Posted in Science & Nature

Pringles

Pringles are a beloved snack well-known for its addictiveness (“Once you pop, you can’t stop“). There are a few other interesting factors that set Pringles aside from other potato chips.

Firstly, Pringles have been called many things, because it is not strictly a potato chip. When it first debuted, other snack companies complained that it was not technically a potato chip as they were made from dried potatoes, so they were labelled “potato crisps“. Ironically, the company successfully argued in 2008 that Pringles were not “potato crisps”, using the logic that they were not of natural shapes and only contained 42% potato as they are made from potato-based dough. This was so that they could avoid the British tax on potato crisps.

Secondly, Pringles chips have a characteristic saddle-shape, known in mathematics as a hyperbolic paraboloid. This creates a uniform shape, meaning they can be stacked neatly in a tubular container for efficient and reliable packaging, as opposed to most potato chips that are packaged in bags. Furthermore, the shape is structurally sound, preventing the chips from breaking under the weight of the stack.

Finally, the inventor of the cylindrical container was a chemist named Fredric Baur, who started the process of making Pringles. His dying wish was to have his ashes buried in a Pringles can and this wish was respected by his children.

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Posted in History & Literature

Permanent Record

The recording of language was a key development in history that allowed civilisations to flourish. Through recording, we could pass on knowledge and wisdom much more efficiently and securely from generation to generation, unlike oral history which can change over time or be lost when a mass casualty event occurs.

The oldest piece of written history comes from Sumeria over 5,000 years ago, but one could argue that cave paintings such as those found in Lascaux Cave extend that history to more than 17,000 years. Archaeologists have used written records from ancient times to help determine what life was like during those times, and what important events occurred throughout history.

Fast forwarding to now, we live in an information era where there has been a massive explosion of the amount of information produced and recorded, thanks to the development of science and technology. One such development is digital media, which allow us to store a staggering amount of data in small hard disk drives. For example, the entirety of Wikipedia (February 2013 estimate) could just fit into a 10 terabyte HDD. If an archaeologist from the future was to access an archive of the internet from now, they could gain so much insight into our history, knowledge and what day to day life.

Nowadays, most of us store our data digitally, including important documents, precious photos and our entertainment such as music and videos. But unfortunately, as efficient digital storage may be, it is far from permanent.

Digital data comes with the downside that it needs continuous backing up, as data can corrupt and the storage medium can fail. A typical hard disk has a life expectancy of around 5 years, after which the drive will start failing. Servers that manage the cloud need constant maintenance.

If humanity were to suddenly disappear, our troves of digital data would be wiped out within less than a 100 years, like dust in the wind. Even if we took great care to maintain our library of data, a single solar storm could create enough electromagnetic interference to wipe every drive clean.

Contrast this to a book, which can stand the test of time up to many millennia as long as it is preserved well. As novelist Umberto Eco put it:

“The book is like the spoon, scissors, the hammer, the wheel. Once invented, it cannot be improved.”

It is a perfect invention.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Happy Holidays

Every culture has holidays – a day that celebrates an aspect of the people’s history, faith, traditions or just a certain time of the year. Holidays are days set aside for having fun and sharing a good time with your friends, family and community.

The degree of festivity ranges from low-key days such as a city’s anniversary day, to important annual celebrations that have an entire month of build-up such as Christmas, or even absurd ones such as International Talk Like A Pirate Day. But the bottom line is, holidays bring joy and happiness for many people around the world.

Throughout history, holidays have been a great way to boost morale in people. Even though it is just another day of the Earth circling the Sun, specific days excite us and make us giddy, letting us forget the dreariness and pains of life. Take for example the famous Christmas Truce of 1914, where British and German soldiers called a truce on Christmas Day despite World War I raging on, so that they could all celebrate the day by sharing food and gifts, while playing some spirited games of soccer.

The holidays offer a great excuse for us to be happy. There are plenty of reasons in life why we aren’t happy. Work can be stressful and boring. Relationships are full of dramas and misunderstandings. There are days where it just feels like the universe is hating on you. Sometimes, life just sucks.

But holidays bring a perfect remedy for misery: connection. Whatever the holiday may be, there are many other people celebrating the same holiday as you. This means that on that specific day, everyone feels more connected to each other as they celebrate together. From singing carols together, to looking forward to the New Year and sharing our reflections and resolutions, we are bonded as we live in the moment. Through these connections and feeling present, we feel happier.

Perhaps that is the true reason we have holidays. In a world so full of sadness and madness, isn’t it nice to have any excuse to be happy? Even if it’s just for a day, we are reminded that happiness exists, in the form of our memories and nostalgia of the past, our excitement for the future, and in the present moment that we share with each other.

Happy holidays.

