October 5, 2022

Setting the record straight:


This archived article was written by: Nathaniel Woodward

As the semester draws closer to its end, my email folders are overflowing with questions submitted by my readers yearning for answers. Last week, I posed a question on Facebook asking what scientific principle or folktale confused people the most. The response was overwhelming, between comments on the original post and the flood of emails. For your reading pleasure, I researched your questions and will answer a handful.
Q1. Daniel from Michigan asked, “Are people born with photographic memory or is it learned?” Yes and no, people are not born with it, however, some distinctions need to be made. The term “photographic memory” is a misnomer, that is, it doesn’t actually exists. Instead people who possess memories that are accurate and hold up over time have eidetic memories (think Sheldon Cooper). These cases are rare and not always what it’s cracked up to be, many people with high-recall memories have other ailments and neurological disorders that hinder their abilities elsewhere (think “Rain Man”).
Most likely the people with good memories are classified as having “highly superior autobiographical memory” or HSAM. People with HSAM tend to have more white matter connections in their brains making processing information much more efficient. The good news is there are ways to improve a healthy brain, memory exercises can help increase your recall by a process called “neural plasticity.” Your brain is awesome.
Q2. Ryan from Mexico asked, “What are antioxidants?” To understand an antioxidant, first you need to understand what a free radical is. Free radicals are any atom in your body that has at least one electron without a pair, electrons are what make an atom reactive. Once an atom joins with another by pairing electrons, it changes properties, so if a free radical binds with something it’s not supposed to, it can prevent it (like a cell) from doing its job.
High levels of free radicals can cause some significant issues with your cell’s ability to function, causing scientists to speculate their relation to many age-related disorders. Antioxidants are molecules like vitamins E and C that bind with the free radicals and stop their reactive nature, allowing them to pass safely out of the body. You can buy all sorts of antioxidant supplements, but the best way to get them is through a healthy diet including fruits and vegetables contain all the antioxidants you need.
Q3. Danielle from Utah asked, “What would happen if I fell into a black hole?” Very, very bad things Danielle, very bad, but very cool. Black holes are the wood-chippers of the universe, essentially bottomless vacuum cleaners with an appetite for, well, everything. The thing you need to understand about black holes is something called “escape velocity,” the speed at which something needs to be going to escape gravity.
For example, for a rocket to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, it needs to travel 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) per second, that same rocket would have to go over 600 km per second just to escape the Sun’s gravitational pull. We see that as an object gets more massive and denser its escape velocity is faster as its gravity pulls stronger. If a star is at least 1.4 times bigger than our Sun, it can eventually collapse in on itself and become a neutron star, something so dense the escape velocity is 150,000 km per second, that’s half the speed of light. If you want to grasp how dense that is, for the Earth to become as dense as a neutron star, you would have to pack everything on and in the planet into something the size of a golf ball, but black holes are even denser. To get a black hole, a star must be at least 2.8 times larger than our Sun (and they get way bigger than that.) At it’s death the core can keep collapsing in on itself pushing past the point where even light, the fastest thing in the universe, isn’t fast enough to escape. All you really need to know is, what happens in a black hole, stays in a black hole.
I hope these answers to your great inquiries helped inspire you to continue to think critically and ask the important questions. Everything that is good and right in this world resides in those individuals who are ready to learn and hungry for answers.

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