From Everest Melting to the “Science” Behind 10,000 Steps: This Week’s Curios


Every day of the year, CEO Justin Kitch writes a quirky fact, known as the Daily Curio, intended to tickle the brains of lifelong learners everywhere. This is a weekly digest.

Last week’s Curios covered the “not a morning person” gene, dubious 10,000 steps, and melting Everest.

Curio #748 | The “not a morning person” gene
Hey late risers, it’s not your fault! Whether you are somebody who hates waking up early, or you can’t seem to stay up past ten o’clock–blame your genes. Scientists have determined it probably doesn’t have anything to do with laziness…keep reading

Curio #747 | 10,000 ‘po’ per day?
What’s your step count today? If you are part of the fitness tracker revolution, you know what I’m talking about. Products like FitBit and the Apple Watch encourage wearers to take 10,000 steps a day. But the origins and medical support of this magic number are dubious…keep reading

Curio #746 | Instruments frozen in time
Stradivarius is the world’s most famous name in musical instruments. But experts have struggled to explain why these violins–over 1000 of which were crafted between 1666 and 1737 by Antonio Stradivari–are so superior. Different theories…keep reading

Curio #745 | Fermenting anxiety
A healthy macrobiome influences our mental health. That’s right: people who eat the right foods have less anxiety. Specifically, eating fermented foods appear to do the trick….keep reading

Curio #744 | Litterbug shaming
Hong Kong is taking a page from colonial America to deal with its litter problem: public shaming. An environmental group in the city is using DNA to publicly shame litterbugs on billboards across the city. Sixteen thousand tons of waste are dumped in Hong Kong every day; so much that it piles up in the streets. This has lead to the creation of —> Read More

Cave Art May Show What Happened to Giant Lemurs

burney cave 1

By David Burney, National Geographic/Waitt grantee

Until now, Madagascar did not even make the list of regions around the world with prehistoric cave art. But recently, faint charcoal sketches of animals, humans, mythical creatures, and enigmatic symbols were discovered by Roger Randalana and his staff of rangers as they explored the remote 17,000-hectare Beanka Nature Reserve, their new area of responsibility near Maintirano, in central western Madagascar.

Among the surprising images may even be a “kill scene,” giving visual evidence of human hunting of Madagascar’s now-extinct giant lemurs.

Charcoal drawings in a remote cave newly discovered in Madagascar may include an extinct giant lemur “kill scene.” (Photo by David Burney)
The actual charcoal scene is drawn on a smooth limestone cave wall, seen above. Here, Dr. Julian Hume of the Natural History Museum (UK) makes a full-scale redrawing of the images. (Photo by David Burney)

With the support of a National Geographic Society/Waitt grant, I went there with Owen Griffiths (creator of the reserve) and fellow scientists with an interest in the caves and extinct creatures—and now cave art—of the Indian Ocean region.

In the cliffside rock shelter called Andriamamelo, we found an amazing panorama of living, mythical, and extinct animals. The cave is named after an elderly resident of the nearest village, who says the art was probably done by a magician of the “Vazimba” people, a semi-mythical hunter-gatherer group of western Madagascar.

Since the original charcoal drawings are very faint, Dr. Hume made full-scale copies.
Since the original charcoal drawings are very faint, Dr. Hume made careful copies that capitalize on the filtering and analysis abilities of the human eye and brain. (Photo by David Burney)

Dr. Julian Hume, a British paleontologist in our group who is also an accomplished artist specializing in depictions of extinct —> Read More

What You Should Really Choose Between Diet And Regular Soda

Artificial sweeteners are linked with cancer, right? Turns out, it’s not quite that cut and dry.

Most of the research into the sweetener-cancer connection is old and underwhelming. For example, a meta-analysis of 50 studies examining the link between saccharin and cancer in rats found that only one of the 50 studies yielded a connection between the chemical and bladder cancer — and that was in a type of rat that is prone to a bladder parasite that makes cancer more likely anyway, according to a recent New York Times article.

While a 1996 survey study published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology linked brain tumors and aspartame, most of the study’s subjects were over 70 when diagnosed, meaning they couldn’t be the main consumers of aspartame. The sweetener was approved for use in 1981 when these patients were already well into middle age.

At the end of the day, there’s very little evidence to back up the theory that artificial sweeteners cause cancer. That’s why it’s so frustrating, from a research perspective, when consumers choose regular cans of soda over the diet stuff. Let’s be clear: Water or seltzer are the best choices. But when it comes to soda, the full-sugar stuff is known to be problematic.

For example, a regular can of Pepsi has a whopping 41 grams of added sugar in it. And added sugar has a lot of proven problems. It’s been linked with with heart disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes.

Of course, there are other reasons to not drink diet soda that have nothing to do with cancer risk. Aside from having no nutritional value, the sweetness of diet soda may confuse the brain into thinking it’s consuming calories and has been linked —> Read More

Go large: the power of exponential thinking

For lovers of exponential thinking, the best place on Earth – and so by default the solar system – to immerse yourself in such ideas might be Silicon Valley. Those in the know make a beeline for Singularity University based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View – but a stone’s throw from Google HQ. You wouldn’t even have to be a good shot.

Each year, the university, which is more like a think tank or incubator than a traditional university, scours the planet for the most inquisitive risk-takers with plenty of smarts who combine entrepreneurial zeal with a flair for creativity. Eighty extraordinary people are thrown together for a long hot summer of ideas and innovation on the 10-week graduate studies program, sponsored by Google. What unites them all is a desire to develop ideas that can improve the lives of one billion people.

Exponential thinking is still a relatively unknown concept. It is not just about thinking big, it is about the steps to go from small to big. The leading evangelizers are Ray Kurzwiel, an expert in artificial intelligence and director of engineering at Google, and Peter Diamandis, the author of the books Abundance and Bold and founder of the X Prize. In 2008, they co-founded Singularity University. Diamandis explains the difference between linear and exponential thinking: “If I were to take 30 linear steps, I’d end up 30 paces or 30 meters away. But if I said to you take 30 exponential steps, one, two, four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two and said where would you end up?”

The answer is a billion meters away, or twenty-six times around the planet.

Most people struggle with exponential thinking and the huge difference between linear and nonlinear change. So —> Read More

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