Thursday, 25 October 2012

A Slice of Enlightenment – answering some of the greatest questions ever asked

by Tom Harper

As I have become progressively older, slowly trudging my way through adolescent life, I have found myself being bombarded with a cacophony of questions of exponential seriousness: “What do you want to be when you are older?”, “If God exists, who created God?”, “Who do you think will win the 2012 presidential election?”. Having attempted to answer such inquisitions, I then find myself in the position of either being asked to explain my views (which very rarely ends without my reduction to a babbling wreck) or being asked an even greater, more stimulating question to further test my role as a critical thinker.

The reason for this is that life is full of questions, some much more difficult than others, and although millions of the world’s finest minds have argued for years over ‘Which came first: the chicken or the egg?’ I tend to prefer a question with a relatively simple and satisfactory answer. True, Aryeh Frimer once said “I’d rather live with a good question than a bad answer”, but why not have a great question with an equally satisfactory conclusion? Although many philosophical or topical enquiries out there tend to reach very ambiguous results, some of the world’s greatest questions DO have answers, and so I set out to find out what those were...

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1.     Is There One Move That's More Likely to Win a Game of Rock-Paper-Scissors?

To answer this question, I turned to the archives of The World Rock Paper Scissors Society, where one finds that RPS players rely on strategy, not probability, to win. From the playground to the annual International World RPS Tournament outwitting your opponent is No. 1 job for serious competitors.

According to the Society, one way to guess what hand someone will throw out is to know how many rounds they've won so far. Players who are in the lead will often use scissors, because it's believed to symbolize aggression, while paper is used for a more subtle attack. Rock is usually a last resort, when players feel their strategies are failing. There are also techniques you can use to mask your move, such as cloaking, in which players will pretend to throw rock and then stick out two fingers at the last second to make scissors. In addition, the true professionals (who do exist) will use sets of three moves, called "gambits," to help them make their moves out of strategy, not reaction.

But that's not all. The Society also keeps track of how common moves are, particularly as they relate to mentions of RPS in pop culture. For instance, after "The Simpsons" episode in which Bart beats Lisa with rock and thinks to himself "Good old rock, nothing beats it," the Society recorded a 0.3% rise in the use of rock.

However, be warned: if you are going to play, be prepared to pay. RPS can be a dangerous sport. In the late 1980s, Kenyan Mustafa Nwenge lost a match and the use of a finger when an overzealous opponent "cut his paper" a little too hard and crushed Nwenge's finger ligaments.

See how scientists have developed a robot that always wins at rock-paper-scissors

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2.      How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck if a Woodchuck Could Chuck Wood?

The answer to this is painfully simple: probably none. Woodchucks aren't particularly tree-oriented, and, while they can climb to find food, they prefer being on the ground.

In fact, they got the name "woodchuck" from British trappers who couldn't quite wrap their tongues around the native name "wuchak." More commonly (and accurately) known as groundhogs, these animals are closely related to squirrels, marmots, and prairie dogs, with which they share an affinity for burrowing.

Moreover, a burrowing woodchuck can chuck dirt, in the form of tunnels that can reach five feet deep and as much as 35 feet in length. So, based on that number, New York State wildlife expert Richard Thomas calculated that if a woodchuck could chuck wood, he could chuck as much as 700 pounds of the stuff.

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3.      Which Came First, the Can Opener or the Can?

However similar this question may be to the traditional ‘Chicken vs Egg’ debate, it certainly comes to a more conclusive answer. In 1810, a British merchant named Peter Durand patented the tin can, making it possible for sterilized food to be preserved more effectively than was possible with breakable containers. The can was especially useful for long ocean voyages, where glass bottles were prone to breakage, and soon the British Navy were dining on canned vegetables and meat.

So far, so good. But what Durand (and everybody else for that matter) forgot to invent was a way to open the cans. For almost 50 years, getting into your pork 'n' beans required the use of a hammer and a chisel. The first can opener was patented by American inventor Ezra Warner in 1858, but even that wasn't particularly convenient. These early openers were stationed at the shops that sold the cans, and shopkeepers did the honours. It wasn't until 1870 that the first home can openers made an appearance, resolving the tedious problem for good.

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4.      Why Do We Call Them ‘Grandfather’ Clocks?

This is a question that has boggled me since the age of six; however it seems that ‘grandfather’ clocks are named as such due to pop music.

In 1875, American songwriter Henry Work checked in for a stay at the George Hotel in North Yorkshire, England. In the lobby was a large pendulum clock that had belonged to the inn's previous owners, both deceased. The clock was said to have stopped dead - to the minute - on the day the last surviving owner died.

Work thought this was a great story and went on to fictionalize it in a song called 'My Grandfather's Clock'. The lyrics centred around a clock that was "taller by half than the old man himself" and that "stopped short, never to go again" when the grandfather died. It was, obviously, a runaway hit. Work sold over a million copies in sheet music, and, eventually, the term "grandfather clock" became attached to the style of clock that inspired the song.

And so we can see that, whether it be the case of more philosophical questions or indeed historical ones, every question is born with the potential for an answer:

“What do you want to be when you are older?” – I’d like to be wealthy and happy.

“If God exists, who created God?” – Perhaps a serious of cosmic events coincided toward the eventuality that God created himself.

“Who do you think will win the 2012 presidential election?” – Obama, I hope.

If you were then to ask me to further elaborate on these three answers (particularly the second one), then whether I may or may not be able to is itself up for debate. However I hope that one thing you, the reader, can take from this is that sometimes we don’t have to follow the laws of Aryeh Frimer by living with either a ‘good question’ or a ‘bad answer’; sometimes, the answers that we ourselves can come up with, using our own brilliant imaginations, can be witty, logical or satisfactory enough to put the critical thinkers to shame.

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