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science

Where is the third dog in this photo?


Optical illusions are wild. The way our brains perceive what our eyes see can be way off base, even when we're sure about what we're seeing.

Plenty of famous optical illusions have been created purposefully, from the Ames window that appears to be moving back and forth when it's actually rotating 360 degrees to the spiral image that makes Van Gogh's "Starry Night" look like it's moving.

But sometimes optical illusions happen by accident. Those ones are even more fun because we know they aren't a result of someone trying to trick our brains. Our brains do the tricking all by themselves.


The popular Massimo account on X shared a photo that appears to be a person and two dogs in the snow. The more you look at it, the more you see just that—two dogs and someone who is presumably their owner.

But there are not two dogs in this picture:

There are three dogs in this picture. Can you see the third?

Full confession time: I didn't see it at first. Not even when someone explained that the "human" is actually a dog. My brain couldn't see anything but a person with two legs, dressed all in black, with a furry hat and some kind of furry stole or jacket. My brain definitely did not see a black poodle, which is what the person actually is.

Are you looking at the photo and trying to see it, totally frustrated?

The big hint is that the poodle is looking toward the camera. The "hat" on the "person" is the poodle's poofy tail, and the "scarf/stole" is the poodle's head.

Once you see it, it fairly clear, but for many of us, our brains did not process it until it was explicitly drawn out.

As one person explained, the black fur hides the contours and shadows, so all our brains take in is the outline, which looks very much like a person facing away from us.

People's reactions to the optical illusion were hilarious.

One person wrote, "10 years later: I still see two dogs and a man."

Another person wrote, "I agree with ChatGPT :)" and shared a screenshot of the infamous AI chatbot describing the photo as having a person in the foreground. Even when asked, "Could the 'person' be another dog?" ChatGPT said it's possible, but not likely. Ha.

One reason we love optical illusions is that they remind us just how very human we are. Unlike a machine that takes in and spits out data, our brains perceive and interpret what our senses bring in—a quality that has helped us through our evolution. But the way our brains piece things together isn't perfect. Even ChatGPT's response is merely a reflection of our human imperfections at perception being mirrored back at us.

Sure is fun to play with how our brains work, though.


This article originally appeared on 1.8.24

Science

Americans see gardening changes as 'plant hardiness zones' shift across half the U.S.

Here's a quick tool to find out if your zone has changed due to warmer temperatures.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash, Map by USDA-ARS and Oregon State University (Public Domain)

The USDA has issued a new Plant Hardiness Zone Map

Millions of American households have a garden of some sort, whether they grow vegetables, fruits flowers or other plants. Gardening has always been a popular hobby, but more Americans turned to tending plants during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic for both stress relief and to grow their own food so they could make less trips to the store. For many people, it's a seasonal ritual that's therapeutic and rewarding.

But a shift is occurring in the gardening world. Now, due to rising temperature data, half the country find themselves in a different "plant hardiness zone"—the zones that indicate what plants work well in an area and when to plant them. Gardeners rely on knowing their hardiness zone to determine what to plant and when, but they haven't been updated since 2012.


The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated its Plant Hardiness Zone Map in late 2023, months before people in most of the country start planning their planting. We saw the 10 hottest summers ever recorded in 174 years of climate data between 2014 and 2023, but hardiness zones are actually determined by the coldest winter temperatures each year. Winters are warming at an even faster pace than summers, according to nonpartisan research and communications group Climate Central, but that may or may not be the entire reason behind the zone changes.

The USDA acknowledges that some of the zone shifts could be due to climate change but cautions against using them as hard evidence for it since factors such as improved data collection also contribute to changes in the map.

people planting flowers

Gardening can be a solo or community endeavor.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

"Temperature updates to plant hardiness zones are not necessarily reflective of global climate change because of the highly variable nature of the extreme minimum temperature of the year, as well as the use of increasingly sophisticated mapping methods and the inclusion of data from more weather stations," the USDA wrote in November 2023. "Consequently, map developers involved in the project cautioned against attributing temperature updates made to some zones as reliable and accurate indicators of global climate change (which is usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over long time periods)."

