Posted in Science & Nature

Death Pose

When a dinosaur fossil is excavated, it is not uncommon to find the dinosaur in what is known as the death pose. The long neck is bent dramatically backwards and the mouth is gaping open, as if the dinosaur is letting out one final bellow.

For a long time, palaeontologists believed that dinosaurs found in this pose had remarkable neck flexibility. For example, the Elasmosaurus was originally thought to have a snake-like neck that could bend and curl around, even being able to lift its head above the water, as seen with the image of the Loch Ness Monster. However, in reality, the neck would have been too stiff and heavy to move around like that, meaning that Elasmosaurus would have swam around with a straight neck, barely lifting its head above water.

It is still unclear exactly why dinosaurs are often found in the death pose.
Traditionally, it was believed that the strong ligaments holding the neck bones (vertebrae) contracted as they dried out, bending the neck backwards where there are more ligaments.
Others refute this theory, instead suggesting that the dinosaur remains would be rearranged by water currents, or that the carcass would naturally bend backwards when floating in water.
Finally, another group of scientists believe that the pose happens in the final moments of the dinosaur’s death throes, suggesting that they experience opisthotonus (arching of the back muscles, as seen in tetanus) either due to lack of oxygen in the brain, or poisoning.

It is fascinating to think that although these dinosaurs have been dead for 66 million years, we still have so much to learn from them.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Heartbeat Hypothesis

When you compare the lifespans of mammals, it is common to see that larger animals live longer than smaller animals. Another observation is that smaller mammals almost always have a much higher basal heart rate. For example, a mouse has a basal heart rate of about 600 beats per minute (bpm), but only lives 3 years on average. An elephant has a basal heart rate of 30bpm, but lives up to 60 years. If you do the maths, it turns out that the total heartbeats per lifespan is surprisingly similar between the two species (0.94 billion beats). It has been noted that amongst mammals, there is a clear inverse correlation between heart rate and lifespan.

This observation led to the popularisation of a factoid that the heart can only beat a limited number of time before it eventually fails.

Unfortunately, there has been very limited evidence to support this theory. It is medically true that a heart under more strain for a long period of time, such as with high blood pressure, has a tendency to develop more diseases such as cardiomyopathy and heart failure. However, there are too many other variables to consider. For example, exercise temporarily raises your heart rate but improves your overall cardiovascular health and lowers your basal heart rate.

It is much more likely that death from aging is related to the basal metabolic rate. Metabolism produces free radicals, which are elements with free electrons that can damage cells. Therefore, the higher the metabolic rate (such as in mice), the faster the damage accumulates and results in death.

That being said, consider the other implication of the so-called heartbeat hypothesis. Our hearts beat faster in response to many stimuli: exercise, excitement, fear, anxiety, fun and love. If the hypothesis is true, that would mean that intense emotions could make our hearts tire out faster and hasten our inevitable demise.

Could falling in love be detrimental to our physical health? Thankfully, this has never been shown to be true, with many studies showing that happily married couples tend to outlive single people.

Even if it were true, would you give up on the idea of love to live a few more years? What kind of life would be worth living without any highs or lows? Perhaps when we fall in love, experience heartache or become overwhelmed with happiness, we are making the voluntary choice of quality, not quantity, of life.

Posted in Science & Nature

Head Bobbing

If you take the time to look at how most birds walk, such as a chicken or a pigeon, you will notice that they bob their heads. This seems extremely impractical as if we bobbed our heads like that, we would likely become dizzy and vomit quite soon. So why do birds do it and why does it not make them dizzy?

A major difference between birds and human beings is the way our vision works. In humans, our eyes are constantly moving at a rapid rate (saccade) to collate information and stabilise images. Even when we are walking and our head is moving around, our eyes use various sensory information and reflexes to fix our vision at one point, giving us a clear picture. This is such a powerful reflex that one test to check a person’s brainstem function (for example, when they are in a coma) is to move the head and see if the eyes stay fixed on a point or if they follow the head (doll’s eye test). If the brainstem is intact, the eyes will keep looking at a fixed point despite head movement.


Birds on the other hand, cannot fix their vision this way. Instead what they do is they keep their head absolutely still in three-dimensional space when their body is moving. If you hold a chicken in the air and move the body around, you will find that the head stays stationary. This means that when they are walking, the bird’s head will stay still while the body takes a step forwards, then it will move to catch up to the body. From a third person’s point of view, this makes it look like they are bobbing their head, although they are just keeping it very still. In 1978, Dr Barrie J. Frost did an experiment where he put pigeons on a treadmill surrounded by a still backdrop and found that the pigeons did not bob their heads because there was nothing to see.