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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 Psychology & Medicine

Cobra Effect

While colonising India, the British government became concerned about venomous cobra snakes causing a public safety issue in Delhi. To remedy this situation, they decided to use the people as cheap labour by offering a bounty if anyone brought in a dead cobra. They thought this would be a cost effective method of reducing the cobra population.

The strategy was initially a success, with a huge number of cobra snakes being killed for the reward. But then, something unexpected happened. People soon caught on that it did not matter where the cobra snakes came from, as long as it was dead. Therefore, they abused this loophole by breeding cobra snakes and then killing them for even more reward. The British government found out about this enterprise eventually and decided to scrap the program.

With no reason to have so many cobra snakes, the breeders decided to release the cobras. Ultimately, Delhi’s cobra population was now larger than when the program was initiated.

This is the cobra effect. Sometimes, an idea may seem novel and efficient, but human psychology can easily turn it on its head and make a problem worse than before.

A similar, but much more macabre, phenomenon happened in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1828. At the time, anatomy was a hot new field of research, so human cadavers were in great demand by the universities, doctors and scholars. Due to a Scottish law stating that cadavers could only come from deceased prisoners, orphans and suicide victims, there was very limited supply. Following the economic laws of supply and demand, the price of a human cadaver rose more and more. “Body snatching” became a popular crime, where people exhumed corpses from graveyards and sold them for a profit.

Two men by the names of William Burke and William Hare took things one step further. The two ran a lodging house, where a tenant passed away suddenly, while owing rent. To cover the owed amount, they stole the body before the burial and went to Edinburgh University, where they sold the body to an anatomist named Robert Knox. On hearing that bodies were in great demand and that they would be paid handsomely for any more cadavers, they hatched a sinister plan.

They realised that since their “clients” did not care about where the body came from, they could easily source them through murder. Over the course of a year, they murdered at least 16 people at their lodge and sold their corpses to Robert Knox for dissection. Their choice method of murder was to wrestle down and sit on the victim’s chest to asphyxiate them (now called “burking”), as strangling, choking or using a sharp instrument would reduce the corpse’s value due to the damage.

The pair were eventually caught and sentenced to death. Hare was eventually released, but Burke was hanged and ironically, his skeleton was preserved and exhibited at the Anatomical Museum of the Edinburgh Medical School.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus (“thunder lizard” in Latin) is one of the most well-known dinosaurs. It is the poster child of the sauropods, a group of massive four-legged dinosaurs with very long necks and tails, known as some of the largest animals to ever walk on land.

After going extinct around 66 million years ago, the Brontosaurus was rediscovered in fossil form in 1879 by palaeontologist O.C. Marsh, who is infamous for his rivalry with another palaeontologist called Edward Drinker Cope as part of the “Bone Wars”. The Bone Wars was the fierce competition between the two palaeontologists, involving aggressive digging to discover as many dinosaurs as possible, while both tried to slander and impede each other through dishonest, unprofessional means. This dispute resulted in rushed announcements of new discoveries sometimes, leading to fascinating stories such as Cope accidentally putting the skull of the Elasmosaurus on its tail instead of the neck.

So what does the historical context of the Bone Wars have to do with the Brontosaurus? In 1903, another palaeontologist argued that the Brontosaurus was actually a specimen of the already discovered Apatosaurus. Two years later, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled the first mounted sauropod skeleton and named it a Brontosaurus. However, they had accidentally used the skull of a different dinosaur called Camarasurus, mounted on the skeleton of an Apatosaurus. With no further evidence supporting Brontosaurus as a separate genus, the scientific community agreed that the Brontosaurus was really just an Apatosaurus.

Despite this news, Brontosaurus remained hugely popular amongst the general population thanks to its early publicity. At the same time, Brontosaurus not being a real genus of dinosaur became a popular factoid (false information accepted as fact due to popularity). In a field such as palaeontology where evidence can be scant or incomplete, such misclassification is common. For example, the Triceratops is in fact simply the juvenile form of another dinosaur named the Torosaur.

But then in 2015, a group of scientists used computer modelling to analyse sauropod fossil data including the original fossil discovered by Marsh. What they discovered was that there were enough differences between the Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus, such as differences in pelvic bone structure, to classify Brontosaurus as its own genus. After more than a century, the Brontosaurus has had its name cleared and restored to its former glory.

The story of the Brontosaurus is a great example of one of the principles in science: nothing is 100% true. Science never proclaims something as the one truth. We can hypothesise, support it with evidence and construct a theory that makes sense of the cosmos, but we can never be sure that we definitely have the answer. In the face of new evidence and re-examination of the analysis, what was once regarded as “truth” can easily be proven to be wrong.

This is an unpopular aspect of science, because people tend to want security and certainty to soothe their anxieties about not knowing. But instead, we get to stay curious and continuously question the nature of the universe and how everything works, making fascinating discoveries and learning something new every day.

