In 1964, a graduate student named Donald Currey was studying the history of glaciers in Nevada, USA. He came across some bristlecone pine trees, which he suspected may give him some clues about the Ice Age. This is because previously, another scientist had discovered similar bristlecone pines nearby in California that dated between 3000-5000 years old.
So Currey decided to sample some of these trees to determine their ages. He thought that if he could show that the trees uphill were much younger than the trees at the base, it may prove that glaciers expanded down the mountain and pushed the trees back downhill.
Currey came across a particularly old-looking tree. He got permission from the Forest Service first, then cut the tree down to count its growth rings – the most accurate way to figure out how old a tree is. As the tree’s bark changes in a predictable fashion, a tree will gain one ring for every year of its life. An interesting point is that trees are often dated nowadays by taking a core sample instead of cutting it down (and thus killing it). It is uncertain why Currey and the Forest Service opted to cut the tree down instead.
After counting the rings of this tree, Currey realised that the tree (dubbed “Prometheus” by local naturalists) was 4844 years old – the oldest tree in existence in the world. Well, it was until it was cut down.
More modern analysis of Prometheus’ remains revealed that the tree was likely closer to just over 5000 years old at the time of its death, which makes Prometheus the oldest known tree and (non-clonal) organism in recorded history.
As expected, when Currey published his results, there was a massive outcry. In the name of understanding nature better, he inadvertently killed the world’s oldest tree.
Since the demise of Prometheus, another tree by the name of Methuselah has taken the crown of “oldest tree in the world”, at the age of 4852 as of 2020.
The lesson here is clear: before cutting a tree down, check that you are not accidentally killing the oldest tree in the world.
In spring and summer, everything is green and idyllic, with every tree boasting its own coat of leaves. But in winter, the trees are stripped of their leaves and are forced to show their bare branches. A once lush, beautiful forest becomes a field of bony, crooked wooden skeletons. No matter how magnificent a tree may be in the summer, you can see its true form in winter.
But are the trees ashamed to show their true selves? The reason trees bare themselves in winter is so that they can store up energy and chlorophyll to produce more leaves in spring, when there is more sunshine. The branches continuously reach upward and outward, biding until better time has come.
It is the souls of the trees we see in the winter – continuously struggling to survive, but always holding on until it can bloom its flowers and leaves again. No matter how tough the conditions, these souls live on.
If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?
This may sound absurd, but the question hangs on the definition of sound. Is sound the physical phenomenon of vibrating particles forming a soundwave, or is sound the sensory information that we perceive by converting said soundwave using our hearing system? If you accept the first definition, then yes, the falling of the tree will generate energy that pushes on the air particles around it, causing a soundwave that if someone were to hear it, would sound as a “thud”. But if you accept the second definition, then that tree would not have made a “sound” per se because no one was around to perceive the soundwave. Following this logic, a sound cannot exist without a recipient to hear it.
As simple as this may seem at face value, the riddle explores some deep philosophical and scientific issues.
The most obvious one has been discussed: the definition of sound. But then one must question what would happen if a tape recorder was running when the tree fell. Can a machine hear, even though it cannot “sense”? Is the sound we hear being played from the recorder the same as the sound that was originally made by the tree?
Following on from this thought, how do we know that the sound you hear is an accurate interpretation of the actual soundwave? It is common knowledge that the brain frequently modifies the senses to change what it sees and hears, as seen in various illusions. Furthermore, the brain can generate sensory information without any input, known as hallucinations. You assume that your hearing is flawless and accurate, but in your mind, it is almost impossible to know for sure that the sound you heard is “real”. Taking this further leads in to the massive debate of “what is real?” and “is reality real or is it a product of our mind?”.
A more fundamental question is this: if no one was around to hear the tree fall, does it matter if it made a sound? A pragmatic philosopher might say “no”, as whether the tree made a sound or not makes no difference to your life. However, a scientist may say “yes” as the tree did fall and a soundwave was generated. Whether a person was around to observe it is irrelevant as it does not change the fact that something real occurred. Then what effect does observation have on reality? How do we know that trees make the same sound when we are not around to hear it?
