Flying High With The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta (Photo Gallery)

The Bristol International Balloon Fiesta is not only Europe’s largest ballooning event, it’s one of the largest ballooning events in the world.

The annual festival is celebrating its 36th anniversary this year. The event will take place in the city of Bristol (England) from August 7th-10th and it is FREE! So if you are dying to see an epic collection of hot air balloons or you just happen to be in the area, don’t worry if you forget your wallet.

There are all kinds of awesome things about the event (food, music, bars, etc.), but the real attraction for the majority of us who have never ridden in a hot air balloon is definitely the overall beauty of the event. Over 150 air balloons from all over the world gather in one area, creating a beautiful scene and environment.

Check out a collection of photos from former Bristol International Balloon Fiestas below (click an image to enlarge):

For more info, check out the festival’s homepage here.

This Man Is Able to Reproduce Meticulously Accurate Cityscapes After A Single Fly-Over (Video)

They call him the human camera.

Stephen Wiltshire was born in London in 1974. As a child, Stephen was a mute. At the age of three he was diagnosed as autistic, and in that same year his father died in a motorcycle accident.

At five he was sent to the Queensmill School for the autistic in London. The instructors there discovered that Stephen had an intense passion for art. Even as a child, his skill and attention to detail was exceptional.

A drawing Stephen did of St. Paul’s Cathedral when he was 9. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of the Stephen Wiltshire Gallery)

They used this passion to help teach him to talk. Stephen was a mute, and avoided communication with others as much as possible.

So his instructors at Queensmill would take away his art supplies when he wasn’t using them so that he was forced to communicate with them when he wanted to draw again. He started with just sounds, but eventually he said his first word: “paper”.

He learned to speak fully at the age of nine. By that time, his passion for art was already extremely developed. His favorite subjects were American cars (he’s said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them) and the buildings of London.

A young Stephen Wiltshire thoroughly enjoying a catalog of architecture. Click to enlarge (Courtesy of the Stephen Wiltshire Gallery)

During his time at Queensmill, Stephen’s instructors discovered that he had an extraordinary gift: he was able to reproduce extremely intricate sketches after seeing an image only once.

As an adult, Stephen used this skill to jump-start his career as an architectural artist by flying over massive cities and then reproducing huge, elaborate sketches of the cities, down to the number of windows in each building and the clothes on clothing lines.

I’ve gathered a few videos showcasing his mind-blowing talent. Enjoy!

Stephen draws New York City for UBS’s “We Will Not Rest” campaign in 2011:

Stephen draws Rome after flying over it for the first time:

Stephen draws Singapore after a helicopter fly-over (time-lapse):

Stephen takes on his largest ever panoramic drawing: a nearly 360 degree image of Tokyo:

Stephen is what is known as an autistic savant. Autistic savants have damage to the left anterior lobe of the brain, which plays a key role in processing sensory input and forming memories.

Because of this, they are able to access lower-level information like the extremely intricate details of buildings in Stephen’s works of art.

This information actually exists in all of our brains, but it’s normally unavailable to our conscious awareness because our brains classify this information as superfluous or non-essential.

However, studies and controversial experiments have proved that we can tap into these same talents by using transcranial magnetic stimulation: temporarily shutting down parts of the left anterior lobe using magnets.

Check out the video below to see how it effected creativity and other brain functions in the fascinating video below:

To view more of Stephen’s work and learn more about his life, you can visit his website, The Stephen Wiltshire Gallery.

New Study: The More Education You Have, The Slower Your Brain Ages

A group of Danish researchers recently made an interesting discovery about the relationship between our education level and how fast we age.

The researchers were led by Eigil Rostrup, who works as a doctor at Denmark’s Glostrup Hospital.

Glostrup Hospital in Denmark

The study, published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, was based off of data from a group of 2,400 boys who had been born in the Greater Copenhagen area in 1953. The boys were tested both physically and mentally at the age of 20, and again when they were 57.

