Touch nature

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

I touched a rhinoceros yesterday; it was pretty awesome.

A real, live rhinoceros. His name is Shaka.

Shaka (1).jpg
Me and Shaka are basically best friends now. | Image: My own.

He was big, warm, rough, and surprisingly docile. He seemed gentle and easygoing, but I was also warned that it’s basically impossible to stop a rhino from doing what it wants to do.

I also met Shaka’s daughter Nomvula¬†and his baby mama Meru and now I’m in love with rhinoceroses.

Baby rhino and mom.jpg
I love rhinos. Rhinos love hay. Does that mean I love hay now? | Image: My own

I had the privilege of getting up close and personal with a rhino yesterday because I have a friend who works at Knowsley Safari,¬†near Liverpool. My friend introduced me to the rhinos’ keeper, Jason, who spent half an hour with us, telling us all about rhino physiology, rhino breeding programs, rhino behaviour, and about the personalities of the Knowsley rhinos.

I learned that the name White Rhino is probably a mishearing of the dutch wijd, referring to their wide mouths (although some parts of the internet disagree). I learned that the horns were probably once used to dig up tubers and aren’t usually used in fights. I learned that it takes five years before a rhino trusts you enough to tolerate you.

It was all supremely interesting, but the thing that stuck with me most and the thing I want to write about is the feeling of touching a wild animal.

Connecting with nature

Actually meeting a rhino connected me to them in a new way.¬†I had read about poaching issues, about the price of rhino horn, about conservation programs. But it all seemed so remote. I cared, but I didn’t really care.

This sense of connection after exposure has been shown with nature more generally: the more time you spend in natural environments, the more likely you are to care about nature and the more likely you are to do things that help it.

Most people tend to appreciate nature already, but there are plenty of selfish reasons to take yourself outside more often. Connection with nature is associated with decreased rates of depression, increased intelligence and faster recovery rates in hospital. People who live close to green space are healthier Рphysically and mentally.

Because of this, some researchers argue that encouraging people to protect the environment would be a solid public health policy.

Social Psychology

So, now knowing all these facts about the benefit of nature, why did it take actually touching a rhino for me to feel connected with nature? There are probably lots of reasons, but I think there are two interesting answers from social psychology: the mere exposure effect and lessons from prejudice research.

The mere exposure¬†effect is a well-studied phenomenon in psychology. People tend to like what they spend time around.¬†It’s why Justin Bieber gets better the more you listen to him. We like familiarity. In a famous 1968 paper¬†that established the effect, Robert Zajonc presented the results of several experiments. This included one where¬†people preferred nonsense words that they repeat more than ones they only say once.

The intuitive truth of this effect is borne out in the advertising industry. While there are other bits of psychology at play in any given ad, ultimately the more you see a brand, the more you will like it. In the same way, I think the more people are exposed to nature, the more they appreciate it.

But this doesn’t explain why just one amazing encounter with a rhino could have such a deep impact on me, for that we need to take a look at research into inter-group relations.

When two groups hate each other, the way to overcome prejudice is to make meaningful contact between the two groups. This is well-established, but a recent meta-analysis of over 500 papers on the topic looked at why contact reduces tension. The three theories were because it brought increased knowledge of the other group, because it reduced anxiety about the other group, and because it allowed people to have empathy with the other group.

While all three were shown to be valid¬†reasons why contact combats¬†prejudice, the second two had the strongest effects. This makes sense in the rhino context. I could learn all the facts about rhinos, but until I got close to one, I wasn’t sure if they would hurt me and I couldn’t empathize with them. I didn’t¬†care about them.

It’s hard to hurt something¬†you care about.

So get outside and hug a tree more often. If you touch nature, you’ll be healthier, happier, and more likely to do it again. Virtuous circles¬†for the win.

I’ve been doing it wrong

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

To rinse or not to rinse. That is the question.

Or, more fully, when you brush your teeth, do you rinse the excess toothpaste out of your mouth with water?

I’d never really thought about this question before Wednesday when a¬†tooth-related incident in my house brought the different tooth-brushing strategies to light. One flatmate, after brushing his teeth, turned the tap on, gathered some water in a cupped hand, and rinsed his mouth out. My other two flatmates were aghast.

“Why are you rinsing!? You’re not supposed to rinse! Jon, get in here, he’s rinsing!”

I ran in to the bathroom and my life changed forever.


Before reading further, take a moment and answer the question. Do you rinse after brushing your teeth, or just spit out the excess toothpaste?

Now that you’ve identified as a rinser or a spitter, prepare to either have your world shaken or to¬†get on the highest horse in the land.


I was surprised by this strong reaction, but I was even more surprised that they had an issue with him rinsing because I’d been rinsing my whole life.

I’m a rinser.

