Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana. I mean fruit flies don't fly like a banana. Even bananas probably don’t fly like bananas. Not like I’ve seen a banana fly. Have you seen a… I’m just saying that fruit flies like a banana, okay?
I’m sorry, the other day I slipped and hit my head. I still feel a bit woozy and well, sorry if I don’t make much sense. Jason Padgett also didn’t make sense after he was hit in the head in 2002. He was an ordinary adolescent. He didn’t do that well in school and considered math useless.
One September night, he was out on one of the many night-outs he had, and after singing karaoke at a pub, Jason was just about to call it a night. Before he knew it, he’d been hit in the back of his head by 2 men, beaten profusely and left there with his injuries. People at the hospital sent him home after diagnosing a concussion and a bleeding kidney, thinking nothing more of it.
In Jason’s head, however, things were far worse.
He, almost overnight, developed an intense germaphobia and just a general OCD with things. He would wash his hands over and over again, and completely locked himself into his home. It was during one of those many hand-washes that he noticed the water streaming down the sink. Instead of seeing the droplets slowly recede into the sink like usual, he noticed an almost fragmented reality. It was like a video, he says, that he watched frame by individual frame. He would spend hours trying to draw what he saw in the form of fractal diagrams.
One day, he was drawing them while he was at a mall, and a person walking by him took keen interest. He happened to be a mathematician, who for once could appreciate what Jason was seeing in all its mathematical glory. He explained to Jason that the things he was describing were discoveries that were Nobel Prize worthy, and that he should really consider focusing on it full time. All this time Jason thought he was going insane. He even contacted psychologists about his symptoms. They eventually diagnosed him with “Acquired Savant syndrome” and placed him in a synesthesia group study. Synesthesia is a phenomenon of sensory hyperconnectivity where one can experience multi-modal sensations like seeing sound or tasting a memory. Some of our favorite musicians like Lorde and Pharrell Williams have it, and Jason was diagnosed with some version of it, although in his case, it’s expressed in math rather than music.
Jason has now become a number theorist. Scientists say the regions of the brain that allow savants to do what they do exist in all of us. It just so happens that most of us don’t have access to them. So, there could be a number theorist in all of us. Anybody could be anything. Anything could be in anything. But wait, maybe I’m just losing my mind again. Everything cannot be in everything. A country, for example, cannot be in another country. Can it?
Presenting to you Dahala Khagrabari! It’s a part of India within a part of Bangladesh within a part of India. Let me explain. An enclave is a part of a country that is surrounded by foreign territory. The Vatican city is one such enclave. But, contrary to the Vatican where people speak Italian, people living in places like Dahala Khagrabari speak a different language, are part of a different culture, and quite simply, live a different life.
Dahala Khagrabari was one of only 3 third order enclaves - meaning it is an enclave within another enclave within another enclave. How did this all come to be? Well, this bizarre geographic anomaly seems to have been caused by an equally bizarre pastime.
Chess. Human Chess.
Yes, when kings of the 18th century weren’t executing people at will, they were playing chess with them. It seems to be a result of this chess-playing that entire groups of people were just moved around at a time when the borders were yet to be drawn. Fast forward 300 years, the borders are here but their situation was largely unresolved. These people had no legal existence or a way to get to their homeland. They were not granted basic necessities by the government of the territory in which they reside. After the independence wars in the 20th century in the Indian Subcontinent, these enclaves persisted for an additional 80 years before finally, in 2015, it was ceded to Bangladesh by India. Up until then, of course, Dahala Khagarabari was in India, or was it Bangladesh? I don’t know.
Now there are more bizarre things in this world, of course. For example, the group of people that wear sunglasses at night. I mean, what are you doing? Where is the sun? Sunglasses were clearly invented to protect your eyes against the sun - right? Well, not exactly. Turns out, sunglasses were invented for justice. No, not that kind of justice. Sunglasses were most likely popularized by the Chinese in the 1200s. Their purpose? So that the judges can impartially interrogate witnesses without giving away their facial expressions. The eyes can do a lot of the talking and judges at the time had to dissociate themselves from the people they were about to question. Anyone who has tried to lie or has been lied to knows that the eyes can do a lot of the talking in tense situations.
Speaking of tense situations, you know the time when man traveled 310,000 km on a journey never before done to walk on the surface of the moon? Well, Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 crew made that journey and came back to tell the tale. Of course, they didn’t know whether they were going to come back or not. In fact, a lot of the trial runs resulted in the loss of life even before anything left the ground. They were all military servicemen, and so the thought of not coming back wasn’t unforeseen. But at least they wanted to ensure the well-being of their loved ones if they couldn’t make it.
Now, insurance companies know a risky bet when they see one. And to say that going to the moon was “risky” would be an understatement. So of course, the crew had to improvise. The crew ended up signing hundreds of autographs, with the hope that if they failed to return, the value of their signatures alone would see out their families for the rest of their lives. Of course, those autographs were never needed in the end, but it’s interesting to wonder what a Neil Armstrong NFT could be worth in today’s money!
But willing to spend so much money on NFTs is kind of strange, even sinful, some might say. This is not the only sinful desire we have in our day-to-day ruminations of course. It's remarkable how little has changed in that respect. Promiscuity was perhaps harder to get away with back then, but that didn’t stop people from trying. One devout Christian, however, LaMarcus Thompson, wanted people to use their time for less sinful endeavors. He wanted to build something that would take people's minds away from the pubs, the saloons, and the brothels that they used to go to.
