Throat singing: a storm of sound on the steppes

By Sam Jarman

The day dawns cold, clear, and still. A nomadic Mongolian herder knows that sound will carry well in these conditions, so he takes his chance. Climbing onto his horse, he rides into the wilderness, intent on finding a place where he can honour one of his people’s most sacred traditions. Using only his voice, he will imitate the song of birds, the hum of wind streaming over a rugged mountainside, and the hooves of wild galloping horses.

Finding the right spot is crucial. The herder needs to probe the nearby river valleys and mountaintops, to discover the place where his song will sound the most clearly.  If he chooses well, his voice could be heard for miles across the surrounding plains. He has learnt from his ancestors to use the Mongolian steppe as a sound studio; its open landscape providing the perfect acoustics to carry his voice. When he finds the right place, he begins his song.

His mesmerising chant often doesn’t sound like anything a human could create with their voice. The song could vary in pitch between being hauntingly deep, and as high as a flute. But astonishingly, he can sing both of these pitches, and many tones in between, at the same time.

For generations, people in Mongolia and surrounding areas in Siberia and northern China have learnt to use their voices to mimic the sounds of nature with a hypnotic accuracy. Even in the face of modernisation, the tradition remains as strong as ever today. It’s hardly surprising that the extraordinary talent of throat singing has become one of the most famous and iconic traditions in Mongolian culture.

Many Mongolians learn to throat sing from a very young age, but the techniques they use to produce such a bewildering array of sounds are anything but simple. To truly understand how they do it, we need to explore the anatomy of our own voices, and the physics of the acoustic waves we create with our vocal apparatus. Throat singers have learnt to intricately manipulate these acoustic waves to produce some astonishing sounds.

How it’s made: the human voice

Like any breath, or a normal speaking or singing voice, the song of a throat singer begins life as the lungs contract, forcing out a column of oxygenated air. The air travels upwards through the tube connecting our lungs to our throats, known as the trachea. But to distinguish the breath from a noiseless exhale, it first needs to pass through the larynx, sitting just above the trachea. The larynx contains a set of two vocal chords, which contract to a thin slit when we decide we have something to say, or rather sing.

Looking top-down: this little slit is responsible for every word you’ve ever said, even the embarrassing ones | Image: Henry Vandyke Carter

As air passes through the contracted vocal chords, they are forced to vibrate. These vibrations chop the air column up, forcing it to vibrate itself. At regular intervals, the air will be blocked entirely, and then be let through in a sudden rush. So, the air coming through the vocal chords vibrates in a pattern we are probably very familiar with: a sound wave.

The pitch, or frequency of these sound waves is ultimately decided by the size of our vocal chords. The tension in the chords, and the size of the gap between them, determine how much the sound waves they produce will vibrate over time. This gives them an important property, called the fundamental frequency ‚Äď a value which entirely defines the unique pitch of each of our voices.

The fundamental frequency is heavily dependent on gender. Women‚Äôs vocal chords are usually smaller, meaning the air column in the trachea vibrates more over time, giving the sound waves a higher frequency. For men, larger chords will cause the air column to vibrate at a lower frequency. But the fact that no two voices sound the same can’t be explained by variations in pitch alone.

A sound wave in it’s purest form – you can see how air is compressed and spaced out at regular intervals. This type of wave is easy to understand, but lacks emotional depth… | Image: Pluke

On top of a fundamental primary wave in our voices, there are many smaller, higher-frequency waves also created by the vocal chords. Called overtones, each of these waves has a distinctive frequency; the first will have twice the frequency of the fundamental wave, the second will have three times the frequency, and so on. When stacked on top of each other, all of these waves create one intricate and complicated sound wave. This is the sound of our voices, as unique to each of us as our fingerprints.


…The sound waves of our speech are much more complicated

Already, these sound waves can accurately express our emotions. When listening to other people, our minds can tell if their voice indicates happiness, sadness, anger, or surprise, simply by picking up subtle patterns in its loudness and variations in frequency. But to turn the sound waves into a coherent language, the air finally passes through our mouths. The continuous movements of our throats, tongues, and lips sculpt sound waves into the words we use to communicate with each other (here’s a pretty hilarious demonstration of how it works).

