois Alzheimer in 1901. The bacteria Salmonella was identified by Theobald Smith in 1885, but as he was a junior inspector, his boss Daniel E. Salmon took the credit instead.

It is also worth noting that throughout history, there have been many cases of discoveries being made simultaneously by independent scientists.

Sometimes, the scientists credit each other and share the fame, such as Charles Darwin who decided to co-present his theory of natural selection with Alfred Russel Wallace, another scientist who came to similar conclusions at the same time.

Other times, scientists may fight aggressively to assert their credit, such as Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, who both discovered calculus around a similar time, but fought to claim that they were first.

An important lesson to learn here is that as much as we love stories where a brilliant individual changed the course of history, most advancements in human history happen thanks to collaboration and inherited knowledge over time. Things rarely happen in a vacuum and we all rely on each other’s experiences and knowledge, building on our predecessors to achieve greatness.

Ironically, Stigler’s law follows its own law, as Stigler identified sociologist Robert K. Merton as the original discoverer of this law.

Posted in History & Literature


In the 1790’s, an Oxford University student by the name of William Buckland pulled an unusual prank. One night, he took buckets of bat guano and spread it on the Oxford College lawn, spelling out “GUANO” with the material. For those who have never heard of guano, it is the excrement of a bird or bat. You could imagine the shock of Oxford authorities the next day at the sight of poop on their prestigious lawn.

The guano was cleaned up immediately. But after a while, a mysterious phenomenon occurred. Everyone could see “GUANO” clearly spelled out on the lawn in tall, luscious grass, rising above the surrounding grass. Even after it was freshly mowed, the letters kept growing back, thicker and faster than the other grass.

The reasoning behind this is that guano is an excellent fertiliser. Animal excrements have long been used in farming as a fertiliser, as they contain vital nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium that plants need to grow. Bat and bird poop in particular contain large concentrations of these nutrients.

Guano had been used as a fertiliser for over a millenium in the Americas, such as by the Incans. It was known to the West by the 1700’s, but the thought of applying poop to prestigious English gardens did not sit right, therefore it was not widely used for a long time.

But by the 1800’s, many European scientists noted the potent ability of guano in transforming sterile fields into plentiful farmlands in Peru. Demand for guano rose rapidly as people caught on to how guano could drastically improve crop output and food production.

Ramon Castilla, the president of Peru, capitalised on this by exporting large quantities of guano to Europe. Peru had some of the largest deposits of high-quality guano thanks to its native seabird population, with entire mountains and islands of guano being available for mining. The massive spike in guano trade resulted in Peru’s greatest age of prosperity – known as the Guano Era. Peru used this newfound economic boom to abolish slavery, eliminate head taxes on indigeneous populations and started a public education system.

This sounds like a success story, where a developing nation enjoys dramatic growth with improved quality of life for its citizens thanks to good timing and natural resources. However, the guano story has a far darker side.

To have better access to guano deposits, wars were fought and genocide committed. Chile invaded Bolivia to seize control of Guano Islands, while the USA and Britain started colonising and annexing Pacific islands to access guano reserves. Aggressive mining of guano disrupted natural habitats of seabirds and bats, resulting in destruction of entire ecosystems dependent on guano for nutrients. In the late 1800’s, approximately 53 million seabirds lived on the Guano Islands, whereas only 4.2 million lived there by 2011. Many people were forced into slavery or exploited to decrease costs of mining guano, with miners often working in horrific conditions.

Guano dominated global economics and politics of the 19th century, but its reign ended in 1913 when German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch successfully started mass-producing ammonia using a novel chemical process (Haber-Bosch process), fixing nitrogen from the air to cheaply produce nitrogen-based fertiliser. This ended the need for guano as a source of nitrogen, while dramatically improving agriculture and food supplies around the world.

Isn’t it fascinating to see how much impact bird poop has had on world history?

