The Epic Implausibility of Sandworms

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Some commendable attempts have been made to describe cryptozoological creatures in a highly technical manner. D&D’s Draconomicon, for instance, details things specific even as dragons’ eyelids, explaining that a variant nictitating membrane masks the innate glow of their eyes. Frank Herbert, esteemed author of first five Dune novels, had an eye for such detail when he brought Arrakis to life and populated it with fantastic creatures like the great sandworm. However, Herbert’s details are sometimes… well, some of them don’t make tons of sense.

A little background on sandworm biology will help to put things in context. Giant sandworms represent one part of a three-phrase life cycle including the minuscule sand plankton and water-whoring sandtrout. These creatures were introduced to the once watery planet Arrakis, and the extremely water-happy sandtrout exhausted Arrakis’s water supply until it transformed into a desert planet: hence the name “Dune”. Once a sufficiently dry climate is achieved, relatively small (by D&D standards) sandtrout are able to metamorphose into sandworms, which can reach upwards of 400 meters in length and up to 100 meters in diameter. Curiously, water is poisonous to the sandworms despite development from the watermongering sandtrout.

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Nice units, guys.

Sandworms subsist chiefly on members of their own life cycle: sand plankton. Their excretions ultimately give rise to spice, or melange. Despite their size, sandworms are able to tunnel with great speed above and below the sand. Humans known as Fremen are able to ride the sandworms by drawing them to the surface of sand and then using hooks to expose delicate tissues underneath the sandworms’ ring segments. To avoid getting sand under their ring segments, the sandworms subsequently rotate so that a rider hooked on thus will be on top of its steed.

Here’s the thing: it doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense for water to be poisonous to sandworms since they develop from water-filled, water-based organisms (sandtrout). Wouldn’t they continue to be water-based and end up poisonous to themselves?

Water’s a pretty essential component of life as we know it as well as most life in the Dune universe. However, it’s not the only possible liquid upon which life could be based; ammonia is another possibility given that it is polar, amphoteric, and reacts with itself to form its acid and base conjugates NH4+ and NH2. These properties, especially acid base chemistry, enable ammonia to act as a solvent to various compounds; in fact, it dissolves organic compounds more effectively than water. Nevertheless, in terms of probability, water is a more likely to serve as life-giving fluid, so to speak; in mass fraction in parts per million, oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen and helium. Nitrogen is fifth. Also, in order to justify water being poisonous to sandworms on the basis of ammonia or some other liquid serving as the universal-solvent-life-giving-whatever, the transition from sandtrout to sandworm would have to involve drastic biochemical changes that, honestly, would be hard to facilitate without a universal constructor.

Since the combustion of ammonia exothermically results in water and nitrogen oxide, the reverse process might… sort of… very faintly… possible… but… oh it’s just such a stretch, seriously folks. Replacement of all aqueous organic compounds with ammono-analogues would have to take place, something which could be done with enzymes (replacing OH groups with NH2, in large part), but replacing all water in the body with ammonia? Or maybe we’re to take things literally and assume that sand is the replacement universal solvent, introducing a new macrocosm of biological mechanisms. Ehh… fine. Let’s just go with it for now, while acknowledging water being poisonous to an organism that developed from what is literally referred to as a “living cistern” is pretty implausible.

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Another eyebrow-raising detail of sandworm biology concerns their sand-swimming abilities. Recall that sandworms can grow in size to 400 meters in length and 100 meters in diameter. Now, think about sand. Anakin would eloquently say, “it’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere”. But more to the point, you don’t sink into sand when idly sitting on it. Stick a finger into the sand, however, and it can be fully submerged. On the other hand, a pole far longer than your finger but equivalent in width requires greater force to submerge fully. Likewise, a stack of average-diameter plates as tall as your finger proves difficult to push into the sand. Now imagine a 100 meter wide sandworm face-planting into a desert. Does this seem a likely burrowing situation?

