50 Shades of Strange

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When you look at this image how do you feel?

Take a moment to feel your reaction. Without analyzing it ask yourself, do I like this image? Does it creep me out? Does it have a “vibe” to it? Is that vibe one you want to hug, or be cautious of?

Chances are your instinctual response to this photo is starkly different from, say, looking at a picture of a luscious green meadow with open blue skies.

Take a real moment to stop and observe: What does this image FEEL like.

The pattern this plant produces is generally rated as “not cuddly”, and 16% of the human population will become viscerally upset. You know that feeling when you just feel like gagging out of nowhere? Well 1 out of 6 people will get that feeling, or something similar, as an instinctual response to this image.

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This reaction is innate, and not related to cultural upbringing. It is something that exists deep inside us. Even if you are not that 1 out of 6 people there is a strong chance that this image makes you moderately uncomfortable. At the very least your initial gut reaction was something along the lines of “weeeeeeird”.

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After intense research it was discovered that the pattern of “clustered dots” in this image is what awakens this reflexive response. This effect has been called trypophobia because we humans can’t help but give everything a name. The 1 in 6 people who have a strong negative reaction to this image were found to show an identical reaction toward images of other organisms and images that presented a pattern of clustered dots.

Seems pretty random? Well the other organisms that display this same pattern are also classified as being among the most poisonous and venomous in the world, go figure!

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As it turns out, we have embedded in us an instinctive aversion to this pattern. The hypothesized reason is that this pattern has high contrast, and therefore easily catches the eye in natural settings. This makes the deadly creature more visible from a distance, which alerts you long before you get close. This is great for your survival: it prevents you from dying.

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However, it is also great for the deadly thing: it not only prevents it from dying in conflict with you, but also ensures that the creature can save energy and resources going at a casual “fuel efficient” pace through environments that are full of hungry animals.

Even though it benefits both parties, it benefits the deadly thing more. You have to waste energy taking a less preferred “detour” route to your destination while the deadly thing essentially gets to use the carpool lane everywhere it goes.

Those who had an urge to hug such creatures were less likely to pass on their genes. Those that had a gut sickening aversion were at a genetic advantage since they were less likely to perish before having offspring. This pattern is displayed by poisonous creatures throughout the globe, and our gut disgust is a trait we likely share with many other carnivorous animals.

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This begs the question: how much of who you are is your choice, and how much is at least mildly determined by our genetic heritage? If you were to walk into a room with an artificially rendered poster displaying this pattern your behavior would change. You would be more skittish, your body language would trend toward a “closed” protective stance – limbs held close to the body, arms crossed, legs together – and you would have no idea you were even doing it, much less WHY you were doing it. This is true for you, me, everyone.

There is a fascinating experiment where this exact effect is confirmed in a very amusing way, but that must be saved for another time.

That Twinkle In Your Eye

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Light takes up to 2.9 million years to travel from the Sun’s core to its surface.

It then travels the entire 93,000,000 miles (1 AU) to Earth in just 8 minutes and 19 seconds. This is pretty funky since the Sun’s core is “only” 430,000 miles from its surface.  

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For comparison, light from the Moon takes 1.278 seconds to travel the 240,000 mile distance to Earth. Granted, rocketing yourself Apollo style from the Earth to the Moon is equivalent to going halfway from the Sun’s surface to its core (the Sun is pretty big), but that’s still only 2.5 seconds compared to 2.9 million years, so… what gives?

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The Sun is so incredibly dense that it acts like a pinball machine covered in those spastic auto-bumpers. Our poor photon is a pinball that keeps running into other molecules and getting randomly bumped left, right, backwards, sideways, and every which way.  Astronomers call the phenomena the “drunkard’s walk” because the photon is randomly staggering until sheer probability gets it to the Sun’s surface.


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Most of the photons exiting the Sun are “only” 1,000 – 10,000 years old, but there are so many hundreds of trillions of photons entering your eyes every second that some of them were created 2.9 million years ago, others 100,000 years ago, and still more just 500 years ago.


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Every single second, of every single day of your life, photons enter your eye that were birthed during every significant moment in human history. A photon just entered your eye that was created the same moment that Augustus Caesar became the first emperor of Rome; that same second you saw a photon birthed the same moment that Christopher Columbus first spotted “India” (i.e. America); nearly simultaneously a photon entered your eye from the day that Abraham Lincoln was shot at the Ford’s Theatre.

 

Alongside those photons from human history was one from 2.9 million years ago – this photon was created before humans had evolved, we did not yet exist as a species. In fact, this photon was already 2.6 million years old when the first members of our species walked the African savanna. Another 300,000 years later this photon breached the Sun’s surface and soon hit your cornea.


