Posted in History & Literature


Think of the world map. Most of you will think of the typical map where Europe and Africa are in the middle, with Russia dominating the Eurasian landmass and Greenland easily outsizing South America.

Mercator projection

The most common world map we use nowadays is based on the Mercator projection. Because the Earth is spherical and maps are two-dimensional rectangles, complex mathematics are involved to project the former on the latter by distorting the picture. The Mercator projection was created by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569. The map was extremely useful for sailors because it depicted the curvature of the Earth in straight lines, making navigation much easier.

However, the Mercator projection severely distorts the size of each continents, meaning the image of the world we have in our heads is completely misleading. According to the Mercator projection, Greenland is as large as Africa, Alaska is as large as continental USA and Antarctica dwarfs every continent.

Gall-Peters projection

To solve this problem, the Gall-Peters projection was suggested in 1974 as an alternative as it correctly displayed the continents’ respective sizes. As you can see, in reality Greenland is significantly smaller than even Australia, Europe and Russia are much smaller than expected and Africa is an extremely large continent.

Dr. Arno Peters argued that the Mercator projection was a biased, euro-centric projection that harmed the world’s perception of developing countries. This of course, led to extreme controversy over the politics of cartography.

Africa vs Greenland

There are many other distortions commonly found in maps. Maps tend to enlarge the landmass of the own country subtly and some American maps go as far as placing the USA in the middle even if it means splitting Eurasia in half. Even though landmass does not correlate in any way with how well the lives of its inhabitants are, such distortions can be seen even nowadays. This shows that not everything you see is as it seems.

Posted in Science & Nature

Alex The Parrot

Alex (Avian Language EXperiment) was the name of an animal psychology experiment that ran for 30 years starting from 1977. The experiment was designed to see if birds could undertake complex problem solving and learn languages like primates. For this, Dr Irene Pepperberg bough an African grey parrot, named him Alex and started teaching him how to speak. Before Alex, scientists believed that animals needed a large enough brain like a primate to handle the complex problems related to language. But Alex proved otherwise.

Before Dr Pepperberg, scientists failed to establish any two-way communication with parrots. She used a new training technique called the model/rival technique, where two trainers act in front of the parrot to teach it things. The method is as follows. One trainer (the rival) shows the other trainer the desired student behaviour they want the parrot to learn. The other trainer then compliments the trainer and shows attention. The parrot sees that the behaviour gets the trainer’s attention and learns it to compete with the rival. This technique was extremely successful and Alex began picking up words at a very fast rate (technically it was more of a two-way communications code than “language”).

Once communication was possible, Dr Pepperberg taught Alex many different concepts. Over the course of his life, Alex learnt 150 words, how to differentiate between seven colours and five shapes and also understood the concept of numbers and sizes. If you showed Alex two objects, he could answer many questions regarding one object (thus showing that his response was not a conditioned one). For example, if you showed him a small blue key and a large green key, he could answer what colour the larger key was, or which one was the green key. Furthermore, if a plate full of objects of different colours and shapes was presented to him, he could correctly count how many green blocks (or any other shape or colour) there was among the objects. The important point here is that he could pick out just the green blocks, excluding green balls or blue blocks from his answers (showing he fully understood the question and could attribute more than one characteristic to one object). He knew how to express himself, such as saying “Wanna go back” when he was tired, and would give playful, incorrect answers when bored of the repetitious experiments. According to Dr Pepperberg, Alex had the intelligence equal to a dolphin, a great ape or a five year-old child. He also knew how to attain knowledge by asking questions, such as when he asked what colour he was to learn the word “grey”.

Alex, who told us so much about the intelligence of a parrot, unfortunately died in 2007. The night before he died, he said the following last words to Dr Pepperberg: “You be good. I love you”.

Posted in Science & Nature

Northern White-Faced Owl

The northern white-faced owl, found in the Sahara Desert of Africa, is a small, cute bird of about 22~24cm length. It is famous for a very unique defence mechanism. As shown in the photo, it normally has a round, puffy appearance, but when faced with a fearsome predator like a hawk, it undergoes a drastic transformation. The owl shrinks itself as much as possible to avoid the enemy’s attention, while looking like a sick bird that has lost a lot of weight. This appearance gives the predator the impression that the owl is not worth the effort of hunting and lowers the chance of it attacking. The ability to shrink to half its original width is achieved through elongating its body and pulling in its feathers as much as possible. Also, when assuming this shape, the owl always faces the predator and poses at an angle to minimise its exposure.

This transformation is only seen when the owl is placed in front of a large predator like a hawk or a much larger owl. When in front of a similarly-sized owl, it exhibits a different transformation where it flares up its wings to make itself look much larger, intimidating the opposition. But this behaviour is common in many other species of owls, whereas the shrinking performance is a rare behaviour only seen in the northern white-faced owl.

(Video showing transformation:

Posted in Science & Nature

Man Versus Ant

A mammal that ranges in size from about 1 to 2 metres.
Weighs between 30kg and 100kg. Females are pregnant for 9 months. 
Omnivorous diet. Population estimated around 7 billion.

An insect that ranges in size from about 0.01 to 3 centimetres.
Weighs between 0.001mg and 1g. Can produce eggs endlessly given there is an ample sperm reservoir.
Omnivorous diet. Population estimated around 1 quintillion (1 billion times 1 billion).

(from The Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)