We use our vocal apparatus so often that we don’t need to consciously think about how we need to manipulate it to produce the particular sounds we want. But for Mongolian throat singers, the anatomy we normally use to talk and sing has untapped potential. The secret of their captivating sound lies in an important phenomenon in acoustic physics, known as resonance.

Resonance: a perfect storm of sound

Every object in nature has a natural frequency it vibrates at. Normally, any vibrations the object interacts with won’t have the same frequency as its natural frequency. But if the two frequencies match up (with a few physical constraints), the object’s vibrations can become much larger. One of the most famous examples of resonance is the bizarre collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge in 1940:

The reasons why the Tacoma Narrows bridge acted so strangely before collapsing have been strongly debated, and still aren’t fully understood. But the most agreed-upon theory is that patterns in the strong winds blowing across the bridge that day had just the right frequency to induce resonance in the bridge, causing a huge standing wave to form in the it’s road. Eventually, the bridge’s suspension cables gave out, but not before giving an outlandish display of the properties of physics.

In the case of our vocal apparatus, the natural frequency is determined by the sizes of the gaps which the sound waves of our voices need to pass through. If the wavelength of the sound is equal to the size of the gap, the gap itself will be forced to vibrate, creating its own waves with the same frequency as the original sound. All of the waves add together in a ‘perfect storm’ to amplify the sound, making it much louder than it was originally ‚Äď a resonant sound wave is formed.

Throat singers have learnt to manipulate parts of their vocal anatomy to produce resonant sound waves artificially. Different types of throat singing can cause resonance in different parts of the singer’s vocal apparatus. This creates a wide array of different types of throat singing, which each have their own name in the Mongolian language. The different styles are too numerous to cover in one article, but a smaller number of fundamental styles give rise to many of them.


In this style of throat singing, one or more of the smaller, higher-frequency overtone waves are caused to resonate as they pass through small, specifically-sized gaps in the singer’s throat and mouth. These waves are normally subtly engrained into our voices as individual overtones, but here, they can be heard as distinct, mesmerizingly clear sounds.

Astonishingly, the sound can be heard over the singer’s primary singing tone, meaning more than one note can be sung at a time by a single person. By the nature of our natural vocal sound waves, if we isolated all of the overtones which make up our voices, they would all be in harmony with one another. That means that the singer’s overtones create a one-person symphony without any further effort.

Typically in Khoomei, the singer will chant one continuous primary note, and then vary the overtones which are resonated. This creates a strong base sound, with a higher -pitched tune being sung above it. Mongolians believe the multiple tones of Khoomei give the impression of wind as it swirls around rocks and boulders, creating an enchanting natural chorus.

Sound: Alash Ensemble


The highest of our natural overtones have far higher frequencies than anything a human could create with their natural voice. In this style, singers create a tiny gap between their tongues and teeth, to match the wavelengths of their highest-frequency overtones. The sound is shrill and piercing ‚Äď as close as the human voice can come to sounding like a flute.

Like Khoomei, this style involves a steady fundamental tone being sung, with the resonant overtone above it. Yet in Sygt, the high-pitched overtone dominates the song; the gap which sound waves need to pass through is so small that the primary wave is greatly diminished. To Mongolians, Sygt is intended to mimic the sound of birdsong, and the warm, gentle summer breezes over the steppes.

Sound: Alash Ensemble


Situated right above the vocal chords are two folds of membrane which look similar to the vocal chords, but normally serve an entirely different purpose. The ventricular folds are there to prevent food and drink from entering our airways, but throat singers have learnt to manipulate them to produce one of their most iconic sounds of all.

By manually contracting their larynx to exactly the right shape, throat singers can bring their ventricular folds and their vocal chords together. So when air passes through the vocal chords, the ventricular folds will resonate themselves, producing their own sound. However, this resonance is unlike the effects seen in other types of throat singing; here, the ventricular folds vibrate at exactly half the fundamental frequency, creating an artificial undertone.