The testing gathered data on the participants general state of health, as well as their weights, smoking habits and IQs.

After the second round of testing at age 57, the researchers invited 200 men to the Glostrup Hospital for additional research: the 100 men with the best scores compared to their first test (at age 20), and the 100 men with the worst scores compared to their first test.

“We asked the participants to lie completely still in the MR-scanner without doing anything. Once in a while a light would flash in the scanner and at the same time the participant had to move his fingers,”

said Rostrup. This allowed the researchers to see how fast the men’s brains were able to switch from “default mode” (ie. when our brain is relaxed) to problem solving mode. Moving your fingers when a light comes on may not seem like a complex problem, but problem solving (even for the most basic problems) all happens in one region of the brain.

The prefrontal cortex, where higher-level thinking and problem solving takes place (our “Default Mode” network is located in the frontal cortex, the posterior cingulate cortex and the parietal lobe). Click to enlarge

Rostrup and his team found that the men who had received a better education were able to more quickly and efficiently switch from default mode to problem solving mode than those with the least amount of education.

The findings suggest that an education or job that challenges you regularly can actually stave off diseases related to brain aging like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Here’s Rostrup again:

“In young people the brain quickly and efficiently switches from the default mode to problem-solving activity. But in elderly people, and especially those who are demented or suffer from Alzheimer’s, this change is slow and inefficient…

The better our brains manage this change from rest to problem-solving when we are 60, the better equipped we will be at the age of 80 when it comes to handling the tasks of daily life and avoiding the symptoms that are especially common in patients with dementia, including Alzheimer’s.”

The change in brain activity as Alzheimer’s sets in. Click to enlarge

Researchers and neuroscientists alike hope that this new study can help doctors predict conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s ahead of time.

One thing is for sure though: mental exercise keeps the mind young just like physical exercise does for our bodies. Keep that mind sharp!

Read the original story from Science Nordic here.

Villagers Just Caught the Largest Ever Aquatic Insect And It’s Bigger Than Your Hand

Villagers from a village in the Sichuan province of China just collected the largest ever aquatic insect specimen.

The bug, a massive dobsonfly, has a wingspan of more than 8 inches. The previous record-holder for the world’s largest aquatic insect was a South American helicopter damselfly, which had a wingspan of 7.5 inches.

Helicopter damselfly (Megaloprepus coerulatus)

Though dobsonflies are relatively common (there are over 200 species across Asia, Africa and South America), one of this size had been unheard of until now.

Looking at a dobsonfly can actually be very misleading. For one, those massive, grisly-looking mandibles protruding from its head are actually only used for mating. Males flaunt them to impress the females and hold them in place during the actual mating process.

A male dobsonfly (on the right) courts a female before mating. Click to enlarge

Also, those massive wings are pretty much all for show. The insect almost never flies, preferring to spend the bulk of its time in the water (both underwater and on the surface), or sheltering underneath rocks.

Dobsonflies are also a biological indicator of water quality. They prefer clean water with very low levels of pollution and a relatively neutral pH. If water quality falls below their standards, they will leave and find a new body of water to call home.

The villagers gave the record-setting specimen to the Insect Museum of West China.

(h/t Discovery)

Why Calling People Dumb Just Proves Your Own Ignorance

I’m no saint. Just like everyone else, I get frustrated with people from time to time. If you catch me after a particularly maddening encounter, you may hear the words “ignorant”, “bigoted”, “close-minded”, and maybe even “asshole”.

But one word you will never hear me use to describe a person is “dumb”. The increasingly popular idea that the world is full of stupid people is a basic misunderstanding of what it means to be “smart”.

Real intelligence is simply the measure of a person’s curiosity.

As a child, I was deprived of video games and cable television (in hindsight, I’m eternally grateful for it). So, I explored outside, dug things up, made messes, did questionable “experiments” in the kitchen, and burned stuff every chance I got (what little boy isn’t a pyromaniac?).

