Learn, Pause, Create

The year 2020 has been a crazy year. The Covid-19 virus which began in China has caused panic and disruption to learning and business activities. At the epicentre of the outbreak in China, entire cities and provinces had to be sealed off. Schools were closed and some remained closed at the time of this article in some cities and countries. With factories closed, global supplies were affected as China is the factory of the world. Many finished goods and raw parts come from China. With China not producing or shipping out, activities elsewhere in the world has to slow down. Travel dropped dramatically. Hotels are mostly empty. Malls and shops in badly affected places are quiet.

It is like the world has hit the PAUSE button.

It is not the first time the world had to pause. It is not the first time people had to pause. If you are quarantined or infected, you have to be isolated, away from work or school or whatever you are doing.

In 1665, there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague (Great Plague of London) in England. It was the last of the many great plagues that hit England since the 14th century. Cambridge University was closed. Issac Newton was forced to return home to Woolsthorpe Manor. You know the famous Apple story. While sitting in his garden one day, he saw an apple fall from a tree. He pondered. Why did the apple fall down? Why not sideways? Why not upwards? Why does it seem to fall towards the centre. Matter must attract matter. If the earth attracts the apple towards its centre, then the apple must also attract the earth but in a much smaller way because its mass is very small. The apple started with zero velocity. Then it accelerated towards the earth, A force must be exerting on it. Let’s call this force Gravity. Objects in space also attract each other with a force that affects velocity such that it creates an orbit.

Newton was forced to pause from his work at the university. He had spent time learning and teaching. With nothing to do at home, he had the time to think and explore. From the thought on how the apple fell, he worked on all the relevant physics and created the famous Newton laws and established the law on gravitational force. His findings were so fundamental that they form the basis for a large part of Physics and were the absolute truth about the universe until Einstein came up with an alternative model to explain behaviours that were not explainable with Newton’s findings.

Next we come to Albert Einstein. He is an interesting guy. He did not like to speak when he was young. He is supposed to have spoken only around 4-5 years old, prompting a diagnosis that he was developmentally slow or ‘stupid’ (to be blunt). He did not have great success in his early years. He was quite a rebel in school. He did not make it to the prestigious Zurich Polytechnic School on his first try because he did badly in some subjects (although he was great in the Physics and Maths papers.

“Logic will get your from A to B. Imagination takes you everywhere.” Albert Einstein. Copyright 360 Education Pte Ltd

After university, he could not get a job as teaching assistant despite many tries. He ended up as a clerk in the Swiss Patent office. Boring job processing other people’s patent applications.

It was at this mundane job that he had the time to think about the universe. He added the space and time dimensions to the understanding of gravity from Newton – objects’ gravity wraps spacetime, causing objects’ paths to curve in the presence of gravity. Who would believe a young ‘crazy’ so-called scientist working in a patent office against the great Issac Newton? It took a solar eclipse in 1919 for astronomers to observe clearly the lights from a faraway cluster of stars. Einstein’s mathematics correctly predicted the path of the light as they bent through the sun’s gravitational field but not Newton’s. You can read more about this Einstein-Newton challenge here. From then on, Einstein became an instant celebrity. His works are astonishing as he only owned the most basic telescope. Everything was worked out in his mind with great imagination. His works start with imagining a hypothetical situation that cannot be physically recreated (because of then limitations in equipment and understanding of the world) and he worked out the mathematical solutions to account for these.

Another case, this time a young man, Jacob Barnett. At age of 2, he was diagnosed with severe autism, Asperger Syndrome. His parents were told that he would probably never read or even tie his own shoelaces. He was sent to special needs school and the educators would try to get him to do things he ought to know how to do. He showed no interest. His mother took him out and home-schooled him, giving things he liked to do. He was fascinated with light, shapes and things in nature. He was so fascinated with thinking about the phenomenal of what he saw that he was not interested to talk. Amazingly when he started to speak at age three, he spoke in four languages. He could talk about astrophysics at three years old despite no one teaching him.

Here’s a TEDtalk by Jacob when he was still a teenager (today he is only 22 years old). If you have no time to watch through the 16-min video, the summary of what he said is to Pause (stop learning), Think (including forgetting about established rules) and Create. He also covered what I just wrote about Newton and Einstein.

