There is a technical word for everything in medicine. A great example is halitosis. In the late 19th century, Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert developed a new surgical antiseptic. Finding that the target market was too small, they distilled the new product and advertised it as a floor cleaner and also a cure for gonorrhoea. But sales were still not great and they came up with a brilliant marketing scheme. Their company Listerine began advertising the dangers of “chronic halitosis” as a serious health problem in the 1920s. People were unfamiliar with this condition and instantly associated it with some form of major illness. They were desperate to prevent themselves from getting it, or to treat it if they already had it. Lucky for them, Listerine came to the rescue with their product that treated chronic halitosis.
Of course, halitosis is simply the medical term for bad breath. Although bad breath is not an actual disease, Listerine was extremely successful in convincing the population that it was a problem and was able to market their product this way. Listerine’s campaign was so successful that bad breath is still considered extremely offensive and socially unacceptable, making mouthwash almost a “necessity”. To quote advertising scholar James B. Twitchell, “Listerine did not make mouthwash as much as it made halitosis”. They had successfully invented a problem that their product could solve - creating not only supply for the product, but also the demand. This strategy has since been employed by countless advertising schemes to help sell products.
Magic has been a great source of entertainment for the masses for thousands of years. Across the globe, under many guises, magicians have amazed audiences with seemingly impossible “miracles” using misdirection and clever trickery. The oldest recorded trick - that is to say one performed purely for entertainment and not under the guise of religion or supernatural power - dates back to ancient Egypt.
According to the Westcar Papyrus, a magician by the name of Dedi was famous for his miraculous feats. The Papyrus tells the story of how Dedi was called to put a show on for King Khufu. He proceeded to decapitate a goose, then reattach the head, bringing the bird back to life. He repeats the magic with a duck, then with a bull, wrenching its head off then bringing it back to life by reattaching the head. For his amazing performance, he is rewarded by being allowed to live in the palace. This trick is still practised by magicians to this day, thus making it the longest performed trick in history.
The best or worst part (depending on your preference) about a dark and stormy night are the majestic flashes of lightning and booming thunder. Most people confuse the two terms, typically using “thunder” to describe both, but technically thunder is the sound produced by lightning, which is the flash of light. Lightning occurs when dense clouds become electrically charged due to the collision of water molecules. As charge builds up, the cloud becomes negatively charged. The negative charge becomes so intense that it begins to push electrons towards the surface of the Earth, creating a positive charge. Electricity always flows from a negative charge to a positive charge through a medium. The intensity of charges causes the air to become ionized (plasma), making it suddenly conductive and allowing the electricity to flow from the cloud to the ground. This is seen as a flash of intense light. As the electricity travels through this channel of air, it superheats the air and causes a massive expansion of air, much like an explosion. This creates an intense shockwave burst, producing a sound that we call thunder.
Lightning is a deadly force of nature. It clocks a peak voltage of somewhere between 30 million to billions of volts - far exceeding the electricity that can be generated by humans. When a lightning bolt strikes a human, it has a mortality rate of between 10~30%. The two effects of lightning on the human body is electrical shock and heat. As lightning flashes over the skin to reach the ground, it leaves a striking pattern known as Lichtenberg figures (see below), showing the path of the electrical breakdown. The intense electrical burst can cause loss of consciousness, arrhythmia or sudden cardiac arrest. The heat generated by the electricity can cause severe burns both externally and internally. It can literally fry internal organs causing permanent damage to the heart, lungs and brain. Neurological symptoms such as amnesia, confusion, sleep disturbance and chronic pain have also been reported. Strangely, there are also reported cases of lightning curing ailments such as blindness, deafness and baldness.
Because lightning is light and thunder is sound, one can calculatehow far away lightning struck using the time between the lightning flash and the sound of thunder. Sound travels at 340m/s, so by multiplying the number of seconds between the lightning and thunder by 340, you can deduce the distance in metres. For example, if you see a lightning strike and then hear thunder after 7 seconds, the lightning must have struck 340m x 7s = 2380m = 2.38km away.
What would the world be like if the dinosaurs had not gone extinct? In 1982, palaeontologist Dale Russell proposed a thought experiment regarding the possible evolutionary path of a species called Troodons. The Troodons were small, bird-like dinosaurs from the later periods of the reign of dinosaurs. They grew up to 2.4m in length and about 50kg in weight, standing on two slender hind legs. The most interesting feature of Troodons was their very large brain - six times larger than any other dinosaurs relative to their body weight. This would have most likely allowed the Troodons to be quite intelligent relative to other species, allowing it to utilise crude tools such as rolling a boulder off a cliff.
