Category Archives: Science

What’s In Your Wallet?

Never can be too careful.

Never can be too careful.

That question is asked in commercials for a credit card company, which probably does not expect you to reply, “Bacteria.”  The truth is, though, that it’s in there.  Lots of it.

You may have heard urban legends that there are traces of illegal drugs on dollar bills, but scientific research over the past year or so isn’t finding nearly as much cocaine on our cash as microbes — most commonly the ones that cause acne.  Others are linked to pneumonia, food poisoning, staph infections, flu and… well, you name it.

A study called The Dirty Money Project, being conducted by scientists at New York University, has found 1.2 billion  DNA segments on a relative handful of dollar bills collected in that city.  Jane Carlton, director of genome sequencing for the study, told the Wall Street Journal, “It was quite amazing to us.  We actually found that microbes grow on money.”

What amazed me is that only about half of that DNA was human, presumably from people licking their fingers while counting cash.  In addition to bacteria, there were viruses and fungi — OK, maybe you expect that.  But DNA from horses and dogs?  And don’t tell me it doesn’t surprise you that on dollar bills in New York City, they found small amounts of white rhino DNA.

There are fewer than 20,000 white rhinos on our planet and as far as I know, only two of them live in New York, up at the Bronx Zoo.  All right, so maybe a zookeeper petted one of the rhinos and didn’t wash his hands afterward.  Then he bought a beer, tipped the bartender, who put the rhino’s DNA in his pocket at the end of his shift, and so on.

The point is, money gets around, and since the cotton-linen blend on which U.S. currency is printed is somewhat absorbent, the germs go along for the ride.  So far, the Dirty Money Project and similar studies elsewhere have only established that nasty stuff is definitely on money; scientists don’t yet know to what extent cash transactions cause outbreaks of disease, but it certainly seems plausible that there’s a connection, wouldn’t you think?

So what can be done to avoid a dose of illness from handling dirty money?  We could take a vow of poverty, I suppose, but there are other health risks associated with that approach.

If microwaving kitchen sponges kills the bacteria they have absorbed, maybe it would work for cash, too.  But until microwaves get so portable you can take them on the subway with you, that doesn’t seem very practical, either.

Some countries — Canada and Australia among them — are now printing their currency on polymer film.  But scientific studies have come up with conflicting results.  One group of scientists found less bacteria on the plastic sheets; another study reported that microbes actually survive longer on them.

In the meantime, the best approach is soap and water, administered frequently.  When that’s not available, like after you’ve made a show of putting a dollar bill in the offering plate at church,  a drop or two of hand sanitizer just might keep you from being the cause of an anthrax outbreak.

Well, enough of that — anybody hungry?  (Let’s put it on a credit card.)



The Best Medicine

All she said was, "Nice to meet you."

All she said was, “Nice to meet you.”

According to the old proverb, laughter is the best medicine.  The pharmaceutical industry would dutifully add that side effects of laughter may include dizziness, shortness of breath, increase in blood pressure, and flatulence; if a laugh lasts longer than four hours consult your physician immediately.

OK, they haven’t gone quite that far yet, but scientists actually are studying the effects of laughter.  The objective is to identify the chemical reactions that laughter causes in the brain, so that drugs can be developed that would simulate its effects, thereby combating depression and anxiety.

In their quest to someday produce a laughter pill, scientists have done all sorts of studies; one of the more intriguing ones, headed by Dr. Jaak Panksepp of Washington State University, reveals that rats laugh when they are tickled.  But you already knew that, right?  It occurs to me that a lab rat would probably prefer to be in a tickling experiment than a study determining the effects of inhaling toxic waste.

Anyway, the Mayo Clinic website says that “laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air… and increases the endorphins that are released by your brain.”  (Endorphins, of course, are the feel-good neurotransmitters.)  The Mayo Clinic article goes on to say that “laughter may ease pain by causing the body to produce its own natural painkillers.”

