The Invention of Universal Time and Global Consciousness

On this day in 1879, Scottish-born Canadian inventory and engineer Standford Fleming proposed to the Royal Canadian Institute the idea of establishing global standard time zones based on a single universal world time.

Up until that point, each (though not every) city around the world set up its own official clock based on the local position of the sun. Given that most humans, particularly in urban areas, did not travel long distances very quickly, this idiosyncratic and localized approach served well for millennia.

But with the introduction and mass utilization of railways and steamships, people began traveling fast enough over long distances to lead to some absurdly extreme variations in time; this required continually monitoring and resetting of timepieces as a train progressed across several municipalities in just a day. Hence Flemings’ suggestion, which he promoted at international conferences across the world.

And although his version of Universal Time was not accepted, the concept did catch on, and by 1929 most nations accepted a global standard of time. This proved to be one of those innovations that is taken for granted in modern society, but that reflected humanity’s unprecedented progression towards a globalized society.

The Promises of Synthetic Meat

There was understandably quite a bit of attention directed at the unveiling of the world’s first “synthetic” meat (described above). Also known as in vitro meat, the implications of this tepidly-received development is vast — namely the end to the industrial-scale slaughter of literally billions of animals annually, in addition to the subsequent strain to our environment and resources that such livestock harvesting entails.

Obviously, even if scientists perfect the process to make it more palatable (both commercially and in terms of taste), there will always be purists who prefer the real deal, or folks who simply won’t be comfortable with the idea of artificial meat. I imagine it would take some time to get used to the idea, and even then I don’t see it replacing animal harvesting any time soon, except for desperate circumstances like food scarcity.

Still, any sort of mitigation of widespread animal suffering is welcomed. Australian Peter Singer, perhaps one of the most famous and controversial moral philosophers in the world, characteristically weighed in on the subject (he is best known for his seminal work, Animal Liberation, which is widely considered to have set the foundational framework of the animal rights movement). His statement was first issued in The Guardian, and it pretty much sums up the reasons for my anticipation.

There are important ethical reasons why we should replace animal meat with in vitro meat, if we can do it at reasonable cost. The first is to reduce animal suffering. Just as the cruelty inflicted on working horses, so movingly depicted in Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, was eventually eliminated by the efficiency of the internal combustion engine, so the vastly greater quantity of suffering that is inflicted on tens of billions of animals in today’s factory farms could be eliminated by a more efficient way of producing meat.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to applaud such an outcome. But it needn’t be simply an emotional response. Among philosophers who discuss the ethics of our treatment of animals there is a remarkable degree of consensus that factory farming violates basic ethical principles that extend beyond the boundary of our own species. Even a staunch conservative such as Roger Scruton, who vigorously defended hunting foxes with hounds, has written that a true morality of animal welfare ought to begin from the premise that factory farming is wrong.

The second reason for replacing animal meat is environmental. Using meat from animals, especially ruminants, is heating the planet and contributing to a future in which hundreds of millions of people become climate refugees. Much of the emissions from livestock is methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas emitted by ruminant animals as they digest their food. In vitro meat won’t belch or fart methane. Nor will it defecate, and as a result, the vast cesspools that intensive farms require to handle manure will become unnecessary. With that single change, the world’s production of nitrous oxide, another powerful contributor to climate change, will be slashed by two-thirds.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation has acknowledged that greenhouse gas emissions from livestock exceed those from all forms of transport – cars, trucks, planes and ships – combined. On some calculations, livestock emissions in countries with large populations of cattle and sheep can make up as much as half of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. If they are right, replacing coal and other fossil fuels with clean sources of energy is not going to be enough. We have to reduce the number of cattle on the planet.

At the rate things are going, humanity may not have much of a choice but to embrace artificial meat. Although the number of vegetarians in the world seems somewhat stagnant, there is growing concern about the ethical dilemmas posed by industrial farming. And with the environment reaching a boiling point — literally — we can’t spare any more natural resources for very much longer to meet the world’s growing demand for animal flesh. I say this as both a vegetarian and a secular humanist. With that background disclosed, what are your thoughts on this development?

