Three Crazy Ways Web 2.0 Companies Tap Into Humanity’s Innate Need for Organization

Have you ever wondered why lists, and listicles, are so popular on the Internet? Between BuzzFeed­-style GIF-­filled “Top 10 Reasons Why ______ Means _______” pieces to The Awl’s gently mocking “Listicle Without Commentary” series, the format is unarguably a huge driver of Internet traffic, so much so that legacy media companies are scrambling to keep up (see The Washington Post’s Upworthy­ inspired Wonkblog spinoff, KnowMore). It turns out the reason for their insane popularity isn’t any techy, SEO stuff—it’s simply that lists tap into an inherent human desire for order.


Quantum Computing is Real (But Not Very Useful)

Quantum computing has long been a wacky, borderline fictional, mostly theoretical domain of physics reserved for highly speculative conversation. This is because quantum mechanics, or particle physics as it’s also called, makes some claims completely void of common sense. Particle physicists believe that a subatomic particle called a neutrino can pass through the entire Earth without slowing down, and that particles can be in two different states at the same time, and even that two particles can be entangled in such a way that their properties will match across any distance (imagine if flipping a light switch in Kansas caused a light switch on Saturn to flip as well). Various governments have poured money into the exploration of these theories—a giant sub-atomic roller rink was built in Geneva, Switzerland to test many of them resulting in the discovery of the Higgs Boson. But there hasn’t been much use for these theories in practical application. That is until the concept of quantum computing came about.


DMT: Nature’s Trippiest Molecule

N,N dimethyltryptamine, more commonly abbreviated as DMT, is a powerful endogenous hallucinogen that occurs in plants and animals, including humans. Though its biological purpose is an ongoing subject of scientific contention, it has been empirically suggested that the human body produces DMT during birth, death, instances of extreme pain, and in states of deep meditation. There are multitudes of myths and speculations about the origins and functions of DMT, from deeming it a biological coincidence to declaring it a chemical vessel of supernatural communication with spirits and extraterrestrials. The mystery of DMT’s presence in all living creatures, along with its psychedelic properties, have fascinated scientists, mystics, and thrill-seekers for decades.


Glia: The Unsung Heroes of the Brain

Did you know that neurons aren’t the only kind of brain cell? In fact, these celebrated biological information processors only comprise 10% of the cell population of the brain. The other 90% of brain cells, called glial cells or glia, don’t have as many “intelligent” characteristics as their complex neuronal cousins, but the nervous system wouldn’t be able to function without them. Up until recently, glia, whose name derives from the Greek word for glue, were written off by the scientific community as a simple, gelatinous substance whose sole purpose was to act as packing peanuts to cushion our precious neurons. With more advanced modern research methods, however, we are starting to recognize the subtle yet essential contributions that glia make to our cerebral performance.


“Fearless Felix” Falls 23 Miles to Earth, Shatters Records

On October 14, Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner jumped from a balloon-suspended capsule nearly 23 miles in the sky to break the sound barrier as he fell back to Earth. The 128,100 foot jump, sponsored and paid for by energy drink company Red Bull, broke three world records for the highest manned balloon, and the first man to break the speed of sound without mechanical aid. The jump was streamed live on YouTube and brought in a record-breaking 8 million viewers. Nine minutes three seconds after jumping, Baumgartner gracefully landed back on Earth, fell to his knees, and raised his fists in triumph.

The Austrian adventurer hit a an unofficial top speed of 834 mph—Mach 1.24—when he fell 119,846 feet during the 4 minute 20 second free fall. While Baumgartner jumped from 128,100 feet, the free fall represents the portion of the jump before he opened his chute, where the only forces acting on him were gravity and air resistance.


DRACO: The Mean, Unseen, Virus-killing Machine

Every year, millions of people around the world die from diseases caused by viruses. Many of you may be wondering why so many people die of infectious diseases when modern medicine has developed so many vaccines: vaccines can only treat certain strains of viruses, and need to be constantly updated in order to keep up with the rapid evolution of viruses. Then you may ask, “but what about antibiotics? They can indiscriminately treat all kinds of bacterial diseases.” It’s important to clarify that antibiotics–such as penicillin–only solve half of the problem of widespread infectious diseases: they can only eradicate bacterial infections. Viruses have a different biological makeup than bacteria, as well as different cell-infecting mechanisms, and therefore require a different kind of agent to destroy them. Up until recently, there wasn’t an antiviral equivalent to the first highly effective antibiotic, penicillin. Now, the medical world is finding hope in DRACO, “a superprotein that may eradicate viral diseases” [1]. Unlike vaccines and antiviral therapy, the other two “weapons” against viruses, DRACO is active against virtually all kinds of viruses. It is for this reason that DRACO is being compared to the virus-combatting version of penicillin, and its implementation may very well bring about an immunological revolution in the treatment of patients with viral diseases.


Under the Microscope: Oxytocin

Dubbed the “cuddle chemical” by neuroscientists, oxytocin is a central molecule in the complex body systems of all mammals, from mice to humans. This nine-amino-acid peptide is responsible for empathy, all types of bonding, stress relief, social cognition, and even morality. Oxytocin is the cornerstone of human connection, and without it, the word “love” likely wouldn’t be in our vocabulary.


Just So You “Neuro”…

What if the key to enhanced mental functioning could be stored in your refrigerator? Neuro, a progressive company taking a new spin at the energy drink, is striving to make such a phenomenon a reality. Neuro has transcended the traditional energy drink and specialized it: Whatever your energizing needs may be—from academically productive energy to sexual energy, athletic energy to inducing a soporific lack of energy—Neuro probably has a drink for you. By harnessing the powers of neurochemistry, these futuristic beverages have the potential to get your brain and body to do what you want them to do—no prescription needed.


EyeWire: Play a Video Game, Advance Neuroscience

Sebastian Seung, a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT, developed EyeWire: an addicting computer game with an ambitious scientific agenda. The objective of EyeWire is to build a “connectome”—a generalized visual map of connections between neurons that govern vision, memory, and disease in the brain. The completion of such a connectome will establish a normative model of these connections. From this normative model, theoretically a neuroscientist will be able to compare a connectome of a normally functioning individual and an individual with a mental disorder, such as Alzheimer’s disease, thus offering insight into the role neural structure plays in mental abnormalities.


Religion’s Origins and the Unexplained

Original artwork by Catherine Mehringer

Consider a prehistoric man returning from an unsuccessful hunt with heavy casualties to the hunting party. As winter sets in, the tribe hasn’t enough food nor sufficient means to obtain more. Unless some miracle occurs, the months ahead are sure to hold hardship and starvation. The man has a few options. He could subscribe to logic and understand that he is unlikely to survive, or believe that some intervention will happen that could save him, or some combination of the two. If man acts out some ritual or believes in some power and his “miracle” occurs, he will likely believe that the ritual or power has caused the miracle, and given him control over an uncontrollable situation. His relationship with the supernatural grows.

Attributing causation and interpreting an outcome based on that belief is a self-perpetuating part of religion. In providing hope, it can be either helpful or destructive—the latter when it demands massive resources, like constant human sacrifice. Religion’s cost-benefit analysis is a complicated one, making the origin of the affinity for religion in the human brain an interesting question.

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