In that moment, I couldn’t believe that I might have been doing something as fundamental as brushing my teeth wrong my whole life. So I did what most 20-somethings with a science blog would do. I got out my laptop and started googling. And I found this official NHS page:¬†How to keep your teeth clean.

It starts off pretty uncontroversial: “Brush your teeth¬†with fluoride toothpaste¬†twice a day¬†for about¬†two minutes¬†to help keep your teeth and mouth healthy.” Great. I do that. So far, so good. But I scrolled down and there was a heading that sent a shiver down my spine.

Don’t rinse with water straight after toothbrushing

“After brushing, spit out any excess toothpaste. Don’t rinse your mouth¬†immediately after brushing, as it¬†will wash away the concentrated fluoride in the remaining toothpaste, thus diluting it and reducing its preventative effects.” Uh oh.

According to several UK sources (like section 2 of this report¬†on Delivering better oral health), I’ve been brushing my teeth wrong my whole life. And there’s a pretty decent chance you have too.

It might just be a British thing, I thought to myself. So I started doing searches for Canadian, American and Australian dental advice.

Canadian advice (like this Canadian Dental Association page on tooth brushing) generally doesn’t say anything about rinsing. Australian advice actually encourages rinsing with mouthwash, something explicitly condemned by the Brits. The Americans are mostly silent on the topic, although I did find an¬†American Dental Association page on mouthwash that implies it’s ok to rinse with mouthwash¬†after brushing, depending on what the bottle says.

So why do Brits care so much about leaving some toothpaste on their teeth?

I have a theory: it’s all about fluoridated water.


The shiny, strong part of a tooth is called enamel, and it’s made mostly of¬†hydroxyapatite. The problem is that in an acidic environment, like your mouth after a cup of coffee, the hydroxy part of the mineral is drawn out and your teeth essentially start to dissolve. Sugar-loving bacteria that live in your mouth also secrete acid as a by-product, which is why sugary foods cause¬†cavities.

But if you put fluoride on your teeth, it can replace the part that the acid dissolved, strengthening your teeth. Fluoride also helps your teeth rebuild and might help kill some of the nasty bacteria.¬†But fluoride can only penetrate a small distance into a¬†tooth, so it’s quite easy to rub off. In order for it to be effective, you need to use it all the time. Twice or more a day, in fact.

To make it easier to get a consistent, low-level exposure to fluoride, governments across the world started adding it to tap¬†water. This was (and continues to be) quite controversial, but if the World Health Organization, Health Canada, expert panels, the CDC and the majority of dentists and scientists agree that it does more good¬†than harm, it’s hard not to be convinced.

The experiment in water fluoridation started in 1945 in the US, with Grand Rapids, Michigan. After 11 years, it was announced that the rate of tooth decay in children in the city had dropped 60% compared to the nearby control city of Muskegon, Michigan.

Canada, where I’m from, got on the fluoride bandwagon pretty early. In the same year that Grand Rapids started its experiment, 1945, Brantford became the first Canadian city to fluoridate water. In due course, they saw the same reductions as their American counterparts. Since then, water fluoridation has taken off. 45% of the Canadian population lives with fluoridated water, with many¬†of the major cities getting on board (Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, and Halifax have fluoridated water, Montreal and Vancouver are notable non-fluoridaters).

Water fluoridation is the official policy of the US Public Health Service, so more than two thirds of Americans have fluoride in their tap water. Australia is even stronger on fluoridation, with their rate pushing 70%. Europe, by comparison, barely fluoridates their water. The only 4 countries that have any fluoridation programs are Spain, Serbia, Ireland and the UK, but less than 10% of the population of these countries have that water.

In the UK, most of the fluoridation happens in the North and in the Midlands. In total, about 6 million people have access to fluoridated water in the UK.

To rinse or not to rinse

So what does all this mean for rinsing after brushing?

My theory is that, in places (like the UK) where water fluoridation is rare, health authorities advise people to leave toothpaste on their teeth because toothpaste is the¬†only major source of fluoride. In places where fluoride is abundant in¬†the water, health authorities don’t really care whether you get extra fluoride from brushing your teeth.

I accept that I’m doing it wrong. While I’m living¬†without fluoridated water, I accept that I should probably become a spitter rather than a rinser. After about a week of trying, though, I can tell you that changing a lifelong habit is really hard. There’s probably some interesting science behind that, but I’ll leave it for another time.

Space is Big

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

I didn’t grow up by the sea, so every time I’m faced with an ocean, I get a true sense of¬†awe. The sheer magnitude of the thing in front of me leaves me speechless. I look out and it’s just water, as far as the eye can see.

Image my own

On a clear day, the horizon for an average person standing by the sea is about 5 kilometres.

So if looking out 5 kilometres in every direction is enough to impress me (and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one), you can imagine why I love looking through telescopes so much.

The moon, an easy target for amateur astronomers like myself, is nearly a hundred thousand times further away than that horizon (384000 kilometres on average). When you look at it through a telescope, you can see start to identify craters and “seas”, just like Galileo did 400 years ago.