He got inspiration from a coal-carrying train in Pennsylvania. The train would slowly carry coal over a mountain before dropping 60 feet under the force of gravity. Now, that may not sound like much of a thrill ride compared to the things we do today, but in the 1800s, the 60 mile per hour speed of this train was enough to exhilarate passengers. Thompson sold his hosiery business, and devoted all his time to build what would be the world's first amusement themed roller coaster. After months and months of designs, Thompson eventually built a 50 foot high 600 feet switch-back roller coaster in a place known for being promiscuous - Coney Islands. At just 6 miles per hour, this was far slower than anything you or I would consider exciting, but it was such a novelty at the time that when business took off, Thompson was making well over 15,000 dollars per day. From making underwear to thrilling people into needing more, Thompson died a very rich man.
Speaking of underwear, Norway is now calling its military conscripts to return underwear worn during conscription. The obligation seems to have arisen from pandemic related shortages in the past years. But, then again, this is not the first time Norway’s resources were “spread thin.” In 2011, Norway went through a butter crisis that led to more than just dry toast. The regularity with which people in Norwegian cultures consume butter means that when news of the shortage reached people’s ears, butter stocks ran off the shelves in minutes, and there was market-wide inflation. It all started when heavy rainfall in the prior season led to poor grazing, which in turn reduced milk production from the cows. The butter panic eventually affected foreign policy whereby Norway had to reduce tariffs to make importing butter easier. On an individual level, the effect was just as apparent as people were literally caught smuggling butter through the borders.
But, I can empathize with the Norwegian people. It is indeed quite infuriating when a system is in place, and it doesn’t work when you most need it. It’s a lot like lab equipment. It just always fails. Always fails when you need it. Anyone who has spent even a brief moment in a lab would know the tension inside that place simply because very simple things cannot be accomplished when lab equipment is not working.
Well, it turns out that happens to the best of us.
Wolfgang Pauli, the Austrian theoretical physicist, is known for significant contributions to the field of quantum mechanics, most notably by his Pauli exclusion principle. He was a remarkable theoretical physicist, and spent most of his time with pen and paper rather than with experimental equipment. Hence, it follows that occasionally, whenever Pauli would have to deal with equipment, he would break it. It turns out, the faulty equipment became such a regularity that merely his presence was sufficient to convince his peers about why certain equipment failed.
They ended up dubbing this phenomenon as the “Pauli effect” - essentially the tendency of lab equipment to fail for seemingly no material reason, other than the presence of a theoretician. The phenomenon had gained so much traction after its inception that Pauli’s friend, Otto Stern, had literally banned Pauli from entering his laboratory, despite them being good friends. Pauli even attempted to write an article “Background Physics” to try and explain things inexplicably breaking as soon as he entered the room. Anecdotes follow that Pauli’s car broke down during his honeymoon, a chair broke down at a Zurich festival for no reason whatsoever, the train station ran into a failure as soon as Pauli switched stations, a cyclotron burnt right before his eyes and so much more. The effect was so eerie that Pauli eventually lamented to himself that “such mischief had to have been the Pauli effect.”
I guess none of us have destroyed particle accelerators or cyclotrons in our lives yet, but we have all messed up things on paper. Like using the wrong units when doing calculations? I am sure it stings, but my teachers always told me that these mistakes are okay, and that as long as I have the concepts down pat, I am going to be alright. Right?
Well, not for the pilots of Air Canada flight 143.
On a nice July day, a brand new 767, state-of-the-art at the time, took to the skies to fly from Montreal to Edmonton. Less than half way through the flight, the pilots noted a fuel pressure warning on one of the engines. The warnings persisted and eventually rang up for both of the plane’s engines. A few minutes later, the engines ran out of fuel entirely and the plane essentially turned into a very large and heavy glider. Thanks to the exceptional skill, the plane was eventually able to land at a nearby runway-turned-dragstrip with no loss of life, and only minor injuries that took place during the evacuation. The heroics of the pilots were truly highlighted when months after the incident different crews across Canada had tried to land a 767 in a simulator under similar conditions.
Nobody was able to pull it off. But why did this happen in the first place?
After all, it was a brand new plane. Well, it turned out, one of the fuel gauges weren’t functioning properly when the plane was being refueled. As a result, the fuel amount had to be manually verified before the plane was given the all clear from Montreal. It turned out everyone involved in the process was trained in the metric system, but the 767 was one of the first jets where the instruments reported in imperial units. Essentially the person who was doing the refueling thought they were loading the plane with around 22,000 kilograms of fuel when, in truth, they were really filling it up with 12,000 kilograms of fuel, which conveniently comes up to be around 22,000 in pounds. So the plane took off with less than half the fuel it needed to complete the trip.
So many problems in our lives come from simple miscommunication. It really makes you wonder what the world would be like if, say, we all used the same measurement systems or spoke the same language. But humans, ironically, what makes us strongest also makes us the weakest.
It’s our ability to work together, or the lack thereof.
The fate of our entire species comes down to what we should be able to do the best, but instead, we do the exact opposite. Life has a certain irony to it, and I think it’s this irony that not only makes life painful, but also makes life worth living.
As Thanos said best, life is “perfectly balanced, as all things should be.”
- MA, MM