For how boring would life be if we had nothing more to learn?

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Posted in History & Literature

Judging History

When we look back on history, there are countless stories where we wonder: “what were people thinking?”. Time after time, people have banded together to inflict unspeakable horrors on other groups of people. Consider the burning of “witches” in Salem, the mass guillotine executions following the French revolution, the transatlantic slave trade, the Rwandan genocide, the infamous Unit 731 of Imperial Japan that performed inhumane experiments on countless innocent people…

Even now, there is no shortage of examples of how a governing entity chosen by its people punishes a subset of its own population. We see homosexual people imprisoned and tortured in Russia. We see refugee children being torn apart from their parents at border control in the USA. We see brutal state policing of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs in China.

It is very easy for us to examine these stories with a judgemental microscope. How can these governments be so evil? How can the people be so foolish to elect this government? Why are people not rising up against these powers to restore justice? The problem is that it is far easier to judge people for their actions rather than their intentions, or the context and setting that triggered them. Let us take an infamous historical atrocity as an example: the Holocaust.

Although Nazi Germany was initially formed from a coup d’état, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party maintained overwhelming support from the German people throughout its brutal regime. We may wonder how such a large group of well-educated, culturally sophisticated and civilised people could be swayed to support the inhumane actions committed by the Nazi government, but if you look at the historical context, we can find some explanations.

After World War 1, Germany was in economic ruin due to the “total war” nature of WW1 using up resources, followed by the staggering reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, with the final kick of the Great Depression. Inflation and unemployment ran rampant, leaving the populace hopeless and in despair.

But when Hitler rose to power, promising food, land and order, along with hopes of making Germany “great” again, those who had been sick and tired of their depressing situation rallied under the Nazi cause. The Nazi party capitalised on this desperation and vulnerability, using Jewish people and other minority groups as a scapegoat, blaming them as the cause of Germany’s downfall after the Weimar Republic. This allowed them to commit atrocities such as the internment and execution of millions of people, along with unprovoked war against the rest of Europe, by promising the people that it would provide more jobs, more goods and a better world for the Germans.

We can see from this case that a large part of how such a terrible situation arose was due to the desperation that people felt due to the context of global economic depression and the outcome of the Great War. If we simply judged the people for being “sheeple”, blindly following Hitler’s charismatic leadership and propaganda, then we would learn nothing out of this case study.

However, if we examine the underlying reasons for how this situation arose, we can see that the same horrors could happen again in our lifetime under similar contexts. This approach allows us to see current affairs from more objective stances and hopefully explore solutions, rather than just putting the blame on the people affected by their political, economic and historical environment. Furthermore, this frame of thinking helps us be less swayed by forces that are out of our control, as it lets us use our rational and logical thinking to make decisions, rather than our emotional reactions and survival instincts.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

How’s The Water?

Two young fish are swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says:

“Morning, boys. How’s the water?”.

The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes:

“What the hell is water?”.

This is a humorous analogy that writer David Foster Wallace told at the beginning of his commencement speech to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005. Although it is short, it can be unravelled to reveal many important guiding truths regarding adult life.

Much like the younger fish, many of us are not aware of the “water” that surrounds us. Although we live in it, reality is hard to process because it is made up of so many different layers of complexity. To make it easier to live our lives, our brains protect us from being aware of our reality, much like how people are not aware that they live in a simulation in The Matrix.

Even when we are aware that we are swimming in water, we keep asking ourselves “What the hell is water?”. We search desperately for the wise, older fish who can enlighten us – someone who can teach us what water is.

Many of us will be swayed by countless teachers, mentors, gurus, politicians and religious leaders who tell us to follow them to learn what water is. Many of us will firmly believe that we have grown up to become the older, wiser fish, and fight stubbornly against others who have different views on what water is. Some us may even choose to ignore that the water exists at all.

At every stage of our lives, many of us fall in the trap of believing that we have things “figured out”. Teenagers will rebel against adults, thinking that they will reinvent the world. Young adults will believe that now that they are working members of society, they are entitled to their “educated”, “mature” opinions. The middle-aged believe they have been adults long enough that surely they must have gained enough experience and wisdom on the way. And if we don’t feel confident that we know what water is, we seek the answer from those who claim they know it.

In short, we are always searching for the answer, or claim to have the answer. But that is not the lesson to take away from the parable of the fish in water.
It is not the answer that is important, but the question.

It is hubris to think that we can possibly understand how the world works completely within our lifetime. Instead, we should continue questioning what water is. Otherwise, we are just pretending to be enlightened, all the while becoming dimmer as we shut off our ability to learn and see things from a new perspective.

