Posted in Life & Happiness

Shoot For The Moon

A common saying goes:

“Shoot for the moon: even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”.

The saying was coined by author Normal Vincent Peale, who was a minister famous for his books and work on the power of positive thinking. He was also widely criticised by many psychologists and mental health experts, who noted that his style of positive psychology was not founded in evidence and realism, but in naive optimism.

The saying sounds lovely at first, because it seems to be a beautiful metaphor for trying your best at everything. It says that whatever happens, you will land on another beautiful opportunity and good things will happen.

But of course, life does not work that way. As important as it is to make an effort to try and take action, you will not always be positively rewarded for it.

As it is with everything, science can help us break down the flaws with the philosophy of this saying.

Firstly, the Moon is 384,400km away from Earth. It took brilliant scientists and mathematicians with a significant amount of NASA budget 6 years on the Apollo program to put astronauts on the Moon.

Dreams are certainly achievable, but we cannot ignore that sometimes we have to pour in much time, resources and energy to achieve them. When we look upon someone’s success, it is important to consider how much effort they may have put in. Furthermore, it is paramount that we be realistic with our goals and dreams, in that we need to be patient and accept that it could take a series of failures, sacrifices and heartbreak for us to land on the Moon.

Secondly, space is unimaginably massive. If you shoot for the moon and you miss, there is a very high chance that you will float along the lonely, vast emptiness of space for the rest of eternity in a vacuum before you hit anything else (realistically, you will die of suffocation, thirst, starvation or being frozen first). The nearest star to us is the Sun, 150 million kilometres away. The second closest star – Proxima Centauri – is about 4.24 light years away. This means that even if you travelled at the speed of light, it would take 4.24 years, covering a distance of 40 trillion kilometres.

This fact teaches us that we have to be prepared for the fact that when we chase our dreams, there is a chance of things catastrophically failing. That is just life.

Lastly, even if by some miracle you survived the journey and landed among the stars, it would not be what we expect. As romantic as it sounds to land and live on a star like the Little Prince, in reality, stars look much like the Sun – a gigantic, glowing ball of fire. You will be incinerated even before you land on it.

And there is our final lesson from this saying: even if you achieve your goals, the end result may be completely different to what you expected. You may not even be happy with the outcome. So avoid pinning all of your hopes and happiness on achieving a single dream. Make sure to diversify your goals and identity.

As factually wrong as the saying may be, we can still learn valuable lessons from it, albeit completely the opposite message. But perhaps this is the more important truth in life: sometimes, we fail to achieve our dreams.

That said, we must continue to try for our goals and dreams, just with realistic expectations of how life can go. Had NASA given up after the tragic fiery accident of Apollo 1, we may have never been able to experience the glorious moment of humanity setting foot on another celestial body.

Shoot for the moon, but maybe have a backup plan. And if you fail, don’t lose heart and give up, but instead try again and try new, different things constantly.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Shooting Star

When an object from outer space enters the Earth’s atmosphere, it starts to burn up and creates a brilliant streak in the sky, which we call a meteor or shooting star. Contrary to popular belief, this is not due to friction with the air in the atmosphere.

An object entering the atmosphere is typically travelling at extraordinary speeds. Most meteors are travelling around 20km/s (or 72000km/h) when they hit the atmosphere. At these speeds, air molecules do not have a chance to move out of the way. The meteor will instead collide into the air molecules, pushing them closer and closer to each other, compressing the air in front of it.

As we know from physics class, compression increases temperature in gases as per the ideal gas law (PV=nRT). The impressive entry speed of these meteors result in so much air compression that their surface can heat up to 1650 degrees Celsius.

The heat boils and breaks apart the contents of the meteor, turning it into superheated plasma that gives off a glow. This is the streak of light that we see in the night sky when we wish upon a shooting star.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Constellation

To our ancestors, the night sky was not only useful for navigation and telling the seasons, but also for entertainment. Using the mind’s eye, they connected the dots to form a skeleton of a picture – a constellation.

Constellations became the basis of numerous tales and legends. The ancient Greeks told stories of mighty hunters fleeing from scorpions, of fair maidens chased by satyrs, and of noble animals who helped a hero in their quest. In the Far East, they tell a story of lovers who are punished by being placed on separate stars, only being allowed to meet once a year. Similar stories based on constellations can be found in almost every culture around the world.

Constellations are fascinating as they just look like a collection of bright dots to us, but in reality, they represent a spread of stars throughout the cosmos, unimaginably far from us and each other. Even though the stars may appear to be right next to each other, one star may be thousands or millions of light-years further from us than the other.

This is because a constellation is a two-dimensional picture representing three-dimensional space, meaning that depth is ignored. Because of the great distance, entire worlds appear to be simple points, while the vast emptiness of space flatten out to short gaps.

Mythologies and stories based on constellations teach us many pearls of wisdom, but perhaps this is the most valuable lesson the constellations have to teach us. When we look at something from a distance, we lose the fine details. Even the awe-inspiring beauty and size of the cosmos can be reduced down to a simple line drawing in the sky.