Of course, we must learn, as Jacob himself did. He enrolled into Princeton at age 10 and at age 15 in the prestigious Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He basically asked that we should pause to reflect and challenge what is known to create new solutions.

That reminds me of this Singapore Primary 1 student’s answers which created a stir on the Internet recently.

I think the 6-year old girl’s answers are interesting. They are not wrong. The teacher’s answers are correct too. It depends on what perspectives we have and how we interpret the question. The question is ambiguous because it is subjected to different interpretations. It would have been great for the teacher to say “See Me” and then check with the student what she was thinking of and given her correct if she could explain her answers.

If we are to be an innovative society and economy, we need to pause, reflect on established truths and models and see if we can create new solutions.

And if you think the examples are all about brilliant astrophysicists, there are examples in other disciplines too. Take art. Pablo Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”

Raphael is a great master artist in the same era as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Picasso first learnt art from a young age (his father was an art professor). He would have to learn the styles of famous old artists. He then innovated art by studying the African style and invented cubism. He later co-founded the collage method.

Vincent van Gogh started his art career miserably. No one wanted his paintings. He was drawing like everyone else. He got his brother to fund an art exhibition and they sold nothing. His brother told him that his paintings were too dark. No one would want these. Van Gogh listened and enrolled himself into a art university. With his bad temper, he quarreled with many including his lecturers. They failed him and asked him to repeat his course. But in that pause from trying to sell his art, he invented a whole new style with what he learnt in art school. He quit school, changed to bright colours and expressive strokes. He paused, reflected, and created.

So did Swiss-German artist Paul Klee who had no breakthrough in his art for some 10 years until he went on a trip to Tunisa in North Africa and came back inspired with a whole new art style based on shapes and colours.

Student volunteers creating a modern van Gogh’s Starry Night in 5 minutes – copyright 360 Education Pte Ltd

Lastly, I share my own story about PAUSING, THINKING and CREATING.

In June 1999, I was down with Chickenpox. I was given two weeks of medical leave. Just a month before that, I had attended a work-related course where we were challenged to look at our business models and see how we can create extraordinary value by doing something different or capturing new technologies.

With two weeks of leave away from a busy work schedule, I had the time to pause and think. I reflected on the message from the course that I had attended. The Internet scene was starting to become hot in Singapore. In the USA, there were already earlier dotcom successes, with startups using the Internet to break the established rules of business through new models. I was trained in Computer Science. I had ended up in the education field by accident. I decided it was time to get into e-Learning. With business ideas made on the back of envelops and scrap papers, I pitched to friends (who were not afraid of Chickenpox) for investment. I eventually started ASKnLearn (today renamed as WizLearn) in Jan 2000 and we evolved it into a popular e-Learning platform for the schools (I sold and left the business in 2009).

Today, many people are quarantined or in isolation. The world is in a PAUSE mode. Isaac Newton had to pause due to the plague. Einstein had to pause because he was not accepted to teach at the universities. Jacob Barnett had to pause because he was taken off special education school as he was not learning. Picasso, van Gogh and other great artists had their pause moments too before re-emerging with something special.

PAUSE we must, sometimes. In pausing, we can continue to think and create. I am not saying we should not learn. We learn all the time. Having the fundamentals are important. How we absorb and apply what we learn and then create new value is even more important.

Have a good PAUSE, once in a while.

Written by Yee Jenn Jong. The views expressed here are his personal opinions.

Welcome to the leap year day!

Today is 29 February 2020, also known as the leap day or leap year day. Those born on leap year days are called leaplings.

Excuse me, are you a leapling?

What is a leap year? Why is it in February? And how did our calendar come about? Here are some fun facts and fun math around calendars.

February 29 is a date added to most years that are divisible by 4, such as 2016 and 2020 and 2024. Our modern calendar is based on the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII who introduced it in 1582 (that’s over 430 years ago!). The extra day is added because the Earth revolving around the Sun takes approximately six hours longer than 365 whole days. If not added in, the seasons will end up being later and later over the years.

