Author: Matt Castle

Matt Castle is a writer and contributing editor for Damn Interesting, and not quite an anagram of 'Clam Taste'.

Mind-warping Knowledge

Before London taxi drivers are allowed to convey paying customers in their renowned black cabs, they must be ‘of good character’, in a reasonable state of physical health, and have spent, on average, about three years studying for a gruelling examination that tests their spatial awareness of all the city’s streets, shortcuts, and famous and not-so-famous landmarks and locations. This process extends well beyond remembering the basic street layout; candidates must be able to determine the shortest route between any two locations in the city, and may be asked to pinpoint one of around 25,000 different points of interest, or ‘points’, pieced together in a jigsaw-like series of 320 set routes, or ‘runs’, that crisscross the ancient capital. This body of learning is known as “The Knowledge of London”, or simply “The Knowledge”. Of those starting to learn the Knowledge, only 30% will eventually succeed in gaining It and passing the examination to become bona fide London cabbies.

Inevitably, the existence of over 20,000 heads so thoroughly stuffed with such a distinct pattern of learning proved irresistible to neuroscientists. In 2011, they used MRI imaging to inspect the brains of trainee London taxi drivers before and after Knowledge acquisition. They showed that one particular structure, the hippocampus— which is concerned with spatial memory and navigational ability— became measurably larger in individuals who had successfully attained the Knowledge and gained cabbie status. For many years, scientists believed such changes were impossible in adults, and that only foetuses and children could manage such brain-changing feats.

Surface Tension

Low-pressure weather systems are a familiar feature of the winter climate in the northern Atlantic. While they often drive wind, rain, and other unpleasantness against Europe’s rocky western margin, this is typically on a “mostly harmless” basis. Early in the evening of 31 January 1953, the weather in northern Europe was damp, chilly, and blustery. These unremarkable seasonal conditions disguised the fact that a storm of extreme severity was massing nearby, and that an ill-fated assortment of meteorological, geophysical, and human factors would soon coalesce into an almost unprecedented watery catastrophe.

The storm scudded past the northern tip of Scotland and took an unusual southerly detour, shifting towards a low-lying soft European overbelly of prime agricultural, industrial, and residential land. The various people, communities, and countries in its path differed in their readiness and in their responses to the looming crisis, yet the next 24 hours were about to teach them all some enduring lessons. In a world that remains awash with extreme weather events—and with increasing numbers of people living in vulnerable coastal areas—the story of this particular storm system’s collision with humanity remains much-studied by emergency planners, and much-remembered in the three countries it so fatally struck.

The Mole Rat Prophecies

The naked mole rat, Heterocephalus glaber, is fleshy, furless, buck-toothed and brazenly ugly. Yet what these small East African rodents lack in terms of good looks, they make up with an impressive array of biological quirks. These misnamed mammals are neither moles nor rats, and in terms of their social behaviour are actually closer to bees, wasps, ants, and termites than to other backboned animals.

They live in underground cooperative colonies of up to 300 individuals with a dominant breeding “queen” and celibate soldier and worker castes. Biologists have identified only one other vertebrate—the closely related Damaraland mole rat—that uses this rigid reproductive and social structure. Until the late 1970s scientists believed that this trait, known as eusociality, was confined to insects.

Naked mole rats deploy several impressive feats of physiology, including an apparent imperviousness to pain, a casual disregard for low-oxygen environments, and resistance to cancer. Indeed, these unsightly creatures both baffle and buttress Darwin’s Theory of Evolution in multiple remarkable and apparently self-contradictory ways.

The Power of Positive Lightning

A Schleicher ASK 21
A Schleicher ASK 21

A Schleicher ASK 21 glider is a craft of elegance and poise. Its slim wings, seductively curved cabin and tapering fuselage embody a balanced design that moulds modern materials into flowing aerodynamic lines. On the afternoon of 17 April 1999, one such beauty soared gracefully above countryside near Dunstable, England, with an instructor and a novice pilot on board. The student had been given the trial lesson as a 30th birthday present. Although large storm clouds loomed nearby, at 1608 hours conditions in the immediate vicinity were calm and the air was clear.

At 1609 hours a fearsome force suddenly and violently shredded large sections of the glider. The instructor later recalled a “very loud bang” and a distressingly “draughty” cockpit. Dazed and briefly unconscious, he realised that “something was seriously amiss… requiring unpleasant and decisive action.”

