factsman

Fact 13: Graham's number will make your head implode - literally

Fact: Graham’s number is so large, that if you were to think it, your head would implode into a black hole.

Explanation: Graham’s number is an unimaginably (literally!) huge number that is a solution to a problem in graph theory. The problem is (you needn’t understand it to get the facts explanation, I just leave it here for completeness’s sake): if we take an n-dimensional cube, connect all its vertices to each other and colour these lines either red or blue, what is the lowest number of dimensions for which there will always be at least one ‘slice’ of this cube with all lines either red or blue?

Graham’s number is the upper bound of the answers to this problem, i.e. whatever the answer is, it is less than Graham’s number. How big is it? Well, think of it as a tower of 64 layers. Each layer is used to calculate the layer above it and the final layer is Graham’s number. The first, smallest number is so massive in itself, that it wouldn’t fit in the universe if each digit took up a space of one novendecillion (one followed by sixty zeroes) smaller than the volume of an electron, called a Planck volume.

But how will that make your head explode? Well, the universe has an interesting quality - information is a thing. A certain volume of space can hold a certain amount of information in it. The interesting bits is that as black holes suck in more and more things, they suck in more and more information as well. If you were to imagine the Graham’s number digit by digit, or even the first layer, your head would contain too much information for the volume it occupies. The information overload would cause your brain to implode, leaving a black hole where it used to be.

And who said maths can’t kill you.

Fact 16: Electrons stalk each other all the time

Fact: Every electron is aware of every other electron’s state. Should the state of any one change, all the others in the universe ‘know’ instantly, quicker than the speed of light.

Explanation: As I mentioned previously, every point in space is described by a quantum state, which tells us everything about it. This applies to particles as well, where electrons have their own particular quantum state. One, overarching rule is Pauli’s exclusion principle. This principle says, quite simply, that no two electrons can occupy the same quantum state. Just like I can’t occupy the same space as you, two electrons cannot share a quantum state. Simple and logical.

Let’s say that an electron occupying a state A is located somewhere in you desk and an electron occupying the state B is located somewhere halfway across the universe in some star. If I inject energy into the electron in my desk (by heating it, for example) it jumps to a different energy state. If it jumps to  B then we’ve got ourselves a problem. That state cannot be occupied by the two electrons! So what does happen? Well, the electron that used to occupy B moves to a different quantum state. Instantaneously, faster than light (or information) could travel to it. And this happens all the time, all over the universe. All of electrons constantly shifting and adjusting.

By rubbing your hands together, you are altering the electrons in the entire universe.

Fact 47: Lucifer's gas proves chemistry hates us

Fact: Dioxygen difluoride (O2F2), also called ‘Lucifer’s gas’ is an extremely violent chemical that makes things catch fire even at -100°C.

Explanation: Chemistry is a wonderful science, allowing us to create all sorts of amazing things and understand the world around us. But once in a while a compound is synthesized that is so horrendous, that it makes you question whether chemistry really has it in for us or something. You might think that one of the worst things is nitroglycerin, a very unstable explosive that may go off at so much as a bump. You might think it’s cyanogen chloride, a colourless, odourless gas that is absorbed very easily through the body and causes vomiting, convulsions, paralysis and death (and has been used as a chemical weapon because of these properties). But I’d like to present to you something more vile than that, something so terrible that it could be used as evidence that the world hates us.

I give you dioxygen difluoride.

It doesn’t look too bad, just a orange solid or red liquid. Melts at -163°C, but that’s not that uncommon or dangerous. It doesn’t behave too badly until you let it near, well, anything else. It is one of the most violent oxidisers known. Oxidisation is a common reaction, with rusting being one example. However, as oxidisation gets more violent it becomes combustion, or things catching fire.

Dioxygen difluoride is such a violent oxidiser that even if you let it be in a protected atmosphere, it loses 4% of its mass a day due to oxidisation. But when it comes in contact with anything else, all hell breaks loose. It is capable of setting almost anything on fire at temperatures of -100°C. It can make ice catch on fire.

It’s not so nice with other chemicals either. Let’s say you’ve got a bottle (a magical bottle that won’t burst into flames instantly) of about 280 grams of this lovely red liquid. Let’s say you’ve got a second bottle with 35 grams of hydrogen sulphide (the gas that makes rotten eggs stink and is responsible for the smell of flatulence). Let’s say you mix them together. Soon you will learn that it was a very foolish move, as this reaction will extremely quickly generate the energy equivalent of half a kilogramme of TNT exploding.