Consider the countless complexities that make up our reality: physical laws of the universe, the historical context, political climate, shifting cultural norms, societal pressures, chaos theory, our connections to other people… Even if you were to make sense of all this, you will never understand the reality that other people live in, as believing in only your reality stops you from being empathic and compassionate. Remember that water is a great environment for fish to live in, but a person would drown if left underwater.

This is why the parable does not tell the story of the older fish teaching the younger fish what water is. Instead, he is asking them how the water is. He is encouraging them to be aware of the context they live in and to keep question it and learning about it, while he himself stays curious as to how other fish experience the water.

So, how’s the water?

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Posted in History & Literature

Rosetta Stone

In 1799, during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, a French officer named Pierre-François Bouchard came across a granite slab a couple of miles from a port city named Rosetta. The slab – about 112cm by 75cm in size – was densely filled with ancient inscriptions on one face of it. But strangely, there were three distinct languages written on the slab: Egyptian hieroglyphs, an unknown script and Greek.

The discovery of this stone sparked immediate scientific interest. Up until this point, no scholar had been able to decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The hieroglyphs had not been used formally for almost 1800 years, so the way to read it had been lost to time. Europe was going through an “Egyptomania” at the time, with great interest in this ancient civilisation. However, little was known about the culture as the ancient texts could not be read.

People quickly noted that there was a strong chance that the so-called “Rosetta Stone” contained the same text in three different languages, which meant that if you could translate one of the languages, then you could decipher the alphabet of the other two. This proved to be true, with the text being a royal decree exempting priests from taxation. Numerous scholars from all over Europe pored over the Rosetta Stone to solve the mystery of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The first step was to translate the Greek version, as ancient Greek had already been studied in depth by scholars.
Around a similar time, a Swedish linguist named Johan David Åkerblad figured out that the middle, unknown script was Demotic, a cursive script used in ancient Egypt. Åkerblad was able to decipher the Demotic alphabet by comparing it to the Greek script, particularly through comparing names, as both languages were largely phonetic, meaning the characters used to write the name will have the same sounds in the two languages.

The final step – deciphering hieroglyphics – proved to be much harder. It was theorised that hieroglyphs were not phonetic, but ideographic, meaning each letter represented a whole word or concept (similar to Chinese) rather than a sound. If this is true, then it is impossible to decipher the hieroglyphic alphabet just by comparing it to the phonetic Demotic and Greek scripts.

But then, one scholar named Silvestre de Sacy realised that foreign names would have been written phonetically, much like Chinese scripts. This allowed him to zero in to Greek names in each script, such as Ptolemaios, thus creating a skeleton for the phonetic alphabet for both  Demotic and hieroglyphs. Scholars could then use the phonetic reading of hieroglyphs to make more headway into reading the Rosetta Stone.

After 20 years of exhausting research, the Rosetta Stone was finally fully deciphered. The Rosetta Stone is famous because it was the key required to decipher the entire Egyptian hieroglyph system, while birthing the new field of Egyptology. Being able to read hieroglyphs allowed us to better understand the ancient Egyptians’ way of life. Nowadays, the term Rosetta Stone is also used as a symbol of a key to understanding an entirely new field of knowledge.

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Posted in History & Literature

Gordian Knot

Legend tells the tale of the Gordian Knot, a knot tied so tightly that it seemed impossible to undo it. The Phrygians’ oracle even prophesised that the person who untied the knot would become the ruler of all of Asia Minor. Many tried to loosen the knot, but the knot remained secure for years.

In fourth century BC, Alexander the Great came to the city amidst his business of conquering everything around him. Of course, he could not pass the challenge by, so he too attempted to unravel the Gordian Knot. But alas, not even the great Alexander could untie it.

He then took a step back and thought to himself that it did not matter how the knot was undone. So he took his sword and sliced the knot in half, much to the shock of his audience. As the oracle prophesised, Alexander ruled the great Macedon Empire, stretching its border past Asia Minor, almost reaching present day China and India.

The story of the Gordian Knot teaches the importance of thinking outside the box. We can tackle a problem again and again without fruition if we try only one method. Just when you start to feel frustrated, take a step back and consider a different approach.

Another lesson is the value of combining two different fields. Instead of using typical knot-untying skills, Alexander chose to use military skills. Many innovations have arisen from borrowing skills and ideas from different fields – known as cross industry innovation.

For example, instead of complicated controller designs for drones, the US Army found using an Xbox 360 controller was far more effective. Computer models simulate the way ants find optimum paths to solve complex mathematical problems such as the Travelling Salesman Problem. The combination of waffles and shoes resulted in the creation of waffle rubber soles to increase traction in running shoes. Many engineering feats borrow ideas from nature, such as the aerodynamic design of planes and structural strength of arches and curves as observed by Gaudi.

This is the philosophy of 1 + 1 = 3.

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