Thing is, sand isn’t water (this is one of many revolutionary insights conceived in the 21st century). Large objects can’t just dive in and out of it and do beach ball tricks. African elephants’ feet, in fact, are evolved specifically in accordance with this fact; their increased diameter (as compared to Asian elephants) reduces the degree to which elephants sink into sand while they’re lumbering about in the desert. So if you’re a fan of Shadow of the Colossus, now you know to do a skeptical Spock eyebrow in response to the 9th and 13th colossi (incidentally, both colossi happen to be totally awesome, just like sandworms; sand just makes things cool, even if plausibility vanishes. PS: was I the only one amused by how much easier it was to beat the 13th colossus in Hard Time Attack Mode versus Normal Time Attack? He had the same health but they increased the time you had to beat him. It was truly hellish beating that bugger on Normal Time Attack…). And don’t forget Skorpanok, though he’s a little more feasible in terms of sand-swimming given his size and relative surface area. He’s also a wiggler, like many desert-burrowing lizards and snakes, which could improve his ability to displace sand and travel within it… erm. Excuse me. Tangents. My sincerest apologies.

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Unlike Skorpanok, sandworms aren’t wigglers. So if we’re to permit the nonsensical notion that they can still “swim” through sand, some other mechanism must be at work. The most obvious choice would be something like setae, bristly projections that could latch onto grains of sand in mass sums and displace it, creating quicksand-like regions that might permit tunneling. Given the ridiculous size of sandworms, however, they still wouldn’t be getting anywhere very fast. Maybe, when submerged, they rapidly ingest sand and shoot it out their backsides to help propel themselves forward, but this doesn’t explain how they’re able to move quickly on top of sand.

Which brings us to another point of sandwormian implausibility: According to the Dune books, they can be goaded by Fremen into traveling up to 80.47 kmph (50 mph). The unitless ratio of a sandworm’s speed to its length is then 201.175. To put these numbers into perspective, let’s consider the sizes, environments, and velocities of real animals. The blue whale, which reaches up to 33 meters in length, can swim through water at 50 kmph (though only in short bursts). These values yield a speed-to-length ratio of 1515.152: greater speed relative to length as compared with the sandworm.

Admittedly, a length-to-speed ratio assumes an over-simplified model of organismal speed. Also, the comparison of a blue whale to a sandworm, while the best Earth has to offer in terms of creatures of enormous size, is inappropriate because whale travel through water, a far more permissive medium than sand. In addition, they use fluked, paddle-like flagellar means of propulsion as opposed to… whatever it is that propels sandworms through sand.

As such, let’s use a more apt model like the earthworm (regular old American earthworms, not the blue monstrosities found in Australia), which can tunnel through soil as well as inch across on dry surfaces–still not a great comparison, given that soil is generally moist, cohesive, and contains many more pockets of air than would the dry sand of Arrakis. Earthworms travel faster for increases in length, however; the relative increase in speed for every increase in length follows what looks like a square root curve (at least from 3 data points). This concerns worms of tiny proportions, just a few centimeters long. Extrapolating the effect a sandworm’s size would have on its speed (based on the graph below), a 400 meter-long sandworm should travel at 21.275617 (centimeters / second) = 0.765922212 kmph. Not exactly demon speeding. But more importantly, definitely not 80.47 kmph, as is declared in the Dune books.

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Using the proportionality constant 0.02727 for mass-to-length yields the values 2.7272*(10^-10)m, 0.0010909m, and 0.00245455m for the worms' lengths in the graph above.

Here's the same data plotted with worm lengths and an exponential regression trendline. Also, Excel is rubbish.

Oh, but we’re not done yet. Recall that Fremen use hooks to pry open the ring segments of sandworms as they hurtle on by at ridiculous, impossible velocities. By exposing delicate tissue underneath the ring segment, the sandworm rotates to avoid getting sand in the area. So, the sandworm, whose surface plates are tough enough to render them impervious to just about anything short of nuclear weaponry, is bested by a couple of ski poles wielded by puny humans. Furthermore, its ring segments are oddly susceptible to being pried open from the front even though sandworms tunnel forward through vast, rough, heavy volumes of sand. Adaptation-wise, wouldn’t the carapace be sheeted in such a way as to prevent objects traveling in opposite directions relative to the sandworms (like huge masses of sand) from invading their delicate underlayers? Of course, if they were sheeted in such a way, Fremen would have no way of harnessing them as vehicles, and the Dune story would take a bit of a hit… Oh well. Better to make dollars than sense.