The same principle applies to people.
When we judge a person, we reduce a complex life full of stories, experiences, thoughts, feelings and circumstances down to a single stereotype, letting us objectify, criticise, belittle and dismiss people easily.
When we comment on a historical event, we focus only on big events and try to simplify the narrative to a few cause-and-effect stories, while conveniently forgetting the individual lives affected or the broader context that led up to that point.
When something bad happens in the world, we try to find meaning or something to blame, instead of trying to understand the numerous variables that factor into the situation.

Constellations are beautiful, but they don’t tell the full picture. If we want to truly understand the world we live in and the people we share that world with, we have to learn to consider the details and look at things from different points of view.

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Posted in History & Literature

2012

One of the things that mankind has been fascinated with throughout history is the concept of an apocalypse or doomsday. Just in the last decade, there have been no less than fifty claims that the world would end on a certain day. The most famous of these include Nostradamus’ prediction that the world would end on July 1999, the Y2K problem that suggested that the year 2000 would cause all computers to malfunction, and many claims that a certain date would be the Rapture – the second coming of Christ and the end of the world. The latest of these doomsday predictions is the one regarding the Mayan calendar. There are claims that on the 21st of December, 2012, the Mayan calendar finishes its 5125-year cycle, leading to a cataclysmic event that will destroy the universe. But of course as usual, this theory is complete and utter nonsense.

Firstly, there are no records that the Mayans predicted that the world would be doomed when the cycle would finish. It is true that December 2012 marks the end of a b’ak’tun – a time period in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar equating to about 394 years, much like how we measure 1000 years by 1 millennium. Essentially, it is like a “turn of the century” for the Mayans. Pretty much the entire concept of the Mayan calendar ending bringing doom to us all was fabricated by some shoddy academics and New Age believers.

Secondly, every theory about how the world might end in such a scenario has been disproven. Some of the most popular “theories” were: the collision of a Planet X or “Nibiru” with Earth, geomagnetic reversal and galactic alignments. However, to this date (20th December, 2012), there are no large rocks or planets hurtling directly towards Earth (would have been noticed by thousands of astronomers worldwide months prior), the magnetic poles are stable (even if they switched it would not cause much harm) and there are no alignments between planets, moons or stars scheduled at the time.

No matter how crazy the theories and predictions are, there will always be people claiming that the world will end soon, and that we should repent our sins or something like that. Even better, there will be a significant amount of people who believe it or at least worry enough about it to affect their lives somehow.

Perhaps the most fitting quote for this phenomenon is something that Martin Luther wrote in his diary at a young age: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree”. Whether the world is ending or not, live your life to the fullest, seizing every day and making the most of your chances.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Time Perception

What exactly is the present? The present is the middle point between the past and future, the world that we experience and perceive on a real-time basis. But would you believe it if the world you perceive is not the true “present”? To experience the world, we use our five senses. The brain collates all these sensory information and processes it to construct “the present”. This process takes about 80 milliseconds. Ergo, the world we experience is actually the world as it was 80 milliseconds ago. For a similar phenomenon, consider the stars. The stars we observe are not what they look like now, but what the stars looked liked when they emitted the light that we see. Thus, the star you are looking at may not even exist anymore.

But 80 milliseconds is a very short time; surely it has no impact on our everyday life? To prove that this delay has a critical impact on our understanding of cause and effect, neuroscientists designed the following experiment. The researchers would ask the participant to press a button that caused a light to blink after a short delay. After about ten tries, the participants reported that the delay had disappeared and the light flashed immediately after they pressed the button. This was due to their brain editing out the time delay and directly connecting the cause (button) and the effect (flash). But a much more peculiar phenomenon was seen when the researches removed the delay between the button press and the flash. Participants reported that they saw the light flash before they even pressed the button. The participant’s brain had become so used to the editing process that it was confusing the order of the cause and the effect.

The brain’s time-editing ability can be seen in the following simple experiment. If you touch your nose and toe at the same time, logic dictates that as the toe is further from your brain, the signal will have to travel further and it will be felt later. But in reality, you feel both at the exact same time. This is because your brain uses a map of the body to edit the relative time the signal takes to reach the brain to better construct a “real-time present”.

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Posted in History & Literature

Moon

As most people know, the Moon is Earth’s only satellite (or “moon”), and it circles the Earth from a distance of 360000km. This giant rock was most likely formed from a gargantuan heavenly body colliding into the young Earth, displacing material from it. 
The Moon also has oceans, but they are flat, barren rockbeds. As it has a geography, we see a pattern on the lunar surface, which people interpret as the Moon rabbit, Man on the Moon, crab, beautiful woman and whatever else they see through the power of pareidolia.

The Moon, which forms the basis of yin and yang with the Sun, has had a significant impact in every civilisation. In the East, the lunar calendar is still used and many festivals are set to it (such as the Lantern Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival). In the West, the Moon has been associated with lunacy, so called the “lunar effect”. Some people (including Aristotle) believe that people act more crazy and criminal when a full moon is up (werewolves and the Cheshire Cat’s “crescent moon” grin are also linked to this symbolism).

As such, the Moon has always been an important part of human societies. Without it, there would be no tides, the lunar calendar would be useless, the night sky would be darker, werewolves would not terrorise the forests, and most importantly, Sailor Moon would not be able to stop criminals in the name of justice.

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