How Simple Ideas Lead Major Scientific Discoveries

I urge you to check out this brief but informative TED Talk by Adam Savage of Mythbusters. In it, he shares three valuable stories that show the beauty of science and human curiosity. Mere thoughts and observations can set in motion the sort of inquisitiveness and ingenuity that has been responsible for so many human achievements throughout history. It’s an inspiring video that’s well worth the 7 or so minutes of your life.

Fazlur Rahman Khan

Fazlur Rahman Khan was a Bangladeshi structural engineer and architect who has been called the “Einstein of structural engineering” and the Greatest Structural Engineer of the 20th Century. As the “father of tubular designs”, he devised groundbreaking structural systems that still form the basis of skyscraper construction to this day. Indeed, most of the world’s tall buildings would not exist were it not for his innovations, and to this day his work is still used as a starting point for the design of any tall building.

A List of Chinese Inventions

It’s a shame that so few people in the West realize the innumerable contributions that Chinese civilization has made to humanity. It’s astounding how far ahead the Chinese were in just about every area of knowledge. Note that each of these were independently developed by the Chinese, even if some were also used or invented elsewhere.

  • Battens in sails and cloth
  • Blast furnace
  • Cast iron
  • Tofu, Ramen sushi
  • Qipao, Hanfu (clothing)
  • Chopsticks
  • Crank (drugs)
  • Repeating crossbow
  • Escapement mechanism for clocks
  • Exploding cannonball
  • Fire Arrow
  • Gunpowder
  • Firearm
  • Horse collar
  • Hull compartments/bulkheads
  • Indian ink
  • Kite
  • Land mines
  • Lottery
  • Menus for Song-era restaurants
  • Naval mines
  • Noodles
  • Paper
  • Pendulum (Zhang Heng)
  • Printing (woodblock printing and movable type)
  • Rockets: Fire Arrow, Multistage rocket
  • Rudder
  • Sailing carriage
  • Seismometer (of Zhang Heng)
  • Silk
  • South Pointing Chariot (differential gear, of Ma Jun)
  • Sluice gates
  • Toilet paper
  • Traditional Chinese medicine
  • Trebuchet (traction)
  • Trip hammer
  • Winnowing machine
  • Abacus (first appearance: Mesopotamia, 2400 BC. First certain appearance in China: 12th century AD)
  • Armillary sphere (invented by the Greek Eratosthenes), with the world’s first water-powered armillary sphere by Zhang Heng.
  • Various automata / primitive machines (refer to article on King Mu of Zhou, Mozi, Lu Ban, etc.)
  • Bellows
  • Belt drive
  • Bituminous coke for the iron and steel industry
  • Compass
  • Camera obscura
  • Cardan Suspension
  • The cannon
  • Chain drive
  • Chain pumps
  • Chinese calendar
  • Crossbow
  • Drydock
  • The Flamethrower
  • Flash lock
  • Early explosive grenades
  • Odometer
  • Paddle wheel, for boats
  • Paper money
  • Parachutes
  • Pontoon bridge
  • Porcelain
  • Postal system
  • Pound lock
  • Saw
  • Scissors
  • Steel
  • Suspension bridge
  • Star catalogue
  • Tea
  • Umbrella
  • Vaccination
  • Water clock
  • Waterwheel
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Windmill

Find even more contributions here.

Girl Regains Hearing in Both Ears

A few months ago, I shared a heart-warming video about a young deaf woman who was overcome with emotion as she heard herself for the first time. I also reflected on the miracles of both scientific innovation, and the simple things we take for granted, such as having our full senses.

A friend has informed me that the woman, 29-year-old Sarah Churman, has now had the implants activated in both ears, allowing her to hear in stereo sound. You can learn more details about this on her blogbut below is the video.

It’s always great to see how science can improve the condition of our species, one individual at a time. I wish stories like this could encourage more public investment in scientific research. I hope to see the day when conditions and disabilities like these are overcome, when these sorts of solutions like implants are widely-available so as to be unexceptional.

Traian Vuia’s Flying Machine

On this day in 1906, Romanian inventor Traian Vuia undertook the first well-documented flight of a heavier-than-air craft without any assistance in takeoff. He was also associated with the French Resistance, and between 1918 and 1921 built two experimental helicopters, contributing to the development of vertical take-off (at a time when even “regular” takeoff was difficult to pull off).