I also asked a lot of questions. I mean a lot. Why is the sky blue? Why is rain wet? Why does grandma keep an extra set of teeth in a glass in her bathroom?

One day I guess my mom just got tired of trying to answer them all, so she took me on my first trip to the library. I’ll never forget what she said as we entered that temple of learning:

“The answer to every question you could ever have is in here.”

I was immediately hooked. From then on, when I wanted to know how something worked or why something was the way it was, I went to the library and found a book I could read about it.

I wasn’t critiquing the authors’ literary styles, or analyzing their sentence structure, or looking for deeper meanings. I was just enjoying the reading and relishing in my newly found power to find answers to every question.

That’s why today I have a wealth of relatively random facts that I can recall whenever necessary. It’s not because I was any smarter than any other kid my age, it’s just that I had parents who showed me a place where I could ask as many questions as I wanted and actually find the answers on my own.

Calling someone stupid also means you don’t understand how the brain works.

The average brain is made up of about 100 billion brain cells called neurons. Each of these neurons has the potential to connect to any of the others.

If you can remember your combinations and permutations unit in 7th grade math, you’ll know that the total number of possible connections that can be formed between 100 billion neurons is equal to 100 billion factorial:

100,000,000 factorial = 100,000,000,000 x 99,999,999,999 x 99,999,998 etc. all the way down to 1.

So what’s the total number of possible connections? Well, I tried to do 100 billion factorial on five different online scientific calculators and they all gave me the same answer: infinity (the real answer is obviously not actually infinity, but it’s a number with about 25 billion zeroes).

Google calculator was having no part of that calculation
Google calculator was having no part of that calculation

That’s right. There are virtually infinite ways in which our brain’s neurons can potentially connect to one another, and it’s the combination of these neural pathways that allows our brains to function.

When we are born, there are very few connections in our brain. This basically means that our potential is limitless.

An MRI scan of actress Fiona Shaw shows the major neural “highways” between different bunches of neurons in different regions of the brain. Click to enlarge

As we begin to get older, our brain realizes that certain abilities, like being able distinguish monkey faces as well as we distinguish human faces, aren’t really very useful. Consequently, those pathways erode away-the typical adult only maintains a few trillion pathways throughout their life.

I know the monkey example seemed a bit random, but it’s actually from a real study. In 2005, researchers demonstrated that six-month old infants could distinguish between the faces of different monkeys just as easily as they could between different human faces.

However, by the age of nine months old the toddlers’ brains had realized that the skill wasn’t useful, and most of them lost the ability. Only the babies who continued having to differentiate between the monkeys (ie. for whom the skill was still useful) retained the ability.

One of the babies who took part in the study

There is the potential for some extremely powerful, some would even say magical abilities within our brains. However, the brain’s number one priority is survival, so it limits things like creativity and imaginativeness to ensure that we can function well in society and provide for ourselves.

But sometimes, the part of the brain which holds back that dam of possibilities gets damaged, allowing glimmers of our superhuman potential to shine through.

That is the case with people suffering from savant syndrome. Savant syndrome occurs when a mental disability like autism damages the part of the brain that controls our basic functions.

Although those suffering from the condition usually lack the basic motor skills to tie their own shoes or dress themselves, the condition also liberates other parts of their brain, giving them some mind-blowing abilities:

A man who can read a book two pages at a time (one page with each eye) and remembers every detail about the 12,000+ books he’s read so far:

A man who flawlessly played Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 after hearing it once. He was 16, never had any classical training, and had just learned to walk on his own a year earlier:

A man they call the human camera, who can recreate entire cityscapes, down to the number of windows in every building, after viewing it once:

The list goes on. The point here is that all of us have this amazing potential within our brains. There have even been studies done proving that we can tap into some of this potential by temporarily shutting off parts of our brain using electrodes.

When we are born, we all have the potential to be as smart as Stephen Hawking, or as funny as Richard Pryor, or as musical as Jimi Hendrix. But from that point on, who we become depends on the neural connections that are created by the environment we live in.