Posted in Science & Nature

Shared Bodily Warmth

Body heat is a vital condition that animals need to survive. It is so vital that when you are hypothermic, your body will override almost everything else to conserve heat as much as possible. Without enough heat, the chemical reactions that fuel your cells will grind to a halt and you will die. To solve the issue of getting heat, nature came up with two answers: endotherms and ectotherms.
Endotherms are organisms that produce their own heat (e.g. mammals) by trapping the heat produced by metabolism and through extra mechanisms such as shivering. Ectotherms rely on absorbing environmental heat (e.g. reptiles), usually through the sun. Because of this, ectotherms suffer a much greater range in body temperature. This means that animals such as lizards will be slower and more sluggish when it is cold.

Being in a cold environment quickens the process of heat loss, robbing you of the precious heat you generate. A solution to this is shared bodily warmth. Also known as kleptothermy, this is a common thermoregulation strategy where a group of animals huddle together to share the heat generated by each other. This increases the efficiency of heat generation (thermogenesis) and the group as a whole can stay warmer for longer. This behaviour is commonly seen in communal animals such as mice, who huddle together even when they are newborns (newborns lose heat much quicker than adults due to the difference in weight to surface area ratio). Some ectotherms such as snakes and lizards also engage in kleptothermy, where by huddling together they increase their effective mass and reduce heat loss.

An interesting case of kleptothermy is seen in Canadian red-sided garter snakes, where the heat is not shared, but stolen. A male snake will sometimes emerge from hibernation and begin to produce fake pheromones to attract other males as if it were a female. Other males are fooled into thinking that the snake is female and approach it to mate. Through this strange process, the snake is able to steal the heat from its rival males and use the extra energy to mate with an actual female (or lose it to an even more cunning male snake).

Posted in Science & Nature

Four Fs

Biologists state that the driving force behind evolution can simply be summarised as four forces: fight, flight, feed and mate (“fuck”). These are known as the Four Fs. Evolution is described as the process by which species adapt to an environment through modifications in the genomes of successive generations. The Four Fs describe the adaptations most commonly seen in evolution; that is, the four things that species evolve in order to better adapt and survive their environment. For example, carnivores developed sharp teeth and claws to hunt better and herbivores developed faster legs to flee from their predators better. Nature is a vicious battleground where different species compete with each other for survival, and the Four Fs are the most powerful weapons of survival.

As much as we’d like to think that we are higher-order, civilised beings, human beings are still driven by the basic four forces that drive every other species in the world. Obviously, our bodies are well-adapted to these forces, such as our fight-or-flight drive activating in the face of danger to let us fight harder or run faster through adrenaline. Anyone can see that nature has done her job well by bestowing us the gift of satiety and orgasm to promote our feeding and mating. But what is interesting that the Four Fs go beyond our “natural evolution” to affect the evolution of our civilisation.

Consider this: what is the purpose of war? Since the dawn of time, mankind has spent a considerable amount of resources figuring how to most efficiently kill another group of people, or live in fear that other people will kill us. If we study the behaviour of chimpanzees (one of the few species other than us that wage warfare), we can see that their motivation is for food and sex (i.e. mating partners). This also applies to mankind and it is not a story of ancient times. It is well-known that raping and pillaging runs rampant during wars. Less than 800 years ago, a man named Genghis Khan was so successful in waging war that DNA evidence suggests that 0.5% of the world population are descended from him. Even in the present, countries wage war to secure natural resources to ensure that their people can eat, as the health of the economy directly correlates with the ability of people to put food on their plates. Almost every war essentially boils down to a fight for food.

Then what about sex? Like it or not, sex has been a tremendously influential force in history. From Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar preventing Rome’s invasion of Egypt, to Henry VIII turning against the Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn, sex has been a timeless motivator for humanity. Although the consequences would not be as dramatic as those described, a significant proportion of our actions are also based on our primal desire to reproduce.

Of course, this is not always the truth and human beings are capable of acting on less wild motivators such as happiness and altruism. However, the next time you make a decision or see a conflict on the news, question this: how much of an impact did food and sex have to motivate that?

Posted in Science & Nature

Imaginal Cells

How does a caterpillar become a butterfly? Every child and adult knows that they undergo a process of metamorphosis while in a chrysalis. But few know that the caterpillar has to dissolve all of its internal organs to form a pool of raw materials that it will use to build itself into a new butterfly. Although from the outside we only see a beautiful shell that appears to be just sitting there, in reality the caterpillar is undergoing a change so profound that it completely rebuilds its foundation.