A Brief History of Calendar Systems and Missing Days

Before the Gregorian calendar, we had the Julian calendar, named after Roman emperor Julius Caesar who introduced it in 46 BC (wow, that is over 2060 years ago). Julius Caesar was the one who made changes to the Roman calendar including adding the leap year day in. In older times, most people used a lunar system by observing the moon. The problem with the lunar system is that a lunar month is about 29.5 days, which makes it 29.5 x 12 = 354 days. Some ancient civilizations (like the Egyptians) who studied the solar movement added 11 days to the calendar. It still resulted in fewer days, hence Julius Caesar added an extra day to the Roman calendar on the shortest month of the year, February.

(Here’s a simple Math. If Earth takes 6 hours longer than 365 x 24 hours each year, how many years will it be before it becomes a whole day longer? Clue: That would be 24 divided by 6. )

Actually, it is a little more complicated than adding a day every 4 years because it is not exactly 6 hours but a bit shorter, so we devised other ways to compensate this by having years that are divisible by 100, but not by 400, which will not be a year containing a leap day. Pope Gregory XIII modified the Julian calendar because every 400 years, there were 3 days too many added. To make life even more complicated, even this does not fully adjust our timing to the Earth’s revolving around the sun so the concept of leap second was introduced, but that is another complicated story for another time (if you have a second to spare, pun intended).

For those who like Math and computational thinking a lot, here’s how you can decide what is a leap year:

if (year is not divisible by 4) then (it is a common year)
else if (year is not divisible by 100) then (it is a leap year)
else if (year is not divisible by 400) then (it is a common year)
else (it is a leap year)

* Common year means not a leap year.

Back in the old days, the world was not so connected and rivalry between countries were strong. Civilizations follow their own calendar systems. When Pope Gregory XIII came up with the revised calendar, some countries did not like to follow a system devised by the Catholic Church until much later. For example, Russia did not convert to the Gregorian calendar until after the Russian Revolution in 1917. The funny thing was, in 1908, the Russian Olympics team arrived 12 days late to the London Olympics because of this! Ouch. Hope they got to do some good sightseeing.

Months of the Year

As an additional fun fact, do you know how the months were named? The months followed the naming by the Romans. In fact, March used to be the first month of the year. January and February were not given names in ancient times because the calendar was first devised to help in farming cycles and there were no farming activities during these two months.

March was named after Mars, the Roman god of war. In the first two months of the year, all activities were stopped. Any military campaign would resume only in March, the official first month of the year.

Following this, we therefore have names like September (Septem is seven), October (Octo is eight), November (Novem is nine) and December (Decem is ten). Originally, July and August were named after Roman numerals but were changed by the Romans to honour their great emperors Julius Caesar (July) and Augustus Caesar (August).

(Simple Math – if March is the first month of the year, which month of the year is December?)

Okay, enough of fun facts for a leap year day. Now you can tell your friends, “Now I know my Leap Year Facts, won’t you come and play with me?” (sung to the tune of Now I know my ABC). Have A great leap year day – Find all leaplings and give them a hug!

Sources:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregorian_calendar
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leap_year
  3. https://gizmodo.com/the-evolution-of-the-modern-day-calendar-1283885844
  4. https://www.almanac.com/content/how-did-months-get-their-names

Viruses Versus Bacteria – Myths and Facts

(Updated 18 Feb 2020 to reflect new information)

The news about the novel coronavirus (now named Covid-19) is everywhere now. We have compiled some quick information about the new virus and what the differences between viruses and bacteria are.

Antibiotics for flu? No!

Facts about bacteria:

  1. Bacteria are single-celled microorganisms. They are small and everywhere—in the air, soil and water, on plants and in animals. Most bacteria, including those in our intestines, are harmless. In fact, we sometimes use bacteria to help us digest food. Probiotic bacteria such as those in your Yakult, Vitagen, or kefir drink are all examples of good bacteria. They help digest food and destroy disease-causing microbes. Fewer than 1 percent of bacteria cause disease in people.
  2. What disease can you get from bacteria? These include sore (strep) throat, tuberculosis, and urinary tract infections (UTI).
  3. Antibiotics can kill or slow the growth of bacteria. They are commonly used to treat more serious bacteria illness. However, bacteria can adapt to antibiotics so overdose may create new strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. Antibiotics can also kill off healthy bacteria in your body so doctors will not prescribe antibiotics unless necessary.