And not only does everyone have amazing potential, but everyone has something to teach you. Knowledge can be obtained from books or computers, but wisdom can only be obtained through experience.

The wisest guy I know

Every person in this world has a life experience unlike anyone else’s. We all gain perspective about the world from the lessons we learn throughout our lives, so there’s a nearly infinite amount of wisdom we can obtain from those around us, if we’re willing to look for it.

Our brains are naturally curious, but this curiosity must be protected and fed for it to achieve its potential. Remember, Einstein was dyslexic and mildly autistic as a child, and he ended up becoming arguably the greatest scientific mind of our times.

Calling someone dumb makes them scared to ask questions- it stunts their curiosity, thereby inhibiting their ability to find out the truth on their own.

So, every time you call someone dumb, you are actually the one making society less intelligent.

Why Are People Paying As Much As $5,000 per Stem for This Orchid? (Photo Gallery)

The Rothschild’s orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum) is one of the rarest and most expensive flowers on the planet.

Those familiar with the black market say that the plant fetches sums of up to $5,000 a stem.

A close up of the rare orchid. Click to enlarge

So you are probably asking why in the world this plant is so valuable? Well, here are some of the key factors that put such a high price tag on this crchid:

  1. The  Rothschild’s orchid is only native  to Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia. This strain of the orchid species is scarce even there so it is protected by the government.
  2. This specific species of orchid was not discovered until 1987 and, according to MySabah.com, “the flower only grows on the slope of Mt. Kinabalu between 500 and 1,200 meters in altitude”.
  3. Since the plant is endangered and protected by the Malaysia government it is illegal to pick. The plant is only available from smugglers on the black market at a price of up to $5,000 per stolen stem.
  4. The flower itself can take up to 15 years to take bloom. This is one reason they are so rare, and even at Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia they are extremely difficult to find.

Scientists and plant lovers alike are extremely excited to learn more about the rare and relatively new species, but they were that illegal trade on the black market could wipe out the orchids before we really have a chance to study them.

According to the BBC…

“…scientists say the illegal collection of orchids is pushing species to the edge of extinction, with dire consequences for biodiversity. With some vulnerable species available on the black market before they can even be formally named, biologists and customs officers alike are battling to preserve the captivating plants.”

The flower is also known as the Rothschild’s Slipper orchid or the “Sumazau” orchid. The second name was given because the orchid’s long stretched side pedals resemble the arms of someone participating in Sumazau, the most traditional type of dance in the Malaysian state of Sabah, where the orchids are found.
A Malaysian woman performs the Sumazau dance
The orchid is also known to the locals as “The Gold of Kinabalu” because of the plants high value and rarity in Kinabalu National Park.

Check out a few more pictures of the extremely rare Rothschild’s orchid below: 

 

Why The Most Important Educational Instruction Comes Before First Grade (Infographic)

When we talk about educational inequality in our country and the poor conditions of public schools in low income areas, we tend to focus on middle schools and high schools, and their inability to reach “troubled” youth.

This is definitely an important aspect of the problem, but the issues start much, much earlier.

Click to enlarge

One of the most important and most ignored aspects of educational inequality is the disparity in resources available for early childhood education.

In middle class or upper class families, a child is often given all kinds of educational toys and games to help the mind grow, develop, and prepare for formal schooling. Parents are also typically active in teaching the child basic lessons and skills through play.

But for low income children, this experience is very different. For one, many of them live with single parents who are working 80+ hours a week just to keep the lights on and put food on the table.

Click to enlarge

These parents don’t have money for all of the educational toys, games and camps that more well-off parents provide to their kids. Also, their demanding work schedules tend to leave them with very little time to spend with their child (and it is often only for a short period of time after an exhausting day of labor).

Although it can’t totally make up for the economic differences, pre-school was designed to help bridge that gap a bit. Unfortunately, less than half of pre-school aged children are actually even attending pre-school.

Check out the infographic below to see how this lack of quality early childhood education affects a child’s future:

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge
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