We live in a world where everything is powered by something. Our technology is fueled by electricity. Our cars are fueled by fossil fuel (although hopefully not for much longer). Our generators are fueled by everything from coal to running water to the splitting of atoms. We are fueled by food, which we break down to release energy.
But at the core of it all, the world is fueled by one main energy source: sunlight.
Let us retrace the steps.
The device you are using to read this is charged by electricity provided by a power generator. Whatever the source of electricity is, humans are required to power the machines and we are fueled by food. The food we eat are either plants, or meat from animals that consume plants. Plants generate their energy through photosynthesis, where sunlight is used to store energy in carbohydrates.
Ergo, sunlight fuels us all – we are all made of and held together by sunlight.
The Sun is positioned 152 million kilometres from Earth. This means that sunlight travels 152 million kilometres – a distance that takes even light eight minutes to traverse – to feed Earth, brighten our days and make us feel warm and fuzzy.
Sunlight also heats the earth and seas to power various weather cycles and currents, provides heat to keep life possible and most importantly, lets us see because it floods our day with photons.
Just something to think about the next time we enjoy a delightful nap in a warm, cozy sunbeam.
There is a Scottish legend that speaks of a terrifying giant that lives atop Ben Macdui, the second highest peak in Britain. Am Fear Liath Mòr (Gaelic for “Big Grey Man”), is describes as a gigantic, dark figure with a fuzzy appearance. It is said to inspire a feeling of fear, eeriness and apprehension. It has been sighted by multiple lone climbers exploring the peaks of Ben Macdui.
Am Fear Liath Mòr has been classically described as a supernatural being, rather than a cryptid such as Bigfoot or the Yeti. However, there is an even more interesting and scientifically plausible explanation. Am Fear Liath Mòr is the climber themselves.
As poetic as this sounds – that you are confronted by a gigantic shadow of your inner self at the top of a misty mountain – it is a well-documented phenomenon known as a Brocken spectre.
This happens when the sun is at an angle, shining from behind the observer into mist or fog at the top of a peak. A shadow is cast and appears magnified because of the vast distance between the observer and the fog. Because the background is a fog with little feature, the observer loses their depth perception and see an ill-defined, massive being. The rippling of the water droplets, wind and the observer’s own movements all contribute to the shape appearing alive.
Furthermore, there are many factors that would cause the eeriness commonly reported by people who witness a Brocken spectre. Winds echoing through a pass tend to create very low-frequency sounds that cause uneasiness in people. There is likely a large psychological component as well, as the climbers tend to be alone in a dark mountain, while fatigued from their long climb.
Brocken spectres are a classical example of just how awe-inspiring natural phenomenon can be, especially after understanding the scientific principle behind them.
Why is the sky blue in the day, yet it becomes dyed bright red at sunset? The reason is that the atmosphere splits white light into the colours of the rainbow like a prism. Short-wavelength colours such as blue and green tend to scatter more, making the sky blue usually. But as the sun sets, the angle at which sunlight enters the atmosphere changes and the light has to travel through more atmosphere before hitting Earth. The more the light travels, the more it scatters and blue-green light is scattered so much that it can no longer be seen. At this stage, the dominant remaining colour are orange and red, which have longer wavelengths.
But this alone would only give the sky a dull red colour. The brilliant splash of red and orange across the sky every evening is thanks to the scattering of light in a certain way by cloud droplets and other particles. This is why an exceptionally bright orange sunset can suggest rain the following day.
A “perfect” sunset requires the alignment of various factors such as the angle of the sun (affected by time and season), humidity, temperature, air component and the surrounding landscape. Depending on these factors, the sunset can range in colour from a deep red to a bright orange, to a pastel yellow to baby pink or purple (or at worst, a piddly dull yellow light). This means that a perfect sunset tends to only happen at a single moment in time when these factors align to your preference.
The corollary to this is that a perfect sunset is always a fleeting moment. No matter how much you want to hold on to it, time marches on and the sunset slowly fades away. It is futile to stop the moment from passing – to cling to the beauty of the moment. All you can do is enjoy that single moment while you can. It is a time when the past day comes to a close, while the future is getting ready to start. In that moment, do not think about the past or the future – just focus on the present. Take in the brilliant colours with your eyes. Listen to the chirping of the birds returning home. Feel the cool breeze brush past you. When the sun finally sets, despair not the passing of the beautiful moment, but cherish the fact that you had such a great moment. Because as you know, another sunset awaits you tomorrow.
The best or worst part (depending on your preference) about a dark and stormy night are the majestic flashes of lightning and booming thunder. Most people confuse the two terms, typically using “thunder” to describe both, but technically thunder is the sound produced by lightning, which is the flash of light. Lightning occurs when dense clouds become electrically charged due to the collision of water molecules. As charge builds up, the cloud becomes negatively charged. The negative charge becomes so intense that it begins to push electrons towards the surface of the Earth, creating a positive charge. Electricity always flows from a negative charge to a positive charge through a medium. The intensity of charges causes the air to become ionized (plasma), making it suddenly conductive and allowing the electricity to flow from the cloud to the ground. This is seen as a flash of intense light. As the electricity travels through this channel of air, it superheats the air and causes a massive expansion of air, much like an explosion. This creates an intense shockwave burst, producing a sound that we call thunder.
