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Good morning! Today we're throwing things at the sun.
How large would a bucket of water have to be to put out the sun?
It's a trick question, no amount of water would be enough. In fact, the more water you threw on the sun, the hotter and brighter it would burn.
If this is obvious to you, congratulations on already knowing how the sun works. For everyone else:
Normal fires are combustion fires – chemical reactions between wood/paper/kerosene/etc and oxygen. The chemical reaction is triggered by heat, but then the chemical reaction also creates heat, so when you light a match to a campfire, it keeps going till it burns through all the fuel. When you throw water on a campfire, it a) drains away the heat energy so the chemical reaction can't keep triggering, and b) smothers the fire so the wood and oxygen can't connect.
The sun is nothing like a normal fire. Its heat is caused by pressure – its immense gravity crushes atoms together (fuses their nucleuses together – hence "nuclear fusion"). So when you throw water onto the sun, you're just adding to its mass, which increases its gravity, and makes it crush atoms together even harder, and so burn hotter. If you threw petrol on the sun, it would have the same effect as water – just adding more mass.
I've tried to make this as short as possible, but I actually really recommend this slightly longer but very clear and accessible explanation, which I think does a better job. It's a great piece of science communication:
Slow motion of world-record holding polevaulter Mondo Duplantis
The moment when you realise how short the pole is gonna come up against the bar...
DuPlantis first broke the world record when he was 20 – he's now 22 and has broken it 5 more times, most recently by jumping 6.2 m (20 ft 3+1⁄2 in).
Incredibly, that video above isn't even the world-record breaking jump.
He won gold at the Tokyo Olympics (obviously) and silver medallist Chris Nilsen said trying to compete with him was like an ordinary footballer trying to be like Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, and that Duplantis' superiority over the world's best polevaulters was "impressive and ridiculous". An epitaph to aspire to.
PS You might have seen this clip shared with some different details – the differences are because I fact-checked. They're not interesting enough to be worth "debunking" but I really want credit for putting in the work, because I'm petty.
"A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it." – Father Strickland, not talking about me
Tasmanian devils are evolving to be more chill
If you didn't know, there's a facial cancer devastating Australia's Tasmanian devil population. It's very infectious and fatal. (Sorry to report bad news but it's been happening since 1996 so it doesn't count as news.)
Devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) is spread by biting – but there's a weird quirk. The animals with the fewest bites are the most likely to have DFTD.
"Our results, that devils with fewer bites are more likely to develop DFTD, were very surprising and counterintuitive. In most infectious diseases there are so-called super-spreaders, a few individuals responsible for most of the transmission. But we found the more aggressive devils, rather than being super-spreaders, are super-receivers." [The Guardian]
The cancer is in the animal's skin, not in their saliva, so it's the biter who gets infected, not the bitten.
The spread of disease has slowed recently, so it looks like devils are developing resistance to DFTD. Or... the aggressive animals have been wiped out, and the ones who are left do a lot less biting.
(This is not as clear-cut as I made it sound in the headline, because an aggressive animal might well reproduce before it catches DFTD and dies. And socially dominant devils breed more than low-status devils, so aggression might overall still have the evolutionary advantage.)
In looking this up, I found a paper delightfully titled 'To lose both would look like carelessness: Tasmanian Devil Facial Tumour Disease'.
(If that doesn't make any sense, it's referencing the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger and a line from an Oscar Wilde play.)
Also: Tasmanian devils are not like any other scavenger on Earth
Scavengers are generalists: they thrive by eating whatever's around, whatever they can get. This is true of scavengers across every ecosystem, from hyenas to crows to tiger sharks.
It is not true of Tasmanian devils. They're picky eaters and have their own specific, individual preferences – for example, just dead wallabies, just dead rosellas, or just dead possums.
The researchers tracked these eating habits by analyzing a small whisker sample from each devil—each bristle holds chemical imprints, called stable isotopes, from food they've eaten in the past.
"We were surprised the devils didn't want to all eat the same thing," says Ms Anna Lewis, lead author of the study and Ph.D. candidate at UNSW Science.
"Most of them just decided, 'No, this is my favorite food.'
"This definitely seems to be a devil-specific habit. There are no other scavengers in the world that we know of who do this."
They reckon it's because devils are isolated and not competing with any large predators for carcasses, so they can afford to be choosy. (And I would imagine it reduces fights if they're not all going for the same food source?)
