Posted in Science & Nature

The Oldest Tree

In 1964, a graduate student named Donald Currey was studying the history of glaciers in Nevada, USA. He came across some bristlecone pine trees, which he suspected may give him some clues about the Ice Age. This is because previously, another scientist had discovered similar bristlecone pines nearby in California that dated between 3000-5000 years old.

So Currey decided to sample some of these trees to determine their ages. He thought that if he could show that the trees uphill were much younger than the trees at the base, it may prove that glaciers expanded down the mountain and pushed the trees back downhill.

Currey came across a particularly old-looking tree. He got permission from the Forest Service first, then cut the tree down to count its growth rings – the most accurate way to figure out how old a tree is. As the tree’s bark changes in a predictable fashion, a tree will gain one ring for every year of its life. An interesting point is that trees are often dated nowadays by taking a core sample instead of cutting it down (and thus killing it). It is uncertain why Currey and the Forest Service opted to cut the tree down instead.

After counting the rings of this tree, Currey realised that the tree (dubbed “Prometheus” by local naturalists) was 4844 years old – the oldest tree in existence in the world. Well, it was until it was cut down.

More modern analysis of Prometheus’ remains revealed that the tree was likely closer to just over 5000 years old at the time of its death, which makes Prometheus the oldest known tree and (non-clonal) organism in recorded history.

As expected, when Currey published his results, there was a massive outcry. In the name of understanding nature better, he inadvertently killed the world’s oldest tree.

Since the demise of Prometheus, another tree by the name of Methuselah has taken the crown of “oldest tree in the world”, at the age of 4852 as of 2020.

The lesson here is clear: before cutting a tree down, check that you are not accidentally killing the oldest tree in the world.

Methuselah, the oldest living tree in the world
Posted in Science & Nature

Silence Of The Trees

A timeless philosophical question goes like this:

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?

This may sound absurd, but the question hangs on the definition of sound. Is sound the physical phenomenon of vibrating particles forming a soundwave, or is sound the sensory information that we perceive by converting said soundwave using our hearing system? If you accept the first definition, then yes, the falling of the tree will generate energy that pushes on the air particles around it, causing a soundwave that if someone were to hear it, would sound as a “thud”. But if you accept the second definition, then that tree would not have made a “sound” per se because no one was around to perceive the soundwave. Following this logic, a sound cannot exist without a recipient to hear it.

As simple as this may seem at face value, the riddle explores some deep philosophical and scientific issues.

The most obvious one has been discussed: the definition of sound. But then one must question what would happen if a tape recorder was running when the tree fell. Can a machine hear, even though it cannot “sense”? Is the sound we hear being played from the recorder the same as the sound that was originally made by the tree?

Following on from this thought, how do we know that the sound you hear is an accurate interpretation of the actual soundwave? It is common knowledge that the brain frequently modifies the senses to change what it sees and hears, as seen in various illusions. Furthermore, the brain can generate sensory information without any input, known as hallucinations. You assume that your hearing is flawless and accurate, but in your mind, it is almost impossible to know for sure that the sound you heard is “real”. Taking this further leads in to the massive debate of “what is real?” and “is reality real or is it a product of our mind?”.

A more fundamental question is this: if no one was around to hear the tree fall, does it matter if it made a sound? A pragmatic philosopher might say “no”, as whether the tree made a sound or not makes no difference to your life. However, a scientist may say “yes” as the tree did fall and a soundwave was generated. Whether a person was around to observe it is irrelevant as it does not change the fact that something real occurred. Then what effect does observation have on reality? How do we know that trees make the same sound when we are not around to hear it?

This is a crude dissection of the vast number of questions the riddle offers, but it shows how such a simple thought experiment can be an effective tool to engage your critical thinking. If you do not fully understand the philosophy discussed, at least you can take away the fact that you can use the excuse of “sound is only a perception, I did not hear you, therefore what you said did not happen” when someone tells you to do something.

Posted in Philosophy

Monkeys And Acorns

A man living in the Song Dynasty had many monkeys. He was wary that he might not have enough food to feed the monkeys, so he implemented a rationing system, telling the monkeys “As we are short of food, I will limit the acorns you get to three in the morning and four in the evening”. The monkeys screamed and protested, so the man told the monkeys: “Then I will change it to four in the morning and three in the evening. The stupid monkeys could not figure out that the sum was the same and were overjoyed. This is the story behind the proverb: cho sam mo sa ("Three in the morning, four in the evening”, 조삼모사, 朝三暮四).

It is common to see people who cannot see the forest for the trees and only focus on the immediate gains, just like the monkeys. Although there might be some short-term benefit, the results will be the same (or worse) in the long run and not seeing this is very foolish. To lead a successful life one must have the insight to understand how the happiness gained now will affect the future and the wisdom to achieve the balance between short-term and long-term benefits. Too many people lack these qualities and fall into the trap of hire purchases, mortgages and frauds.

The monkeys made another critical mistake. If they protest against the man’s plans for a better future, he can just say “If you’re not happy, starve” and everything will be over. To throw away the future for a quick fix is an incredibly idiotic act.