What is interesting about the metamorphosis process is that it is not as simple as breaking down a caterpillar and rebuilding the pieces into a butterfly like one would do with Lego blocks. Once the puddle of cells is formed within the chrysalis, a new type of cells called imaginal cells appear. We do not know where they come from, but they just appear at a certain time. These cells are completely different from the original caterpillar cells – so different that the original cells begin attacking it as if it was a virus. However, even with all this cellular genocide, more and more imaginal cells pop up, until eventually the original cells cannot keep up. The imaginal cells start to cluster together, multiplying at an exponential rate. These clusters then grow and differentiate to form the parts of the new butterfly, such as wings and antennas. The original caterpillar cells slowly wither away as they are overrun by the new, fresh imaginal cells. The caterpillar becomes a butterfly.

Human beings, in general, are not good with change. We as a society fear something that would completely shift our paradigms and proceed to attack it viciously. Throughout history, ideas that would shake the foundations of society were often challenged and oppressed: the concept that the Earth is round, that the Earth revolves around the Sun or that we are the product of millions of years of evolution. These “imaginal cells” of society such as Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei were faced with criticism, mocking and even punishment by those who could not accept the fact that what we know can be wrong. However, their ideas spread among like-minded people, until the number of people who believed in these new ideas greatly outweighed the people who did not. This is how society evolves and metamorphosed over time.

Change is difficult and scary, whether you are on the receiving end or on the side trying to change the world. Being the first imaginal cells of society is a painful road one to travel, but the effects of your actions can cause ripples throughout society to change the world for the better. Or perhaps you are experiencing change at a more personal scale, with your traditional way of life being threatened by some new force. But no matter what the change is – for better or for worse – you will adapt and society will adapt. Great ideas persevere and change for the better is inevitable.

There is no reason to be afraid, for everything is and will be okay.

Posted in Philosophy

Ship Of Theseus

An ancient Greek philosopher named Plutarch pondered this scenario. Imagine that the Greek hero Theseus was to repair his ship after a long journey by replacing broken parts with new timber. If he was to embark on so many journeys and repair his ship so much that all of the original material that made the ship were replaced, is that ship still the same ship of Theseus?

This is an interesting philosophical question where some may argue that the ship is still, by definition, the “ship of Theseus” while some may argue that it is no longer the same ship Theseus once owned, but merely a replacement.

Although it is hard to grasp the significance of this question when using an analogy of ancient Greek heroes and ships, it comes closer to home in the field of biology. It is a known fact that the human body is under constant change; cells divide to produce a new lineage of fresh cells while shedding away old, dead cells. Different cells turnover at different rates; skin is almost completely replaced every 4~6 weeks, the lining of the gut is turned over every 4~6 days, while brain cells are almost never replaced (but contrary to popular belief, they can regenerate). If this is the case, are you the same “you” as you were a year ago when the majority of your skin and gut cells were technically “different” (but genetically identical) cells to what they are now? Or are you simply a replacement shell for your brain?

A simpler way of thinking about this would be to consider the case of clones: are clones the “same” as their originals?

The paradox of the ship of Theseus can be extended into a larger scale. Consider a large city like New York. If we were to assume that all of the inhabitants of a city are replaced over a hundred years, then is that city still “New York”? Not only would it looks different because of its new buildings and whatnot, but the people that make up the culture and substance of the city would be completely changed. However, New York is still called “New York” just as it was in the early 1900’s. So is the modern day New York still New York or New New York?


Posted in Life & Happiness

One Hundred Eggs

How many eggs can you eat in one sitting? Three? Half a dozen? No matter how big or hungry you may be, eating a hundred eggs is just unthinkable. Whether you fry it, boil it, scramble it or straight out drink it, “one hundred’ is simply too much. Too difficult to imagine how much one hundred eggs would be? A hundred eggs weigh about 4~5kg. Considering a steak is usually 200~400g, this is an incredible amount. The nutritional values cannot be ignored either. A hundred eggs contain about 32350kJ of energy (7750 calories), 56g of carbohydrates, 530g of fat and 630g of protein. It is an astonishing amount of food. How could anyone eat such a massive amount in one sitting?

Surprisingly, even a petite, slim girl can eat a hundred eggs. The secret lies in how the eggs are cooked. The best thing about eggs is that they can be cooked in various ways, such as fried eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs and boiled eggs. The following is a fascinating way of cooking eggs to maximise the amount of eggs you can eat in one sitting. The secret method is noodles.

This is not the same as standard “egg noodles” that merely contain eggs. This is noodles only made of eggs. As strange as it sounds, once you learn the recipe and some simple scientific facts, it all becomes very clear.

Firstly, take a hundred eggs, crack them into a very large bowl and whisk thoroughly. This may be difficult due to the sheer amount of eggs as mentioned above. Next, take a cupful of the whisked eggs and strain it through a sieve straight into boiling water. The egg instantly solidifies into thin, long noodle-shapes. The reason you strain it is to make the texture smoother. Repeat this method until all of the eggs are used up and then cook the noodles in whatever way you fancy.