The first map of an imaginary land in a fantasy book
People argue a lot about which was the first fantasy novel or the first "second world" fantasy (one set in a wholly imagined new land – like Lord of the Rings – rather than earth but with magical creatures and happenings).
But we do more or less know what the first second-world fantasy to have a fantasy map printed at the front is: The Sundering Flood by William Morris (1898).
William Morris is more famous for his wallpaper:
The Sundering Flood map is gorgeous and does a great job of spiking your curiosity (if you like fantasy books). I love the city, I love how it's sundered by the river, I want to know about the ecosystem and social life between the two parts.
I got as far as the second sentence:
But up this river ran the flood of tide a long way, so that the biggest of dromonds and roundships might fare along it, and oft they lay amid pleasant up-country places, with their yards all but touching the windows of the husbandman's stead, and their bowsprits thrusting forth amongst the middens, and the routing swine, and querulous hens; and the uneasy lads and lasses sitting at high-mass of the Sunday in the grey village church would see the tall masts dimly amidst the painted saints of the aisle windows, and their minds would wander from the mass-hackled priest and the words and the gestures of him, and see visions of far countries and outlandish folk, and some would be heart-smitten with that desire of wandering and looking on new things which so oft the sea-beat board and the wind-strained pine bear with them to the dwellings of the stay-at-homes: and to some it seemed as if, when they went from out the church, they should fall in with St. Thomas of India stepping over the gangway, and come to visit their uplandish Christmas and the Yule-feast of the field-abiders of midwinter frost.
I wish I was the kind of person who would read this; I love the idea of having read to the genre's roots, but alas, I'm only the kind of person who likes to think of themself as that kind of person.
If you actually are that kind of person, here's the whole book.
✨ open for a surprise ✨
Think of advice the way you think of medicine
That is, medicines are prescribed for specific people in specific situations. They're not meant to be universally applicable. Sometimes a medication is for people in your exact situation, and it just doesn't work for you, for whatever reason, and you have to try the next option down the line,
If someone has high blood pressure, you would prescribe them medicine to lower their blood pressure.
And then maybe you'd tweet "Hey a great medicine for people with high blood pressure is Notrealazone*" [this is not how you practise medicine but it's a metaphor, bear with me]
And then someone with low blood pressure would reply: "Oh my god that is terrible advice, Notrealazone would literally kill me."
And then there'd be a big debate between people with high blood pressure and people with low blood pressure about whether it's a terrible medicine or not, and they would both be so sure they were right (because it really would be bad/good for them). But as you can hopefully see, it would be a completely stupid and pointless argument, and there'd be no value in either side successfully converting the other. It's very clearly good for some people and bad for others.
There are a few absolutes: arsenic is always** bad medicine; "if you are nice enough to your abuser, they will stop being abusive" is always bad advice.
And some advice is dangerous enough for a decent-sized minority that you shouldn't blare it publicly without warnings.
But pretty much everything else is just not helpful for everyone. So if it's not helpful for you... you don't have to get defensive and weird about it, or justify yourself, or talk people into seeing it the same way you do. You can just say, "if that doesn't end up working for you, here's a different thing that worked for me."
So. A better framework. Advice = medicine.
* I was going to google a real blood-pressure-reducing medication, but it would be a distraction. Not a distraction for me, a distraction for readers. As in, a small percentage of people would be unable to get past the fact that it's being used as a metaphor, and would reply "I know this is a metaphor, but you really shouldn't recommend chlorthalidone, because it has blablabla side effects".
Writing online – where the barrier to people responding to you is very low – tends to make people slightly worse writers because you always have the voice of the most pedantic reader in your head, so you go with the unassailable generic over the specific, or you dilute the impact of a strong sentence by adding a bunch of disclaimers to head off commenters. Presumably the bigger your audience, the stronger the effect.
So when you correct someone on a minor technicality (especially of it's one of those "in SOME circumstances" corrections, or "I know you weren't being literal, but…"), you're not actually improving the state of writing – you're making the overall state of public writing worse and more tedious.
The line between "minor technicality" and "important error" is subjective, but I think a lot of people aren't even aware there's a cost, or think it's only a social cost (ie people find you annoying) that they're willing to pay for the overall good of improving language use. But yeah, it really is making people's writing worse, not better.
** Sigh, there are actually a very small number of medicinal uses for it
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