Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Although sex was devised by Mother Nature to promote procreation, humans have been trying to separate the baby-making aspect of sex from the pure carnal pleasure it gives for a very long time. The Romans are known to have used a fennel-like herb called the silphium as a form of birth control. They discovered that the leaves of this plant could be ground up and made into a resin pill, which seemed to reduce the likelihood of women becoming pregnant. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder recorded that one could use the resin as a pill or pessary to promote menstrual discharge, suggesting pregnancy has not occurred.

News of this medicine spread throughout the empire and there was massive demand for it. The plant grew exclusively on a narrow coastal area in present-day Libya and was impossible to cultivate. This meant settlements in this area could trade the plant at a very high price. It is said silphium was “worth its weight in denarii (silver coins)”. Its economic importance is signified in coins from Cyrene (an ancient North African city where silphium was produced) depict the silphium plant or seed. In fact, one theory of the origin of the heart symbol is the shape of the silphium seed pod. Overharvesting of the plant, the fact that it could not be cultivated and other factors such as changing environments and overgrazing ultimately led to the extinction of this plant and scholars still debate the exact identity of the plant.

Although there are records that indicate silphium was used as a contraceptive and abortifacent (substance that induces abortion), it is unclear as to how effective it was. Related plants such as wild carrots have shown to have abortifacent properties in some studies and there certainly are a vast list of plants that could potentially harm or terminate a pregnancy. Regardless of the potency, the heavy trade of the plant and its intended use points towards the fact that the concept of contraception is not new to human civilisations. It is interesting to think that we are the only species to actively want to reduce the risk of making a baby during sex, which is the original purpose of sex.

Posted in Science & Nature


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.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Doorway Amnesia

Have you ever experienced the curious phenomenon where you walk into the kitchen and completely forget why you came there? Or why you stepped out of the house? Almost everyone is struck with this bizarre amnesia at some point in their lives. But why does it happen? Do Men in Black come in and wipe your memory because there was an alien in the room or something? The answer lies in the doors.

It has been scientifically proven that doorways have a magical property of causing memory loss. To be exact, doors do not cause amnesia, but the physical act of passing through a doorway causes the brain to lose memories. The reason for the phenomenon is this. The human brain stores information in a very unique way where it compartmentalises information by physical location. Because of this “filing system”, the thought “I really want cake from the kitchen” that you had in the living room is difficult to access when you are in the kitchen. By crossing a doorway, the brain recognises that the physical location has changed and opens a different “folder”, metaphorically speaking. This system allows for smooth mental functioning usually as it lessens the load on the brain, but also creates confusing situations where you just stand in front of the door, questioning whether you are losing your memory.

In an experiment in France, it was found that when students were told to memorise certain objects and then walk into another room, they had much worse recollection of the objects compared to the control group (students who walked the same distance but not through a door). It was even found that a person did not even have to physically walk through a door to lose their memory. When students were made to repeat the experiment in a virtual setting (i.e. moving a computer character through a door in a game), the same thing happened. The effect was so powerful that the researchers dubbed doorways event erasers.

Although it seems like an inconvenient system, the brain’s special way of compartmentalising information according to physical location can be used to harness the power of complete memory. This is done by using the method of loci, also called the memory palace. This is a mnemonic device first devised by ancient Romans to help memorise a large amount of information. To use the memory palace, you must first visualise a certain location – one that you are familiar enough with to recall with great detail. This may be your room, house, the street you live on, or even a fictional palace. The object of the memory palace is to convert a piece of information into an item which you can place in a certain location in the palace. For example, if you have to memorise a shopping list, you can conjure a mental shelf in your mental palace and put all the items in the shelf. To enhance this effect, make the image as bizarre and fancy as possible, as the mind is prone to remembering weird things more (e.g. a massive apple with eyes and a mouth is more memorable than a normal apple). Once your memory palace is complete, you can take a “mental walk” through the palace, go to the room where the memory you need is stored, and just browse the contents to recall the information. With practice and a vivid imagination, this is an infallible method of remembering anything you want, for as long as you want.

Posted in History & Literature

Pyrrhic victory

Sometimes in war, victory comes at devastating costs. Such was the case for King Pyrrhus of Epirus when he battled the Romans at Asculum in 279 BC. Although Pyrrhus was ultimately victorious, due to the sheer size of the Roman army Pyrrhus’ army suffered significant casualties (but still less than the Roman casualties). Pyrrhus’ forces had been so crippled that another assault by the Romans would have utterly crushed them and led to a massacre.

This led to Pyrrhus’ famous saying: “Another such victory and I come back to Epirus alone”, implying that the cost of victory was so high that there is almost no gain. Such a victory is now called a Pyrrhic victory – a victory that is not really a victory.