In musical terms, halving the frequency of a sound will bring it down an entire octave. This has astonishing implications for throat singers. Kargyraa singers can reach a wide range of notes far deeper than anything they could sing using their vocal chords alone. The effect is a haunting, low-pitched sound, reminiscent of rolling thunder, or the mournful cries of a camel after losing her calf.

Sound: Alash Ensemble

Kargyraa in particular can partly explain why throat singing still remains so popular in Mongolia today, and is even facing a resurgence. In the past, social taboos meant that women weren’t allowed to practice the tradition, but now, these barriers are breaking down. Female vocal chords may be smaller, but women can still contract their ventricular folds to create a fantastically deep sound:

Now that men and women have equal opportunities to practice the art, throat singing is being taught to boys and girls across Mongolia and the surrounding regions; all eager to pass on the traditions of their ancestors. The iconic sound has made its way into concert halls and recording studios, and in the West, throat singing has gone from a mysterious, alien practice, to one which is beginning to influence our own culture.

Anatomically, there is no special adaptation among the Mongolian people that enables them to throat sing better than anyone else. It’s no easy talent to learn, but we are all capable of recreating the effects of resonance on our voices, if we practice for long enough.

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.

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:]

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.

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.

S is for Simple Rules

By Jonathan Farrow from the Thoughtful Pharaoh

Consider the following: schooling fish, roundabouts, segregation, and human consciousness are all examples of the same fundamental property of the world.  It may seem crazy to suggest that roundabouts may be interesting in some sense, but bear with me.

The property in question, and this week’s topic, is emergence. ¬†In each case individual entities, by following simple rules, can create complex patterns of behaviour. ¬†What makes these patterns special is that they can’t be predicted based on the simple rules alone.


If you’ve ever seen a murmuration of starlings, you have probably found yourself wondering how that many birds (upwards of 100,000) can all fly so quickly in such close proximity without hitting each other. ¬†For those of you uninterested in ornithology (the study of birds), there are also plenty of examples of swarms in entomology (the study of insects) and ichthyology (the study of fish), and even¬†chiropterology (study of bats).

Image by SteveD
Image by SteveD

In each case, the animals are unaware (and frankly, uncaring) of the beautiful shapes their swarms make. ¬†They aren’t even trying to swarm. ¬†They are trying to survive and their instinct tells them to follow a few simple rules. ¬†Since the advent of computers, scientists have been trying to find out what those rules are.

One of the most famous computational models of swarming behaviour was proposed by Craig Reynolds in 1986.  In his Boids program, simulated birds had to follow three rules:

  1. Separation:¬†Don’t crash (steer away from nearby boids).
  2. Alignment: Get with the program (steer towards the average heading of nearby boids)
  3. Cohesion:¬†Don’t get lost (steer towards the average location of nearby boids)

This model is actually a really good model for the behaviour we observe in birds and fish.  Recent studies have also shown this alignment rule is especially important for bats.

Locusts, on the other hand, seem to have a much simpler set of rules.  Locusts just want to avoid getting their backsides eaten.  When approached from behind, locusts will tend to fly forward for fear of cannibalism.  This creates an overall tendency to move forward and can lead to giant swarms.

Image by CSIRO
Image by CSIRO


If you’ve ever been to Swindon (and, from what I hear, you’re not missing much if you haven’t), you might have come across quite possibly the most offensive piece of civil engineering in the UK.

That's right.  A giant roundabout.  Image in the public domain
That’s right. A giant roundabout. Image in the public domain

As a North American, I cringe at the thought of even a tiny roundabout but Swindonians apparently hate everything that is good in this world.

They built the Magic Roundabout. ¬†A terrifying series of 6 small roundabouts encircling a larger roundabout that goes the other way. ¬†If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is.

The more confusing part, however, is that hundreds of thousands of cars pass through it unscathed.  While there is certainly a lot of anxiety about it, there have been only 14 major accidents in 25 years.