Posted in History & Literature

Bingo Bango Bongo

Spot the odd one out: King Kong, Ding Dong, Chit Chat, Jibber Jabber, Tick Tock, Flip Flop, Zag Zig. The last one is obviously wrong, with the correct version being “Zig Zag”. The astute reader may have noticed a funny rule here: in words that are repeated with only the vowel sounds changed, I comes before A and O.

This peculiar pattern is known as the IAO rule and it is best shown in the example “Tic Tac Toe”. For some strange reason, words just don’t sound right in English when it doesn’t follow the IAO rule. Pong Ping, Hop Hip, Dally Dilly and Clop Clip all just sound weird.

This rule is formally known as ablaut reduplication and it is seen in almost every English-speaking country. The origin of the rule is unclear (likely Germanic), yet it is so prevalent and ingrained into us. Even if you have never heard of “ablaut reduplication”, the words sound very wrong and awkward if said in a different order.

There is another strange rule in English when it comes to ordering words. When it comes to a list of adjectives, such as “Little Red Riding Hood”, not listing the adjectives in a specific order makes it sound strange.

For reference, the order is:

Opinion – size – age – shape – colour – origin – material – purpose, then the noun.

This means that you can say something like “my big fat Greek wedding” or “that lovely large old brown French wooden clock”, but you can’t say “a red big ball” without it sounding off.

One notable exception is “the Big Bad Wolf”, where the opinion comes after the size. But if you look carefully, you can see it follows the IAO rule instead.

The more you learn about it, the more you realise how (sometimes needlessly) complex the English language is.

Posted in History & Literature

Lo Stivale

The Italian peninsula is nicknamed “Lo Stivale” (“the boot”) because of its iconic geography. Every child who has ever seen a world map will know this iconic boot-shaped country.

But hypothetically speaking, if Italy was actually a giant boot, what shoe size would you have to be to fit it?

Shoe sizing varies across the world. In Korea, Japan and Taiwan, the Mondopoint system is used where the foot length is measured in millimetres (the width is also considered).

But if you come from an English-speaking country, there is a good chance you are more familiar with the UK and US number system, typically ranging from 3 to 13.

The UK sizing system uses the length of the last that is used to make the shoe. A last is a model of a foot that can fill the entire cavity of the shoe. Because you typically need 1-1.5cm wiggle room for your toes, the last is bigger than the foot that would eventually wear the shoe. Instead of simply using the length of the last in millimetres, UK shoe sizes use a strange unit called the barleycorn.

The barleycorn originates from the 19th century when an inch was defined as the length of three barley corns (or grains). Hence, a barleycorn is ⅓ inch. For adult shoe sizes, a size 1 is 26 barleycorns, or 8 and 2/3 inches (220mm). For every size you go up, you add one barleycorn. This means a size 11 is 12 inches, while a size 10 is 11 and ⅔ inches.

Essentially, this means that your UK shoe size is:

(3 x heel-toe length of your foot in inches) – 23 (accounting for the toe wiggle room).

It is important to note that every manufacturer takes their own liberty with sizing, so this will often be inconsistent and can vary up to an inch, especially for women’s shoes. The US system starts counting at 1 instead of 0, meaning that you just add 1 to the equivalent UK size.

Now that we know how sizes work, let us size the Italian boot.

By rough estimate, the “sole” of the peninsula is approximately 360km long. This is accounting for the bend in the middle, as the heel height is tall. To use our formula, we must convert this into inches, which equals 14,173,200 inches.

Ergo, the shoe size calculates as follows:

= (3 x 14,173,200) – 23
= 42,519,577

Whether you use the UK or US sizing, the boot is roughly a size 42.5 million. Or, if you live in Korea, the shoe size would be recorded as 360 million. Either way, that is one big shoe to fill.

Posted in History & Literature

Kangaroo Word

An example of a word game is the concept of kangaroo words. Kangaroos are famous for carrying their babies (joeys) in their pouch. Similarly, a kangaroo word contains another word within itself that is a synonym (a word meaning the same thing). The joey word can be whole (such as [sign]al, where “signal” and “sign” are synonyms), or more typically (and interestingly), it can be split, such as in [ma]scu[l]in[e], where “male” is hidden amongst “masculine”. In this case, the word must be in the right order from left-to-right.