Full moon.jpg
Image by Gregory Revera via Wikimedia

And that’s the closest non-Earthly object in the Universe. It only gets further from there.

Light, travelling at the speed limit of the universe, takes about one second to reach us from the Moon. The Sun, which by coincidence is the same apparent size as the moon when viewed from Earth, is 400 times further away. Light takes 8 minutes to reach us from its tumultuous, fusion-fuelled surface.

It takes light 4 hours to get from the Sun to Neptune, the edge of the Solar System (sorry Pluto, you don’t count anymore). Light travelling for 4¬†years will just about get to the nearest star (Proxima Centauri) and to get to the edge of the Milky Way from its centre takes light more than a thousand human generations (50000 years +).

While those distances are starting to get mind-boggling, the Milky Way is only one very tiny part of the Universe. Sure, it contains a billion stars and the only known way that the Universe knows itself, but we’re learning that we’re even smaller than we thought.

The next closest galaxy to the Milky Way is called Andromeda, and together with 52 other mini-galaxies, we live in the Local Group.

Image by Antonio Ciccolella via Wikimedia

The Local Group, in turn, is part of a supercluster of galaxies called Virgo. And that was it Рour Universal address was Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster.

But in 2014, astronomers redrew the map of the local Universe by looking at¬†where galaxies were moving. It turns out that we’re part of a much larger supercluster called Laniakea. The name is apt, meaning ‘immeasurable heaven’ in Hawaiian.

Another recent discovery has shed new light on the size of the universe. In October 2016, astronomers from the University of Nottingham and the University of Edinburgh used data from a new set of Hubble images called Frontier Fields to recount the number of galaxies in the Universe.

The original Hubble Deep Field images, released in 1996, reached further away (and therefore further back in time) than anything previously available. They glimpsed 12-billion-year-old galaxies from the very early Universe.

These Deep Field images had thousands of galaxies in them, so when astronomers extrapolated that out to the whole sky, 120 billion was the agreed number of galaxies in the Universe.

The original Hubble Deep Field from 1996, Nasa via Wikimedia

But¬†120 billion galaxies don’t weigh enough, so astronomers suspected that might be a miscount. This new study uses images that go back 13 billion years and used a mass distribution approach to arrive at a new number that would include galaxies too faint to actually observe.

Their results show that there are 2 trillion galaxies in the Universe, 10 times more than previous thought.

Or, at least, there¬†were 2 trillion galaxies. Many of the small, early galaxies will have merged with others in the intervening 13 billion years, but the light from those mergers hasn’t reached up yet.

With astronomers not only redrawing the map but also doing another census, it turns out space was bigger and fuller than we thought.

What does that mean for the awestruck boy by the sea? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it means that even though he’s smaller than he thought, he should keep wondering and keep seeking to understand¬†his place in the Universe. I take a lot of inspiration from Carl Sagan, so I’ll leave you with this, from Cosmos:

“In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia, we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is a prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.”

Language is Powerful

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

With the election of Donald Trump in November came a torrent of think pieces, op-eds, podcasts, Facebook posts, and tweets. Everyone had something to say and someone to blame. It was Hillary’s fault, it was the Left’s¬†fault, it was Putin’s¬†fault, it was the media’s fault. In trying to understand the election, I was left feeling a bit lost.

How could this happen? How could the American people elect someone like Trump? His policies make no sense, he bragged about sexual assault, he has no political experience. Every day was a new scandal, and yet – he is now the President. I still struggle to understand, but I think some of the most interesting Trump pieces I saw over the past year both came from Evan Puschak (aka the Nerdwriter) and they both analyzed the way Trump uses language.


Word choice matters. Language is powerful.

This isn’t a new idea – George Orwell knew it when he wrote Politics and the English Language¬†– but Puschak’s videos¬†got me thinking: what does science have to say about the influence of language on thought?

So I did a bit of digging and this is what I came up with.

There was a popular theory in the 1940s called Whorfianism (proposed by¬†Benjamin Lee Whorf) that the vocabulary available to people shaped their thoughts. This was supported by ‘facts’ like the oft-quoted (but false) statement that the Inuit have hundreds of words for snow.

The strong form of Whorfianism, that you can only think about things that you have words for, has been refuted. You can think about individual colours, smells, and feelings without having specific words for them. If it were true that thoughts had to have words, we would have a hard time coming up with new words (like glam-ma and YouTuber, two of December 2016’s Oxford English Dictionary additions).

Because of the total academic discrediting of Whorfianism, it became difficult to get funding to do any research linking languages with cognitive processes. In the last couple of decades, however, a weaker form of Whorfianism has arisen and gained some traction.

While language doesn’t determine thinking, it seems to be able to¬†influence it. I’ll leave some links to studies and articles with plenty of examples below, but my favourite is an Australian aboriginal language called Guugu Yimithirr.