Having devoted my career to trying to provoke laughter in my fellow human beings, I was feeling sort of… I don’t know, philanthropic.  But then I read a summary of some research done by Dr. Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist who wrote a book called Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.

Provine told WebMD that “Most laughter is not in response to jokes or humor.”  One of his studies involved eavesdropping on conversations in public places; he and his associates determined that only a small fraction of laughs were the result of jokes or clever remarks.  Over 80% of the lines that got laughs were banalities like “I’ll see you guys later.”

This comes as devastating news to comedy writers, who stay up late pitching jokes and earnestly debating whether the punch line is funnier with the word “heifer” or “wildebeest”.  (Ultimately, that joke was rejected altogether.)   If Provine is correct, our life’s work has been for naught.

“Laughter is above all else a social thing,” he says.  “The requirement for laughter is another person.”  In other words, you’re more inclined to laugh when someone else around you is laughing, and before you know it, the whole darn cell block is giggling without really knowing why.

It seems we comedy writers wasted a lot of time coming up with funny lines for the actors to say when we could have just sent them up into the theater seats to literally tickle the audience members.

Even without scientific evidence, though, I’m convinced that laughter does indeed have beneficial effects, and that when someone else is laughing, we are inclined to join them.  So now maybe the scientists need to turn their attention to this vexing question:  How can laughter be medicine if it’s contagious?

Practical Knowledge

He's getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

He’s getting closer, but the odds are still in our favor.

Sometime during the second or third year of life, kids latch onto a word that drives their parents crazy:  “Why?”  If you’ve spent time with toddlers, you have probably had a “why” conversation.   If not, here’s an example…

You:  “OK, let’s put on your raincoat.”  Kid:  “Why?”  You:  “Because it’s raining.”  Kid:  “Why is it raining?”  You:  “Because those clouds up there have water in them.”  Kid:  Why?”  You:  “Because, uh… it’s something to do with condensation caused by, uh — look, just put your raincoat on!”

Here’s a transcript of an actual exchange between mother and son in my household, back in the ’70’s…  Son:  “Can I go outside and play?”  Mother:  “Yes.”  Son:  “Why?”  That one may have just been his attempt at socializing, but child-development specialists attribute much of the “why” talk to the natural appetite human beings have for knowledge.

Ever since Plato, philosophers have tried to distinguish between practical knowledge and theoretical knowledge.  To put it very briefly, practical knowledge is knowing how to swim; theoretical knowledge is knowing that since 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it might therefore be prudent to know how to swim.

A case could be made (and probably has been by some guy with a beard and a tweed jacket) that all theoretical knowledge has value because at some point it can become practical knowledge.  The concept of humans flying had been around for many centuries before Orville Wright finally got cleared for takeoff.

So because we all have this innate hunger for knowledge, and you never know when it might become useful, here are a few answers to questions that may have occurred to you…

Why does it say “57 Varieties” on bottles of Heinz ketchup?  Most people assume that the H.J. Heinz Company makes 57 products, including ketchup.  Nope.  Here’s the official explanation, taken from the company’s website:

“While riding a train in New York City in 1896, Henry Heinz saw a sign advertising 21 styles of shoes, which he thought was clever.  Although Heinz was manufacturing more than 60 products at the time, Henry thought 57 was a lucky number.  So, he began using the slogan ‘57 Varieties’ in all his advertising.  Today the company has more than 57,000 products around the globe, but still uses the magic number of ‘57′.”

Why do I yawn when I’m tired or bored?  We yawn when our brain stem senses that there is not enough oxygen and too much carbon dioxide in our bloodstream.  The brain stem alerts the yawn impulse — a deep inhale of oxygen and exhale of carbon dioxide results.  That temporarily revives us.  And makes everyone else in the room yawn, too.

What are the odds of being killed by a shark?  There is one chance in about 264 million.  That depends on where you are, of course.  The odds are even longer if you’re a hermit living on a mountaintop, or if you don’t know how to swim and therefore stay out of the water.