Hell for North Americans.  Image from the BBC
Hell for North Americans. Image from the BBC

The vast majority of people pass through fine, despite there being 5 different entry and exit points and many conflict points (places where streams of traffic cross).  This happens because of a few simple rules:

  1. Follow the lines
  2. Give way to cars coming from the right
  3. Drive to where you want to go
  4. Don’t crash

Apparently it’s actually an effective way to move cars through an intersection, but my North American sensibilities just can’t handle it.

For more information on this piece of crazy road engineering, visit this explanatory page and watch this video.


Choosing¬†who you associate with based on a singular trait has been known to lead to a lot of issues in the past. ¬†As a dog person, I’ve lost a lot of friends to cats (and their parasites). ¬†Despite my friendly demeanour and my ability to put up with a fairly large proportion of cat-lovers in my immediate vicinity, at a certain point I start to feel uncomfortable and want more fellow dog-lovers.

Tensions flare.  Image by Peretz Partensky
Tensions flare. Image by Peretz Partensky

In 1971, Thomas Schelling set out to model this behaviour and came out with a somewhat surprising and scary result. ¬†Even when people are fine with being in the minority, if they are dissatisfied when surrounded by a large majority of “others”, they will tend towards segregation. ¬†The model followed a few simple¬†rules:

  1. If you are surrounded by a certain percentage (e.g. 30%) of similar people, you are satisfied
  2. If you are surrounded by a certain percentage of different people (e.g. 70%), you are dissatisfied
  3. If you are dissatisfied, move to somewhere where you are satisfied.

Within a few rounds, there is very little diversity left as people¬†tend to move towards those who are similar. ¬†This, despite the fact that no individual is saying they outright dislike the other group or couldn’t live with members of the¬†other group. ¬†This model helps to explain why segregation is so hard to eliminate.

Interestingly, this tendency towards segregation can be reversed if a maximum of similar people rule is added:

4. If you are surrounded by a certain percentage of similar people (e.g. 90%) you are dissatisfied

Again, complex patterns and simple rules.

To learn more about the model, go here.


There are approximately 100 billion neurons in an adult human brain.  These neurons are connected in intricate ways to create an estimated 100 trillion connections.

Now that's a lot of connections!  Image from Wikimedia
Now that’s an impressive set of connections! Image from Wikimedia

Somehow (and to be honest we’re not really sure how yet), these connections lead to all of our brains’ activities from thought to imagination and¬†memory. ¬†The abilities of the system (the brain) couldn’t possibly be known from the rules that neurons abide by. ¬†All that a neuron does is pass on its signal according to a set of rules. ¬†We still don’t know what those rules are.

We do know that when a neuron is activated (whether by electrical or chemical stimulation), it activates other neurons.  The precise number and location of these other neurons is still a big mystery in neuroscience, but it must be activating both nearby neurons and neurons on the other side of the brain.  This dual activation of long- and short-distance connections is what creates the sustained patterns we observe in fMRI scans.

Human Connectome Project
The¬†Human Connectome Project, kind of like the Human Genome Project before it, is setting out to map all of the brain’s 100 trillion connections to better understand how it works. ¬†Image by Xavier Gigandet et al.

While I don’t mean to suggest that everything in life can be boiled down to simple rules, I think it’s pretty incredible the patterns¬†that emerge from individual actors all playing their parts.

Vegetarian aliens could save our bacon

By James Riley

Bacon is tasty, very tasty. It’s so tasty that my moral objection to the industrial-scale murder of sentient animals dissipates with each and every ketchup-soaked bite. This is a weakness on my part. I’m theoretically ethical but practically perverse. It’s a great way to be. You get to rest your nose on the edge of the moral high ground, whilst your body swings in the succulent depravity below. But in all sincerity, I would argue that an extension of vegetarian philosophy is the only possible way we could survive an encounter with extra-terrestrial life. Let’s just hope astro-porcine is less alluring.

hungry aliens eat space pig rising ape
They came for a piece? (Image: Bell and Jeff/Flickr)

I‚Äôm pretty optimistic about alien life, not only about its existence but also about its intelligence and intentions. As unnerving as it is to disagree with such a great man, I must confess I don‚Äôt share Stephen Hawking‚Äôs view: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”

stephen hawking right about nasty aliens
(Image: Mike Licht/Flickr)

On earth, species have certain ecological niches, their relational position to other species and their way of life in an ecosystem. Interplanetary, interstellar or even intergalactic life may follow a similar pattern. What niches come down to is competition for resources in a given environment. If¬†one day we do share an interstellar environment with other intelligent species, there will no doubt be different ways of ‚Äėmaking a living‚Äô between the stars. But as soon as competition for resources enters the equation, we have a problem.