Russell believed that had the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event did not happen 65 million years ago (when a giant meteor struck Earth), the Troodons could have evolved in a path similar to humans, expanding their brain size and using intelligence as a tool of survival. Although its brain size was substantially lower than that of a human, he believes that through evolution, by the present its brain would be the size of a modern human’s. He also believed that evolution would have shaped the Troodons into a “dinosauroid” form, much closer to the shape of a human being. The Dinosauroid (nicknamed lizard people) would have had two fingers and a thumb, large eyes, no hair, internal genitalia (like reptiles), no breasts and a navel (the placenta is instrumental in giving birth to large-brained offspring). Their language would probably have sounded like a bird song.
Given the history of Homo sapiens and our competition and ultimate demise of similar sapient species, it is unclear whether we would have won the survival war against the Dinosauroids, or whether we would have even had the chance to evolve to our stage, as mammals rapidly filled the niche after dinosaurs were wiped out. There is much criticism of Russell’s thought experiment of the Dinosauroid being “too anthropomorphic” (too human-looking), but as suggested in the book K-PAX by Prot, perhaps the humanoid form is the most efficient natural design for an intelligent life form. Realistic or not, it is a fascinating projection of a world that could have been.
They say that when you face your mortality, your entire life flashes before your eyes like a sped-up autobiographical film. This tends to happen in situation where a person feels they are in danger of imminent death, such as moments before a car crash. Reports say that the event typically lasts anywhere between less than a second to few seconds, and what they perceive as major life events flash before their eyes, usually in chronological order. However, reports are very subjective and variable.
This phenomenon sounds very clichéd, but it has been widely reported throughout time and space. Over 8 million people in the United States of America stated that they experienced this “life review” in a near-death experience, with countless records in historical texts, reaching far back as at least 1795 in a letter by Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort. It is fascinating to see that there is even a set name or phrase for this phenomenon deeply ingrained in various languages, such as English, German, French, Dutch, Russian, Persian, Arabian and Korean, suggesting that the phenomenon is widespread and common.
There is no strong evidence for why this phenomenon occurs, but there is one theory that is persuading. The brain is always subconsciously referring to past experiences and knowledge to apply to the present to help solve a problem. It has been suggested that when you are at the brink of death, the brain frantically searches through everything in an attempt to save you from demise. This is a rather messy process as the brain does not routinely encounter such near-death experiences and does not have much information to refer to immediately. In this process, it brings up every memory that you thought you had forgotten, which you see as a montage flashing before your eyes. For example, a man who was attacked by a great white shark reported that out of nowhere, he recalled his son watching a documentary on sharks and remembered that putting your hands down a shark’s gills will incapacitate it. Thanks to this, he survived.
The brain does indeed have an amazing ability to alter your speed of thought and delay time perception when you are in danger, or the so-called “fight-or-flight” mode. There is much anecdotal evidence of firefighters instinctively knowing that a building will collapse very soon, or emergency physicians making complex clinical decisions in the blink of an eye by drawing from a well of past experiences.
Shakespeare stated that “all is well that ends well”, but the opening of a story can be just as important. For example, “once upon a time” instantly transports a child (or adult) to a magical, faraway land full of wonders and adventure. So how would one open a story of drama, mystery or even horror?
One of the most infamous examples of such an opening is the line: “it was a dark and stormy night”. This opening sentence was first used by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. The full opening is:
“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”
The phrase is effective in establishing a setting and painting a word picture.
However, this opening is considered overly florid and descriptive, overachieving its goal of establishing the setting. This kind of sentence is known as a purple prose and is mocked in the world of literature. This opening has become the poster child of purple prose, such as the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which celebrates the worst examples of “dark and stormy night” stories.
Probably the most popular mention of “it was a dark and stormy night” is in the comic strip, Peanuts. Snoopy, the canine protagonist, is often seen starting a novel on his typewriter with the line “it was a dark and stormy night”. Perhaps it is no surprise as to why his novels were never published.
(To see all the delightful Peanuts strips referring to Snoopy’s failed attempts at writing his novel, check out this link)
Have you ever bought a bag of mixed nuts and noticed that Brazil nuts tend to be on the top of the pile? If you put nuts of various sizes in a bag and shake it, you will see that the larger nuts (such as Brazil nuts) will rise to the top slowly. This is strange as common sense dictates that heavier objects sink to the bottom. The strangest thing? No one knows exactly why this happens.
