5 Obvious (and 5 Less Obvious) Science Facts I Learned From National Geographic in Las Vegas!


Science! If you get it, you love it; if you don’t understand it you live in constant fear of its seemingly magical abilities to explain the way the world works. National Geographic Channel strives to convert its viewing audience into science geeks by programming fun shows about science. With the new season of Brain Games and the spring premiere of a new series called None of the Above, they just might achieve that goal.

To that end the channel flew a small group of journalists out to the city of sin for three days of mind-blowing experiments, mental challenges and (for this journalist) a considerable amount of drinking… FOR SCIENCE!

Stuff You Should be Ashamed Not to Know

1. Gravity. It Works!

Picture by Shawn DePasquale
Moments before the drop…

National Geographic Channel wanted to show off its new game show None of the Above so they trekked us out to a gun range for the taping of the most recent episode. The big question of the day was the following: If a piano, a bowling ball and a javelin are all dropped at the same time, which hits the ground first? If you’re like me (or the majority of the press with us that day) this one is a no-brainer. Gravity accelerates all items equally; the only factor that can change in that equation is wind resistance. So, if you were to add a feather to the mix, for example, there is good reason to believe that the wind resistance against the lightness of the feather would prevent it from accelerating with the rest of the objects. However, in the case of a bowling ball, a javelin and a piano, since they are all heavy enough to out-weigh any resistance, it was clear to us that they would all drop at the same time. And they did.

The surprising thing is that of the six or so “audience” member in attendance only ONE OF THEM guessed the correct outcome. Not only that, but the guy who guessed it right was then looked at by the other audience members in much the way I imagine Copernicus was treated upon declaring the Sun as the center of our solar system.

2. WHAT?! (or…. Your Hearing Gets Worse With Age)

In one segment, Brain Games attempted to show the difference aging can have on the human body, specifically on the five senses. Many of these tests have obvious outcomes but none more so than the hearing test. If you aren’t aware (shame on you) our hearing decreases with age and use. Ever been to a concert? Listened to music via headphones? If you’ve done these things (and you have, don’t lie) then you’ve probably (although minorly) damaged your hearing. Wear and tear is a bitch and a half.

To prove this, Brain Games host Jason Silva asked several volunteers from ages 8-60 to listen to a series of high frequency sounds. Everytime they heard a sound they were instructed to raise their hands. As the frequency’s got higher, the amount of hands in the ear decreased. Once again though, a majority of the people involved in the testing were surprised by the results. Take a look:

3. The “Oddball Effect”

This theory suggests that the brain records fewer of our familiar, mundane experiences as we get older. When something unusual happens your brain devotes more neural resources to it and as a result it can shift your perception of time. So what’s all this mean? Well, as you’ll see in the example below, when you process something “unusual” your brain takes more time and care to remember it, thus making it seems like time has slowed a bit. It is one of the more fascinating ways science has shown us just how fluid “time” actually is.

4.Young People Drive Better Than Old People

I mean… duh. Maybe this is super obvious to me since I was raised in Boca Raton, Florida, where the average age is 147 and the common driving speed is 6 MPH, but I’d like to believe that this is fairly common knowledge. If you’re not aware, understand that as you age your ability to react quickly, take in a lot of information at once and maintain focus all decline. Think of our brain as a computer: over time/use things just sort of slow down. It’s another case of wear and tear getting the better of our squishy, human parts. If only there were a way to pop in some new memory or a fresh processor as we aged…

5. It’s Not All Bad News Because You Also Get Smarter with Age


The experiment seems simple enough: a group of people 30 and younger vs a group aged 30 and over. Both are given the same word and asked to see how many words they can make out of the letters contained in the first word. The result was surprising: the older group got DOUBLE the amount of words. The question is…why? Are they smarter because they’re older? Kind of…

See ours brains are hardwired for language and knowledge in a special way that actually makes them resistant to the natural “wear and tear” I’ve discussed. So even though you lose your sight, hearing and other facilities as your decrepit, old carcass prepares to shuffle off this mortal coil your vocabulary to describe all of those horrible, life-ending moments increases! It also means your Grandma can probably kick your ass at crossword puzzles. YAY SCIENCE!!

WOW! I Didn’t Know That!!

1. UFOV Decreases With Age But Can Be Fixed With Computer Training

As the body ages, so does the brain, and this affects a number of our functions, perhaps most importantly our Useful Field of View (or UFOV). The UFOV is the visual area over which information can be extracted with a glance. Stare straight ahead, look across the room for a few seconds and then look away… what did you see? How much can you recall? This is your UFOV. It’s directly dependent on your visual processing speed, which slows as we get older. This is perhaps why children are better at video games than adults. It’s also why our chances of getting in a car accident increase as we age, because our brains just can not process the flood of constant changing visual stimulus assaulting us as we drive.

So how do we fix this? Well, as I learned from my time with the folks over at Brain Games it’s all a matter of brain training. Turns out your brain is as much of a muscle as your biceps, you need to keep it in lean shape if you want it to work as well as it used to. One way of accomplishing this is through the use of a computer-based training program specifically designed for just such a task. The Road Sign Test (RST; Ball & Owsley, 2000) requires participants to manipulate a computer mouse in response to specified road signs as they’re flashed on screen. In other words, you play video games! Not only can this training keep you safe on the road, it’s also been proven to also improve the risk of clinical depression, and reduce the decline of some basic daily activities such as looking for something in a crowded cupboard, reading medicine instructions and counting change. So rush out and buy yourself a PS4 or Xbox One, because you need to start your UFOV training right now!