If aliens come here to harvest a resource that we also depend on, then we will undoubtedly lose due to the¬†competitive exclusion principle. According to this principle, also known as Gause’s Law, two species that are competing for the exact same resource cannot stably coexist. Furthermore the species with even the smallest competitive advantage will be successful in the long run. As the aliens will have traversed interstellar space to reach us, our technology and defence capabilities just won‚Äôt match up. ET, I‚Äôm sad to say, will be holding a horribly beweaponed stick.

cavemen make fire
“Hm, maybe we should start building a bigger stick now…” (Image: Lance Cpl. Nathan McCord/Wiki)

But there’s another scenario. In this case the outcome of an extra-terrestrial meeting isn’t solely left to the will and whim of evolutionary forces. Instead, as has happened in our civilisation, rational choices can overcome biological impulses.

Take eating meat for example. It is generally accepted that our ancestors ate meat in their hunter-gatherer existence. But nowadays some people have come to the conclusion, to the upmost resentment of others, that killing animals and eating meat might be a tad wrong. You know, all the confinement, force-feeding, mechanised slaughter, it is a little unsettling (until you taste the bacon). Others argue the opposite, that eating meat is ‚Äėnatural‚Äô therefore it must be the ‚Äėright‚Äô thing to do. This line of reasoning commits my favourite logical fallacy (don‚Äôt pretend you haven‚Äôt got one), the ad Naturam or appeal to nature logical fallacy. If we solely took our morality from nature we would live in a very cruel world indeed. (Watch a video of Mallards being natural here. Note: Morality not included; viewer discretion is advised.)

So what‚Äôs all this got to do with aliens and bacon? Well if aliens take the same stance‚ÄĒthe choice not to kill sentient beings based on nothing else but the value that sentience confers‚ÄĒthen perhaps we do stand a chance of a peaceful coexistence. But if aliens come with predacious intentions, aiming to harvest, experiment, extract, and/or exploit, there really is little we can do to stop them.

So hope and pray that, when our skies are darkened by the spectre of a flying saucer drifting through trembling clouds, you can smell the pungent aromas of Quorn and lentil burger emanating from the ship’s kitchen. Maybe that’s why they were called little green men all along?

K is for Kepler

“Truth is the daughter of time, and I feel no shame in being her midwife.”¬†Johannes Kepler

These words, written by Johannes Kepler in 1611, are profound.  At the time, Galileo had just discovered the Galilean moons (including Europa) in Florence but was being persecuted for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun.  Kepler, a staunch supporter of heliocentrism, was working as the Imperial Mathematician in Prague.  When word that Galileo had used a telescope to find the moons reached Kepler, he was so fascinated and impressed that he wrote an enthusiastic letter of support and scrawled that pithy aphorism.

While Kepler enjoyed some social status as Imperial Mathematician and was much more free to contradict Aristotle¬†than his Italian counterparts, his life was by no means a charmed one. ¬†The son of “an immoral, rough and quarrelsome soldier” (his own words), Kepler managed to carve himself a place in history¬†based on his skill as a mathematician and astronomer. ¬†He kept on working through many family disasters, including the deaths of his wife and his seven year old son and a witch trial about his mother.

Kepler was a devout Christian and grew up Lutheran but was excommunicated due to his rejection of the Augsburg Confession.  This left him neither a Lutheran nor a Catholic and between sides when the Thirty Years War broke out in 1618.

You've got to love that frilly collar.  Just like Shakespeare!  Actually, come to think of it, Kepler actually lived at the exact same time as Shakespeare.  I wonder if they ever met and what they might say to each other at a dinner party.  Image is public domain.
You’ve got to love that frilly collar. Just like Shakespeare! Actually, come to think of it, Kepler lived at the same time as Shakespeare. I wonder if they ever met and what they might say to each other at a dinner party. Image is public domain.