However, there are some persuasive theories. It has been suggested that the so-called Brazil nut effect is due to a phenomenon called granular convection. Convection is usually used to describe the movement of gases and liquids, where heated particles are more active and lighter, thus rising to the top. As the particles rise, they cool down and fall back to the bottom, creating a current. It seems to be that the same can be applied to solid particles, such as nuts. When the jar or bag of nuts is shaken, a vibrational force is applied. Nuts in the middle are pushed upwards by the vibration, with smaller particles filling the gap below. Once the nuts reach the top surface, the vibration pushes the nuts towards the side, where they are then pushed back to the bottom. However, larger nuts like Brazil nuts are too big to fit in this downward current so they stay on the top.
The Brazil nut effect is not exclusive to Brazil nuts. A similar phenomenon can be seen with any large particles surrounded by smaller particles, like pebbles in sand or coffee beans in ground coffee. The theory of granular convection has still not been fully understood, with various factors such as nut density and air pressure seeming to play a role.
They say that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. The job sure lives up to its reputation - the first recorded incidence of paying money for sex is in 2400BC, where prostitution is recorded among a list of professions in ancient Sumer. Of course, there is no proof of it being literally the “oldest” profession, because the money (or any currency) to pay for sex must have come from somewhere else. Evidence of prostitution can be found in almost every other ancient civilisations, including the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Jews, Aztecs, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. It is also heavily referenced in the Bible, suggesting that it was a widely spread profession.
As unnatural as the act of paying for sex may seem, prostitution has been recorded in animals as well. In 1998, a marine biologist named Fiona Hunter was studying the mating behaviour of Adélie penguins. She observed that the penguins would couple up and begin building a nest for their future offspring. The females would go out alone to look for pebbles at the beach. But then, she noticed that some female penguins would not head to the beach to collect the pebbles. Instead, they approached another male penguin (usually one that was single) and engage in courtship rituals to lure them into having sex. The female would then grab some pebbles and run off, while the male just let her go. Hunter concluded that this behaviour was indeed a material exchange for sexual pleasures.
Similar behaviour of offering food or grooming for sex has been observed in different primate species such as chimpanzees and crab-eating macaques. The most interesting study on this topic was that of training capuchin monkeys to use a currency. As soon as they learned that the silver discs could be used to purchase food, monkeys were seen “gifting” these silver discs to each other in exchange for sex. This kind of behaviour does not seem too unnatural if you consider that sex is a biological need (or at least a strong want), and sexual pleasure is, psychologically speaking, one of the strongest rewards.
Prostitution is generally deemed immoral and looked down upon, especially given the exploitation of women for their bodies and cheapening the act of making love. However, it should also be noted that throughout history, there are several cases of women using it as an opportunity to achieve something great. For example, Rahab was a harlot from Jericho in 1400BC. Back then, intelligent, independent women could not have much freedom as a married woman was treated as a slave to her husband. As a harlot, Rahab could live her own life and make her own decisions. When the city of Jericho was laid under siege by King Joshua, he sent in two spies to scout the area. Rahab hid these two men from the guards of the king of Jericho and showed them the secret passages of the city, ultimately allowing for Joshua to conquer the city with easy.
There is also the case of Theodora of Constantinople, who rose from being a harlot to an empress by seducing the Emperor Justinian, who made her a valued co-ruler of the empire. She then proceeded to use her power to crack down on the exploitation of women and protecting women’s rights.
Yawning is a reflex that we usually associate with tiredness or boredom. When we feel quite sleepy or feel that it is bedtime, we will involuntarily take a deep breath in and stretch our muscles. It used to be believed that yawning is the brain’s response to lack of oxygen, which seems logical as we take a deep breath in during a yawn. However, studies have shown that yawning actually decreases the level of oxygen in the brain. The reason for yawning is still a mystery, but there are many theories suggesting that it cools the brain or to keep the muscles stretched and ready. It may even be a primitive reflex designed to display dominance and signal that they are not threatened by an incoming danger.
An interesting thing about yawning is that it is extremely contagious. It is thought that yawn contagiousness serves a social purpose. Our brains contain certain types of neurons called mirror neurons, that are responsible for copying an action that we see (hence the proverb “monkey see, monkey do”). It has been suggested that by copying the yawn of another member in the group, a sense of camaraderie is established, acting as a social lubricant (much like mirroring to build rapport). The contagiousness is surprisingly strong, even working when you see a video of a person yawning or even reading about yawning. It spreads to animals as well, such as other primates (e.g. monkeys, apes) and dogs. Interestingly, autistic children are less likely to yawn when someone nearby yawns, suggesting that there is indeed a social element to yawning.