Variations of kangaroo words include anti-kangaroo words – where the word carries an antonym (opposite), such as “animosity” carrying “amity”) – or grand-kangaroo words – where the joey word itself is a kangaroo word, such as “alone” carrying “lone”, which carries “one”.

Try the following puzzle – can you find what the joey word is in each of these kangaroo words?

  1. Astound
  2. Banish
  3. Capsule
  4. Departed
  5. Exist
  6. Feast
  7. Gigantic
  8. Honourable
  9. Illuminated
  10. Latest
  11. Myself
  12. Nourished
  13. Observe
  14. Plagiarist
  15. Rampage
  16. Supervisor
Continue reading “Kangaroo Word”
Posted in History & Literature

The Most Kissed Face In The World

In the late 19th century, it was not uncommon to find a corpse who could not be identified. Such was the case for a young woman who was pulled out of the River Seine in Paris, likely a suicide. Her body was labelled ecadavre feminin inconnu (unknown female cadaver) and as was customary at the time, her body was displayed in a chilled room with a glass window at the morgue, in the hopes that some passer-by would recognise her face and identify her.

At some point, a morgue attendant made a death mask of her face – a wax plaster cast that preserves the face of a corpse before it decomposes. The attendant’s motives are unclear: some stories state that he was entranced by her beauty, but it is also possible that he was trying to better preserve the face for identification. Regardless, the mask became copied many times in the following years and became strangely popular in the artistic world.

The face became famous for its eerie smile, which looks enigmatic yet peaceful, even being compared to the smile of the Mona Lisa. The mask – known as L’Inconnue de la Seine (the unknown woman of the Seine) – became a popular, morbid fixture in the rooms of Parisian Bohemians.

In 1955, a Norwegian toymaker named Asmund Laerdal came across a novel material known as PVC, a soft plastic perfectly suitable for dolls. He found it to be a perfect material for the creation of a new training aid for the newly-invented CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) technique to be taught to those learning first aid. He wanted the mannequin to look as natural as possible. This is when Laerdal remembered a fixture on the wall of his grandparents’ house when he was younger: the L’Inconnue de la Seine. He considered the face to be ideal for the purpose of a resuscitation aide, with its peaceful, non-threatening features.

Thus, the Resusci Anne was created. Resusci Anne is by far the most popular CPR teaching tool used worldwide. It is often said that it is “the most kissed face in the world“, as mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is a feature of CPR.

As charming and morbid the story may be, the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine has never been confirmed. It has only been passed on through history via novels, short stories and artists’ accounts. If you look closely at the face, the story seems less likely to be true, as a drowned corpse will often be much more bloated and disfigured from swelling, with a contorted, tortured face as victims frantically thrash and fight as the body screams for oxygen. The general consensus is that from a pathologist’s point of view, the mask is unlikely to be from a drowned young woman

Irregardless of the origin story of its face, the Resusci Anne has indubitably saved the lives of countless people around the world, by teaching people the important skills of CPR and first aid.

Posted in History & Literature

Unspeakable Names

An important part of the Harry Potter story is the infamous villain Voldemort, who is so fearsome that the general populace are too afraid to say his name out loud. Instead, they call him “He who must not be named” or “You-know-who“.

The phenomenon of taboo avoidance of names is fascinating and examples can be found all around the world.
In ancient China and Japan, it was forbidden by law to say the emperor’s name, to the point that the names of some historical figures have been forgotten.
Some Australian Aboriginal cultures do not refer to their dead by name during the mourning period, but instead use titles such as kunmanara, translating to “what’s his name”.
In cultures speaking Highland East Cushitic languages such as some parts of Ethiopia, women practice ballishsha – a system where they avoid pronouncing any words beginning with the same syllable as the name of their mother or father-in-law.