In this language, directions like right and left are always replaced by cardinal directions (North/East/South/West), even on small scales. Facing north, a Guugu Yimithirr-speaking woman might lift her eastern hand to pick up an object north of her, before turning to the southwest to switch it to her southeast hand. People who grow up speaking this language must always and instantly be aware of the cardinal directions. The language has created a training regimen that results in an almost supernatural ability to determine direction.

So while language doesn’t necessarily limit thought, it (along with culture and a dozen other factors), does¬†shape¬†it.

With this weaker form of Whorfianism in mind, I wonder whether the emotive language that Trump has been using to such great effect might alter political discourse. If everyone starts playing his game, will language slowly shift be more emotional? Will we become more tuned to the emotional context of language as a result?

Probably not, but it’s interesting to think about.

And here are those links I promised:

American Linguistic Society – Does the language I speak influence the way I think?

Scientific American – Does language shape the way we think?

New York Times – Does your language shape the way you think?

Buzzfeed – The Inuit don’t have 100 words for snow, so why does the myth persist?

Lera Boraditsky¬†–¬†How the languages we speak shape the ways we think

Steven Pinker – What our language habits reveal

Wikipedia – Linguistic relativity, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language and thought

Lead image by Gary Skidmore

Z is for Zeno

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

It’s early in the morning. ¬†The caffeine from your morning cup of coffee has yet to fully kick in, but as you turn the corner, you see your bus. ¬†It’s just pulling in to the stop and is only 50m away. ¬†You know you can make it, so you break into a sprint.

It takes you 3.5s to travel 25m and get¬†halfway to the bus. ¬†In that time, an old lady has gotten off. ¬†You’re halfway there and there’s still a few people who need to get off. ¬†You’ll definitely make it.

In only 1.75s you’re already halfway to the bus again (12.5m).¬†There’s only one person left to get off.

Another 0.875s and you’ve travelled the 6.25m that gets you halfway to the bus again. ¬†There is nobody left to disembark.

In less than half a second, you’re halfway again, just over 3m from the bus. ¬†The driver must see you. ¬†He’ll wait, right?

In less time than it takes you to¬†blink (0.22s), you’re 1.5m away, almost close enough to touch the bus. ¬†So close, and yet, somehow, you’re not quite there yet.

In order to catch the bus, you need to get halfway to the bus first.  Getting to the halfway point, no matter how short a journey, will take you some finite amount of time.  Unfortunately, there are an infinite number of halfway points between you and the bus.  According to a grumpy Greek philosopher from the 5th century BCE named Zeno of Elea, you will never get to the bus.  In fact, he argued that all motion is impossible.  It is merely an illusion.  This paradox, also called the Dichotomy, is one of four paradoxes that Zeno used to demonstrate this idea and it has been notoriously hard to refute.

One attempt at refutation was made early on by Diogenes¬†the cynic, who was said to have silently stood up and walked across the room. [Incidentally, Diogenes was a hilariously stubborn man who was prone to philosophical stunts like intentionally distracting Plato’s students by obnoxiously eating¬†food in¬†lectures; walking around the market in daylight with a lamp in search of an “honest man”; and sleeping in a big ceramic jar in the market to prove that wealth was a corrupting influence.] ¬†While this does contradict Zeno’s conclusion that motion is impossible, it doesn’t address the argument itself. ¬†Zeno’s response would simply be that Diogenes crossing the room, just like you trying to catch your bus, is your senses tricking you into seeing motion where there was none.

Aristotle tried to refute the Dichotomy by distinguishing “actual” from “perceptual” infinities. ¬†The 50m line between you and the bus at the start of the scenario¬†can¬†be divided into an infinity of half-runs (therefore it is a perceptual infinity), but that is a geometrically different phenomenon than the single, undivided 50m line (the actual infinity). ¬†Aristotle conceded that Zeno found something that is impossible (running infinite half-runs), but maintained that this was not what actually happens when somebody moves¬†(running a single finite line).

This doesn’t seem satisfactory to me. ¬†Aristotle’s distinction is an artificial one and misses the point that Zeno was trying to make. ¬†The world would need to wait for the 19th and 20th centuries for mathematicians to start talking about infinite series and to resolve Zeno’s Dichotomy paradox.

In mathematics, a series is¬†what you get when you add up all of the numbers in a given sequence. ¬†Consider the sequence¬†of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4…. ¬†The pattern here is that you add one to the previous number. ¬†The first three terms add to 6, the first four add to 10. ¬†Every number you count up adds to the total and as long as you keep going, the total sum will get higher and higher. ¬†This is an example of a divergent series because there is no number that the series settles on.