Sophomoric Superimposition of Meaning on Rebecca Black’s “Friday”

Derided as the ultimate example of artificial, substance-less music in the modern era, Rebecca Black’s “Friday” has received extravagant backlash for what, in reality, is the shrouded outcry of a young, vulnerable girl living under the shackles of a coerced identity. From her treatise on the regimented, inescapable onslaught of days to the forced pitches of the song’s Auto-Tuning, Black’s Rousseauean social angst permeates every facet of her musical debut. Tragically, the exuberance she must assume to fulfill cultural expectations likely masks her endeavor to be heard. In this analysis, “Friday”‘s true artistic intentions shall be revealed through an examination of the fatalistic themes suggested by the song’s title, its lyrics, the music video’s blatantly artificial construction, and the automated behavior of the actors in the video.

Some background will help to illuminate the puppeteering behind the creation of “Friday”. Rebecca Black’s mother paid a a hefty $4,000 to ARK Music Factory for a song and video, effectively strongarming 13 year-old Black into a position of celebrity. She was offered several pre-written songs to choose from, only one of which– “Friday”– did not pertain to romantic love, a sensation Black had yet to experience. As such, given her innocence, “Friday” was Black’s only choice.

Focus on Friday alludes to the cultural significance of the day itself. In traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology, Friday is the sixth day of the week upon which Elohim/God/Allah created human beings and commanded them to “be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it”. Wielding a directive as his first interaction with human beings, Elohim/God/Allah sets a precedent for behavioral submission to certain expectations. Human beings are effectively prohibited from making choices, a transgression which is punished with exile from the Garden of Eden. This social despotism carries over to human beings themselves, who create their own social institutions for control of one another. Within this model, Friday represents the day upon which social coercion was invented and human choice, criminalized. Similar to Rebecca Black having only the illusion of choice for which song to perform, human beings have only the illusion of choice in life. They must abide the constraints of innocence or suffer the ignominy of a self-driven, choice-based life.

The repetition used throughout “Friday” suggests the toll of regimented obligations, as seen in the passage, “Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs / Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal”. These anaphoric segments reiterate forced duties through usage of a conventional dialect contraction of “Got to”, a phrase which implies necessity. It is, by extension, necessary that one “be fresh… have [one’s] bowl, etc.”. From a purely survivalistic perspective, having one’s bowl seems trite. Portrayal of such trivial elements of life as mandatory highlights the influence of a binding convention of behavior, requiring that people, or at least teenage girls named Rebecca Black, be fresh and have their bowls.

What, then, is the punishment for defying these mandates? Specifically, what would happen if Rebecca Black were not to have her bowl after becoming fresh and going downstairs? Presumably, the pillars upon which her strict schedule (as indicated by flashes of her weekday obligations at the beginning of the music video) would crumble. Every part of her existence, even minute elements like having her bowl, is necessary to support the delicate construct of her lifestyle. Her lifestyle, in turn must be equally mandated; pursuing another route would result in undesirable social consequences steep enough to preclude any such miss-stepping, a contemporary equivalent to expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

In many ways, this modern Garden of Eden represents, for Black, the social expectations imposed upon adolescents. They are expected to have hormones which encourage sexual pursuits. They are expected to maintain appearances that enable these pursuits. Such expectations necessitate abiding social conventions that define these appearances: namely, physical fitness and attractive countenance. In this case, the maintenance of one’s countenance is implied in when the lyric “Gotta be fresh” is coupled in the music video with a transformation of Black’s bed hair into sleek, straightened hair. This cosmetic routine along with having breakfast cereal (likely part of a personal regimen devoted to a fitness-promoting diet) are likely measures taken to assure sexual success and social acceptance.

The binding nature of the phrase “Gotta [socially mandated action]” appears once again in the refrain, as seen in the lyric, “Gotta get down on Friday”. By implying obligation in reference to fun experiences (“getting down”),  the same social necessity attributed to having one’s bowl is so attributed to having fun. As such, even hedonistic pursuits are framed as forceful impositions of the ruling social convention. This notion is reinforced when one examines the mechanical behavior of those partaking in the so-called “fun”; both in scenes where Black is presented in the car with her friends as well as in the subsequent party, all the kids present behave mechanically–as though they are merely going through the motions. This surreal, mechanical behavior could be due to the low-budget nature of the acting in the music video’s production, but in deference to authorial intent, the automated nature of the kids’ motions coupled with monotonous repetitions of “Fun, fun, fun” as well as “Partyin’, partyin'” suggests routine, not enjoyment. In the same way that the oppressive school-related weekdays shown in the beginning of the music video imply regimented obligations like homework and exams, the weekend, similarly sequenced in “Tomorrow is Saturday / And Sunday comes after … wards”, implies that mandated fun is equally oppressive.

