The 18 Coolest Things I Ever Learned — Part 3

13. Why do we have Trade Winds on the oceans?

The Trade Winds—winds that blow steadily and reliably in one direction over large sections of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans—have had a huge impact on human history. These winds made it possible for ships to sail across the great bodies of water separating the continents, allowing trade and encouraging the spread of cultures and ideas (for good or bad!). But why do those winds exist?

The Trade Winds exist because of two basic principles of physics: The tendency of warm air to rise and cooler air to sink, which ends up causing wind; and the shift in the path of a moving object that’s caused by the spinning of the planet. (This gets a little complicated, so bear with me.)

When air is heated and rises, it sucks in cooler air below to replace the air that has risen. So, when when air near the equator heats up and rises into the upper atmosphere, it sucks in cooler air at ground level. As a result, there’s a tendency for winds at ground level to move from the poles toward the equator, to replace that rising air. Winds higher up in the atmosphere tend to do the opposite, blowing from the equator toward the poles to replace the cooler air that’s sinking and moving toward the equator. This sets up an air circulation cycle, creating what we experience as wind. If our planet wasn’t spinning, we would generally have winds blowing toward the equator at ground level, and blowing toward the poles high up in the atmosphere.

The actual movement of the winds on our planet isn’t that simple, of course. That’s primarily because of what happens when an object is spinning: The path of something on that spinning object that started out moving in a straight line ends up being bent. This is referred to as the Coriolis Effect. So the wind that starts out moving straight toward the equator ends up being redirected to one side by the Earth’s spinning.

The result is that the cooler air at ground level that starts out moving from the poles toward the equator is gradually redirected until it’s actually blowing east at the middle latitudes (halfway between the equator and the poles). Those winds are known as the Easterlies, or Trade Winds—the winds that help sailing ships cross the oceans. Meanwhile, the warmer winds higher up that start out moving from the equator straight toward the poles end up being gradually redirected until they’re blowing west at the upper levels of the atmosphere.

So the Trade Winds are the cold air/warm air conveyor belt, bent by the spinning of the Earth!

14. Why do the hands of a clock run clockwise, not counterclockwise?

Surprisingly, the reason is pretty straightforward. Modern clocks were invented in the northern hemisphere, where the shadow on a sundial—used for centuries to tell the time—moves in the same direction as our clock hands do. (If clocks had been invented in the southern hemisphere, they’d probably run in the opposite direction, the way the shadow on sundials do down there!)

15.  What’s really going on in the Bermuda Triangle?

The area of ocean roughly bounded by Miami, Puerto Rico and Bermuda is well-known in popular culture as an area in which ships and planes have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. The idea that this is a special area was first put forward by author Vincent Gaddis in 1964, when he coined the phrase “the Bermuda Triangle” in an article. A bestseller published in 1974 by Charles Berlitz cemented the idea that something unusual was going on.

It’s true that there have been many reports of unusual disappearances of ships and planes in this area over the years, although the frequency of these events is fairly low. (Organizations that decide which areas of the ocean are dangerous for shipping or travel have noted that the danger, statistically speaking, is no greater than in many other areas of the globe.)

So if this part of the ocean isn’t more dangerous to sail in or fly over—statistically speaking—what’s the fuss about? It’s the unusual nature of those ship and plane disappearances that’s drawn attention to the area. Planes have disappeared without a trace after sending an all’s well signal; ships have done the same. In 1945 five Navy bombers became disoriented and disappeared; the rescue team sent out to find them the next day disappeared as well. Likewise, a number of very large cargo ships have disappeared without a trace—and without sending an SOS, suggesting that whatever happened, it happened suddenly and without warning. This has invited all kinds of wild speculation about what happened to those ships and planes.

It’s been pointed out that there may not be a single explanation. For example, fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field could explain the five bombers that became lost. And it’s conceivable that huge “rogue waves” could capsize a ship without warning. But one of the most interesting possibilities to explain the ships’ disappearances is the possibility of an eruption of methane bubbles from the ocean floor. This has been shown to happen in this location (as well as a few other places around the globe, which also have reported ships disappearing).

Some oceanographers have poo-pooed this explanation, saying that the turbulence of a bubble eruption wouldn’t be sufficient to sink a boat. However, it’s not the turbulence that would cause a ship to sink. A huge number of bubbles rising through water changes the specific gravity—or buoyancy—of the water. That’s the physical property that allows ships to float. If a huge mass of bubbles happens to rise to the surface directly under a floating object, that object can sink without warning. Given that the gas in question is methane, which is explosive, it’s also conceivable that a plane flying low over the ocean when a bunch of methane suddenly appears could have serious engine trouble.

All of this is hypothetical, of course, because no individual who was present at these disappearances survived to say exactly what happened. But it seems quite possible that an eruption of methane from the ocean floor—possibly combined with fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetic field and rogue waves—might explain most of the disappearances.

Fortunately, as noted earlier, these disappearances—though remarkable—have been very infrequent. So whatever happened in any given case, it seems reasonable to simply ponder the circumstances that might have caused it, rather than to worry about it happening to us!