Despite all of this, Kepler revolutionized astronomy by formulating mathematical laws that accurately describe the motions of the planets. ¬†These are still taught in astronomy today and are called Kepler’s Laws.

The first law is that planets orbit in ellipses with the sun at one focus.  Before Kepler, most Western astronomers modelled the orbits of planets as circles and had to invoke a strange concepts like epicycles and equant points.

1. Planets orbit in ellipses, not circles.
1. Planets orbit in ellipses, not circles.  Image my own

The second law is that a line between a planet and a star will sweep out equal area in equal time. In other words, planets move faster when they are closer to their star and slower when they are further away.  This law is better understood with a diagram:

2. Planets don’t have constant speed ¬†Image by RJHall

The third law, formulated after the first two, is that the time it takes a planet to make an orbit (orbital period) is directly proportional to its distance from the star.  This law allows astronomers to calculate how far a planet is from its star based only on information about the length of its year and the mass of the star.  Remember this one, because it will become important later.

As you can see, Kepler’s Laws are fundamental to our understanding of how planets move, or orbital dynamics. ¬†It will come as no surprise then that every young astronomer is all too familiar with Kepler’s laws. ¬†This isn’t the only reason he’s familiar though. ¬†He is also shares a name with the most successful exoplanet hunter the world has ever produced. ¬†The Kepler Space Telescope.

Kepler: Planet Hunter is kind of Like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  Except more real.  And frankly, a little more impressive.    Image by Wendy Stenzel at NASA
Kepler: Planet Hunter is kind of like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Except more real. And frankly, a little more impressive. Image by Wendy Stenzel at NASA

Launched in 2009, the Kepler Space Telescope used 42 image sensors to continuously observe over 145,000 stars. ¬†Unlike a lot of other telescopes that try to take magnified images, Kepler wasn’t interested in images. ¬†It wanted accurate data on brightness. ¬†It basically had a staring contest with these 145,000+ stars, waiting for them to blink. ¬†I say blink because Kepler was waiting for the brightness to go down and back up. ¬†The brightness of stars can vary for all sorts of reasons, but planets passing in front of their stars make the brightness dip in a particular way. ¬†This dip is called a transit and finding transits¬†was Kepler’s mission.

When a transit occurs, the size of the brightness dip corresponds to the size of the planet and the length of the dip corresponds to the time it takes a planet to orbit (as well as the size of the star). ¬†Remembering Kepler’s third law,¬†¬†if we know the time it takes to orbit, we can figure out the distance to the star. ¬†And if we know the brightness of a star and the distance, we can figure out how much energy¬†the planet receives. ¬†Plug all that in to a¬†simple(ish)¬†equation, and out pops temperature.

Stars, just like planets and people, come in all different shapes and sizes.  That means light curves also vary widely.   Image from
Stars, just like planets and people, come in all different shapes and sizes. That means light curves also vary widely. Image from, a great citizen science project that combines people’s natural pattern-finding ability with Kepler data to find planets.

So thanks to the Keplers (both Johannes and the Space Telescope) we can start to look for alien worlds that have temperatures similar to the ones we find here.  The hope is that one day we will find evidence of life on another planet.  And then we can begin our transition into any one of several sci-fi galactic civilizations (my personal favourite is Foundation, but some people prefer Star Wars, Star Trek, or Eve Online).

Unfortunately, in May 2013 one of the components that kept Kepler (the telescope) stable failed, meaning the mission was apparently over.  The mission had been hugely successful, discovering over 1000 confirmed planets, with 4000 other planet candidates waiting to be confirmed.  It turns out that most stars probably have planets and that a lot of planets in the galaxy might be the right temperature to be habitable.

Astronomers are nothing if not persistent though, so an ingenious method was devised to make sure Kepler can continue observing even without its stabilizer.  This new mission, dubbed K2, uses the radiation pressure from the sun itself to balance the telescope.  Instead of continuously observing the same 145 000 stars, K2s targets will change periodically as it orbits the sun.  There will be far less data coming down, but as of this writing four new planets have already been found since K2 began in earnest in June 2014.