Subtle confessionals of the weekend’s dark associations can be gleaned from lines like “Gotta get down on Friday”. “Getting down” ambiguously suggests either engaging in pleasurable acts, particularly dancing, or becoming depressed. In the context of the model presented here, engaging in pleasurable acts like dancing fulfills social expectations without regard for individual interests. The mandated nature of these expectations may, in fact, render such acts intrinsically unpleasant, or a source of depression. This negative attitude towards weekend fun represents an inversion of traditional TGIF tropes, replacing such positive outlooks with “Oh no, it’s Friday” (ONIF). Equally oppressive is the repeated time motif seen in lines like “The time is goin’ / Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin'”, “Makes tick tock, tick tock, wanna scream”, and “I want time to fly”. Of all physical laws, time is the most exigent: slowing when one wants it to speed up, fast when one needs more of it. To boot, time is harshly unidirectional and consistent, with the conventions that define it (like days of the week) creating inescapable cycles of repetition.

The obsolescence of choice recurs in the lyrics “Kickin’ in the front seat / Sittin’ in the back seat / Gotta make my mind up / Which seat can I take?”. Already, socializing with friends who ride in a convertible–very conventionally “cool”–takes priority over riding the bus to school. When a social outlet presents itself, other options cease to be relevant. When Black contrivedly ponders what seat to sit in, it becomes obvious that this choice, too, is nonexistent. The express phrasing of her pondering “Which seat can I take?” does not suggest desirable options so much as feasible ones. Notice that she does not say, “Which seat do I want to take?”, a query would would indicate that the speaker’s actions are guided by her desires, not some binding construct. In explicitly questioning which seat she “can” take, Black accents the futility of world she lives in, but also questions the institution that imposed the futility of choice.

There can be no coincidence that Rebecca Black’s last name hearkens to establishment of Black Fridays, days upon which catastrophic events happened. The song’s superficially exultant view of Friday clashes with this institution of Friday horrors, suggesting an undercurrent of fear towards weekly times dedicated to fun. Presented above was the notion that fun, when obligatory, could turn unpleasant and ironically unfun. The prospect of engaging in such pretense could be fear-inspiring, certainly, but how might it be catastrophic, like a Black Friday? Recall that social protocols require that young teenage girls adhere to standards of physical attractiveness that, presumably, assure their sexual success as they enter adolescence. As far as “catastrophic” events go, the loss of virginity is an easy candidate, especially for young females. Various perspectives compete for dominance in the sphere of female virginity, for example: chaste puritanism, 60’s and 70’s-inspired sexual revolution, and the social climate created by peers responding to these and other perspectives–not to mention a given teenage girl’s personal sexual propensities. Internal conflicts regarding sexual rite of passage have the potential to become some of the most emotionally tumultuous experiences– in the case of “Friday”, the weekend party associations with pressured sexuality underscore a profound fear, creating a sense of social rape.

Weaving together the ideas presented above, a mosaic of helplessness in the face of social laws emerges. Imposed control, lack of choice, hijacked identity / innocence, the inevitability of what time brings, and fear of the inevitable all follow naturally. In the same way that Rebecca Black was made a slave to a song and music video she did not envision but merely identified with over unfamiliar romanti-sexual material, “Friday” represents the enslavement of the human race to their own social contracts. This system wherein social deviance is punished and obedience rewarded is reflected in the plainly artificial nature of “Friday”‘s musical form: Auto-Tune enables a song master to remove any natural deviations or “errors” from a recording, forcing conformation to an melody through technological means. The great irony is that what was once considered deviant, despite being “natural” (having a libido, for instance, is quite natural) can be mandated, thus framing prudes, straight-edgers, innocent adolescents, and other “squares” as social invalids.

If credit is due to a particular individual for conceiving “Friday”, Patrice Wilson, co-founder of ARK Music Factory and writer of “Friday”, should be the prime candidate. His system of control mirrors the themes of “Friday”, which comment on social control, something which he partakes in by co-founding a label responsible for controlling aspiring musical acts. The notion of enabling musicians by providing them with pre-written songs where they will act according to a script in a music video is the perfect meta to the theme of “Friday”, an eloquent cherry on top of a social rape cake. Of course, this cake presents itself as an exuberant, Friday-loving cake because it, too, must abide social conventions. To tell the truth about internal conflicts would defy social constructs. Therefore, the cake is a lie.

See, “Friday” is a pretty deep song, mmkay?