How do you tell the difference between a butterfly and a moth?  There are several differences, including coloration and time of peak activity.  The easiest way, though, is to see them at rest.  The resting posture of a moth is with its wings spread out to its sides.  Butterflies tend to fold their wings up above their backs.

I hope you find these tidbits of knowledge useful.  If nothing else, maybe they will be practical in getting a 3-year-old to stop saying “why” sometime.

Baseball’s First Bionic Arm

"I don't know how to describe it, Doctor Jobe. It sort of feels like my elbow is on fire."

“I don’t know how to describe it, Doctor Jobe. It sort of feels like my elbow is on fire.”

Tommy John has been immortalized for something he didn’t do.

Even if you’re just a casual baseball fan, you’ve probably heard of Tommy John Surgery, since it has been done to hundreds of ballplayers over the past several decades.  The thing is, Tommy didn’t perform that first operation, as some might mistakenly think — it was performed on him.

In July of 1974, John was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  His record was 13-3; he had an impressive Earned Run Average of 2.59 on the night he threw a sinker and felt his arm go fiery pins-and-needles.  The sinker didn’t sink; instead, the ball sailed toward the box seats.  He had just torn the ligament in his left elbow.

After a month of complete rest didn’t produce any improvement in John’s throwing arm, Dodgers team doctor Frank Jobe made his own unorthodox pitch.  He proposed surgery to replace the torn ligament with a tendon taken from Tommy John’s right wrist.

Doctor Jobe had some hope that it might work because he had done a similar procedure on the ankle of a patient afflicted with polio.  Still, he didn’t give Tommy John a glowing prognosis — he told the pitcher that there was maybe a one percent chance that he’d be able to resume pitching.

The doctor explained how the graft would be performed:  Holes would be drilled in the ulna and humerus bones, through which the harvested tendon would be laced in a figure-eight pattern.  As Dr. Jobe later recalled, John looked him in the eye and said, “Let’s do it.”

The original Tommy John surgery (now known to the medical community as Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction) was performed on September 25, 1974.  It was followed by about 18 months of rehabilitation, which is the part of the process for which “T.J.” does deserve credit.  He worked at it diligently; part of his rehab was playing catch with his wife Sally.

In the 1976 season he returned to the mound, and on his third start of that season, Tommy John got his 125th career victory.  He continued pitching until 1989, when he was 46 years old, and by then he had amassed 288 career wins.  That is the seventh-most of all time by a left-handed pitcher.  Well over half of his wins — 164 — came after the surgery.

In the years since 1974, Dr. Jobe and other surgeons have performed tens of thousands of UCL reconstructions.  Some of the Major League pitchers who have undergone the procedure are John Smoltz, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Carpenter, David Wells, Adam Wainwright and Brian Wilson.  Prospects for successful recovery are now in the range of 90 percent.

So far, no pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery has made it into the Hall of Fame, including Tommy John.  The highest tally of votes he ever received from the Baseball Writers is 31.7%, despite having been a four-time All-Star with 46 career shutouts.

Based on his baseball accomplishments, Tommy John deserves to be recognized for more than a procedure that was performed on his left elbow.  Doctor Frank Jobe probably deserves to have that medical procedure named for him, and not for his patient.

As it happens, this July the doctor is going to be honored for his contributions to baseball  by the Hall of Fame.  Tommy John plans to attend the ceremony.

Botts’ Dots

The originals were round; the square reflectors were developed later.

The originals were round; the square reflectors were developed later.

If his name had been Chadwick or Gormley or Jones, it’s doubtful that anyone would associate the man with his achievement.  As it is, Dr. Elbert Botts doesn’t exactly rank with Sir Isaac Newton and Bill Gates among the giants of science and technology.  His invention was the raised pavement markers that separate traffic lanes on streets and highways; because of the coincidence of his name and their shape, they have become widely known as Botts’ Dots.