By the time he vacated the wreckage—noting on his way out that there was no need to eject the canopy, nor any canopy—his student had arrived at the same conclusion. Witnesses on the ground observed a bright flash and heard a loud crack, and craned their necks to see a ball of smoke and fine debris hanging in the space where the glider had been. Below this, the remnant of a fuselage plummeted earthwards at high speed, with larger sailplane fragments fluttering behind. Thankfully two open parachutes were among them, with deafened and soot-blackened aviators swinging underneath. They were the fortunate survivors of a curious and powerful phenomenon known as positive lightning.

The Unfortunate Sex Life of the Banana

The humble banana almost seems like a miracle of nature. Colourful, nutritious, and much cherished by children, monkeys and clowns, it has a favoured position in the planet’s fruitbowls. The banana is vitally important in many regions of the tropics, where different parts of the plant are used for clothing, paper and tableware, and where the fruit itself is an essential dietary staple. People across the globe appreciate the soft, nourishing flesh, the snack-sized portions, and the easy-peel covering that conveniently changes colour to indicate ripeness. Individual fruit—or fingers—sit comfortably in the human hand, readily detached from their close-packed companions. Indeed, the banana appears almost purpose-designed for efficient human consumption and distribution. It is difficult to conceive of a more fortuitous fruit.

The banana, however, is a freakish and fragile genetic mutant; one that has survived through the centuries due to the sustained application of selective breeding by diligent humans. Indeed, the “miraculous” banana is far from being a no-strings-attached gift from nature. Its cheerful appearance hides a fatal flaw— one that threatens its proud place in the grocery basket. The banana’s problem can be summed up in a single word: sex.

The Heroes of SARS

On 21 February 2003, a physician in Hong Kong was feeling particularly unwell. He must have had an inkling that something serious was amiss, for his symptoms closely matched those of a number of patients he had treated in recent weeks: fever, aching muscles, headache, a dry cough, and shortness of breath. An alarmingly high proportion of these people had become critically ill, with inflamed, fluid-saturated lungs. Breathing was rendered somewhat difficult, and death frequently followed.

Although the sixty-four year old nephrologist resided in the Guangdong region of southern China, he was enjoying time away for a family wedding when the worst of the symptoms struck. Sketchy reports of a mysterious respiratory illness had been filtering out of his home province for several months, but the official channels gave no indication of anything untoward. The day he arrived in Hong Kong he felt well enough to check into his room on the ninth floor of the Metropole Hotel, and he even did some sightseeing and shopping later in the afternoon. But the following morning his condition had worsened, and he was forced to seek care at the territory’s Kwong Wah Hospital. There he told staff he feared he had contracted “a very virulent disease,” and suggested immediate isolation. Yet the damage had already been done.

Back at the Metropole Hotel, globetrotting guests from the ninth floor were preparing to leave for Canada, Singapore, and Vietnam. Soon, they too would fall ill. In less than a week, the world would be left poised on the brink of a pandemic. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) had arrived. While the occupants of the western hemisphere often remember the events in the context of an overblown media frenzy, many epidemiologists today regard the outbreak as a near-miss for humanity— one which might have become one of history’s most unpleasant epidemics had it not been for the quick thinking and selflessness of a few individuals.

The Plane That Flew Too Soon

Early one Sunday morning in September 1949, throngs of people started to gather around the runway of the Bristol Aeroplane Company factory in the west of England. Curious Bristolians occupied every available vantage point, while workers and their families crowded into special enclosures alongside the airfield. The ten thousand or so bystanders were joined by two hundred and fifty reporters from all corners of the globe, all present in anticipation of an historic event. The message had gone out: “It’s going to be today!”

A huge contraption lay poised on the threshold of the runway: a flying machine far larger than any that the ordinary onlooker would have seen before. With elegant curves and a smooth stressed-metal skin, she looked impressive enough, but there may have been doubts among the spectators regarding the aircraft’s ability to leave the ground. Many had watched the giant plane incessantly track back and forth along the runway over the last two days, with no sign of a take-off. But now the taxi-trials were complete.

At ten o’clock their patience was finally rewarded. To the throaty roar of eight powerful Centaurus piston engines, and the delight of the crowd, the Bristol Brabazon– the largest and most advanced airliner of its day– sped down the runway and took to the air for the very first time. As the graceful behemoth slipped the surly bonds of the Earth, it’s said that the captain, test pilot Bill Pegg, uttered the words: “Good God- it works!” But for all of the splendor surrounding its maiden voyage, the massive aircraft was soon relegated to the scrap heap of aviation history.

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