16. Why is going to the top of a mountain on a clear night not always the best way to see the stars?

When my wife and I finally got to visit Hawaii many years ago, one of the things I was anxious to do was visit the Keck observatory at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island. I’ve been privileged to see the starry sky under almost ideal conditions at ground level on two occasions, and the experience was spiritual. So I figured it would be even better if I were at a location specifically selected for its ideal star-viewing conditions.

The Keck observatory is almost 14,000 feet above sea level, above most clouds and water vapor in the atmosphere, with generally good weather. There’s almost no light pollution. These conditions make it one of the best places on Earth to see the stars, which is why the Keck telescopes were built there.

However, when we looked into taking a tour up to the observatory, and I explained my reason for wanting to go, the tour expert shook his head. “You don’t want to go up there to get a good view of the stars,” he said. “The air is so thin at that altitude that your brain doesn’t work as well, and your vision is hindered. You literally can’t see the stars as well because your eyes don’t work right.”

In fact, the astronomers using the observatory don’t work at the observatory itself. Instead, the data and visuals captured by the telescope are sent down the mountain to a research center about halfway up the mountain, where the astronomers can look at the data and analyze it with their brains fully functional!

17. What made product design suddenly become important in the 20th Century?

Before the early 20th Century, people mostly cared about whether something worked—not how it looked or whether it was user-friendly. But by the middle of the 20th Century, that had completely changed. Design and user-friendliness had become hugely important. What changed?

The change can be largely attributed to one man—Raymond Lowey. Lowey was a Frenchman, born in Paris in 1893. After fighting in World War I, he emigrated to New York in 1919. He had high expectations for what he would find, based on America’s reputation as “the golden land of opportunity,” but he was dismally disappointed by the dirty, even ugly, city he found. He was already a successful designer with engineering experience, so he took it upon himself to change the way things looked and worked in his new country.

As he transformed products from ugly to sleek and made them easier to use, sales skyrocketed, and one major company after another began hiring him to redesign their products. His redesign of the refrigerator, in particular, cemented his reputation. His designs changed trains from black locomotives to sleek aluminum showpieces. (He also redesigned the interiors of the trains and the train stations.) He made automobiles look elegant. He redesigned farm tractors to look beautiful. He redesigned company logos; buses; vending machines; even the classic Coca Cola bottle. In 1962 he was invited to redesign Airforce One for President Kennedy after commenting how ugly the original design was. Eventually he was hired by NASA to help design the Skylab space station, where he helped make sure the inside environment was psychologically sustaining and pleasant for the occupants. Perhaps most memorably, it was his idea to include a portal through which the astronauts could look at the earth below!

By the middle of the 20th Century he was credited with the way almost everything looked. In fact, Time Magazine featured him on its cover in October 1949 as The Man Who Shaped America.

18. How can you tell what someone is thinking by watching their eyes?

Actually, you can’t usually tell what someone is thinking by watching their eyes (although in certain circumstances you might be able to guess). What you CAN usually tell from watching a person’s eyes is HOW they’re thinking—or to put it differently, which internal sense they’re using in their imagination. It turns out that our eye movements change depending on whether we’re imagining an image, a sound or a feeling. In addition, our eye movements reflect whether the internal experience is something we’re remembering, or something we’re constructing in our imagination because we’ve never actually experienced it. (Authors Richard Bandler and John Grinder explain how this works in detail in their classic book Frogs Into Princes, which is all about a type of psychological counseling called Neuro Linguistic Programming, or NLP.)

There’s a basic formula that applies here, which you can easily confirm by paying close attention when you’re talking to someone. I’ll describe this from  your perspective watching the other person: if they’re remembering an image (what does your car look like?), they’ll look up and to your right. If they’re constructing an image (what would you look like with orange hair?), they’ll look up and to your left. (An important exception is that people remembering an image will sometimes simply “go inside” and leave their eyes staring straight ahead blankly…They may still be looking at you, but you can tell “their mind is elsewhere.”)

When most people are recalling an audio memory (How does your phone sound when it rings?), their eyes will go directly to your right. (A few people will look down and to your right.) When they’re constructing an audio experience they haven’t heard before (How would your voice sound if you were standing in an echo chamber?) their eyes will look over to your left. (However, some people will look down and to your right for any audio thinking.) Finally, if you ask the other person to remember a kinesthetic feeling (How does your hand feel when you pet a cat?), most people will look down and to your left. (To see a classic chart showing all of this, visit the link below:       )

It’s important to note that a minority of people will have this reversed, left to right. It’s possible that this reversal applies when someone is left-handed, but this may not be universally true. However, the vast majority people will follow the rules described above; and even if someone reverses left and right, they will be consistent. It’s wired in.

A related note: If you watch people carefully when they’re trying to answer a question, you may notice that their eyes sometimes shift around. That’s because when we’re thinking about the answer to a question we often switch from one internal sense to another. If you ask someone to construct an imaginary image, for example, the person may look up and to your right trying to recall something similar; then look up and to your left as they change the image to match the new image you’re asking them to imagine; and then look down and to your left as the image causes them to have a feeling about what they’re seeing.

It’s interesting that very few people are aware of this, although we’ve all watched other people do this our entire lives. In any case, knowing about this can make a big difference in how effectively you communicate with other people. (Check out Frogs Into Princes for more about that!)