How does turning eggs into noodles let you eat more of it? The reason being, two-thirds of an egg is just water. Most lifeforms contain a large proportion of water. For example, about two-thirds of your weight is water too. By dripping the whisked egg in the boiling water, the water disperses out while the proteins and fat solidify to form noodles. Ergo, the nutritional components of the eggs are preserved but the filling portion is thrown away. Any other way of cooking eggs causes the water to be trapped in the final product.

Of course, this is an extremely wasteful way of eating eggs, but it can be of some benefit for a person seeking a high-protein diet to bulk their muscles.


Posted in Psychology & Medicine


In 1972, John B. Calhoun designed a very specific mice cage called Universe 25, also known as the Mortality-Inhibiting Environment for Mice. Universe 25 was designed as a practical utopia for mice. It was constantly replenished with food and water, each wall had an intricate grid of nesting boxes connected by mesh tunnels and stairwells (like an apartment) and the cage was cleaned periodically. There were no predators, the temperature was set at a comfortable level and all mice resident were disease-free. In all ways, Universe 25 was an idyllic home for the mice.

Calhoun’s aim of this experiment was the same as the countless experiments before Universe 25: to see the effects of abundance on a population, and the consequences of that. Biologically speaking, a population only grows to the point that the environment can sustain it and then plateaus. So if the environment is completely abundant, the population will grow and grow without limitations (other than space). Thus, Calhoun’s main focus was overpopulation in societies. What did he find?

At the start of the experiment, four breeding pairs of mice were introduced to Universe 25. They began reproducing after 104 days of familiarisation and the population increased exponentially. The mice flourished in the prosperous environment. Around day 315, population growth slowed. By this stage, the mice population had grown to over 600, which made Universe 25 very crowded. Although there were still plenty of resources, the problem of overpopulation still remained. As the population grew and space became limited, male mice found it too difficult to defend their territory and eventually gave up doing so. The mice began losing their ability to form social bonds and these mice (“failures”) began congregating at the centre of the cage. This group of mice gave up on all normal social behaviour, leading to constant violence. The violence soon spread throughout the cage, with the mice society descending into chaos. The females, stressed and confused by the violence, attacked and cannibalised their own young, after which they retreated to the highest nest boxes where they isolated themselves. Certain males (termed “the beautiful ones” by Calhoun) did not show violence or any interest in females, choosing only to eat, sleep and groom themselves, wrapped in narcissistic introspection. Because of these two isolated groups, procreation slumped and population growth slowed. Elsewhere, in the “inner city” group at the middle of the cage, cannibalism, pansexualism and violence became common. The entire society had collapsed.

On day 560, the population ceased to grow at a peak population of 2200. After this, the number of pregnancies dwindled to nothing and no young survived past infancy. Adult mice were also affected, with mortality rates skyrocketing at all ages and increased rates of diseases. It was clear that the population was headed towards extinction. Even after the population dwindled down to a much more sustainable number, the mice were incapable of (or chose not to) reproducing to regenerate the population. Not only did mice society die, but the mice themselves met a grim fate as well.

This result was repeated in all of Calhoun’s experiments, conclusively showing that overpopulation leads to the demise of a society. Calhoun described this as “crowding into the behavioural sink”. He explained that the mice served as a warning to what human societies are headed towards if we do not solve the problem of overpopulation. We can already see the effect overpopulation has on societies. It is a known fact that people living in the inner areas of a city are more prone to poverty, crime, violence and a lower quality of life. However, Calhoun was not a nihilist. Instead of saying “humanity is doomed”, he explored different ways of resolving the problem. The most effective idea he came up with was space colonisation.

Posted in Science & Nature

Red Queen’s Hypothesis

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, there is a scene where the Red Queen says to Alice: “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. Essentially, it means to spend all the effort you can just to keep the status quo. In life, there are so many times when it seems like you’re frantically running just to realise that no progress has been made. Interestingly, the same rule is seen in biology and evolution.

The simple rule of natural selection is that the best adapted species wins. Unfortunately, this means that no matter how well you are doing in the environment, as soon as another species becomes better adapted to a new change, you become the lesser species and eventually destroyed. To prevent this, a species must continuously evolve and adapt just to stay in the same position. Nature despises stagnancy and loves progress. For example, a predator always strives to evolve to better catch the prey while the prey evolves to avoid the predator. This cat-and-mouse arms race allows for continuous evolution and ever-improving fitness. This is the Red Queen’s Hypothesis.

A fascinating extension of the hypothesis is that it may be a cause for having sex. Sex is one of the most intuitive inventions of Mother Nature that allows for massive genetic variation. The Red Queen Hypothesis has been used to suggest that this may have evolved to speed up the process of evolution so that hosts could beat parasites in the ongoing arms race. The greatest act of love may simply be a mechanism for us to stay competent in this ever-changing world.