In the 1950s, Botts was employed by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) at a testing lab in Sacramento.  Painted lines tended to disappear in rain or darkness, and had the additional disadvantage of requiring frequent repainting, so Botts began searching for a safer and more durable alternative.

He came up with the idea of the little ceramic domes, but then had to figure out a way to attach them to the pavement; his first thought was to use spikes.  If you or I had been working in the lab with him, we’d probably have said, “Really, doc?  You want to put a bunch of nails in the road?”

That idea was soon scrapped and various formulas of epoxy were tried.  Eventually one was found that permanently adhered the lane markers to asphalt or concrete.  The next step, apparently, was to stuff the entire concept in a file drawer and forget about it.  Elbert Botts had come up with the idea in 1953, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the dots were finally put into use on California freeways.

An additional benefit of Botts’ Dots was discovered soon thereafter.  When a driver is drowsy or preoccupied with yelling at the kids in the back seat, the raised markers announce that the car is drifting into the adjoining lane.

They are now widely used throughout the world, except in areas that get a lot of snowfall.  The equipment that removes snow from roadways also tends to scrape off Botts’ Dots.  According to the Caltrans website, “There are an estimated 20 million Botts’ Dots in place today” — and that’s just on freeways and highways in California.

Unfortunately for the heirs of Dr. Botts, the legend that he got a small royalty per dot and therefore became fabulously wealthy is untrue.  In fact, Elbert Botts died in 1962, before the pavement markers that bear his name were put into use.  He never knew that his innovation was successful, or that they gave him a bit of immortality.

As durable as they initially proved to be, the increase in the volume of traffic since the dots were introduced has reduced their life span.  In some places they still last for over ten years, but on heavily-traveled sections of road, they now have to be replaced after only a few months.

Although it insists that Botts’ Dots “will be with us for a long time,” Caltrans has begun experimenting with longer-lasting, higher-visibility alternatives.  Among them are reflective strips that are essentially baked onto the roadway.  It’s probably too much to hope that the chief engineer on that project is named Parker… you know, so that someday we’ll call them “Parker’s Markers”.

The Big Picture on Popcorn

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

At the movies, this much popcorn will cost at least six dollars.

It’s a question that has occurred to me several times in my adult life, but I’ve never had the chance to ask it.  That’s partly because “farmer” is the occupation of only 1% of the U.S. work force, so there aren’t many opportunities to encounter one.  When I do, though, I’ll dispense with the pleasantries and get right to it:  “How do you decide what crops to grow?”

“Betting the farm” is an expression gamblers use, meaning “to take a big risk.”  Farmers literally bet the farm every year, and I’d be fascinated to find out how one figures out that the best use of his land and resources is, say, popcorn.

Presumably the soil type and weather conditions are part of the equation, but when his neighbor is able to grow sweet corn, what makes a farmer think, “Nope.  I’m going with popcorn.”

Most of the world’s popcorn production is in the United States, and there are at least 6 cities that claim to be “The Popcorn Capital of the World”.  All are in the Midwest, far from Hollywood, where popcorn’s constant companion — movies — are made.

Popcorn has actually been around a lot longer than movies; Smithsonian scientists have found evidence in Peru of popcorn that dates back over 6,000 years.  It wasn’t until the late 19th century that commercial popcorn poppers were invented, though, and someone thought, “Hey, you know what would go great with this stuff — moving pictures!”

Well, the connection between popcorn and movies was a little more complicated than that, but one of the factors is what the popcorn producers call “expansion ratio”.  That refers to the increase in volume that occurs when those little kernels are popped; a good expansion ratio is in the neighborhood of 40 to 1.

Why does that matter to movie theater owners?  Because they buy popcorn by weight and sell it by volume, so the higher the expansion ratio, the higher the profit.  And popcorn is a more important income source to theaters than ticket sales.