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This happened to you today. It is not a thought experiment, it is one of the quirky realities of our universe.

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The universe is a strange place.

Flight MH17 and Repeating History: Russia Shot Down an Airliner in 1983

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A fact from awhile back!

Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, a civilian passenger plane, was shot down over Eastern Ukraine yesterday; a similar but far more severe event happened 31 years ago, and it led to what is universally regarded as the closest the world ever came to total nuclear annihilation:

On September 26, 1983 the world as we know it almost ended.

Civilization was saved from mutual evisceration by a chance occurrence, and yet only 1 person on Earth knew for the next 10 years.

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On that morning the Soviet early warnings systems began whistling and flashing. The screen in front of Stanislov Petrov read “launch” and the reliability indicator flashed “highest”.

There was no doubt that the U.S. had launched a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Over the next 3 minutes the siren registered more and more missiles as would be expected in a surprise nuclear strike. The system upgraded the threat from “launch” to “missile strike”.

Petrov’s duty was to immediately report any alert, much less one as strong as this, to his superior officer. To not report is dereliction of duty and all soldiers and civilians are keenly aware that the consequences are brutally painful in the Soviet Union.

This particular incident happened in a period that Cold War historian’s agree is the point of highest tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Just 3 weeks prior the Soviet Union had shot down Korean Airlines Flight 007, a civilian airliner, killing 269 people including 60 American citizens and Lawrence McDonald, a U.S. Congressman (R-GA).

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We’re currently worried about a civilian airliner shot down by Russian funded rebels over a warzone with 0 American deaths, so imagine the tension after a Soviet military jet shot down a civilian plane that killed a U.S. Congressman and 59 other Americans at the peak of the Cold War. The Soviets were justly paranoid with anticipation of a  heavy handed response, and here was a confirmed and escalating missile attack entering the Soviet Union from the U.S.

Soviet military leaders were positive a nuclear strike was coming. Former Soviet Generals alive today confirm that they were so fearful that they would have immediately launched a full retaliation if a threat was detected.

Had Petrov done his duty, picked up the phone, and told his superior officer what he was seeing there is no doubt that the Soviet Union would have launched literally thousands of nuclear missiles at the U.S., and the U.S. would then return the favor.

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Keep in mind that by 1983 nuclear weapons were literally thousands of times more powerful than the primitive nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Due to radiation New York, San Diego, L.A., Chicago and hundreds more cities would not be habitable to this day.

Historians agree that this incident was the closest the world ever came to a genuine nuclear apocalypse. Besides the immediate mayhem there’d be crop failure, nuclear winter, collapse of trade and stock markets, currency collapse; civilization as we currently know it was a phone call from collapse. But it gets even freakier.

Mr. Petrov himself says “My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders.” He was the only officer who grew up as a civilian, and his hesitance, which he states was a fluke in and of itself, would not have existed for a soldier raised in the military.

Had any other officer been on duty the world we currently inhabit would be worse than a zombie apocalypse. People would watch The Walking Dead and say “I wish I lived in that paradise”.

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Next time you’re loathing your life’s circumstances just remember this story. Had a bad day? A stressful week where everything went wrong? Well at least we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland because we were a shift change from that reality on September 26, 1983.

Knowing what the world could look like lends overwhelming appreciation for what the world does look like, even if it’s not perfect.

Ancient Graffiti: Famous For All The Wrong Reasons

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In 79 AD, outside a tavern in Pompeii, a man named Restitutus scribbled “Take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates” on a Roman column creating one of the world’s oldest examples of bathroom stall style graffiti.

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Days later Mount Vesuvius erupted burying Pompeii in a pyroclastic flow of ash forever preserving his poetic writing.

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The eruption perfectly froze the city of Pompeii in time. How could this man, Restitutus, have known that 2,000 years later his amusingly obscene graffiti would be read by millions? His etched writing is spoken of by University professors in seminars, TV shows, books, and in little known blogs on the internet.

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Anyone who says “surely, nothing I do will ever be remembered” should think of Restitutus.

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Ancient graffiti is extremely rare because it is shallowly scribbled and is exposed to the elements for millennia. The only writings and records that survive from antiquity are nearly always written by nobles and scholars. The rare preservation of these delicate graffiti sketches gives deep insight into the culture of the common man. As usual, humanity should be embarrassed.

The etchings are generally inappropriate:

“Phileros is a eunuch!”

“Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than they ever have before!”

“I screwed the barmaid”

My personal favorite: Written 3 separate times in one spot is “Secundus defecated here”. Classic Secundus.