This is called avoidance speech and it is typically used as a sign of respect or fear. For example, there are cases of cultures avoiding saying the name of demons or other evil creatures in fear that calling its name may summon it.

Perhaps the best example of this is the bear.
The old word for bear is arkto (note that Arctic comes from the same Latin roots, as the North is associated with the constellation Ursa Major and Minor – the bear). However, the bear is a fearsome wild beast and it was thought that saying its name would summon it, which would be particularly problematic if you were a hunter.
So instead, they used the word bear, which comes from the Proto-Indo-European word for “the brown one“. This practice became so commonplace that this euphemism became the present formal name for this animal.

Posted in History & Literature


The plural for goose is geese. But the plural for moose is not meese: it is just moose. Why is this the case? This is because English is formed from words of various origins, all following different rules.

Goose is an old word that derives from Old English with Germanic roots. Typically in Old English, words were pluralised (turned into plurals) by a process called mutation, where the vowel sounds are changed to an adjacent sound (e.g. “oo” to “ee”). This explains why goose becomes geese, foot becomes feet and tooth becomes teeth.

However, the word moose traces its roots back to a Northeastern Algonquian language – a subfamily of Native American languages. This means that it does not follow the Old English rules of mutation. Furthermore, because Algonquian languages do not pluralise, the plural for moose is just “moose”.

Posted in History & Literature

The Egg

Short story written by Andy Weir

You were on your way home when you died.
It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”
“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.
“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”
“Yup,” I said.
“I… I died?”
“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”
“More or less,” I said.
“Are you god?” You asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”
“My kids… my wife,” you said.
“What about them?”
“Will they be all right?”
“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”
“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”
“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”
“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”
“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”
“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”
“Oh lots. Lots and lots. And in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”
“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”
“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”
“Where you come from?” You said.
“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”
“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”
“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.
I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”
“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”
“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”
“Just me? What about everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”
“All you. Different incarnations of you.”
“Wait. I’m everyone!?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.
“I’m every human being who ever lived?”
“Or who will ever live, yes.”
“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”
“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.
“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.
“And you’re the millions he killed.”
“I’m Jesus?”
“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.
“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.
“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”
“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”
“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”
“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”
“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

Posted in History & Literature

Permanent Record

The recording of language was a key development in history that allowed civilisations to flourish. Through recording, we could pass on knowledge and wisdom much more efficiently and securely from generation to generation, unlike oral history which can change over time or be lost when a mass casualty event occurs.

The oldest piece of written history comes from Sumeria over 5,000 years ago, but one could argue that cave paintings such as those found in Lascaux Cave extend that history to more than 17,000 years. Archaeologists have used written records from ancient times to help determine what life was like during those times, and what important events occurred throughout history.

Fast forwarding to now, we live in an information era where there has been a massive explosion of the amount of information produced and recorded, thanks to the development of science and technology. One such development is digital media, which allow us to store a staggering amount of data in small hard disk drives. For example, the entirety of Wikipedia (February 2013 estimate) could just fit into a 10 terabyte HDD. If an archaeologist from the future was to access an archive of the internet from now, they could gain so much insight into our history, knowledge and what day to day life.

Nowadays, most of us store our data digitally, including important documents, precious photos and our entertainment such as music and videos. But unfortunately, as efficient digital storage may be, it is far from permanent.

Digital data comes with the downside that it needs continuous backing up, as data can corrupt and the storage medium can fail. A typical hard disk has a life expectancy of around 5 years, after which the drive will start failing. Servers that manage the cloud need constant maintenance.

If humanity were to suddenly disappear, our troves of digital data would be wiped out within less than a 100 years, like dust in the wind. Even if we took great care to maintain our library of data, a single solar storm could create enough electromagnetic interference to wipe every drive clean.

Contrast this to a book, which can stand the test of time up to many millennia as long as it is preserved well. As novelist Umberto Eco put it:

“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

It is a perfect invention.