It’s a shame that so many people are unaware that numerous individuals around the world contributed to aviation. The Wright Brothers made significant and praise-worthy inroads, but like most innovators, they were hardly unilateral in their contributions to the field. Human invention is not only a product of remarkable minds, but of the human capacity to pool together our knowledge in a synergy of ingeniousness.

Read more about Vuia and his flying machine – including photos! – here.

A postcard with Vuia and his 1907 airplane Vuia II

Fancy a Pet Jellyfish?

This is by far one of the coolest things I’ve seen in some time – a portable tank made especially for jellyfish. Aside from it’s unique ability to accommodate what is otherwise a very difficult creature to keep in captivity, this Desktop Jellyfish Tank is gorgeous in a sleek and minimalist kind of way.

I love the aesthetic, and I can see why the company behind it is called Jellyfish Art. It really is a perfect melding of nature and human ingenuity into something beautiful. This remarkable idea deserves the slew of news coverage it’s received

You can learn more about this invention, and it amazing young creator Alex, here. I hope to see this become a staple in local pet stores someday. I certainly plan on getting my own one of these days.

Hat tip to my friend Nati for sharing this with me.

Post Script:
Speaking of jellyfish, check out one of my older posts on a fascinating specimen that may hold the key to life extension.

Big Ideas: Little Packages

The following is courtesy of National Geographic, another one of my top sources. Though widely perceived to be strictly anthropological in it’s content (and for the most part it is), “Nat Geo” covers a wide-range of topics, delving into science, history, the arts, and even political science. I highly recommend it for those of you with broader tastes in addition to a love of photographic splendor.

Though I should have been in bed hours ago, I could not resist sharing this little gem, rich I just read earlier today. It’s a list of simple but dynamic innovations that could save entire communities across the world, particularly in least-developed nations. The link for it is here, and all but one of the inventions shown come with their own website for those interested in learning more. Most are either awaiting release or have already been introduced in limited number to their target demographics. All of them thankfully appear to have passed their trials.

As the introduction succinctly notes:

Can good design save the world? It just might, one novel idea at a time. Sparked by programs like the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability course at Stanford University’s Institute of Design, designers are creating products to meet the needs of communities in developing countries. It turns out that even the most pressing problems, from health care to potable water, can have affordable—and beautifully designed—solutions.

Indeed, that’s best part: most of these concepts are particularly complex or profound, yet they accomplish as much as we would expect from an expensive new technology. It’s all a matter of applying clever, practical designs – or re-conceptualizing existing ones – to address very particular needs.

For example, one elegant invention is a mere water container that is shaped in such a way as to make it easier to transport (it can be rolled along the ground rather than be carried). This is great for the millions of women and children who must traverse miles of often treacherous land to find water, only to be burdened with a heavier load on the way back.

Another of my personal favorites consist of nothing more than filling one clay pot with sand, than wedging another clay pot within it, keeping them separated by a barrier of wet substrate. As it dries, the evaporated water keeps food preserved for weeks, rather than the usual few days. Simple, cheap, and easy to make just about anywhere. Most fascinating is the fact that this is based on a rather ancient technique. It’s amazing to think that some of the modern world’s problems have already been addressed by our predecessors thousands of years ago!

As regular readers know, I’m a “devout” humanist – I believe in the worth and positive nature of the human species, and am more-or-less optimistic about our capacity to do good for one another and the world. Though I find myself increasingly susceptible to bouts of pessimism and outright misanthropy, witnessing our the exercise of higher faculties – our capacity to ponder, explore, discover, and invent – gives me a surge of renewed hope and enthusiasm.

I can’t wait for these sleek and simple inventions to reach the masses and improve the lives of millions. Funding and coordination is always a difficult process for these sorts of things: all sorts of technologies currently exist that could better the lot of humanity, yet they rarely make it passed their own trials – and even when they do, mass-producing and distributing them is a whole other story. This no doubt explains the growing emphasis on simplicity and affordability that more and more inventors are opting for.

Therein lies the beauty of innovation. It’s not just a matter of creativity or advanced engineering. It’s solving a problem in whatever way possible, and insuring that it’s as easy as any other known thus far. If this short list of ideas are vastly beneficial as they stand, imagine what more could be accomplished if we invest more resources into science and research? It’s something policymakers, investors, and the general public should ponder.