(NB: I have written MANY ARK posts about the brain and all the delightful ways it screws up. Some of them are probably the most interesting posts on my blog. Please click the hyperlinks to check out the various related articles! :D Alternatively, here’s a convenient list: http://jinavie.tumblr.com/tagged/brain)
Among the many organs of the human body, no organ comes close to the magnificent complexity that is the brain. The brain acts as the command centre of the body. It receives massive amounts of information through the various senses, processes it and sends out electrical signals to control how the body operates. Not only does it control “basic” functions such as movement of muscles, controlling organ functions and regulating homeostasis, it is also responsible for the so-called “higher functions” such as consciousness, emotions and cognition. It is the true seat of the mind and soul.
The brain is the only major visceral organ not located in the trunk (body). It is enclosed in the cranium of the skull, which acts as a protective casing. Because it is a closed box, even a small increase in volume (such as due to a bleed or a tumour) can cause extreme pressures to build, causing severe problems. The entire brain and spinal cord are bathed in a fluid called cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), all enclosed by a sheath made of three layers (dura, arachnoid and pia maters). The brain sends out nerves to the rest of the body, which act as electrical wiring transmitting signals. These include the cranial nerves and the spinal cord, which leaves the bottom of the skull down the spine. The spinal cord branches off into many nerves that supply every nook and cranny of the body. The brain itself is made up of two large hemispheres, which are connected by a bridge called the corpus callosum. Despite popular belief, the actions of the two hemispheres are much more complicated than “analytical vs. creative”. The brain also encompasses the cerebellum (the small stripey structure at the back), which controls coordination and speech articulation, and the brainstem, which is involved in autonomic control of life-sustaining functions such as breathing, and also the source of the cranial nerves.
(Click on image for larger view)
In the last century, scientists have learned that specific parts of the brain play a specific role. This thought started with the field of phrenology, where small areas of the brain were mapped to a certain mental faculty, such as love, wit or destructiveness. Although this turned out to be complete hokum, the idea stayed and we now know the actual functions of each part of the brain. The brain is broadly divided into four lobes: frontal, parietal, temporal and occipital. The frontal lobe is the domain of thought, personality, motor function and other higher functions. The parietal lobe is related to spatial awareness and sensory functions (such as touch). The temporal lobe is linked to hearing, comprehension of language and storing new memories. The occipital lobe is primarily associated with vision. The brain can then be subdivided into more focussed areas, such as Broca’s area that governs speech and Wernicke’s area that governs listening. It should be noted that the four lobes only describe areas on the surface of the brain (cerebral cortex) where the higher functions belong. The inside of the brain is just as complicated and has many different parts, such as the hypothalamus that is involved in homeostasis, and the hippocampus that converts short-term memories into long-term memories.
How does a lump of cells weighing around 1.5kg produce such wondrous abilities such as philosophical thought, deduction, emotions and calculation? The truth is that we still do not know how the brain functions exactly. However, we know that the brain is composed of a large number of neurons (nerve cells) - about 100 billion of them. These neurons connect to one another via a synapse, which is a gap between two nerve cells where neurotransmitters travel to and fro (allowing electrical impulses to jump from one neuron to another). Using these connections, neurons form an unbelievably intricate and complex network of electrical activity. Because one neuron can connect to many more others, the number of synapses is estimated to be around 100~1000 trillion - significantly more powerful compared to any computer in the world. The number of synapses directly correlates to intelligence and it seems intellectual activities such as reading a book increases the number of synapses in the brain. We have yet to understand exactly how the brain uses this incredible computational power to produce cognition and self-awareness.
(Video of neuronal activities in a zebrafish brain)
Because the brain uses electrical impulses for most of its functions, a common abnormality that is seen with the brain is when the electrical activity becomes disorganised and out of control - a seizure. This abnormal electrical activity may be due to a focal problem such as a tumour, or a generalised misfiring of neurons or altered regulation of electrical activity. When a seizure happens, the disorganised activity results in the brain not being able to function normally. For example, the most common consequence is a fit (tonic-clonic seizure) where every muscle spasms out of control, because the muscles are overloaded with chaotic signals. Focal seizures can cause fascinating symptoms depending on the location, such as temporal lobe seizures causing religious visions (hallucination). This also disrupts consciousness, which is why most epilepsy patients do not remember the event.
The final destination of food travelling through the digestive tract is the large intestine, or colon. It is the site where digested food is transformed into faeces, ready for excretion. The large intestine is much shorter than the small intestine - roughly 1.5m in length. Unlike the small intestine which is relatively free and mobile, the colon is fixed to the abdominal wall. It starts in the lower-right corner of the abdomen in a pouch called the caecum (connected to the small bowel). This is where the appendix is located. The colon then ascends the right-side of the abdomen (ascending colon) all the way to the diaphragm, does a 90-degree turn to the left (transverse colon) until it hits the spleen, then goes downwards to the lower-left corner (descending colon). Here, the colon bends into an S-shape towards the centre (sigmoid colon) until it ends as the rectum, which opens out to the anus. The colon essentially frames the contents of the abdomen.