2. Soggy Diapers Are Your Best Defense Against a Blazing Inferno

Who knew that your pee-soaked infant might have a better chance at surviving a fire than anyone else int he house? It’s true! In an experiment that saw the demise of three adorable teddy bears (no actual bears were harmed in the making of this episode), viewers are asked to guess which material will burn the slowest: A) A synthetic material, B) Aluminum, C) Wet Diapers or D) A Soaked Cotton Towel?

Four teddy bears are wrapped in the various materials of choice and then set ablaze with a flamethrower.

Sorry Paddington!

The survivor, surprisingly, was the diaper bear. Why? Well allow host Tim Shaw to explain, “It’s actually to do with an incredible substance called, a super-absorbent polymer.” He goes on to explain that this particular polymer is called hydrophilic polymer: it sucks in water bonding the water molecules to form a gel. It’s the gel that prevents the bear from bursting into unholy flame – this is caused by the fire having to burn away multiple lines of molecules (the gel) before getting to the next line of water molecules, thus slowing down the burning process and protecting the innocent teddy inside. I will retain this fact for when I’m old and incontinent. This way I’ll be secure in the knowledge that, although I’m in an adult diaper, I’m safe from any geriatric pyromaniacs.

3. The “Monty Hall Problem” Will Make You Rethink the Laws of Probability

On one of the days of my stay in Vegas, a group of us press and bloggers were driven out to the desert to take part in an experiment involving probability. A particularly apt lesson to learn in the city of slot machines and roulette wheels.

Insert tumbleweed here….

We were given the choice of three doors. We were told that behind one of the doors was $100.00. Behind the other two doors? A cactus and a plastic penguin. I had to fight the urge to hope I won the penguin. After host Jason Silva presented my three choices he asked me to pick a door. I picked Door #3. Silva then stopped me, before opening my door he offered a new deal: He opened Door #2 and revealed a cactus. Now I had a new choice to make: stick with my original door or change my answer and open Door #1?

What would you do?

I changed my answer and opened Door #1. I won $100 dollars… which I promptly lost the next day to a Star Wars slot machine… DAMN YOU LUCAS!!

If you also chose to change your answer, you made the correct guess. The question that remains is… why? The answer relies on assumptions and a shift in probability once you pick the different door. On the one hand, you have to assume that the host knows which door has the $100 behind it, so once a door is opened to reveal a cactus your chances of having picked the correct door out of the original three doors has decreased. You’re much more likely to pick the correct door out of the two doors remaining.

To break it down further: Those who switch have a 2/3 chance of winning the money, while those who stick to their initial answer have only a 1/3 chance. When you look at it this way “switching” only fails on the off chance you’ve picked the correct door from the beginning, which can only happen 1/3 of the time!

Hard to grasp? You’re not alone. It’s so hard to understand that Paul Erd?s, one of the top mathematicians to ever have lived, had to be shown a computer simulation confirming the predicted result before he could understand the theory!

4. Water Can Make You Invincible (Temporarily) to Molten Metal

Tim Shaw is a lunatic (as you’ll read more about in a few), so it was not a surprise when he sat down with three auto mechanics and challenged them to stick their hands in a boiling cauldron of molten metal, that they looked at him like he had lost his mind.

Tougher than you, but even they’re not crazy enough to try this!

Shaw is using more than brass balls of steel to pull off this daring feat, he’s using our old pal Science and something called the Leidenfrost effect. The way it’s explained is that by dipping his fingers into a glass of ice water prior to the liquid metal, Shaw can form a thin layer of vapor (from the water instantly vaporizing due to the extreme heat) around his fingers effectively acting as a “gas glove” powered by the horrible conductivity of the vapor. In other words… vapor sucks ass at conducting heat, thus preventing your fingers from roasting like Arnold at the end of T2.

5. None Of The Above host Tim Shaw is a Certified Genius (Also a Bit of a Lunatic)

You probably haven’t heard about the radio antics of None of the Above host Tim Shaw if you live on the American side of the great big pond, and it’s possible, if all you know of the guy are his “shock jock” days then you might not know that he’s also a certified genius. Well I was lucky enough to learn about both side of this complicated and brilliant man and oh boy… there is a ton of awesome shit to discuss.

First off, he’s been fired from 13 radio jobs over the course of his career. He once broke into his producer’s house, while live on the radio, and then popped out of a cupboard to surprise the producer who had assumed his house was being robbed since this all happened at 11:20 p.m. One time, he called his own grandmother to deliver the news of his own sudden death. She was heartbroken until he revealed it was all a prank, at which point she hung up on him.

The remarkable thing about Shaw is that for all those crazy, sometimes morally questionable gags, he’s also proven time and again to be an extraordinarily emotionally deep person. In 2006, Shaw interviewed a holocaust survivor for seven hours straight – much to the amazement of his own producers, who were skeptical about airing the entire interview, it was a massive hit with listeners.

All the “shock jock” stuff aside, Tim’s also brilliant. In fact, the guy spends most of his money on building these huge personal engineering projects. He was LITERALLY certified “A creative genius” in problem solving by the British Dyslexia Association, at the age of twelve! He was awarded “Young Engineers of the Year” in 1992 and 1994. He’s also studied Mechanical Engineering and Product Design at Uni. He’s the brains behind many everyday inventions such as folding walking aids, fast flashing brake lights that illuminate when cars brake heavily, and rubberized ice cube trays, plus many other items. It’s worth watching None of the Above just to glean some of his precious intelligence, all the dangerous experiments and fun explosions are just window dressing.

If you would also to enjoy simultaneously expanding and blowing your mind you can check your local listings for Brain Games and None of the Above on the National Geographic Channel. Brain Games premieres tonight at 9 p.m.