Lightning is a deadly force of nature. It clocks a peak voltage of somewhere between 30 million to billions of volts – far exceeding the electricity that can be generated by humans. When a lightning bolt strikes a human, it has a mortality rate of between 10~30%. The two effects of lightning on the human body is electrical shock and heat. As lightning flashes over the skin to reach the ground, it leaves a striking pattern known as Lichtenberg figures (see below), showing the path of the electrical breakdown. The intense electrical burst can cause loss of consciousness, arrhythmia or sudden cardiac arrest. The heat generated by the electricity can cause severe burns both externally and internally. It can literally fry internal organs causing permanent damage to the heart, lungs and brain. Neurological symptoms such as amnesia, confusion, sleep disturbance and chronic pain have also been reported. Strangely, there are also reported cases of lightning curing ailments such as blindness, deafness and baldness.
Because lightning is light and thunder is sound, one can calculatehow far away lightning struck using the time between the lightning flash and the sound of thunder. Sound travels at 340m/s, so by multiplying the number of seconds between the lightning and thunder by 340, you can deduce the distance in metres. For example, if you see a lightning strike and then hear thunder after 7 seconds, the lightning must have struck 340m x 7s = 2380m = 2.38km away.
Why is the sky blue? This is because of a phenomenon called Rayleigh scattering where molecules and tiny particles in the atmosphere scatter direct sunlight. Light scatters at different amounts depending on its frequency. Because of this, blue and violet light (short-wavelength light) scatters more than the other colours, causing the sky to be blue. But during sunrise and sunset, the light enters the atmosphere from an angle, causing blue and green light to be so scattered that you cannot see it. This produces a red or orange colour.
The deep ocean is blue for a similar reason; red and yellow light is absorbed while blue becomes scattered by the water. However, the colour of the sea is also largely dependent on the colour of the sky at the time, as it reflects the sky. The colour of the sea may change due to algae in the water, which can make it green, brown or even red.
A similar form of light scattering called the Tyndall effect is responsible for blue eyes, caused by a turbid layer in the iris. The Tyndall effect can also be seen in a glass of water mixed with milk, or flour suspended in water.
Blue has one of the most interesting histories compared out of all the colours. In the ancient world, blue was considered a lowly colour, with some cultures such as the ancient Greeks not even considering it a “real colour” such as red, black, white and yellow. In fact, the Greeks did not have a word for the colour blue; it was merely called bronze colour. The ancient Romans considered blue the colour of barbarians. The Romans stereotyped blue-eyed women as promiscuous and blue-eyed men as aggressive and foolish. Only the ancient Egyptians liked the colour blue, as they considered it a colour of divinity. They made blue dye from copper.
Perhaps the hatred for the colour blue was due to the difficulty of making blue dyes. This all changed nearer to medieval times as artists and dyers successfully created blue dyes from minerals such as lapis lazuli, azurite and cobalt. Blue became the colour of the Virgin Mary. Artists began painting the sky and the sea as blue, which were previously depicted using black, white and green. Nobles began wearing blue instead of the traditional red and purple, and dyers followed this trend by devising better blue dyes with a variety of shades.
This led to the thriving of blue dye industries in European cities such as Amiens, Toulouse and Erfurt, where blue dye was made from a plant called woad. Although this was a very lucrative business, blue was still a very expensive and difficult colour to use, with the dying process involving soaking the woad in human urine (which contains ammonia) to extract the colour.
Blue became a much more accessible colour in the 18th century when flourishing trade brought indigo from the Americas. Indigo was much easier to use, more concentrated and produced a richer, more stable blue than woad. As blue became more and more popular, synthetic blue dyes were discovered – one of the most famous being Prussian blue which was discovered in Berlin in 1709.
Throughout its history, perhaps the product that best promoted the status of blue as a colour is the denim jean (dyed with indigo blue), invented by Levi Strauss in 1873.
In modern times, blue is an extremely popular colour that is widely used in art, fashion, architecture etcetera. However, the one field that blue has not yet been able to set foot in is food. Researches show that the colour blue drastically decreases a person’s appetite as it is associated with poison in the natural world.
If I was to put a yellow ball in front of you and ask what colour the ball is, you would confidently say “yellow”. As you say, the ball appears yellow, but the answer is technically wrong. Strictly speaking, the ball itself is not yellow – it is merely reflecting the colour yellow. The ball only appears yellow because we see the yellow part of the natural light spectrum bouncing off the ball. We cannot say that the essence of the ball is “yellow”. For example, if you were to look at the ball through a red lens, the yellow light would be filtered and you would see a black ball. A person with a certain kind of colour blindness would say the ball has a bluish hue. A butterfly, which sees the ultraviolet spectrum as well, would see a colour we cannot even name.