I expect there are many more interesting reactions that can be conducted with it. But seeing as it can make anything catch fire at almost any temperature and that it can make things explode readily, it isn’t a very commonly studied.

It’s so evil even chemists don’t want to get near it.

Fact 27: Nothing can move faster than light, except not really.

Fact: You can break the speed of light and doing so creates really cool visual effects of a light boom (a sort of ‘sonic boom’).

Explanation: As we all know, nothing can move faster than light. So what am I talking about? Well, the exact definition is that nothing can move faster than light in a vacuum. In other mediums light moves slower as it bumps into  molecules, and in some it slows down so far, that you can surpass its speed. This is what happens in nuclear reactors - electrons travel through the water quicker than light, which causes the particles to rapidly polarise (arrange their vibration to be only in one direction) and then stop, emitting light. It is called Cherenkov radiation and looks REALLY COOL.

Fact 55: Canada is awesome at names

Fact: There is a city in Alberta, Canada called Medicine Hat

Explanation: The name is a translation of the Blackfoot word Saamis, which indicated the eagle feather adorned headwear traditionally worn by medicine men (the traditional healers of Native American tribes). There are a number of legends, which explain why the Native Americans called the city location that.

The first one tells a story of a hunter which was contacted by a mystical river serpent called Soy-yee-daa-bee (the Creator). The serpent told him to sacrifice his wife and that it would give him special powers that would manifest themselves in a hat.

Another legend tells of a battle between the Blackfoot and the Cree, in which a retreating Cree medicine man lost their hat, which fell into the river (I’m sure if the Cree were telling that story it’d be the Blackfoot retreating).

No matter the origin, it’s awesome that there is a man, whose official position is ‘Mayor of Medicine Hat’.

Fact 35: World fits into Uruguay thanks to the Filipinos

Fact: If the entire world population were to live in a city that is as densely populated as Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, that city would have an area equivalent to the country of Uruguay.

Explanation: The city of Manila is the most densely populated city proper in the world, 1.6million people live on 38 square kilometres. This means that every square kilometre is populated by 43 thousand people, or every square mile by 111 thousand people. This is also equivalent to every person having the area equivalent to two parking spaces to themselves.

If the entire world population were to live in such conditions, we would be condensed into a mere 160 thousand square kilometres, or just under the land area of Uruguay. This city would grow by 4 square kilometres, or about one-and-a-fifth Central Parks every day, increasing by the size of Greater London every year.

Finding a parking space would be a nightmare.

Fact 66: Fourteen of you could fit in world's largest engine.

Fact: The Wärtsilä RT-flex96C is the world’s largest engine. Each of it’s cylinders has a bore of about 1 metre and with each stroke, the cylinders move down by 2.5 metres.

Explanation: No, that is not a model truck. What you’re seeing there is the world’s largest reciprocating engine (similar to the one you have in your car or your lawnmower). From the bottom to top it is an impressive 13.5 metres and weighs an incredible 2200 tonnes. It is used in the world’s largest ships and is able to provide 110 thousand break-horsepower. To put that into perspective, the world’s most powerful road car ever built produces 85 times less. And it’s enough force to pull a T-90 tank along the ground at the speed of sound.

Fact 42: You'll die if you go 19 kilometres from your house

Fact: At an altitude of 19 kilometres your blood would boil.

Explanation: We all know that the boiling temperature of water decreases as the altitude increases. I personally first encountered this in stories of disgusting tea on Mount Everest. This is all nice and funny, but nobody tells you about how higher up your eyes boil. The mechanism is simple - at approximately nineteen kilometres (called the Armstrong limit) the pressure of the atmosphere is so low that water boils at 37 degrees Celsius. You may recognise this temperature as the average body temperature. This basically means that at this altitude, if you aren’t wearing a pressure suit, all the water in your body starts boiling simultaneously - your tears, the moisture on your tongue, the inside of your lungs.

And all that tries to leave your body through any means.

Fact 74: You can be both the luckiest and unluckiest man on Earth

Fact: Tsutomu Yamaguchi survived the atomic attack on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and is the only person to be officially recognised by the government of Japan to have done so.