At the same time, Chris Daly, director of the PRISM Climate Group at Oregon State University that developed the map with the USDA, told NPR, "Over the long run, we will expect to see a slow shifting northward of zones as climate change takes hold."

As an example of zone shifting, Dallas, Texas, was classified as Zone 8a in 2012, when data showed the coldest winter temperature in the city was between 10 and 15 degrees Fahrenheit on average. In 2023, with data showing the coldest winter temps falling between 15 and 20 degrees Fahrenheit, it's been shifted to Zone 8b.

Some zone shifts resulted in moving to an entirely new zone number, such as Seattle shifting from Zone 8b to Zone 9a. The overall trend was for zones to be pushed northward, but not all areas saw a shift. NPR has a helpful tool here in which you can enter your zip code, see what zone your city was previously in, what zone it's in now, and the temperature changes that caused the shift.

The bottom line is if you have a gardening book with a hardiness zones map printed before 2024, it's time for an updated map. Or check online to see what zone you fall in now to give your garden the best chance of thriving this year.

Carl Sagan and a sliced apple

The concept of the fourth dimension seems beyond human comprehension. As three-dimensional beings, we are unable to see beyond a physical object's height, width and depth. What else could there be?

Enter Carl Sagan, revered as one of the greatest science communicators of his time. He possessed a unique gift for demystifying complex scientific concepts, making them accessible and thrilling for the general public. In 1980, on Episode 10 of the groundbreaking PBS show “Cosmos,” Sagan embarked on a mission to explain the seemingly impossible fourth dimension.


What’s excellent about Sagan’s explanation is that he uses simple and relatable objects: an apple and a Tesseract, or a hypercube.

Sagan began by discussing how a two-dimensional being living in a flat world would perceive a three-dimensional object like an apple.

“Imagine we live in this ‘flatland’/2-D plane with no concept of ‘up’ or ‘down.’ Then along comes a 3-D object like an apple. We do not even notice it until it crosses our plane of existence — and even then, we have no idea what the apple is,” Sagan explains. “We see only a fragment as it passes through our plane. There is no way we can comprehend the 3-D quality/dimension of the apple, because it is more than we can understand. We only have the evidence of what has passed through our plane.”

Sagan then related this two-dimensional experience of the third dimension to how we might try to understand the fourth. To do so, he used the Tesseract, a four-dimensional cube, to demonstrate how difficult it is for us to perceive or visualize dimensions beyond our own three. At this point, Sagan is asking the viewer to expand their minds to understand the fourth dimension metaphorically.

Sagan’s demonstration of the fourth dimension isn’t just a wonderful explanation of a scientific idea that many of us find difficult to comprehend; it’s also a great example of how to teach complex ideas by combining clear explanations with thought-provoking visuals.

A demonstration of the Satellite Shelter.

When blizzards line up to rip through the Northeast, schools close, flights are canceled, and people even board up their houses. Though missions and homeless shelters do what they can to provide safety to those who have no homes to go to, thousands of people still have to weather the cold outside.

At Carnegie Mellon University's 2015 Impact-a-Thon, students were challenged to provide a temporary low-cost shelter for homeless people during the winter.

One team of students came up with the "Satellite Shelter," an insulated sleeping bag that converts into a tented structure. The students used mylar, a reflective material frequently used in greenhouses and space blankets, and wool blankets to ensure the shelter would keep anyone in it safe from the cold.

"We wanted to make sure it was super-portable and durable so that it's easy to carry," said student Linh Thi Do, who worked on the project. "We have wheels on it so it's easy to move from place to place."

Solutions like this one are handy in an emergency. Perhaps, however, other cities should take note of the city of New Orleans' success in providing long-term housing solutions for its homeless veterans. The only perfect solution to homelessness is giving people permanent homes to go to at night.


This article originally appeared on 01.26.15