This is a crude dissection of the vast number of questions the riddle offers, but it shows how such a simple thought experiment can be an effective tool to engage your critical thinking. If you do not fully understand the philosophy discussed, at least you can take away the fact that you can use the excuse of “sound is only a perception, I did not hear you, therefore what you said did not happen” when someone tells you to do something.
Author Bernard Werber (the inspiration for this Encyclopaedia) posited the following theory: if we could see the future, would we not actively build towards a better future? Imagine a tree soaring high into the sky, stretching countless branches in all directions. The many branches of the tree branch off into smaller branches, which branch into even more smaller branches. At the end of each branch, there hangs a leaf. This tree is not a normal tree; it is a Tree of Possibilities that represents the flow of time from the beginning of the universe to the distant future. Each split in a branch represents the creation of two different futures due to a choice or a change, while a leaf represents the final future created from the cumulative effects of these changes. Thus, the Tree of Possibilities is the ultimate crystal ball showing all the pasts that could have been and all the futures that can happen.
Of course the Tree of Possibilities is a fictional model created in our imaginations. But what if we could actually make this tree? First, we would create an organisation of the greatest scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, science fiction writers etcetera that represent the many fields of knowledge. These people are gathered in a location far from the reaches of governments and the media, where they can discuss without any interference. These specialists will debate over all sorts of topics, amalgamating their knowledge and intuition to generate a tree diagram as mentioned above. This is a diagram free from ethics, morals, laws, optimism, pessimism and individualism – the ultimate objective view of all possible futures that humanity and the Earth may face. The experts may agree with each other at times and disagree at times. There is ample possibility that their postulations are wrong. But none of these matter. The important point is not that the Tree is “accurate” or not, but that it is an extensive scenario database of all the paths humanity can walk on towards the future.
The Tree of Possibilities will have various conjectures such as: What if nuclear war broke out? What if artificial intelligence is perfected? What if chimpanzees reach the intelligence levels of human beings? What if we build cities on the Moon? However, the future is altered much more easily that you would think. Thus, there will also be branches representing much more trivial and ordinary (even bizarre) postulations as well: What if smoking is banned? What if the average age women gave birth is older? What if rhinoceroses were domesticated pets? What if pianos do not exist?
On analysing these numerous postulations, a branch bearing the leaf with the ideal future will be found. Ergo, we can choose to follow a path of least resistance, where all the choices we make will ultimately lead to that ideal future. Essentially, the Tree of Possibilities is a tool that is used to predict the future. However, it is not “fortune telling” as it is based on logic rather than magic and divinity to see into the future. The future the Tree tells is not a set “destiny”, but rather one “possibility”. Thus, instead of fearing the future like we do with fortunes, we would instead feel excitement over the potential of finding the ideal future. If the path we are currently on is fated to an unhappy ending, then we can simply jump onto a different path with the guidance of the Tree. Unlike fortune telling, which destroys all uncertainty and any other possibilities in the future, the Tree of Possibilities provides humanity with the greatest gift: dreams of a better future.
As you could imagine, the possibilities of the future are infinite so a drawn-out diagram of the Tree of Possibilities would take up extensive amounts of space. Ergo, the ideal form of the Tree of Possibilities would be a computer program. As computer programs only need sufficient storage space, it provides a perfect environment in which the Tree may grow. The program would generate a Tree based on the information provided by the scholars, drawing out each branch and leaf, while also calculating the effects of any action on each of the possible futures. If we further applied the engine used in chess programs to predict the next few moves, then we may be able to create a program that can calculate the ideal future and the path of least resistance for humanity.
My ideal future is this. There is an isolated island, far from any interference, with a large building. At the centre of this building, there lies a supercomputer running The Tree of Possibilities. The computer is surrounded by lecture theatres, conference rooms and residential areas. Thus, specialists of each field may come to stay and use their knowledge to water the Tree and foster it. This island will provide humanity with hopes and dreams, leading them towards the best possible future based on logic and imagination.