Explanation: Tsutomu Yamaguchi was an engineer working for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries - he helped design oil tankers. Yamaguchi worked and lived in Nagasaki, but he went to Hiroshima in 1945 on a business trip, which was to end on August 6 and on that day he was actually preparing to leave. However, he realised he forgot his documents, so he returned to his workplace - and that was when the bomb exploded, three kilometres from him. He suffered burns, his eardrums were ruptured and the flash blinded him, but he survived. Having rested, he set out to find his colleagues, with whom he was to travel back to Nagasaki. Finding they survived, all three of them rested in a shelter and the next day travelled to Nagasaki, where they received treatment.

A few days later, on August 9, a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki (interestingly Nagasaki wasn’t the primary target, but the bad weather conditions over Kokura prompted a change of targets), again about three kilometres from Yamaguchi. This time the blast didn’t injure him directly, but he was unable to receive further treatment (as the city was in ruins). Suffering from high fever for many days, he eventually recovered and led a relatively normal life until 2009, when he was recognised as the first and only double atomic bomb survivor (although about 160 such people are known, they are not recognised by the government).

Mr Yamaguchi died in 2010 from stomach cancer, at an age of 93.

Fact 72: Germans build massive death machine

Fact: The Bagger 288 is the world’s largest vehicle in the world, weighing 13,500 tonnes.

Explanation: No, that is not photoshop. What you’re seeing on the picture is the Bagger 288, the world’s largest land vehicle being moved in 2001 from one mine to another. It’s an excavator, and can dig up to 240,000 tonnes every day - the equivalent to making a hole the size of a football pitch 30 metres deep. Also, that’s enough to fill up 2400 coal wagons.

To complete this task, it uses the massive excavating head that is 21 metres in diameter (that’s that thing on the left that looks like a massive buzzsaw). Each of those teeth is actually a massive bucket the size of a jacuzzi.

The whole machine is 220 metres long and about a hundred tall, and can move at a staggering pace of up to 0.6 km/h. It weighs a staggering 13,500 tonnes (since I seem to be using this comparison often, it’s equivalent to 220 Challenger II tanks). What is incredible is that due to its massive amount of caterpillar tracks, the weight is very well distributed, and the machine can move on dirt, gravel and grass without leaving much of an imprint (the pressure under it’s treads is 170% atmospheric pressure).

To power this behemoth, it needs 16.6 megawatts of power, or as much as 16600 households use on average or about 22,300 horsepower.

Fact 71: Russians fire king, literally.

Fact: The impostor tsar Dmitriy I was killed, quartered, cremated and his ashes shot from a cannon.

Explanation: In 1593 the son of Ivan the Terrible died childless, ending the  Rurik dynasty which ruled Russia for over 400 years. That started what is called the Time of Troubles, a 15 year period before a new dynasty was established (the Romanov dynasty, which ruled Russia until the death of the last tsar at the hands of the communist revolutionaries). In that period there was a claimant to the throne, Dmitriy I (also called False Dmitriy I), who claimed to be the youngest son of Ivan the Terrible, which would give him right to the throne.

Before he could take the throne, however, he needed help, money and armies. He got them from the Polish, which didn’t gain him a whole lot of trust from the Russians. After seizing the throne, he ruled for 10 months, during which he was disliked by his subjects. He was a womaniser, didn’t follow local traditions, didn’t have a beard and surrounded himself with Poles.

He, along with about 500 Polish noblemen, were massacred by rebels led by future tsar Vasili IV. He was buried, then exhumed, dragged by rope attached to his genitals, quartered, burned, loaded into a cannon and then fired in the general direction of Poland, as an act of defiance.

Fact 45: Butterfly babies remember grandpa's home

Fact: The Monarch butterfly manages to migrate from Canada to Mexico every year and return to the same spots, even though the migration takes several generations.

Explanation: If I asked you to lead me to your home you would be able to do it without much trouble. But if I asked you to lead me to the home where your great-great-great-great-grandfather lived, you’d probably be stumped. Not if you’re a Monarch butterfly. Somehow, every year, they manage to migrate from Canada to Mexico for the winter. The journey is long enough for butterflies to die and new ones to be born, so that no butterfly that started the trip ever finishes it. But somehow, every year they come back to the same place.

And nobody knows why; sadly it’s an unsolved problem.

Fact 44: Homeopathic medicine is water.

Fact: A standard homeopathic solution used in most applications, called the 30C solution, is so diluted, that it is equivalent to one molecule of the ‘medicinal’ substance in a sphere with a radius equal to 150 million kilometres.

