Posted in Science & Nature


Next to the discovery of fire and the wheel, the discovery of metals and the mastery of metalworking was arguably one of the most important advances for prehistoric humanity. Metal was far superior to rock, clay, wood or any other natural resource known to man in terms of strength and sharpness. Because of these properties, metal soon became a valuable commodity. It can be seen how much impact metal had on humanity’s history, considering that the stages of human prehistory were named after the type of metal (or lack thereof) that was mastered then: Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.

The discovery of metal came in two ways.

One was through mining, where prehistoric people discovered that shiny, hard objects were buried in the ground. They later discovered that with enough heat, they could melt the metal out of ores (copper and tin were the first metals to be gathered this way) and mould them into any shape. After smelting technologies developed, our ancestors found that mixing copper and tin produced bronze – a much stiffer and more durable metal than either of its components. A mixture of metals is called an alloy. This was the start of the Bronze Age. Bronze was extremely useful and people quickly came up with innovative ways of using it, such as farming equipment and weapons.

Some other metals used during this age were: gold, silver, lead and mercury. It is likely that gold was one of the earliest metals used as it comes in pure nuggets and is easily workable thanks to its chemistry. However, given that gold is rather soft and was treated more as jewellery than a practical metal, it was not used as much to advance technology.

The second way mankind came upon metals was in the form of “gifts from the gods”. A prime example is iron. Although the Iron Age began around 1200BC at the earliest, there are iron objects (mainly jewelleries) that have been dated back to 5000BC. How could this be? This was before mankind had the technology to smelt iron ores (which is more difficult and needs much higher temperatures than copper or tin ores), so the iron could not have been gathered through mining. The answer to this conundrum lies in meteorites. About 6% of meteorites contain iron and nickel, which prehistoric civilisations may have stumbled onto and taken the shiny pieces back to their tribe. The people would have considered the gathered iron a “gift from the gods”, as it had crashed down from the “heavens”. Because of this reason, iron was considered more valuable than gold or silver and was frequently used for jewellery. This is reflected in Arthur C. Clarke’s science fiction short story, The Songs of Distant Earth, where sentient sea scorpions hoard metal objects stolen from the humans and wear it proudly as a badge of honour.

The history of iron and how it was believed to be a gift from the heavens relates to a common superstition of how finding a penny (or any coin) represents good luck. As “metal” (mainly iron) was considered a holy gift bestowed unto mankind, finding a piece of metal was believed to be a blessing and some form of protection against evil. This is also represented in various traditions such as hanging horseshoes over doorways and wearing charm bracelets with metal on it.

Although it sounds like a silly superstition, it clearly shows how metals have been an integral part of the development of civilisation.

Posted in Science & Nature

History Of The Earth

The Earth has been around for a good 4.6 billion years. Let us compress the long time from the Earth’s birth to today (2012) into one year to put everything in perspective.

The Earth’s history starts on January 1, 00:00:00. The Earth is a hard sphere, barren as any other planet. Incessant wind and rain erode away the barren mountains and tectonic forces create new ones. Nothing much happens for the next three months. Then, around the start of April, life begins in the form of bacteria. Over the course of the next few months, the bacteria divide and mutate, slowly forming new life forms that are multicellular. However, all life on Earth are still in the oceans.

Life on land only starts in the end of November, when plants begin to settle on land. Plants expertly take the abundant carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen. By early December, the oceans are teeming with fish, some of which adapt to living on land by developing lungs. These become the first amphibians. Insects also populate the land and become one of the most diverse types of life.

In December 12, reptiles evolve and the land is ruled by dinosaurs, but only for 9 days until they are wiped off the face of the Earth by a meteorite on December 20. Mammals quickly take the niche left by dinosaurs, populating the entire world. Even at this late time, there are no signs of humans.

December 31, humans have still not arrived on Earth. They only appear around 8pm, where the first hominids venture on to the plains of Africa. At 10pm, the Ice Age begins and the Earth is covered by a thick white sheet of ice. The ice comes and goes three more times. At 11:59pm, human civilisation begins as cities begin to rise. 22 seconds before the end of the year, the Egyptians build their pyramids. More monuments arise within seconds. At 11:59:47pm, Jesus teaches the people to love one another, until he is killed a millisecond later. In the last second of the year (about 150 years), humanity: has two major world wars, take to the skies, create the nuclear bomb that can wipe out all life on Earth and even step foot on the Moon.

We may like to think that we have made a significant impact in the history of the Earth, but we have only existed for an infinitesimally small fraction of the history. We are but a dot on the grand scheme of natural history.

Posted in History & Literature

The Courteous Country Of The East

The Chinese have always deemed Korea as the country of courteous and well-mannered people (동방예의지국, 東邦禮義之國). An ancient Chinese historical text called Shanhaijing(山海經) states that the people of China referred Korea as The Courteous Country Of The Rising Sun In The East or The Country Of Gentlemen. Confucius once said that it was his dream to even take a raft to Korea to learn more about etiquette. They always held Korean people in high regard, complimenting to no end with descriptions such as “righteous people (仁人)” and “they like to decline politely and do not fight”, or “as they do not steal from each other they do not keep doors locked, and the women are virtuous and trustworthy and not lewd”. In short, Korea was respected as a civilised, advanced culture throughout the ages.

Posted in History & Literature


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who will guard the guards?

One of the most basic instincts of a human being is to doubt. We do not easily extend our trust to strangers. This is a natural response that is very beneficial for your survival from an evolutionary perspective (consider the overfriendly dodos that were wiped out by humans). As civilisation has progressed and the size of societies grew, people devised legal systems to lower their vigilance against each other. This was because instead of wasting time being suspicious of others, we devised specialist roles who would do that for us, allowing us to live in peace with each other. These specialists who stay alert and guard us enforce the law and stabilise our society. However, what would happen if the people that protect us from evil become evil? Is it not a scary thought to think that there is no one that watches the watchmen?

Emperor Qin Shi Huang who united China to form the Qin dynasty divided up his people, setting up a mutual guard system to enforce his rule. Informing became a civil obligation. To not report illegal activities was illegal in itself. The system of informing was as follows: five families form a group with each group being watched by an official warden who reports on them. This official warden is carefully observed by an unofficial surveillant. Five groups come together to form a tribe. If it is found that at any level something was not reported, the blame was turned on every member of the group. Thus, a circle of surveillance is formed.

This method was extremely effective and Emperor Qin’s rule of terror was unstoppable. Crime rates plummeted while productivity rose. The problem was that the people’s quality of life was pathetic. Emperor Qin’s system of watching was later adopted by Nazi Germany. The people under the rule of the Nazis had to live in fear of being reported by their neighbours. This method is also seen being used by Big Brother in George Orwell’s novel 1984. Is this truly the best system to keep peace? Laws are put in place for the happiness and safety of the people, yet over-surveillance is an ironic concept that exists for those who hold power rather than the people.

How much should we trust another person? And who will watch the watchmen?