Posted in Science & Nature

Brocken Spectre

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.

Posted in History & Literature

Night Vision

During World War II, the British Royal Air Force boasted an impressive accuracy in intercepting Nazi German bombers despite the cover of darkness at night. The British air ministry reported that their fighter pilots ate a large amount of carrots to boost their night vision. Since then, it has become public knowledge that carrots help you see better in the dark.

Unfortunately, this is false. The British air force were not actually using carrots to help see better in the dark; they were using a revolutionary new technology called radar to spot enemy war planes from a far distance. The carrot propaganda was spread to hide this fact from the Germans.

The carrot myth sounds plausible as carrots contain a large amount of beta-carotene, which is converted into vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A is a key chemical required for vision, in the form of retinal. It is true that vitamin A deficiency can cause night blindness. However, the dose of vitamin A required to improve your night vision is so high that it cannot be achieved by simply eating a lot of carrots.

Posted in History & Literature

Wedding Ring

The practice of wearing jewellery to signify the sacred bonds of marriage dates back to ancient Egypt, where chains and bracelets were worn. This eventually evolved into wearing a ring, where the circle symbolised endless love while the open centre represented the doorway to an unknown future. This practice spread to the ancient Greeks, then the ancient Romans, where it became a commonplace tradition around the 2nd century. The Romans called the wedding ring annulus pronubis and it was tradition for a man to give a ring to a woman at the betrothal ceremony to symbolise his eternal devotion.

A wedding ring is most often worn on the fourth finger of the left hand, so-called the “ring finger”. It is uncertain when this tradition arose, as various cultures chose different fingers on different hands for the wedding ring. One theory suggests that the tradition arose from the ancient Romans believing that the fourth finger contained a vein called the vena amoris – a vein that connects directly from the finger to the heart. As the heart is a symbol of love, placing a ring on this finger symbolised eternal love. However, this is a false belief for two reasons. Firstly, every vein, by definition, returns to the heart. Thus, it makes no sense that the fourth finger is special. Secondly, there is no such thing as the vena amoris, with all the veins in each finger having an identical structure (common palmar digital veins). As the circulatory system was not known during ancient times, it is likely that this story is a myth that arose sometime after the Middle Ages when a romantic story was matched with the tradition. It is also likely that jewellery companies marketed such a story to promote wedding ring sales (much like the marketing of the diamond engagement rings).

Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Spinach is a vegetable that is excellent for your health as it is rich in nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. If you ask someone the first two things that come to mind regarding spinach, they will most likely reply Popeye and iron. Popeye is a cartoon that began airing in the 1930’s and every child knows that the man gains superhuman powers from eating a can of spinach. In fact, after Popeye began airing, US consumption of spinach grew 33%. Most people believe that Popeye gains powers due to spinach having a high iron content. Thus, adults always tell children that if they want to be as strong as Popeye, they must eat their spinach.

Unfortunately, eating spinach does not make you as strong as Popeye. In fact, it is not even related to iron either. Firstly, the reason why Popeye eats spinach was because the producers wanted to advertise the high vitamin A content in spinach. Furthermore, spinach does not have a high iron content. The spinach iron myth originated from a German scientist named Emil von Wolff. In 1870, von Wolff was analysing the nutrition contents of different foods when he, from severe fatigue, accidentally misplaced a decimal point while recording the iron content of spinach. This led to spinach being known to have ten times the amount iron it actually has (to the level of red meat).

One problem with this is that this story is not true either. There are no detailed records of von Wolff’s experiments and no one knows if he misplaced a decimal point or not. The myth most likely originates from a 1980 article in The British Medical Journal that first brought up the story. Does that mean spinach is actually is a good source of iron? Wrong. Vegetarians often claim that spinach has iron levels close to red meat, but there is something about iron that they do not know. Many plants have a high iron content (it is found in chlorophyll which is used for photosynthesis), but this is mostly non-heme iron. There are two types of iron the human body can absorb: heme and non-heme. Heme iron can be used directly after absorption whereas non-heme iron needs to be metabolised by the liver to be usable. This takes a long time and is inefficient meaning it is far more effective to eat foods rich in heme iron. Plant iron is all non-heme iron while 40% of iron in red meat is heme iron, meaning it is a much better source of iron. Furthermore, spinach has a high oxalate content, which is an iron absorption inhibiting agent, making what little usable iron it has unabsorbable. 

In short, it is true that spinach has “iron” but as we cannot absorb it or use it, it practically has no iron content. But if you tell this to your parents and refuse to eat spinach, you may get into a lot of trouble.

Posted in Science & Nature

Newton’s Apple

Common belief is that Newton discovered gravity after an apple dropped on his head. Although there is no historical evidence to support this myth, it has become a popular story. There are two common responses to this story: the first is “Wow, Newton was a smart cookie” and the second is “Pfft, I could have discovered gravity without an apple, it is such an easy thing.”

The latter group of people are idiots. Newton did not “discover” gravity. Human beings have known that objects fall to the ground since the dawn of time and have utilised it in ways ranging from sports to killing other people by crushing them with giant rocks. Even animals know of the concept as seen by eagles dropping turtles on rocks to crack the shell. In fact, if you could not figure that out, then you would really be an idiot.

The reason why Newton is famous is not because he found that apples fall from trees, it is because he observed the phenomenon, noting that it was always perpendicular to the ground, which in combination with the knowledge that the Earth is round suggests that objects tend to fall towards the centre of the Earth. Again, Newton’s brilliance was not that he simply observed an apple falling, it was that he pondered it and spent years researching it until he discovered the way gravity behaves. He devised formulas to estimate how gravity functions, even applying it to predict how the moon orbits around the Earth. Thanks to Newton, we are able to model the world around us and send rockets to the moon without launching our astronauts in to the depth of space with no hope of recovery. 

Interestingly, physicists still do not know what causes gravity. There are many theories, such as particles called gravitrons attracting two objects to each other. Although the mathematics of two objects attracting each other has been accurately calculated, it is unknown what causes it. Only after you discover the truth behind how gravity functions can you say that “I could have discovered gravity in my sleep” (actually, even then you probably spent decades just trying to grasp the concept).

Before you criticise, know what you are criticising. 

Posted in History & Literature


The unicorn is pictured as a white stallion with a single, prominent horn on its forehead. It is still loved and is one of the most well-known mythical creatures. As with any mythical beasts, there are interesting stories related to the unicorn.

The horn is the source of the unicorn’s strength – the infinite fountain of magical power that grants the unicorn unmatched strength and speed. If it meets an enemy it either sprints and disappears, or uses its large weapon to impale even the hardest armour. This makes it extremely hard to capture.

Medieval people believed the horn of the unicorn to be a highly valuable magic ingredient, with extremely potent cleansing properties that could purify even lakes and seas. But as the only way to attain the horn is to capture a unicorn, it was an extremely rare commodity.
To catch a unicorn, one must know its most important (yet not well-known in the modern age) trait. Although they are wild beasts with a savage temper, they calm down like lamb in front of one group of people – virgin maidens. If it detects even the faintest scent of a virgin, it rushes towards her and places its head on her lap, soundly falling asleep. Due to this characteristic, it is often portrayed as a symbol of purity and chastity, and also Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.
According to notes written by Leonardo Da Vinci himself, hunters used this trick to capture unicorns that would fall asleep on a virgin’s lap (whom they brought with them to aide in the hunt). Even a mighty beast has a weakness that can be exploited.

On a side note, it is also written that if the unicorn senses that the maiden is not a virgin, it would instantly use its large weapon to impale her until death.