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