There's a lot of information there, but I think the most impressive bit is that K2 is metaphorically balancing a pencil on a fingertip, remotely, from 150 million km away.  Image by NASA
There’s a lot of information there, but I think the most impressive bit is that K2 is metaphorically balancing a pencil on a fingertip, remotely, from 150 million km away. Image by NASA

Currently, while there are all sorts of really interesting exoplanets out there (from hot jupiters like 51 peg b to mirror earths like Kepler-438b), we have yet to find signs of life.  But I think that before too long, we will.  Just as the truth of heliocentrism eventually came out thanks to Kepler, a telescope with his name will be instrumental in uncovering the truth of life elsewhere in the universe.  Just like he said,

“Truth is the daughter of time, and I¬†feel no shame in being her midwife” Johannes Kepler

F is for Faraday

By Jonathan Farrow from The Thoughtful Pharoah

The year is 1791. ¬†On a crisp autumn morning in South London, Margaret Hastwell, a blackmith’s apprentice, gives birth to her third son. ¬†With her husband, son, and daughter crowded around, she decides to name the newborn¬†Michael. ¬†Michael Faraday.

Margaret had a lot on her plate, what with two young children, a husband who was often sick, and quite a few bills to pay. ¬†She probably didn’t have much time or energy for idle thought or daydreaming. ¬†I doubt if she much considered what Michael might do with his life other than get by. ¬†There is no way it occurred to her that Michael would grow up to revolutionize the world of physics, make electricity a viable source of mechanical energy, and inspire countless scientists, engineers, and young people (including but not limited to Einstein, Rutherford, and this young science communicator, 223 years later). But that is exactly what he would do.

Faraday went to elementary school and learned to read and write, but by the time he turned 13, he had to start work in order to help his parents make ends meet. ¬†He was apprenticed to a local bookbinder and spent the next 7 years diligently mending books. ¬†But that wasn’t all he was doing. ¬†He was also reading. ¬†Over those 7 years, Faraday read voraciously and became interested in science, particularly the topics of Chemistry and Electricity. Luckily for him, George Riebau, the bookbinder to whom he was apprenticed, took an interest in young Faraday’s education and bought him tickets to lectures by¬†Humphry Davy¬†at the Royal Institution in 1812. ¬†This was only¬†shortly after Davy had¬†discovered calcium and chlorine through electrolysis. ¬†Davy was a big name in science¬†at the time, comparable to today’s Stephen Hawking, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, or Jane Gooddall, so it was with wide eyes that young Faraday attended. ¬†He was so blown away by what he saw and heard that he faithfully wrote notes and drew diagrams. ¬†These meticulous notes would prove to be his ticket into Davy’s lab.

Davy Notes
“I got a golden ticket!” Image from the Royal Society of Chemistry

Later that year, Faraday sent a letter to¬†Davy asking for a job¬†and attached a few of his notes. ¬†Davy was impressed and so interviewed young Faraday, but ultimately rejected the eager young fellow, saying “Science [is] a harsh mistress, and in a pecuniary point of view but poorly rewarding those who devote themselves to her service.” ¬†Translation: ¬†“Sorry, I don’t have space for you in my lab, but just to let you know… Science really isn’t very profitable.” ¬†A few months later, one of Davy’s assistants got in a fight and was fired, so guess who got a call? ¬†That’s right, Mikey F.

Not only did Faraday get a spot in Davy’s lab, but he also got to go on a European¬†tour with Mr. and Mrs. Davy. ¬†Pretty sweet deal, right? ¬†On the eighteen month journey, Faraday got to meet the likes of Amp√®re and Volta. ¬†If those names are ringing distant bells, it should be no surprise. ¬†Those eminent continental scientists give their names to standard units of electrical current¬†(Ampere)¬†and potential difference¬†(Volt). ¬†Re-invigorated, 22-year-old Faraday returned to London and took up a¬†post at the Royal Institution as Davy’s assistant.