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I read the scribbles on a bathroom stall, and know that we are no smarter or dumber than we were 2,000 years ago. It makes me think communicating with someone from 2,000 years ago would not be so difficult after all. Some of the writings reveal that life today is only superficially different. We have better technology, but the same underlying desires and concerns:

“The man I am having dinner with is a barbarian”. I must reiterate – these are all real words written by average people 2,000 years ago in Pompeii. This is not embellished for dramatic effect. The walls of Pompeii speak these exact words.

I imagine a modern day person texting this to a friend, and realize texting our banal frustrations is an ancient urge. On the cities’ basilica wall is scribbled: “O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”

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Pica: It’s OK, Eating Playdough is Non-Toxic

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If you ever have the urge to chew ice you may have an iron deficiency. If this is the case you’re lucky – other mineral deficiencies create far more bizarre urges.

 

Mineral deficiencies often create uncontrollable urges to eat dirt, wood, drywall, chalk, styrofoam, clay, and many other materials.

 

Pica is the adorable name for this condition.

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People who experience it cannot explain it. They know how ridiculous it is, but the biological urge is uncontrollable, like a reflex. Biologically this is an adaptive behavior. These flavorless and nutritionally empty objects contain loads of minerals.

 

We like to think that as humans we are in ultimate control of our actions, but how do you decide what to do for the day, what to eat, or what movies you like? We control our actions, but the desires that compel us to action, the motivations that lead to our actions and behaviors, like and dislikes, are completely unconscious.

 

One day I may have the urge to go golfing, and I may choose to give in, but where did that urge originate?

 

We may control thoughts once they’re in our head, but where do they pop up from to begin with? Our actions and behaviors are dependent on whether our brain tells us something will feel good or bad. We control the action itself, but not the underlying desire.

 

If I choose to buy a new shirt I may choose the action, but I have no control over what led my brain to desire that shirt in the first place.

 

Likewise, when these mineral deficient individuals reach for a lump of clay to chew on they voluntarily choose that action, but are compelled by an underlying desire that says “You will enjoy this, so do it! Do it now!”.

 

This is a relatively new field of study, but there is growing consensus that mineral deficiencies are a contributing factor to the development of many behavioral disorders like autism. Toxic substances like lead, cadmium, and mercury can displace mineral distribution and then cause pica, and eventually permanent behavioral disorders.

 

Infrasound: Lions, And Volcanoes, And Tsunamis Oh My!

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If you blast a person with infrasound (sound just below our hearing threshold) they will become fearful, anxious, uneasy, nervous, feel chills in their spine, pressure in the chest, and extreme sorrow.

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Sound waves in this range also resonate with our eyes natural vibrations creating undistinguishable and imaginary shapes in our peripheral vision. Most major scientific discoveries are complete accidents, and the story behind this discovery is no different.

In a lab, experimenters kept experiencing a gray shape sitting next to their desk in a specific area of the room. They also consistently felt feelings of dread, depression, anxiety, and feelings of someone watching them in that area.

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They eventually discovered that a “silent” exhaust fan was emitting sound waves of 18.9Hz (infrasound). The fan was fixed and the mysterious gray shape and strange emotional experiences ended.

Stunned by the implications, this clever scientist went to a well regarded haunted cellar in a local home. People who entered the cellar often reported feelings of fear, nausea, nervousness, chills, seeing apparitions, and feeling apparitions watching them. It was found that the cellar had a particular resonant structure that created infrasound waves at, you guessed it, 18.9Hz.

Why do humans feel these sensations when these “silent” sound waves hit our ears?

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Lions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, large ocean waves, elephants, and other dangerous things produce sounds in the infrasound range. It is the hypothesized reason that many animals know ahead of time about tsunamis and earthquakes. In fact, if humans weren’t so caught up in our own thoughts (detached from our bodily intuition), we’d probably be able to sense these events too. The sensations created are an evolutionary adaptation that intuitively says “Don’t be here! Get somewhere else NOW!”.

 

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Woolly Mammoths Live Long and Prosper

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Woolly Mammoths still roamed the wilderness when the Pyramids of Giza were being built.

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In fact, the Giza Pyramids were over 1,000 years old before the last woolly mammoth on Earth died. For comparison, the Eiffel Tower will have to stand for another 874 years to achieve such a feat

 

A solitary population of Woolly Mammoths survived on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia, until  ~650 B.C. The weather finally got a bit too balmy, and their species finally went the way of the Ice Age.

 

Mad props to that population of hard headed mammoths that held on for so long in the face of massive change.