Perspective: Light From 10 Billion Years Ago Hits Us Today

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This week, an entire new class of Supernova was discovered by analyzing light from a star that exploded 10 billion years ago.

A 300-year-old supernova remnant created by the explosion of a massive star.

This means a single photon of light began its journey to our eyes 10 billion years ago. It was created in the crucible of the most powerful explosion in the universe – over 100 times more powerful than the previous record-holder.

The power of the previous record? Several octillion (it’s a real number I swear) nuclear warheads igniting in synchrony.

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The majority of the life of the universe unfolded during this photons travels. It traveled through dust clouds birthing stars, across entire galaxies, surviving the vast, empty, cold void between galaxies for 10 billion years before ending its life by traveling through your tiny pupil, and exciting nerves in your cornea.

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The supernovae exploded when the universe was only 4 billion years old. “This happened before the sun even existed,” Howell explained. “There was another star here that died and whose gas cloud formed the sun and Earth. Life evolved, the dinosaurs evolved and humans evolved and invented telescopes, which we were lucky to be pointing in the right place when the photons hit Earth after their 10-billion-year journey.”

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Probiotics Don’t Prevent Childhood Asthma

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enteroimmunology is truly the frontier of science. Probiotics likely don’t affect asthma rates because the the GI tract is already inoculated. Children born by C-section have higher rates of asthma and allergies because the birth canal coats the newborn and its GI tract in non-harmful bacteria. Breast milk has an indigestible carbohydrate that long puzzled scientists. It was recently discovered that the carbohydrate is utilized by beneficial bacteria populating the gut, thus crowding that niche out from potential harmful bacteria.

Hot Streaks Are Hot Air

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There is no such thing as a “hot streak” in basketball (or any sport), even though 91% of fans believe in “hot streaks”.

Someone with entirely too much time on their hands did a gruelling and all inclusive statistical analysis, which revealed that after making several shots in a row players are actually slightly LESS likely to make the next shot.

The reason for this is a phenomenon known as “reversion to the mean” where performance after a particularly good run (or bad run) reverts toward the average. This effect of probability explains the “Sports Illustrated jinx” where players featured on the cover perform more poorly the next season.

Your favorite football team had an unusually good season? Sorry to say, but reversion to the mean dictates that they’re likely to perform closer to the average next season. On the other hand, you can actually make large sums of money by betting on the fact that 91% of sports fans falsely believe in hot streaks. It leads to overconfidence, and a willingness to make larger bets when the laws of probability are against them.

It’s also the reasoning behind Warren Buffet’s motto to buy stocks when everyone is fearful, and sell when everyone is exuberant. Partly by using the law of reversion to the mean Warren Buffett has become the 4th wealthiest person in the world.

Coaches used to believe that praising excellent performance lead to poor performance, and scolding bad performance improved results. They were accurately assessing what was happening, but wrong about what caused the change in performance.

What they didn’t realize was that they were merely experiencing regression to the mean. Excellent performance would lead to poor performance regardless of praise or punishment. Humans are keen at noticing patterns, and we naturally assume some agent is creating those patterns, but in many instances simple laws of probability are the root cause.

 

Civilization: The Blink of a Galactic Eye

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It takes our solar system approximately 240 million years to orbit the Milky Way Galaxy, an event known as a galactic year.

If you went back just one galactic year, then flowers would not yet exist; in fact, you would still have to wait another 100 million years before the first flower bloomed.

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Dinosaurs had life pretty good for 135 million years (~½ a galactic year) before an extinction event carved the way forward for mammals and birds to proliferate. Humans have existed for 1/100 of a single galactic year, and agriculture has existed for 0.0000417 galactic years.

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What will the biological diversity of Earth look like when it returns to its current celestial position? Dinosaurs, flowering plants, birds, and mammals had yet to evolve 1 galactic year ago, and the entirety of agricultural history has existed for the equivalent of 22 galactic minutes, or 0.015 galactic days.

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A History of Accidental Progress and Mistaken Discoveries

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For the majority of their history carrots were purple, not orange. As with most things in history this all changed when a King decided it should.

In the 17th Century a Dutch monarch found it an effective use of time and money to breed orange carrots. Why? To match the royal color of course – The House of Orange.

These orange mutants were found to be sweeter and less starchy, so they became the new staple.

Most great discoveries or changes in history initiate as an accident, or an irrational desire. Only later are these whimsical creations seen as being a better alternative. Everything from the Gin and Tonic to the evidence for the Big Bang, and the discovery of Teflon were complete accidents.

It really makes you question how intelligent we really are when our greatest minds build the future through a series of accidents and mistakes.

Charles Goodyear accidently dropped liquid rubber on his stove, and this accident was the discovery of vulcanized rubber – a mistake keeps you safe while you drive.

Toll House accidently invented chocolate chip cookies when vibrations from a mixer caused chocolate chips to spill into the mixing batter – the most popular flavor of cookie was a careless accident.

The microwave oven was invented when a scientist who fancies chocolate bars walked past a machine in his lab. The chocolate in his pocket began to melt. Melted pocket chocolate is an experience no one should have to endure, but he endured, he questioned, and he discovered.

Now there is a microwave in every home because of a scientist’s love for chocolate. If anyone ever tells you chocolate has no utility this will throw them for a loop.

We like to think the world we inhabit is manifested by our intentions, but more often than not our lives, our technologies, our knowledge, is a series of happy accidents. Next time you’re lamenting something that went wrong just remember – it’s only when things go wrong that we get the opportunity to learn something revolutionary about the world and about ourselves.

“The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…’” -Isaac Asimov