We have all had moments when we questioned or wondered about certain things in our life, be it something really mundane or something of significance. As we became busier with life, we never sought an explanation for those things. So in this list, we are going to make it easier for you by compiling and explaining 12 things that you have always wondered about.
1. How do airplanes get in-flight WiFi?
Many of us have wondered how it was possible to receive WiFi connection on airplanes flying at 35,000 feet. The reason is that airplanes are now equipped with antenna fins on their fuselage that detect signals from ground-based cellular towers or satellites.
But for the airplane to maintain a connection while moving at many hundreds of miles per hour is a challenging feat. That is why the antennas are programmed to detect signals and automatically connect to the nearest tower to provide the passengers with uninterrupted browsing.
While traversing large bodies of water or remote terrain, the antenna connects to the closest satellite signal, and the information between the ground and plane is transmitted via the satellite. Though the availability of WiFi has helped us get through those long and draining hours of flight, it has also deprived us of our digital detox. Now, you can’t blame it on the unavailability of WiFi on your flight for not responding to your e-mails. (source)
2. Why does tickling yourself not work?
If you have ever tried to tickle yourself, you would have realized that the sensation you experience isn’t the same as when someone else tickles you. When someone tickles you, it usually elicits raucous laughter, but when you try to tickle yourself, you won’t have any reaction. This is something we have all discovered as kids, but why is this so?
The simple reason is that the cerebellum in your brain that monitors your motor control, knows where your hand is going to tickle, and this makes you expect the sensation. Since the ticklish feeling essentially alerts you of unexpected touches, the brain categorizes self-induced movements as less significant as compared to movements occurring external to our bodies. Therefore, you are less likely to react. (source)
3. How do we get “gut feelings,” and should you listen to them?
The brain is a predictive machine which compares the incoming information and current experiences against stored knowledge and past experiences to predict the outcome of a situation. Gut feeling or intuition is the result of subconscious processing in the brain. It occurs when your past experiences and current experiences align or misalign, but it does not reach your consciousness.
The gut and the brain are connected via the vagus nerve, which is the longest nerve sprawling across your abdomen to the brain. The nerve carries messages from the brain to the body and vice versa. The messages from the body to the brain are called gut feelings. Gut feelings are a protective system that tells us to evaluate and avoid certain situations. These signals from our gastrointestinal tract encourage caution and stop us from making mistakes by cutting off the reward systems in our brain.
For example, knowing when to avoid a dark alley is an intuition that has occurred because of incidents you might have heard about (stored knowledge) and you realize that the alley looks unsafe from its appearance (incoming information). From the alignment of these two factors, you avoid the alley. But this decision was made subconsciously, without rational or logical thinking. Hence it is your gut feeling telling you to avoid it.
Gut feeling is every cell in your body making a decision. While it may help you decide, it can also be sloppy and inaccurate as it relies on evolution, automatic and fast processing, as well as your cognitive biases. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking that occur automatically.
Evolution and your fast processing ability, for example, might make you want to eat a plate full of donuts because our ancestors, hunter-gatherers, required all that sugar for energy, but it is unlikely that you would need it in the present scenario. Therefore, both logical thinking and intuitive thinking should be used together to make a tough decision instead of relying on gut feeling alone. (1, 2)
4. How is it possible to understand a language but not be able to speak it?
Have you ever wondered why you could understand a language but couldn’t speak it? The phenomenon behind this is called “receptive bilingualism” or “passive speaker.” Passive speakers are those who are exposed to a language long enough to comprehend it well but do not have any active command over it. This might occur when people grow up hearing a language outside their home but don’t have any formal education for it.
The reason is that while you can translate and recognize the words of an unfamiliar language using your knowledge of that language, it might be much harder to actually “find” the right word to communicate your thoughts in comparison to simply searching for that word in your vocabulary. Hence, you cannot converse in that language as easily as you can understand it. So, practicing is the only way to learn to reproduce a language rather than just understanding it. (1, 2, 3)
5. Why are train tracks filled with stones?
You may have noticed crushed and jagged stones present in almost every railway track. These crushed stones are known as “track ballast,” and they are a lot more useful than you can imagine. The ballast forms the trackbed on which the railroad ties are laid. Their sharp-edges interlock with each other and prevent the railroad ties from sliding over one another.
Track ballast also helps to bear and distribute the loads of the ties and the train across the foundation and allows any ground movement, thermal expansion, or any differences in weight that might occur. It also helps prevent flooding of the railway tracks by functioning as drainage and prevents the growth of weeds or any vegetation that might take over the tracks. (1, 2)
6. Why does lightning travel in a zigzag manner rather than a straight line?
Lightning is an electrical discharge occurring either within clouds or between the clouds and the ground. When a thundercloud moves through the air, the bottom portion of the cloud accumulates a negative charge while the upper portion becomes positively charged. The negative charge at the bottom induces a positive charge to the ground as it is closer to it. To neutralize the two opposite charges, the two charges reach out towards each other, forming a lightning bolt.
Air is typically not conductive. For the lightning bolt to pass through, it needs to choose the portion of air that is less resistive. And this resistive property of air can vary depending on the pollutants, temperature, and humidity. The lightning reaches out to the regions of lower resistance, and this path may not be a straight line.
Another reason is that although it looks like lightning happens all at once, it actually occurs in steps. The initial hop is called the “leader,” which may travel up to a few hundred feet. From this leader, another leader is formed, and so on. Since these leaders form independently of each other, they don’t follow the original channel and diverge to form complex lightning bolts similar to the roots of a tree. This is the reason lightning has a zigzag shape to it. (1, 2)