The colon’s main function is the absorption of water and salts from the food that has been processed by the small bowel. As it sucks out the water in this liquid, it becomes more and more solidified. The brown colour of normal stool comes from bile and bilirubin (from the breakdown of red blood cells) secreted by the liver into the duodenum. For this reason, biliary obstruction (e.g. due to gallstones) causes pale stool and dark urine (overflow). Stool also contains undigested material like fibre, giving it bulk. Because it is at the end of the digestive tract, stool can be used to diagnose many diseases, such as an infection in the gut (bacterial, viral or parasitic).
The colon is a common site for cancer to occur in. Because there is room to grow, colon cancers are often found late when they have already spread and is incurable. The key symptoms of colon cancer are bloody stool (although this can be due to many reasons such as haemorrhoids), worsening constipation, anaemia (from blood loss causing iron deficiency), change in bowel habit and general symptoms of cancer (e.g. weight loss, fatigue).
Abdominal organs are often grouped into the colloquial term gut. “Gut” also refers to a specific organ - the small intestine (or small bowel). It is an important part of the gastrointestinal (digestive) tract, connecting the stomach to the colon and involved in digesting and absorbing nutrients. The small intestine is extremely long, roughly 7m in an adult. It fits in the abdomen by folding and packing neatly, lying under the liver, stomach and pancreas while being framed by the large intestine. The small intestine is not freely hanging so you cannot just pull it out like a rope. It is connected to the body by a fan-like membrane called the mesentery, which provides blood supply to the gut. The mesentery is attached along one side of the gut the entire way through.
The small bowel is composed of three parts: the duodenum, jejunum and ileum. Although people think digestion mainly happens in the stomach, it is actually primarily performed in the duodenum. The duodenum not only receives liquefied food from the stomach, but is also the place where the pancreas and liver drain digestive juices such as pancreatic enzymes and bile. The enzymes breakdown large molecules like fat, protein and carbohydrates into smaller building blocks, while bile acts like detergent to allow fat to mix better with water (emulsification).
The digested food then travels down the GI tract through a process called peristalsis, where the gut squeezes behind the bolus of food to push it forward, much like squeezing toothpaste out of the tube. The broken down products are mainly absorbed in the second part of the bowel (jejunum) via the walls. The small bowel wall looks like a carpet due to microscopic finger-like projections called villi. Villi allow for a much greater surface area for enhanced absorption. In coeliac disease, these villi are flattened by an autoimmune process and the patient cannot absorb as much nutrients (including vitamins).
By the time the food reaches the ileum, most of the nutrients have been absorbed. The ileum finishes the job by absorbing some extra things like vitamin B12 and bile salts, then sends the food through the ileocoecal valve, which is the door between the small and large intestine.
The small bowel is used by various cultures for culinary purposes. Other than simply eating the bowel itself after cooking, it is often used to pack different meats or other food inside, such as sausages or soondae (Korean sausages, filled with chop sui noodles).
The stomach is an organ that is well-known, so much so that the abdomen is often colloquially referred to as “the stomach”. It is an important organ that is part of the digestive tract, responsible for breaking down food that comes in through the mouth then the oesophagus. The stomach lies centrally and just below the sternum, surrounded by the liver on the right, spleen on the left and pancreas below.
Food is broken down primarily by the mouth via chewing. Once you swallow, the food is squeezed through the oesophagus until it is dumped into the stomach. The stomach produces a very strong acid (hydrochloric acid, pH 1~2), which dissolves the chewed food. It enhances this process by contracting its powerful wall muscles to churn and mix the food. Once it is nicely dissolved into a thick liquid, it releases it into the duodenum (the first part of the small intestine).
If the stomach uses strong acid to breakdown food, which is organic matter, how come it does not digest itself? This is because the lining of the stomach is coated with a substance called mucin which protects the stomach wall from being corroded by acid. However, the stomach is not perfectly safe from the acid it produces. If the stomach becomes inflamed, the production of mucin and self-repair process of the stomach is limited and acid begins dissolving the stomach lining. This causes peptic ulcers to form, which is essentially a hole in the lining of the stomach, causing severe abdominal pain and occasionally bleeding. Peptic ulcers are commonly caused by an infection by a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori. It may also be caused by severe stress and anger or medications such as NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, e.g. ibuprofen, diclofenac/Voltaren).