Now consider the sequence¬†of numbers 25, 12.5, 6.125, 3.0625… ¬†The pattern here is that each number is half of the previous one. ¬†Unlike the sequence above, if you continue the sequence, the numbers get smaller and smaller. ¬†You will get closer and closer to 50¬†until you run out of space to put the 9s after 49.99999… ¬†For all intents and purposes, you will have reached 50. ¬†This solves the problem practically and is analogous to the way that we understand derivatives and integrals. ¬†Understanding how and when infinite numbers of parts can add up to finite (and known) quantities¬†has been incredibly helpful for us. ¬†It’s the principle behind the dampening of oscillations in springs and sound waves, it lets engineers understand how wind will affect their bridges, and it lets Usain Bolt get to the finish line.

Somehow, though, this resolution¬†still leaves me dissatisfied. ¬†It’s just a more useful and mathematically rigorous version of Diogenes’ walk across the room. ¬†In some ways, Zeno’s Dichotomy paradox still haunts modern mathematics. ¬†Kevin Brown (possibly a pseudonym for a mysterious math/physics writer), in his 2015 book “Reflections of Relativity” writes somewhat ironically of the paradox’s resolution, “it’s probably foolhardy to think we’ve reached the end. It may be that Zeno’s arguments on motion, because of their simplicity and universality, will always serve as a kind of “Rorschach image” onto which people can project their most fundamental phenomenological concerns…”

And with that, we’ve reached the end of the ABCs of interesting things. ¬†Thanks for joining me on this wonderful journey. ¬†That being said, it’s probably foolhardy to think we’ve reached the end of the Thoughtful Pharaoh.

[Featured image: Grandjean, Martin (2014); License:]

Y is for You!

It’s been 25 weeks since we started this epic journey through the alphabet together, and sadly we are nearing the end. ¬†At this critical juncture, just one letter away from the finality of zed, I thought I would bestow my Pharaoh powers on to you, dear readers.

Comment below with your burning science questions, and I will answer them all next week in my final ABCs of Interesting Things post.

Thank you for reading.  I leave this quest in your very capable hands.

I want YOU to ask me questions

For those still aching for some¬†interesting science facts, how about these “you” facts:

There are more bacterial cells in and around you than human cells.

All of the atoms in your body¬†were made inside stars, as the great Carl Sagan said the 1980 TV Series Cosmos: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies, were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. ¬†We are made of starstuff.”

X is for Xenophobia

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

A lot happened in the summer of 1954. ¬†The world’s first atomic power station opened in Russia, Alan Turing committed suicide, the CIA set up a coup in Guatemala, food rationing finally ended in the UK, and the first edition of Sports Illustrated was¬†published. ¬†Some pretty big world events, right?

You know what else happened? ¬†22 white, middle class boys boarded a bus to a Boy Scouts of America camp in Oklahoma. ¬†And I’m going to tell you why you should care that they did.

The Robber’s Cave Experiment

On one (presumably sunny) day in 1954, two busses each picked up eleven 11-year-old children who had been¬†screened to be “normal” (Remember, this was 50s America, so that meant white, protestant, middle class, two parents, above-average test¬†scores) and who didn’t know each other. ¬†The busses drove their “normal” boys to a summer camp called Robber’s Cave and deposited them on opposite sides, each group not knowing that the other existed.

For about a week, under the careful surveillance of psychologists posing as counsellors and camp staff, they participated in group bonding activities. ¬†[In some ways, ethics boards have made psychology a lot more boring. ¬†At the same time, it’s probably better that we now consider it unethical to Truman-show 22 pre-teens].

They camped out, played baseball, went swimming, and generally got to know each other.  They even came up with a name for their groups and emblazoned insignia on their t-shirts and caps.  One group killed a snake by a river and dubbed themselves the Rattlesnakes, the other group decided to be patriotic and called themselves the Eagles.

Then came the interesting part.

The experimenters introduced the groups to each other.

The Eagles and the Rattlesnakes were pitted against each other in a series of competitions Рbaseball, touch football, tug-of-war, and a treasure hunt.  The key aspect of these games was that one group always won and the other lost.  They were zero-sum games.

The result was a little bit scary. ¬†The groups started to hate each other. ¬†It started off with names like “sneak”, “cheat”, and “stinker” but soon developed into cabin raids, flag-burning, and even one Eagle telling another to brush the “dirt” of his clothes after bumping into a Rattler. ¬†There was some serious xenophobia (fear or disgust for the “other” or “alien”). ¬†The experimenters stopped the activities for fear of escalation to serious violence and started to think about how they might eliminate this extreme prejudice.

The crazy part is that these were all “normal” boys who didn’t know each other beforehand and had no reason to hate each other besides that their groups (that had also only been formed weeks ago) were in direct competition.

The experimenters tried to bring the groups together at mealtimes and for positive evening activities, but that only served to escalate the hatred.  They hurled food at each other at dinner time and jostled to be first in line.