Explanation: Homeopathic medicine bases itself on the idea that 'like cures like’. The German doctor, Samuel Hahnemann, who invented the field believed that if a substance can cause certain symptoms in a human then a small dilution of it will be beneficial. For example, arsenic causes nausea, diarrhoea and convulsions (and possibly death), so a dilution of arsenic is often used for treating those symptoms.

The dilutions are prepared by one part in one hundred and then this dilution is struck strongly against an elastic surface ten times. This releases (or so homeopaths claim) a latent energy in the substance and impresses it onto the solvent (usually water). This produces a substance of 1C dilation (1 part in 100). Now we take a portion of this dilation and we repeat the process, now we have a 1:10000 dilation (1:100 of the 1:100), giving us 2C.

The standard, suggested dilation 30C is 1:10^60, or one part of the active substance in million billion billion billion billion billion billion parts of water. Let’s imagine we’ve got an infinite supply of this 30C dilution and we give it to patients. How long would we have to wait, on average, to have a patient consume a single molecule of the active substance. We’d have to wait four billion years if we gave six billion patients two billion doses every second.

It’s just water.

Fact 33: You have two 209 megapixel cameras in your head.

Fact: The human eye has resolution good enough that it would be equivalent to having 209 megapixels.

Explanation: The human eye has a resolution of 1.2 arcminutes per line pair (on average, with some people it goes down to 0.78 arcminutes per line pair). This means that two lines covering 1.2 arcminutes (one fiftieth of a degree) can be distinguished as two lines. Any closer, and they will be seen as a single, grey line. In terms of a camera, this basically means that the two lines have to be on two pixels minimum for us to be able to say they’re not the same object. This means that every one hundredth of a degree we see would be a different pixel.

Each human eye has a horizontal field of view of about 155 degrees (95 away from the nose, 60 towards the nose) and the vertical field of view is about 135 degrees (75 downwards, 60 upwards); this assumes that we aren’t rotating our eyeballs or swivelling our heads. Such a field of view is what we see at any given time; we don’t necessarily focus on it all the time, but this is what we see.

This means that each eye needs to have the equivalent of 209 megapixels (or more, if your eyesight is particularly good).

Quite a good camera you’ve got there!

Fact 28: Tardigrades do not give a fuck.

Fact:  Tardigrade, a small water-dwelling animal, is pretty much like superman. They can take insane pressure, temperatures and radiation. And they love it.

Explanation: Tardigrades are small animals that live wherever there’s water. They look like tiny caterpillars that are from 1.5 to 0.1 millimetres long. They aren’t really remarkable in what they do, apart from their insane durability.

Firstly, they can take crazy amounts of pressure. Tardigrades can take the pressure of the vaccum of space and they don’t mind; some of them can take a pressure six thousand times larger the atmospheric pressure, which is equivalent to the weight of an adult elephant standing on an area the size of your fingernail and is over six times larger than the pressure at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest oceanic trench.

So these guys can already take the pressure that you can’t get anyplace on Earth without digging into the crust. They can also take temperatures of minus 200 Celsius for days without so much as caring. For shorter periods of time (a couple minutes) they can take temperatures of over 150 Celsius or just one degree above absolute zero.

And these guys don’t care for radiation either. They can easily take doses 600 times those that would kill any human. In fact, they’re so tough, that they’ve been shot into space with no protection from the temperature, vacuum or cosmic radiation that would kill a human within minutes. When they came back to Earth ten days later, the were not only fine, it turned out some of them had babies.

If anybody asks me what animal I’d like to be, you can bet I’ll say tardigrade.

Fact 8: Neutrinos too small for interplanetary golfist to notice

Fact: If you were to increase the size of a golf ball to the size of our solar system, keeping the proportions between elementary particles constant, the hydrogen atom would be 11 kilometres across. The neutrino, would be smaller than the width of a human hair.

Explanation: Neutrinos are unfathomably tiny particles that have no charge and almost no mass. They fly at near light-speed and pass through almost all matter, very rarely interacting with anything. In fact, every second 65 billion neutrinos pass through every square centimetre of you and you don’t even notice.

The neutrinos are so tiny that they are to the potassium atom as the potassium atom is to us - over a billion times smaller. If you took a golf ball and increased its size so that you could fit the entire solar system in it, then the neutrino would be about 70 microns across - less than the width of a human hair.