The next two decades saw Faraday make great advances in chemistry, including discovering benzene, liquefying gases, and exploring the properties of chlorine. ¬†He didn’t get much chance to focus on electricity, however, until 1821. ¬†In that year, Faraday started experimenting with chemical batteries, copper wire, and magnets. ¬†Building on the work of¬†Hans Christian √ėrsted, Faraday’s¬†work was some of the first to show that light, electricity, and magnetism are all inextricably linked (we now know that they are all manifestations of the electromagnetic force). He was a dedicated experimentalist and between 1821 and 1831, he effectively invented the first electric motor and, later, the first electric generator. ¬†These two inventions form the basis for much of today’s modern power system. ¬†The electric motor that opens your garage door as well as wind and hydro-electric generators work on the exact same principle that was discovered by Faraday back in 1831: electromagnetic induction.

Faraday’s insight was that when connected¬†by conductive material, an electric¬†current could make¬†a magnet move. ¬†He also found that the reverse was true: a moving magnet can¬†create a flow of electrons: an electric current.¬†The experiment is actually quite simple and you can even¬†try it at home. Induction enables the transformation of energy between¬†mechanical, electrical, and magnetic states. ¬†Before Faraday, electricity was seen simply as a novelty. ¬†Since Faraday, we’ve been able to use it for all sorts of things. ¬†Like writing science blogs!

The famous iron ring experiment.  Two insulated coils of wire are wrapped around an iron ring but kept separate.  Attaching one to a battery will create a momentary current in the other.  Induction!
The famous iron ring experiment. Two insulated coils of wire are wrapped around an iron ring but kept separate. Attaching one to a battery will create a momentary current in the other. Induction!   Image by Eviatar Bach

[While he was definitely a gifted scientist, Faraday knew next to nothing about mathematics. ¬†He observed, took careful notes, and had an intuition for how to design experiments, but could not formalize his theories in mathematical language. ¬†He would have to wait for James Clerk Maxwell, a young Scottish¬†prodigy, to do the math and formalize¬†Faraday’s Law¬†in the 1860s.]

Faraday continued his work on electricity and gained all sorts of recognition, including medals, honorary degrees, and prestigious positions.  This increased pressure may have been to blame for a nervous breakdown in 1839.  He took a few years off, but by 1845 he was back at it, trying to bend light with strong magnets.  He discovered little else after the 1850s, but continued to lecture and participate in the scientific community.

Older Faraday with glass bar
While that does look remarkably like a cigar, Faraday is actually holding a glass tube in his hand. A glass tube… of Science! ¬† ¬†Public Domain image from Wikimedia

So not only can Faraday be considered to be one of the fathers of the modern world because of his breakthroughs in electricity, but he can¬†also be considered to be one of the fathers of modern popular science communication. ¬†In 1825, he decided to give a series of Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution, specifically aimed at children and non-specialists. ¬†He gave these lectures every year until his death in 1867 and was renowned as a charismatic, engaging speaker. ¬†He tried to explain the science behind everyday phenomena and in 1860 gave a famous lecture on the candle, something which everyone had used but which few actually understood. ¬†The¬†Christmas lectures continue to this day and, continuing with Faraday’s legacy, the Royal Institution is one of the UK’s leading science communication organizations.

Doesn't that look fun!?
Doesn’t that look fun!? ¬† ¬†Public Domain image from Wikimedia

It is not simply that Faraday was a great scientist and lecturer, nor that he managed to escape poverty in 19th century England to become world-renowned. ¬†Michael Faraday’s story is so¬†great¬†because by all accounts, he deserved every bit of success he gained. ¬†One biographer, Thomas Martin, wrote in 1934:

He was by any sense and by any standard a good man; and yet his goodness was not of the kind that make others uncomfortable in his presence. His strong personal sense of duty did not take the gaiety out of his life. … his virtues were those of action, not of mere abstention

It’s no wonder that Einstein had a picture of him up in his office. ¬†I think I might just print one off myself.

Faraday painting 1842
Still pretty handsome considering this painting is from 1842, making Faraday 51 years old.   Public Domain image from Wikimedia