What the experimenters tried next was pretty genius. ¬†They got the groups to try and work together to solve problems that affected everyone. ¬†One night the truck that was supposed to deliver food “broke down” so they all teamed up and pulled it out of the ditch with their tug-of-war rope. ¬†Another day, the water supply pipeline broke and they all worked together to find the leak.¬†These superordinate (larger than the group) goals brought the Rattlers and Eagles together.

Inter-group relationships built because of these events and at the end of the camp, some campers asked to mix up the busses and one group that had won $5 in a competitive contest offered to buy milkshakes on the ride home for the whole group.  How nice.  They had been reconciled as easily as they had been set against each other.

A 1997 study showed how this sort of reconciliation can be contagious. ¬†It isn’t just people who have friends in other groups who will be more likely to be empathetic. ¬†If you know someone who has friends in another group, you will be more likely to be nice to people in that group. ¬†Sounds a bit complicated, but basically if you have a friend who¬†is a clown, it’s not only you who will be more likely to not hate clowns, but also all of your friends. ¬†As soon as a few Rattlers got to thinking that maybe the Eagles weren’t so bad, the positive feelings¬†probably spread pretty quickly.

Chemical Basis for Xenophobia

But what was going on in their brains to make this happen?

Don’t worry, the kids weren’t lobotomized to find out.

A 2010 Dutch study out of the University of Amsterdam¬†showed that Oxytocin, the “cuddle chemical”, might have something to do with it.

Research subjects who had ingested some Oxytocin were more “ethnocentric” than their placebo-munching counterparts. ¬†People with a bit of extra Oxytocin in their systems were more likely to say they would sacrifice¬†the lives of many¬†outgroup members to¬†save the life of one ingrouper and associated more positive, human words with¬†ingroupers and more negative, dehumanizing words with outgroupers.

The Robber’s Cave Experiment was one of the first field experiments in¬†social psychology. ¬†It inspired Philip Zambardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment¬†and¬†Stanley Milgram’s Obedience Experiment. ¬†It pushed people to consider¬†why¬†they acted in bigoted ways and showed how easy it can be to both turn people on each other and bring them back together. ¬†When we mistreat people who belong to different racial/social/economic groups, are we really being any more¬†than rational than the Eagles and Rattlers? No, we aren’t.

To find out more about the Robber’s Cave experiment, read this summary article by the leader experimenter, Muzafer Sherif, and this webpage.

Muzafer Sherif is also famous for a series of studies using an interesting phenomenon known as the autokinetic effect.  he showed that people will create group norms and stick to them even when the group is taken away.

W is for Wasps

It’s summer time. ¬†And you know what that means? Sure, summer means picnics, barbecues, and sun.

But it also means the coming of the most dreaded outdoor villains: wasps.

Some people freeze up when they see the stripey serial stingers, others try to wave them away. ¬†I prefer the stoic strategy of a short, sharp yelp followed by a crazed hand-waving motion. ¬†It’s not a conscious decision, nor one that I am proud of, but the wasps seem to get the idea that I don’t want them around.

What is a wasp?

Image by Stannered

In taxonomic terms, a “wasp” is any member of the suborder¬†Apocrita¬†that isn’t a bee or an ant. ¬†While that may help useful for biologists, it doesn’t really tell us anything about the creatures.

Wasps are a varied group of hairless, six-legged flying insects that measure anywhere from to 1mm (Fairy Wasp) to 4.5cm (Japanese Hornet).  There are thousands of species of wasp, many of which are specially adapted to feed on and parasitize insects we would regard as pests.


And the way they parasitize those pests can be cruel indeed.  Some parasitoid wasps lay their eggs inside their prey, only to have the eggs hatch a few weeks later, letting their young eat their way out of the unsuspecting caterpillar that has been feeling a strange itch recently.

Other wasps lay their eggs inside plants, genetically modifying a plant’s¬†seeds to suit the wasp’s¬†needs.

Still other inventive wasps have figured out that they can lay their eggs in the nests of other wasps and trick another queen into raising their young.

It seems there is nothing a wasp won’t lay its eggs in.

Fighting Wasps

Not all wasps are content merely laying eggs in unusual places.  Some have acquired a taste for honey.

Meet the Japanese Giant Hornet.

While European honeybees haven’t developed defenses, asian honeybees have discovered a way to fry invaders.

So while you may just think of them as a nuisance when you’re trying to enjoy your picnic, remember that with wasps, there is more than meets the eye.

V is for Vitruvian Man

VitruvianThis drawing, of a man contained within a circle and a square, is one of the most recognizable in the world.  It seems to fascinate people and has a way of transcending time and space to connect with its viewers.  It also is really easy to parody.

The original document, pictured above and created¬†by Leonardo Da Vinci, has two major components: the drawing itself, and two paragraphs of¬†writing. ¬†Both deserve some attention, because while this image is rather commonplace in our culture, most people don’t realize how many layers there are.