Conventional Misconceptions: You Only Use 10% of Your Brain

As far as misguided sayings go, “You only use 10% of your brain” ranks highly. There’s no way to discern what it means exactly, and most interpretations fall victim to weird fallacies; for example, if the brain is a wholly material structure in an emergent deterministic framework (or even fundamentally deterministic, as may prove to be the underlying case of quantum mechanics), then “you” are your brain and body. Your perceived free will may deceive you into thinking that you control your body, but ultimately all actions you perform are predictable. Therefore, you cannot “use” yourself in any real sense; you merely are yourself. This “usage” of self is illusory.

But let’s set this argument aside for now. Let’s just assume that “you use ___% of your brain” is a phrase that indicates a percentile of brain activity. An upper bound is needed to give fractional activity, so if we assume that activity refers to firing rate, than the upper bound is every neuron in your brain firing at maximum speed. Not only would this result in ludicrous, possibly fatal seizing, but it would also be remarkably discordant since different neurons have different firing rate maxima. Using 100% of your brain, in this situation, would be profoundly awful. Thus, “using only 10% of your brain” is simply safe and healthy, not a sign of unreached potential.

Here’s another possibility; maybe 10% brain usage refers to the percent positive change in the brain’s glucose consumption based on an arbitrary standard, like baseline awake-state alpha rhythm-level glucose consumption. Already some issues arise here because if we rely on an arbitrary standard, 10% brain usage depends on brain state. In addition, in order for this to make sense, we still need an upper bound. There are simply biological limits to how much glucose a neuron can process within a given time frame, so we can use those as our upper bound. However, as is the case with firing rate, a brain consuming 100% of possible glucose would be utterly dysfunctional. For a small example, you would be simultaneously trying to sit and stand. For a larger example, your prefrontal cortex would literally be overwhelmed by trying to think about everything you possibly could at once. It such a model, you should be thanking goodness that you only use 10% of your brain. And furthermore, at any given moment, you would be using any number of percentiles below 100%, not a consistent 10%.

Since potential’s been brought up, maybe that’s what the saying refers to. In fact, a common variation on “You only use 10% of your brain” is “You only use 10% of your brain’s full potential“. The recent film, Limitless, attempts to wrangle with this concept, of course on the basis of total logical shenanigans. Whatever do we mean when we wish to remove the brain’s limits, as the  film title suggests? Should our brain spontaneously stimulate growth of totally new neural regions to allow itself to be powered via photosynthesis? And if there is no limit to its capabilities, how can there be a fractional standard by which to measure brain usage?

Maybe what people mean is that we only use 10% of the brain’s full potential in terms of a theoretical plastic Hebbian maximum. That is, every circuit in your brain that facilitates some task does so optimally. However, given that brain plasticity is stimulus-dependent, one must perform the skills they wish to become optimal at. Given time constraints, however, it would certainly be difficult to become fully proficient at every possibly skill that exists. The show Dollhouse suggests in its “doll architecture” the artificial imposition of a Hebbian framework wherein all skills can be imposed into an already optimized system. However, this is probably impossible for a) reasons; the brain is very unlikely to have enough space within the skull to accommodate such elaborated neural clusters and b) an immediate transformation of long-term potentiation and other lengthy metabotropic processes that give rise to Hebbian learning is, quite frankly, implausible if not outright impossible (unless you’re in a simulated computer environ where variables can be changed hither-thither).

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Yeah, right.

The fact of the matter is, we use just about all of our brain just about all of the time. In fact, when you don’t call upon certain populations of neurons for a enough time, they tend to die or are “reassigned” to work in a nearby network that is getting used so they aren’t wasting energy– the “use it or lose it” principle (there are notable exceptions, but that’s a separate discussion). Even while you sleep, your brain is doing scads of things: maintaining autonomic processes, keeping your limbs paralyzed, consolidating memories, and so on.

So, the next time you reassure yourself about a personal failure by thinking to yourself, “Well, I was only using 10% of my brain,” remember: it was really more like 100%.

Tell your friends about the mighty hexagon, and how!

Getting in shape? Try the hexagon. It’s only the finest shape in existence. Just take a gander at this glorious structure:

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Ok, these hexagons aren't planar, so they're not perfect, but let's just allow some leeway for non-Euclidean geometry or just assume these are differentiable manifolds, mmk?