The Tree of Possibilities will radically change our day-to-day lives. One of the greatest weaknesses of human beings is the inability to see the long-term happiness and sacrificing it for short-term gain. However, if we were able to see precisely how our actions will affect the future, then would we not act differently? Armed with insight and foresight, people will understand what is best for the future, and instead of the current near-sighted attitude of only seeing the gain right before our eyes, they will act in the best interests of their children and grandchildren. Politicians will see how useless bickering over trifling issues is and instead focus on policies that take a while to show the effects (yet nonetheless important), such as environmental conservation. The Tree of Possibilities will help us make rational decisions to create a world that the future generation will be happy living in, without being swayed by emotions and selfish greed. And so, we will build towards a utopia.
The greatest weapon a person has is imagination that can build the future.
In ancient China and Korea, there are five, not four, basic elements (Japan also has five but they are slightly different). In the East, these five elements are called “oh hang (오행, 五行)” in Korean and “wu xing” in China. These are (read in Korean): hwa (火, fire), su (水, water), mok (木, wood), geum (金, metal), and toh (土, earth). When you combined with the theory of Yin and Yang, the concept is known as the Yin-Yang and the Five Elements theory (eum yang oh hang sul, 음양오행설). Wu Xing is quite different from the Four Elements of ancient Greece in that it explains the changes in life and the universe rather than being the building blocks of matter (“wu xing” translates to “five ways”). To first understand Wu Xing, one must understand that each element is more of an abstract concept than the actual object. For example, “mok” does not mean wood per se, but rather a symbol for the life force of a growing tree.
There are two relationships between the elements in Wu Xing: Creation (상생, 相生) and Destruction (상극, 相剋). Creation refers to the cyclic principle of what generates what, and Destruction refers to what overcomes and represses what. The Creation and Destruction of Wu Xing are as follows:
목생화(木生火): Wood creates Fire. Wood feeds Fire.
화생토(火生土): Fire creates Earth. Fire makes ash which becomes Earth.
토생금(土生金): Earth creates Metal. Earth bears Metal.
금생수(金生水): Metal creates Water. Metal carries Water.
수생목(水生木): Water creates Wood. Water nourishes Wood.
목극토(木剋土): Wood beats Earth. Wood takes roots in Earth.
Can you describe a reed that sways and bends to and fro in the face of wind as strong? Most people associate the word “strong” with something like a tree that stands tall and grand, never bowing to the will of the wind. However, the reed teaches us the important lesson of the strength of flexibility. When a storm strikes, what is left behind are not strips of reed but smashed pieces of wood.
A rigid tree appears strong because it stands so tall and does not move, but in the face of strong winds the opposite happens. As a tree does not bend much, it must face the full force of the wind and ultimately the tree snaps when there is sufficient force. On the other hand, the reed flows and bends in the direction of the wind, deflecting the force away. Not only that, but a reed has both flexibility and elasticity, meaning no matter how much they are bent and beat down, they can stand back up. Ergo, flexibility is stronger than rigidity. Skyscrapers use this concept and they are designed to sway on a windy day. The philosophy is also adopted in martial arts, with deflecting a strike to the side being a far more effective defence than taking the force of the strike directly.
Flexibility has far greater implications than withstanding the wind or a strike. The most important example is personal relationships. A person who never bends and sticks to their opinions may deem themselves “tough”, but they are in fact just a stubborn idiot drowning in a pool of arrogance. Sure, if it is a very important debate then you should stand your ground and state your opinions, but in a normal conversation it is just foolish to angrily state that you are right and never back down. It is far wiser to be flexible like a reed and meet the other person halfway, bending slightly to see their opinions and reach a peaceful agreement. If you stand tall like a tree you will end up standing alone on the same spot forever, but if you can bend to the other person’s flow like a reed, you can have a healthy relationship with them and co-operate. If both sides bend a little for each other, then they can have a smooth conversation and be able to establish co-operation, understanding and solidarity. Flexibility makes both you and the other person happy and allow for co-existence – something that is inevitable in human societies.
The tree may tease and mock the reed for its apparent helplessness and docility against the wind, but after the storm has passed, only the reed still stands. Remember this: instead of ignoring another person’s views and repeating the same words over and over, listening carefully to the other person and being flexible and tolerant is a far wiser and braver act. A wise man is someone who possesses the wisdom and benevolence of being flexible like the reed.