First off, why is the drawing even called the “Vitruvian Man”? ¬†Is Vitruvius a place or something?

That was my first thought, but it turns out that Vitruvius was a man.  Vesuvius = volcano, Vitruvius = man.

Vitruvius was a roman architect¬†whose ten-part treatise on architecture,¬†De architecura, was the only document about architecture to survive from antiquity. ¬†This means we owe much of our knowledge of the theory behind Roman aqueducts, central heating, and water pumps to this book. It is also the source of the (possibly apocryphal)¬†story of Archimedes, his discovery in a bathtub, and his shout of “Eureka!”.

Vitruvius held that the three basic elements of good architectural design were strength, functionality, and beauty. ¬†These elements are so important that they remain mainstays of modern architectural theory. ¬†He was also especially interested in proportion. ¬†He believed that ‘beautiful’ proportions were those based on nature. ¬†And what more perfect example of nature was there than Man?

He believed that a perfect male body would fit the following conditions and that these proportions could be used to design perfect buildings.

For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom.

And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height, as in the case of plane surfaces which are perfectly square.

-Vitruvius’ De architectura

And then his writings were lost for more than a thousand years.

They were re-discovered in the 1400s in Italy and gained traction amongst Renaissance artists.

The drawing

And which¬†Renaissance artist should be more¬†intrigued by the challenge of drawing¬†Vitruvius’ man¬†than Leonardo Da Vinci, the namesake of everyone’s second favourite Ninja Turtle?

It's ok Leonardo, you may be my second favourite Ninja Turtle, but you'll always be my favourite Renaissance painter.
It’s ok Leonardo, you may be my second favourite Ninja Turtle, but you’ll always be my favourite Renaissance painter.

Da Vinci realized that in order for Vitruvius’ description to work, the centre of the square¬†needed to be lower than the navel. ¬†This lateral thinking separated Leonardo from other artists whose attempts to keep the same centre for both shapes made their men look strange.

cesariano-vitruvius-1 De_Architectura030

The other thing that separates Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man is the dual positioning. ¬†It gives a sense of movement to the piece as if it is an early kind of animation. ¬†One unfortunate consequence of this is that the drawing doesn’t render very well in 3D and looks kind of like an alien:

An alien through the trees!  Image by Matt Brown
An alien through the trees! Image by Matt Brown

The writing

The drawing itself certainly draws a lot of attention, but few take the time to look at the writing. ¬†This is partially because it is in illegible script, and¬†the script is triply illegible to me. ¬†First of all, I’m just bad at reading old, faded cursive script. ¬†Second, it’s in Italian and I don’t understand Italian. Third, and most interestingly in my opinion, it’s written in mirror writing. ¬†Why he did this is unknown, but it might have helped him avoid smudging as he wrote with his left hand.

The content of the paragraphs describe all of the proportions present in the drawing.  For Da Vinci (and Vitruvius), the distance between the tip of the fingers and the elbow is called one cubit and it is exactly six times the width of a palm and one quarter the height of a person.

There are 15 such proportions below that I encourage you to try out.  How do you measure up to the Vitruvian Man?

  • the length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man
  • from the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of a man
  • from below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of a man
  • from above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of a man
  • from above the chest to the hairline is one-seventh of the height of a man.
  • the maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • from the breasts to the top of the head is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • the distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of the height of a man.
  • the length of the hand is one-tenth of the height of a man.
  • the root of the penis is at half the height of a man.
  • the foot is one-seventh of the height of a man.
  • from below the foot to below the knee is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • from below the knee to the root of the penis is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • the distances from below the chin to the nose and the eyebrows and the hairline are equal to the ears and to one-third of the face.

To learn more about this topic, watch this BBC documentary (part 1, part 2) on the subject that inspired this post.

U is for Ununoctium and the Island of Stability

Quick, without looking it up: how many elements are there on the periodic table?

If I had asked that question before the first hydrogen bomb exploded in 1952, the answer would have been 98. ¬† In that year, humans succeeded in synthesizing the first element that the crucibles of¬†stars¬†and supernovae hadn’t supplied to Earth: Einsteinium.

Boom.  Image public domain
Boom. Image public domain

Since then, we’ve been busy bees, building bigger atoms by smashing protons and neutrons together. ¬†63 years after the first atoms of Einsteinium were made off the coast of an atoll in the Pacific and according to the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), there are 114 official, named elements. ¬†Those 16 additional elements were not easy to make, but we’re far from done.

I want to tell you the story of the outer reaches of the periodic table. The tale involves magic (no, seriously… there’s an important concept called magic numbers)¬†and a legendary island in the midst of a terribly unstable sea (again, not just metaphors here… Chemists have theorized of an island of stability that lies in the midst of a sea of instability), but the edge of the chemical world¬†is dark and full of terrors. ¬†Before making our way to the brink, I need to prepare you with the tools you need to wade out into the sea of instability to find the island of stability.