Magnificent, aren’t they? Those, dear reader, are matryoshkanated carbon nanotubes (ok, they’re actually quadruple-walled carbon nanotubes, but the chemistry community really needs to hit up some fun descriptors like “matryoshkanated”). And why are carbon nanotubes magnificent? Why, because they’re made of hexagons!

Hexagons occur all over nature. At the most miniscule, 6 carbon atoms will sometimes bond at 120 degree angles thus forming a benzene ring. Unlike non-aromatic 6-carbon rings in chair or boat formation, benzene is a near-perfect, planar hexagon due to resonance, a phenomenon in which electrons are associated with more than one atom or bond. Resonance structures tend to afford molecules unusual thermodynamic stability; in the case of benzene (or its functional group form, -phenyl), electrons are delocalized cyclically, and conservative forces mold the molecule to a stable, planar conformation (a perfect hexagon). These 6-carbon rings can be conjugated in arrays to form giant masses of hexagons, as is the case with graphite. So now you know why pencils are great; they use hexagons to enable writing in zero gravity.

Snowflakes get the esteemed honor of being the standard similes for uniqueness. What you didn’t know, however, is that at their tiniest, snowflakes are pristinely hexagonal, as reflected in their more macroscopic six-spoked morphology. The following micrograph illustrates this hexagonality quite aptly:

Snowflakes exhibit six-fold radial symmetry derivative of the six-fold crystalline structure of ice, which effectively lies in hexagonal sheets (much like the graphite mentioned earlier, though a more accurate analogy would be graphene). As such, a single ice crystal will incorporate water droplets in the atmosphere around its six prism facets (which can be seen in the picture above), thus promoting proliferation of “arms” in a six-fold array. Hence, six-armed snowflakes are born as more and more water droplets are incorporated into the structure. An important distinction to make between snow and sleet: snowflakes are not frozen water droplets– sleet is. Simply put, snowflakes are amalgamations of water vapor and ice crystals.

Let’s move on to hexagons in biology. The hippocampus contains cells known as grid cells, which fire according to where a hippocampus-possessing animal is in allocentric space. The grid formed by their firing patterns occurs in tessellated triangles (effectively equilateral depending on how fast a given organism is moving), which, of course, create hexagonal patterns. Evolution has determined that hexagons and their constituent parts are ideal for mapping space. How’s that for hexagonal excellence?

In a recent post, I expounded on the various merits of the star-nosed mole. One of these merits included its possession of highly specialized sensory organs known as Eimer’s organs, which lend star-nosed moles their unparalleled tactile sensitivity. Of course, they’re arranged hexagonally:

The cause of this hexagonality is probably a result of space-saving tessellative arrangements of circular cells, but let’s use the next example to explore this idea  a little more thoroughly.

Perhaps the most familiar example of hexagons in nature is brought to us by bees. It’s amazing they haven’t gotten patents on hexagons; they bloody live by the mantra of hexagon excellence. Just take a look at the honeycomb below:

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Honeycombs probably appear as tessellated hexagons for the following reason. If you arrange circles tangent to one another in the most space-saving manner, gaps of space with three vertices inevitably result. If you have seven such circles arranged in a radially symmetric manner, drawing lines tangent to exterior six circles produces a hexagon. Resolving the gaps between the circles results in the following:

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Christaller's Central Place Theory's idealised distribution of settlements.

In the case of honeycomb, the molding of individual cells probably proceeds towards a space-saving arrangement of congruent circles. Circles are easy. However, arranging the circles in a space-saving manner produces the “gaps” mentioned earlier in the form of wax boundaries. These gaps waste space, so they are carved out from the cells inward, thus forming a tessellation of hexagons. Now, bearing in mind the notion that if bees die, the world dies–hexagons are truly masters of us all.

Let’s get even larger-scale. About 50 million years ago, a volcano erupted in what is now Northern Ireland. The molten basalt this volcano spewed forth cooled and then contracted, a process which forced fractures to occur, resulting in a vast number of hexagonal basal columns now called Giant’s Causeway. Unsurprisingly, this spot is a hot tourist location as well as one of the “greatest natural wonders in the United Kingdom” according to whomever is responsible for making such lists. At any rate, that person understands the astounding wonder that is the hexagon.

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The hexagonal basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway are certainly large, but you can’t see them from space. A literally astronomically-proportioned hexagon swirled into existence atop the north pole of Saturn eons ago in a proud salute to the baffling science of fluid dynamics. A circular storm makes sense intuitively. Take Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, for instance; like a hurricane, it spins. In spinning, conserving distance traveled dictates that objects travel in a circular fashion. A hexagonal one, however, is slightly baffling.

