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 Science & Nature


In the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the protagonist is found trying out various porridges, chairs and beds until she finds the one that is just right for her. Because of this, the name “Goldilocks” has become a symbol for something that is “just right”. A Goldilocks economy is one where there is high growth but no inflation; a Goldilocks planet is one which is not too hot or too cold, making it an ideal planet for life; the Goldilocks effect is when success is achieved because something was not too great or too little.

The Goldilocks effect is a law of nature that is far more important than you would think. Nature always seeks consistency, as shown in the human body. For something as complex as life to exist, a cell must maintain its internal environment in a perfect, ideal state. French physiologist Claude Bernard observed that a cell’s internal environment does not change even with changes in the external environment, and commented that “The stability of the internal environment is the condition for the free and independent life”. This is the basis for homeostasis. Without homeostasis, life cannot exist and all living things put in all their effort in keeping homeostasis. Our body constantly strives to keep various factors such as pulse, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, temperature, blood glucose, electrolytes and numerous hormones etcetera in a stable range. One could possibly argue that the meaning of life is “to maintain homeostasis” – a rather cyclical argument.

To understand the importance of homeostasis, let us look at how changes in the external environment affect us. Our core temperature is maintained in a tight range around 36.5 degrees. If it is altered even a couple of degrees, we exhibit symptoms of hypothermia or hyperthermia. If the weather is too hot, we sweat to cool ourselves; if the weather is too cold, we shiver to raise our temperature. After a meal, we secrete insulin to lower our blood glucose, while we secrete glucagon when starving to raise our blood glucose. Failure of either system leads to either diabetes or hypoglycaemic shock respectively. Homeostasis is an extremely complicated and intricate self-repair system that cannot be imitated.

The Goldilocks effect can be applied beyond physiology to our lives. Everything in moderation; to go beyond is as wrong as to fall short. If we have too little money, it is a problem. If we have too much money, it causes other problems. Whether we work or play, doing too much or too little of either can be bad for us. Medicines become poison in excess and even love in excess becomes obsession. In the marathon that is life, if you run too fast you end up collapsing from exhaustion, while running too slow will mean you never get anywhere.

The secret to happiness lies in understanding what is “just right”.

Posted in History & Literature

Teddy Bear

In 1902, former United States president Theodore Roosevelt went on a bear-hunting trip to Mississippi. Although his competitors had already killed a beast, Roosevelt remained unsuccessful. To help their dear president, some of his men hunted down a black bear, captured it and tied it to a tree so that Roosevelt could come and shoot it. However, he declared such an act unsportsmanlike and refused to shoot the animal (but he did order it to be killed to be put out of its misery).

A pair of New York toymakers by the names of Morris and Rose Michtom had a brilliant idea of exploiting this story and created a stuffed bear, nicknaming it a “Teddy” bear in honour of Theodore Roosevelt. At the same time, a German toymaking company called Steiff also began making teddy bears and exported them to America. Both are considered the original teddy bears.

Today the teddy bear is one of the most popular, classic toys for children, offering them a soft, fluffy object to hug and love (often growing attached to it). It also created a new image of cuteness, as evidenced by characters such as Winnie the Pooh, to an otherwise ferocious beast that is capable of mauling a person to death within minutes.

Posted in Science & Nature

Water Bear

A water bear, also called a tardigrade, is actually an insect and not a bear. The nickname is due to its slow, bear-like gait. It ranges in size from 0.1 to 1.5mm and resembles a short caterpillar with eight legs.
The reason for the water bear’s fame is its amazing survivability. In short, a water bear can live anywhere.

Water bears are capable of cryptobiosis. This can be seen as an extension of hibernation and it is an organism’s ability to lower its metabolism to near-death rates in order to survive a harsh environment. In this state, a water bear can survive for indefinite amounts of time.

Why is cryptobiosis useful? The answer can be found from the water bear’s natural habitats. The water bear is found on the highest point of the Himalayas, the deepest oceans, hot springs and virtually any location from the North Pole to the South Pole. It can survive temperatures from 151°C to minus 273°C, the intense pressures in deep seas and even vacuum states.
Furthermore, water bears can survive in space. A recent experiment by NASA on the International Space Station found that not only can they live in space, but they also mated and laid eggs that later hatched. They can even survive heavy doses of radiation and toxic chemicals.

Ergo, if a cockroach can survive a nuclear war, water bears can survive even if the Earth was split in two. If we took a leaf out of the water bear’s book and lead a slower life, could we live a longer and happier life?