Facts about viruses

  1. Viruses are even smaller than bacteria and cannot live on their own. A virus must attach itself to a cell and then reprograms the cell to reproduce itself.  It is so small that most can only be seen with powerful electron microscopes. Around 30,000 to 750,000 of them need to be lined up together to form 1 cm. Imagine the whole population of Singapore lined up in just around 10 cm of space – That’s how small they can be!
  2. Viruses that cause diseases are termed as ‘virulent’. Common virus-caused diseases include the common cold, AIDS, cold sores and chickenpox.
  3. Viral infections require either vaccinations to prevent them or antiviral drugs to treat them. Antiviral drugs do not destroy a virus but inhibit its development.
  4. The body is usually capable of recovering on its own without treatment for viral infection as the body has natural immunity to fight off viral infections. Those who are young or old or already have other illnesses or a weakened body immunity however, are more likely to die or unable to cure itself from viral infections.

Myths

  1. We need antibiotics for viral infections. Antibiotics are NOT effective against viruses, unless there is also a bacterial infection together with the viral infection. So there is NO need for antibiotics against flu. When antibiotics are prescribed for a viral infection, it is to safeguard against secondary infection by bacteria as the immune system is weakened or there is already a bacterial infection with the viral infection.
  2. The medicine we get for flu will cure the body. Actually, most medicine given for flu like Panadol and cough mixture provide relief from symptoms like pain, fever and cough. The body is the one that usually heals itself.
  3. I only need to take the flu immunization jab once. Wrong! Viruses mutate all the time and each season they are different. Therefore, one needs to take the flu jab for each flu season. But when we have contacted the flu from a virus once, our body will generally be immune against that virus because we have developed the antibodies against it. We fall sick again from flu because we get infected with a different flu virus strain.
Antibodies are Y-shaped molecules, consisting of two heavy chains (H chains) and two light chains (L chains) arranged as shown in the diagram

How do they spread? Both viral and bacterial infections are spread in similar ways:

  1. Coughing and sneezing
  2. Contact with infected people, especially body contact
  3. Contact with contaminated surfaces, food, and water
  4. Contact with infected creatures, including pets, livestock, and insects like fleas and ticks

Why do people confuse between viruses and bacteria?

Viruses and bacteria illnesses usually cause similar symptoms. Some illnesses like pneumonia, meningitis and diarrhoea can be caused by either a virus or a bacterium.

A doctor may be able to tell through a medical history and physical examination or through blood or urine tests or a spinal culture.

What is the coronavirus?

Coronaviruses magnified

Coronaviruses are a family of viruses first detailed in the 1960s. They get their name from the distinctive corona or ‘crown’ of sugary-proteins that come out from the envelope surrounding the virus particle. Most coronaviruses cause just minor illness in mammals and birds but several rare strains have been deadly in animals and humans, including the new Covid-19, SARS and MERS.

ovid-19 s appears to have likely originated from bats and then jumped to a different species and finally onto humans. Because it is new, the human body does not have the antibodies to fight it naturally and there are no antiviral drugs that can fight it yet as well.

Coronaviruses can give rise to a variety of symptoms in different animals. Some strains cause diarrhoea in pigs and in turkeys, and most of the time infections can be compared to a bad cold, causing respiratory problems such as a runny nose and sore throat.

Covid-19 is called a novel coronavirus because it has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. The initial batch of people infected appeared to have either worked at or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in Wuhan. Then it got transmitted from human to human. It is important to note that viruses can jump species from anywhere in the world, such as MERS from camels to humans in the middle east and Swine flu (H1N1) from pigs to humans in the Americas.

This virus can cause pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs). Those ill typically suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. Antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work because this is a new virus. Patients may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. As with most who catch flu, many of those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.

What can one do against Covid-19?

As no cure has yet to be found, the general advice is to avoid catching the virus by maintaining good personal hygiene and avoiding crowds, and to develop stronger body immunity with good rest, lots of water and vitamin C. Wash your hands with soap frequently or use sanitizer if there is no running water nearby. The encouraging thing is that scientists globally have been sharing data and research findings openly in the rapid race to find a cure. The world has seen deadlier virus attacks such as the 1918 Spanish Flu that killed over 50 million people and yet recovered, so there is optimism that we will once again ride this one out.