It turns out that the ratio of the planet’s angular velocity to that of jet streams surrounding its north pole may be responsible for the peculiar hexagonal maelstrom. Physicists at Oxford simulated Saturn’s odd north pole by spinning a fluid at a particular rate relative to the spinning speed of the container it was in. Depending on the ratio used, apparently ellipses, squares, and triangles could be formed in addition to hexagons. Of course, the “most beautiful” planet in our solar system elected the hexagon because it knows what’s what.

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Even pseudoscience has realized the penultimate power of the hexagon; so-called hexagonal water is marketed as a “perfect substance” that can reverse the effects of aging. It’s probably what the invisible pink unicorn drinks.

It would seem, as such, that the prevailing Christian assumption that the number 6 is evil must be decidedly wrong. Hexagons are good. Oxygen is evil.

Conventional Misconceptions: Oxygen is Good

People believe plenty of silly things. It shouldn’t be surprising if you meet someone who believes shaving their body hair and eating it will bring them fortune when playing the stock market. People have believed stranger things. For example, some people believe that inhaling higher concentrations of oxygen improves health, reduces stress, enchants life, brings world peace… you get the picture. A strange belief, to be sure, not to mention the fact that it’s flat-out incorrect. The human body is a delicate thing. It needs food and water to survive, but not too much. And of course, across a shorter time span, it needs oxygen. But not too much!

Seriously, folks. If there is a Melkor in the periodic table, it’s oxygen. It’s a greedy, vermicious little knid. As soon as early life on the juvenile Earth began releasing oxygen as a waste product, the world was doomed. Utterly doomed. Oxygen, dear reader, is Original Sin.

But enough of this blasphemy and Faustian drama! Let’s get to some fun facts:

1) Oxygen is the second most electronegative element in the periodic table (after fluorine). For example, carbonyl groups (oxygen double-bonded to carbon) are effectively polar, and render adjoining alpha hydrogens more acidic than would be in a normal carbon-hydrogen bond. In addition, high levels of reactive oxygen species are totally toxic to cells. As mentioned before, oxygen is a greedy, vermicious knid. Moar electrons, plz!

2) Oxygen is the third most abundant element in the universe, so there’s plenty of greed to go around, so to speak.

3) By mass, oxygen is the most abundant element on Earth (not including the core, about which little is known).

4) Earth’s atmosphere didn’t contain free oxygen until photosynthesis evolved. As soon as photosynthesis cropped up, oxygen wasted no time in rushing off to pollute the Earth with its boundless electrophilia. First order of business: rusting iron and creating banded iron formations. Second order of business: saturating organic matter. Third: infesting the atmosphere, thereby wiping out anaerobic organisms in what is considered the largest scale extinction of life in Earth’s history. Oh yeah, this was then followed by what was probably the longest glaciation in Earth’s history (they don’t call it the oxygenation catastrophe for nothing). And you thought Hitler was evil (apologies, see Godwin’s Law).

5) Nowadays, oxygen comprises 20.9% of Earth’s atmosphere. Reduce that by 5% and you get mass extinction. Increase by 5% and everything catches fire. How’s that for ironic? Oxygen can both create Hell and cause it to freeze over. Evil is a hard word to define, but oxygen really seems like a good synonym.

6) Most aerobic organisms are evolved to manage oxygen in the quantities in which it is present (now we depend on our tyrant). In humans, decreasing oxygen intake can result in hypoxia, which can result in massive cell death, notably in the brain (the hippocampus is one of the most sensitive regions, and portions of it are often the first to go). Oxygen therapy, wherein above-normal doses of oxygen are administered to someone in a hypoxic state, can help rectify hypoxia.

7) Oxygen therapy ceases to be therapy when administered to someone in a non-hypoxic condition. In fact, it can result in hyperoxia (bet you didn’t see that coming), a condition in which excessive oxygen partial pressures toxify numerous bodily tissues. The body simply is not adapted to handle excess oxygen. Plus, there’s only so much hemoglobin in blood, and therefore only so much oxygen that can be fixed per cycle of blood circulation. Ray Kurzweil falls victim to this flawed reasoning by eating more vitamins than his body can absorb. However, excess vitamins generally aren’t harmful. Oxygen is.