Human beings judge objects using the vision. We describe an object as we see it and store that information in our brain to define the object. For this purpose, the fact that a colour blind person or a butterfly sees the ball a different colour is irrelevant to us. All we need to know is that object appears yellow to us. But this is only the case for objects. Let us imagine the ball is a person. If everyone in the world sees you as a yellow ball, would that make you a yellow ball? Of course not. However, people worry too much about how others see them. Although other people’s perception does not change our true nature in the slightest, we even go as far as erasing or abandoning our nature to look good in front of another person. Thus, whether our essence is white, black, red, blue or technicolour, when others see us as yellow, we have a tendency to try desperately to become yellow.
If the world says you are a yellow ball, act crazy and be a red ball. There is not a single reason you should have to hide your true nature. Have confidence in your essence. There is nothing wrong with that.
What exactly is the present? The present is the middle point between the past and future, the world that we experience and perceive on a real-time basis. But would you believe it if the world you perceive is not the true “present”? To experience the world, we use our five senses. The brain collates all these sensory information and processes it to construct “the present”. This process takes about 80 milliseconds. Ergo, the world we experience is actually the world as it was 80 milliseconds ago. For a similar phenomenon, consider the stars. The stars we observe are not what they look like now, but what the stars looked liked when they emitted the light that we see. Thus, the star you are looking at may not even exist anymore.
But 80 milliseconds is a very short time; surely it has no impact on our everyday life? To prove that this delay has a critical impact on our understanding of cause and effect, neuroscientists designed the following experiment. The researchers would ask the participant to press a button that caused a light to blink after a short delay. After about ten tries, the participants reported that the delay had disappeared and the light flashed immediately after they pressed the button. This was due to their brain editing out the time delay and directly connecting the cause (button) and the effect (flash). But a much more peculiar phenomenon was seen when the researches removed the delay between the button press and the flash. Participants reported that they saw the light flash before they even pressed the button. The participant’s brain had become so used to the editing process that it was confusing the order of the cause and the effect.
The brain’s time-editing ability can be seen in the following simple experiment. If you touch your nose and toe at the same time, logic dictates that as the toe is further from your brain, the signal will have to travel further and it will be felt later. But in reality, you feel both at the exact same time. This is because your brain uses a map of the body to edit the relative time the signal takes to reach the brain to better construct a “real-time present”.
Yin-yang is a frame of thinking that can be considered a fundamental basis of Eastern philosophy. In ancient Far East Asia, people categorised everything of nature as yin or yang, including natural phenomenon such as human physiology. Yang(陽) is a masculine element, yin(陰) is a feminine element and the two represent the countless symmetries found in nature. Just as there is a sky for the earth, a sun for the moon, a man for a woman and strength for softness, every phenomena in human societies and the universe can be identified in relative terms. The concept of reducing these to a plus and a minus to explain natural events is the concept of yin and yang.
For example, consider a hill in the sunlight. The bright side is called the “yang place” and the opposite, dark side is called the “yin place”. Thus, light is yang, darkness is yin. That is not all. The air that is heated by sunlight becomes warm and rises, while cold air sinks because it is heavy. Yang symbolises heat, lightness and upward, active movement while yin symbolises cold, heaviness and downward, sluggish movement. But that does not mean that yin is bad and yang is good. The reason being, everything that counters each other in nature coexists and forms a balance. Also, as time passes, the sun will move from the east to the west, making the sunny place dark and the dark place sunny. Yin-yang is a law that shows the relativity of nature very well. It shows that everything is relative to each other even if they seem like opposites, forming a harmonious balance and cycle.
Balance forms harmony and nature always seeks harmony. For example, traditional Korean and Chinese medicine is based on the concept that the reason why diseases occur is because of the balance of yin and yang in the human body being broken. To restore the balance, acupuncture and herbal remedies are used, restoring good health. A broken harmony is due to one side being greater than the other as yin and yang form a zero-sum game. This means that as one side waxes, the other side wanes and vice versa, with the sum of the two being equal at all times. But this does not mean that yin and yang oppress and fight each other. Instead, the two rely on each other despite being opposites. In this world, there is no light without darkness. There is no forwards without backwards and no life without death. For instance, if there were only men (yang) in this world, the human race would be wiped out in one generation. But if yin and yang coexist to help each other and form a union, they give birth to a new generation. Nature always exists as a perfectly balanced coexistence of two polarities. When yin and yang form a balance they form something even greater than their sum, which is harmony.
When inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison succeeded after more than 2000 experiments. A young reporter asked how he felt every time he failed, over and over. Edison replied: “Fail? I have never failed. I have merely taken two thousand steps to invent the light bulb.”
You have never failed. You are just taking the steps to success.