Daily Vitamin C for teachers at our Kids Mansion Childcare during this Covid-19 period to help build immunity

Children at Kids Mansion Childcare with self-made sanitizers to protect themselves and to give to other children at the centre.
Ingredients for home-made sanitizer. Alcohol should be at 70% or higher to be effective against viruses and bacteria.

Meanwhile, do stay healthy!

Sources:

  1. https://www.healthymepa.com/2017/02/21/do-you-need-antibiotics/
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/27/what-is-coronavirus-symptoms-sars-china-wuhan
  3. https://www.sciencealert.com/coronavirus
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Introduction_to_viruses
  5. https://www.geek.com/news/animation-perfectly-explains-how-your-body-fights-a-virus-1591668/

Quiz:

  1. Viruses are smaller than bacteria – True or False?
  2. Antibiotics can fight off viruses – True or False?
  3. We need good body immunity to fight off viruses already in our body – True or False?

Answers: True, False, True

COMPOSITION OF THE MONTH – A Second Chance

 A Second Chance

WRITTEN BY: BELINDA CHUA (P4)

EDITED BY: MS TRISH 

(This composition is inspired by abridged news articles on crime from The Straits Times’ NewEd App which Is used at Yen’s Academy to Inspire writing and knowledge of current affairs)

Alex is a fatty!  Alex is a pig!”  All of Alex’s classmates started their sing-song chant as soon as he walked into the classroom.  Fighting back tears, Alex wondered why he was so unlucky.  He was constantly being bullied in school for being chubby, and at home, his father was cruel and mean and insisted that Alex follow in his criminal footsteps. 

When Alex entered Secondary School, he fell in with the wrong crowd.  He was tired of being bullied and decided to become a bully instead.  He started sniffing glue almost daily, and began to gamble with his new-found gangster buddies.  He even consumed drugs such as Ketamine and Erimin 5 to blank out and forget the cares of the world. 

In no time at all, Alex was playing truant almost every day and learnt all there was to learn about crime.  Shortly after, he dropped out of school and indulged in a life of crime.

Alex was feeling confident of his latest mission – to rob the Singapore National Bank.  He was cleverly disguised as a smartly-dressed security guard.  No one suspected that he was actually a criminal mastermind.  What a brilliant disguise!

Unknown to Alex, however, the bank vault was surrounded by state-of-the-art invisible sensors.  With an arrogant smirk on his craggy face, Alex thought smugly to himself, “Ah, I can just waltz into the bank.“ 

PRRRRRRRRRRRRNGGGG!  As soon as Alex had crossed the threshold, he triggered the security alarms.  The incessant shrill ringing of the high-pitched sirens pierced his ears and his heart filled with dread.  He looked up and found himself surrounded by the REAL security guards of the bank. 

Before Alex could blink, he was handcuffed and pushed roughly into the back of a police car.  “This is just a bad dream,” Alex whispered to himself.  He shut his eyes and saw his life flash before him.  When he opened his eyes again, he was behind bars.  Alas, it was not a dream at all. 

Life in prison jolted Alex and he resolved to turn over a new leaf.  He decided to learn some new skills so that he would not return to his old life of crime once he was released.  He signed up for some cooking courses and learnt coding in Prison School.  He practised daily and became a Master Chef and an expert coder.  He also spent his free time reading many self-help books and worked hard at becoming a better person.  Although seven years crawled by slowly, finally, the day came when Alex was released.

Alex went back to his father and refused to commit any more crimes. 

“I am walking the straight path now!” he declared proudly. 

“I can’t believe I kidnapped a useless fool like you,” his father grumbled and threw his hands up in disgust.

Alex froze with horror when he heard his father’s kidnapping confession.  Reeling with turmoil, he walked away from his kidnapper and set out to track down his real family. 

After months of searching high and low for his family, Alex was ready to give up.  He had left no stone unturned but Lady Luck was not on his side.  Just as he was about to close the chapter on reuniting with his real family, the shrill ringing of the telephone jolted him out of his reverie. 

“Alex!  We’ve found your family!” Sherlock Sam, Singapore’s best detective, announced with a whoop of delight.  Tears of joy ran unchecked down Alex’s ruddy cheeks.  

“Thank you for a second chance,” Alex whispered.  “Thank you.”