Ticket revenues have to be split with the films’ distributors, but exhibitors pocket 100% of concessions.  According to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, concessions account for about 20% of movie theater gross revenues — but 40% of profits.

By the way, the stuff that makes movie popcorn taste so good — the butter-flavored motor oil they drizzle on it, for instance — adds so much fat that a good-sized tub of it is said to be comparable in fat grams to several Big Macs.

On the other hand, pure unadulterated popcorn — the less tasty version — is actually good for your health.  A study completed in 2012 showed that in addition to its high dietary fiber, popcorn has levels of antioxidants that are greater than some fruits and vegetables.  However, the study’s author, Dr. Joe Vinson, warned that adding too much butter and/or oil could negate the health benefits.

Here’s what occurred to me, though.  A previous scientific study found that there are health benefits associated with chocolate (see my blog post “Rx: Chocolate”, 10/26/11).  Just go with me on this.  If popcorn and chocolate were combined… huh?  Sounds good, right?  Maybe Harry and David’s Moose Munch will prove to be about the healthiest thing we can eat!

Dr. Seuss and Dr. Suess

Dr. Eduard Suess (1831-1914)

Dr. Eduard Suess (1831-1914)

It seems unlikely that Dr. Seuss, the beloved author of children’s books, and Dr. Suess, the beloved Austrian geologist, ever met.  That is speculation on my part, but since the scientist who published Das Antlitz der Erde died when the Cat In The Hat writer was only ten years old, I feel like it’s a reasonable assumption.

The guy who was the expert on the Alps had a son who was also a geologist and professor, but there’s no evidence that this second Dr. Suess had any contact with the Dr. Seuss who created the Grinch.  By the way, the children’s book writer and illustrator had no children of his own.

His real name was Theodor Geisel, and I thought maybe he had borrowed the geologist’s name, making a slight alteration in the spelling.  As so often happens, I was wrong.  Seuss was his mother’s maiden name, and his middle name.  Oh, and the family pronunciation of the name rhymed with “voice”, not “goose”.

While a student at Dartmouth, Ted Geisel worked on the school’s humor magazine.  He and several of his pals got caught drinking gin, and since this was the mid-1920s, they were breaking the law — Prohibition was in effect.

As punishment, a dean booted them out of all extracurricular activities.  Geisel continued to contribute cartoons to the humor magazine, though, using pseudonyms like L. Burbank, D.G. Rossetti… and Seuss.  The Doctor part was added later on.

His first children’s book was And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which made it to print in 1937 after being rejected by dozens of publishing companies.

Following a stint as a political cartoonist during World War II, Geisel returned to writing children’s books.  Scholars point out that there was political content in some of them, too.  For instance, “Horton Hears a Who!” was an allegory for democratization in post-war Japan, as any five-year-old can tell you.

Dr. Seuss had 46 children’s books published; so far they have sold over a half-billion (with a B) copies.

Dr. Suess was not quite as successful.  The Austrian’s masterwork, which translates into English as The Face of the Earth, is a massive multi-volume work that deals with the geologic structure of our planet.  In the early 20th century it was considered a textbook, but copies of The Face of the Earth are now repositories for much of the earth’s dust.

In 1857 Dr. Suess published a slender book called Die Enstehung der Alpen (“The Origin of the Alps”).  The movie rights remain unsold, but Eduard Suess’s theories established the concept of tectonics, which has to do with movements of the earth’s crust.

This Dr. Suess (the U-before-E one) had a grandson named Hans, who became the third Dr. Suess.  A chemist and nuclear physicist, Hans Suess was one of the founding faculty members of University of California, San Diego.  His personal papers are housed at UCSD’s Geisel Library, which is named for one of its major donors, Theodor Geisel — yeah, Dr. Seuss.

If you aren’t confused yet, consider the fact that there is a German physicist named Theo Geisel (no relation).  I was able to learn that Dr. Geisel is also a musician, but couldn’t determine if he likes Green Eggs and Ham.