Always have to be careful in the world of chemistry.  Image by Eliot Phillips
Always have to be careful in the world of chemistry. Image by Eliot Phillips

So what is an “element” anyways?

Atoms, the¬†basic building blocks of matter, are made up of electrons whizzing around in clouds around central nuclei. ¬†A nucleus is made of positively charged protons and neutrons without a charge. An atom is said to be a particular element because of¬†the number of protons it has. ¬†If an atom has one proton, it will be called hydrogen. ¬†A hydrogen with extra neutrons or electrons will still be hydrogen, but as soon as another proton is introduced, you’ve gone and made yourself a helium.

A cartoon of an atom with electrons in black, neutrons in blue, and protons in red.
A cartoon of a Lithium atom with electrons in black, neutrons in blue, and protons in red.

In that sense, atoms are just like me with breakfast: change up the cereal or the fruit but touch the coffee and I turn into a whole different person.

At this point you might be asking yourself what the point of neutrons or electrons is if they have no effect on the name of an atom.  The utility of electrons is pretty obvious: the tiny, whizzing balls of negative charge allow atoms to bind together and, because atoms are mostly empty space, their mutual repulsion is what gives matter the illusion of being solid.

Neutrons and Why We Need Them

The role of neutrons is a little bit less obvious.  They have almost all the same properties as protons (same mass, same size, made up of quarks) but lack a charge.  This similarity but lack of charge keeps them subject to the strong nuclear force, just like protons, but avoids the electromagnetic force.  The strong force acts only at very short distances and, like its name suggests, is very strong.  The electromagnetic force, like Paula Abdul suggested in the 80s, acts to keep like charges apart and opposite charges together.

That means protons have a problem if they want to live together in a nucleus.  Protons are by definition positively charged and would be repelled by each other if it were up to the electromagnetic force alone.  This is where neutrons come in.

Neutrons act like nuclear glue: they exert extra strong nuclear force pressure to keep protons together without any electromagnetic effects. ¬†Small nuclei don’t need much glue: Helium has 2 protons, 2 neutrons; Lithium has 3 protons and 4 neutrons. ¬†Bigger nuclei need a lot more glue (e.g. gold – 79 protons, 118 neutrons, lead – 82 protons, 126 neutrons).

Charting the Nuclear Waters

The question soon became: how big can we go?

It has long been known that any element with more than 82 protons (anything past lead on the periodic table) will be inherently unstable.  It will decay radioactively by shedding protons and neutrons until a stable configuration is reached.

Radioactive elements are still elements, though. ¬†They just don’t stick around for as long. ¬†Typically, heavier atoms are less stable. ¬†Just ask Livermorium, whose atoms have a half-life of only 60 milliseconds.

If you start to graph the stability of atoms according to their number of protons and neutrons, it quickly becomes apparent that larger nuclei need proportionally more neutrons to be stable.

The black line at 45 degrees shows when proton numbers = neutron numbers. The black dots are stable nuclides. Past 82 protons (lead), there are no more permanently stable nuclides.  Image by Sjlegg

Some scientists think there could be as many as 7000 different nuclides (combinations of protons and neutrons) that would be stable enough to observe, if only for a fraction of a second.  We currently know of 3000.

Another trend that scientists noticed is that there appears to be particular numbers of neutrons or protons that make for unusually stable atoms. ¬†Those numbers, as of 2007, are 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, and 126. ¬†They have been dubbed “magic numbers”. ¬†Atoms with a magic number of protons and a magic number of neutrons, like Helium (2 and 2) or Calcium (20 and 20) are said to be “double magic”.

The Island of Stability

In the 60s, it was suggested that beyond the current¬†range of the periodic table lies a set¬†of theoretical atoms that could be very large and very stable. ¬†With a “magic” number of protons and neutrons,¬†the atomic components could be arranged in just such a way as to maximize the glueyness of neutrons and spread out the repulsion of protons.

The fabled island itself.
The fabled island itself.  Image by InvaderXan

The metaphor was so vivid that it soon became adopted and has been used ever since.  Scientists even talk of landing on the shores of the island, but its oases still lie undiscovered and unspoilt.


Before they were confirmed to be synthesized in the lab, the edges of the periodic table were given temporary names according to a set of naming conventions. ¬†These rules are a¬†strange hybrid¬†of greek and latin roots for the element’s¬†number.

The most recent transition from lati-greek to English and official additions to the periodic table were Flerovium (element 114, previously ununquadium Рquad is latin, tetra would be greek) and Livermorium (element 116, previously ununhexium Рhex is greek, sex would be latin).

The synthesis of element 117, Ununheptium, was announced in 2014, but IUPAC is still reviewing the findings.  The chemistry world continues its search for Ununoctium and speculation about its properties varies from unusually stable to unusually reactive.

One thing is for certain: when it is synthesized, it won’t last long.