Posted in Philosophy

Threading A Marble

It is recorded that one day, Confucius was presented with a small marble that was filled with tiny holes with twists and turns. He was challenged to try thread the marble with a piece of thread. Confucius tried and tried but could not complete the challenge.

Feeling lost, he asked for some time to think and took a walk. A passing woman noticed him and asked what was wrong. Upon hearing the story, the woman said: “Think quietly, quieten your thoughts”. This gave Confucius an idea, so he thanked the woman and returned to the puzzle. In Chinese, the character for “quiet (密, mi)” sounds the same as “honey (蜜, mi)”. He found an ant, tied a thread around its waist and then placed it on one hole. He smeared some honey on the hole on the other side of the marble and the ant followed the scent, threading the marble as it travelled through the twists and turns.

Thomas Edison famously said that “Genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. Although this quote is usually used to stress the importance of effort and striving to succeed, you still need that 1% of creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to achieve true success. The inspiration can be from anywhere – a small memory in the recess of your mind, the casual remark of a passerby, an insignificant detail in your surrounding… What is important that you open your eyes and be open to such inspiration, no matter how silly or lowly you think the source is. You never know what or who will inspire you to have a eureka moment.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Sweet Tooth

It is interesting to see how people tend to use taste-related metaphors to describe other people. If a person is hostile or spiteful, we describe them as “bitter”. If a person is sullen and gloomy, we say they are “sour”. Perhaps the most extensively used taste is “sweetness”. People have a tendency of calling their loved ones sweet-related names, such as “honey”, “sweetie”, “sugar” or “sweetheart”. This is directly reflected in the tradition of giving chocolate to a loved one on Valentine’s Day. Quite obviously, this is because we find sweetness the most palatable taste and something that is nice. On a related note, could there be a relationship between sweetness and personalities?

A group of psychologists decided to study whether people who like sweet foods, or “sweet tooth”s, have a certain personality trait or not. They did a survey where participants were asked what foods they liked most out of a list of 50 foods covering five tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, spicy). They also answered questions that gave an indication of their agreeableness (one of the five components of OCEAN personality traits). The psychologists then analysed whether there was an association between sweet tooths and agreeableness. Interestingly, a direct correlation was found between a liking of sweets and higher levels of agreeableness. This suggested that people who like sweet things tend to be more friendly, cooperative and compassionate.

But is the cause-and-effect relationship so simple? Could it be that sweet things cause people to be nicer? In a separate experiment, participants were randomly given a sweet food (chocolate), a not-sweet food (cracker) or no food. They were then asked to volunteer their time to help someone. It was found that those who were given something sweet were more willing to help another person compared to the other two groups.

This makes logical sense as eating sweets such as chocolate causes your brain to release a flood of hormones such as endorphin and serotonin from the absolute pleasure of the experience. These hormones make us feel happy, blissful and in love, which in turn make us more agreeable and willing to cooperate.

Although sweetness has numerous negative effects on the body such as weight gain and diabetes, there is no doubt that it is greatly beneficial for your mental health. If there is a bitter person around you, give them a good dose of chocolate to help them develop a sweeter personality. Or perhaps all they need is a sweet romance.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Honeybee Dance

How do honeybees share the location of a food source, such as a flower, to other bees of their colony? An Austrian biologist named Karl Von Frisch devised an experiment to learn how the honeybees communicated with each other. He set up two different food sources and tagged every bee that came to pot A green and bees that came to pot B red. He then studied the behaviour of these bees back at the hive. What he discovered was fascinating.

For millennia, beekeepers have noticed that some honeybees have a tendency of moving in a peculiar yet methodical way once they returned to their hive after foraging for flowers. The bees would move in a straight line while waggling their bottom (moving side-to-side), then walk in a semicircle back to where they started. They would then waggle in the same direction, then move in a semicircle on the opposite side, completing a figure-eight path. This is called a waggle dance.


Frisch noticed that bees with green spots and the bees with red spots both did the waggle dance once they returned to the hive, but in different directions. All bees with green spots danced so that the straight line pointed a certain direction, while the bees with red spots danced the same dance except pointing another direction. Amazingly, the angle between these two directions was exactly the same as the angle separating pot A and B (with the hive as a point of origin). Frisch deduced that the waggle dance was the language of honeybees.

Through further experimentation, Frisch was able to tease out the details of this “language”.

  • Honeybees’ eyes can see ultraviolet and polarised light, which allows them to see where the sun is in the sky at all times. This is because sunlight polarises so that it points towards the sun and honeybees can see this direction. Therefore, the bee’s eyes act as a solar compass that tracks the exact location of the sun in real-time.
  • Bees have a finely-tuned internal clock that allows them to predict exactly where the sun should be depending on time, season and latitude, as the sun moves through the sky.
  • Another point of reference that is used in the bees’ language is gravity. Gravity is a constant that does not change, meaning all bees know which direction is “up” and which is “down”. This also means they can use a vertical, perpendicular line as a standard zero-point.

By pairing the two global constants, gravity and the location of the sun, the bees can accurately signal to other bees the direction they should fly in to find the food source. If a bee does a waggle dance that points 60° right from the vertical “up” direction (as defined by gravity), it signals that the bees should fly 60° right from the direction of the sun. If the angle is 0°, the bees should fly directly towards the sun, and if the angle is 180°, the bees should fly directly away from the sun. The bees use their internal clock to calibrate the direction depending on the time of the day.

The straight line “waggle” part of the dance gives the information of distance. The longer the duration of the straight line, the further away the flower is. As a general rule of thumb, the duration of the straight line increases by 1 second for every 1 kilometre. When the food is within about 60m of the hive, the 8-shape waggle dance turns into an O-shape round dance. The bee deduces the distance by the energy required to fly to the location.

By encoding the two variables “direction” and “distance”, a bee can effectively use the waggle dance to accurately pinpoint the location of a food source. It is amazing to see that animals that we consider “primitive” such as bees have such an intricate method of communication.


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