7 Simple Questions You Won't Believe Science Just Answered
One advantage of living in the information age is learning new things every day. Even more interesting is when we learn stuff that we thought we already knew but apparently didn't, like the fact that the sun is a sphere. Yep, science just found that out in February 2011. Next they're going to tell us that they just figured out whether the chicken or egg came first. Actually ....
Which Came First: The Chicken or the Egg?
If you're anything like us, you probably spent a good part of your college years in a Denny's booth debating the universe's biggest mysteries, like how rad exactly is Dave Matthews Band live? And will baby tees and chunky Rachel layers ever go out of style? Eventually, we all arrived at the age-old dilemma that asks which came first: the chicken or the egg? And more importantly, who gives a crap? Well, Stephen Hawking, for starters, weighed in on the debate. He said it had to be the egg, and since Stephen Hawking majored in Super Genius at Mega Whiz University, we could probably just take his word for it.
What We Just Found Out
It was the chicken. SUCK IT, HAWKING! HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE A FRIGGIN IDIOT???
Not such a big man now, are you, Hawking?
In the summer of 2010, British researchers cracked the eneggma when they discovered that the protein necessary to create the eggshell was fowlnd exclusively in the ovaries of the chicken. So the chicken had to come first, because the eggshell can't be made without that protein. Where did the chicken come from? Maybe a hybrid dinosaur called a chickosaurus. We don't know. We weren't there.
Bwok bwok ROAR!
The protein ovocledidin-17 controls the eggshell crystallization process, and without it, the shell couldn't form at all. Scientists weren't just trying to settle a bet between Hawking and some other scientist, either. Understanding what eggshells are made of has some pretty incredible real-world applications, such as strengthening synthetic bones or stopping freaking global warming.
One of the newest ways scientists are trying to tackle global warming is by capturing all that excess CO2 that cars and hairspray canisters have been farting into the air, then storing it until we figure out how to make flat-screen TVs out of it. Understanding the protein that makes eggs form can help us crystallize carbon dioxide into limestone, presumably so we can then dump it into the ocean. Because what harm could possibly come from putting genetically modified rocks into the ocean?
Why Hair Turns Gray
The only people who are 100 percent cool with being grey/gray are Jennifer and Macy. The rest of us are willing to spend $42.5 billion a year covering it up. That's more than Americans spend every year on diet products, and look at how fat we are. Even women so decrepit that they're one wrinkly foot in the already-dug grave feel compelled to cover their gray hair, as if a little bleach is all it takes to make you forget they're a million years old.
Gentlemen prefer blondes! Like me!
Gray hair is one of those things that just sort of makes sense. The ink cartridges in our printers run out when they get old. Why wouldn't the ones in our heads run out of color, too? They're pretty much asking for it, since they keep printing everything in the same color.
What We Just Found Out
Actually, it's just the opposite. When we go gray, our bodies are bleaching our hair from the inside out.
Everyone's body makes hydrogen peroxide naturally. The buildup eventually gets so colossal that it blocks the melanin -- your body's natural hair dye. Without that melanin, the hairs turn gray, then eventually white. And just like that, we're old.
It apparently happened to Steve Martin at the ripe old age of 4.
So how did we just figure this out? After examining cell cultures of hair follicles, researchers found that aging adults have lower levels of an enzyme that breaks up hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen. Basically, your scalp is the site of a battle between good and evil every day of your life. Right now, bleached barbarians are invading your hair from the inside of your scalp. Those of you whose bodies still produce colored hair have soldiers guarding each hair follicle and repelling the barbarians successfully. However, one day, your guards will decide they're too old for this shit and up and retire. Now the Ostrogoths reign over your follicular empire, and your glorious colored-hair civilization is over.
And they never, ever give up.
The good news is that knowing how the process works goes a long way toward knowing how to stop it from happening altogether. Imagine a world where you don't have to go gray if you don't want to, where your grandparents and great-grandparents keep the hair of their youth, where you have to get up close to tell whether someone is bangable.
The Moon: What's Up With That?
Unless you're a Druid, a poet, a werewolf or some heinous combination of all three, you probably don't spend much time thinking about the moon. We notice when it's there, forget about it when it's hidden and occasionally laugh at the suckers who used to think it was made out of cheese.
Oh, and goths. Goths love them some moon.
Here's the thing, though. Despite the fact that the moon is obviously the closest thing to the Earth in the universe, or that we've been on it, up until fairly recently, we knew surprisingly little about it. Why is one side of the moon pockmarked while the other is smooth? How'd it get there? What's it made of? An annoying-enough person could have argued that the whole cheese theory technically could have been right, and up until recently, scientists would have had to back down. Sure, they had some good guesses, just like we've got guesses as to why starving people have big fat bellies (they're tricking us for sympathy). That doesn't mean they're right.
You dirty, manipulative bastards.
What We Just Found Out
No one has been on the moon for almost 40 years, so it's not like we could just pop up there and start digging and sticking thermometers into its craters. Fortunately, astronauts left seismometers on the moon during the Apollo missions that transmitted moonquake data back to Earth until 1977. Recently, a professor and a graduate student at Arizona State University took those numbers and applied a new method of analysis to them called array processing. By layering seismic recordings together and studying them at the same time, they were able to detect very faint signals they couldn't hear before. Then they used those signals, or "echoes," to map out what was going on beneath the moon's surface using the same techniques geoscientists use to figure out what's going on beneath the Earth's surface. Next, they high-fived each other and screamed, "Bla-DOW! Science!"
Yay! Time to break out the orange juice and people clothes!
The data told Professor Clever and his student minion that the moon has a solid, iron-rich core, just like the Earth's, and that the core is surrounded by a liquid iron outer core, also just like the Earth's. Both the Earth's core and the moon's core are made of iron, nickel and light elements like sulfur.
This is important, because it supports the prevalent theory of how the moon got there, which is that a Mars-size body hit Mother Earth, which chunked Baby Earth fetuses out into space, which eventually accelerated and melded together to make the moon. Sure, it doesn't explain where cheese comes from, but it's a start.
Remember the first time you noticed how your hands got wrinkly when you stayed in the bathtub too long? And how you assumed the wrinkling was caused by an aging curse cast by your neighbor, who was clearly a voodoo queen because she was the only woman in town who wore a turban? And remember how your mom explained that it was sitting in a bathtub for an hour and a half, not black magic, that gave you Shar-Pei hands? Turns out your mom was talking out of her ass.
She was trying to cover a terrible, terrible secret.
Not only did science not completely understand why you got pruney fingers in the bathtub, it didn't know why your skin didn't disintegrate after taking on so much water. This, apparently, was a real conundrum to scientists. They looked at your skin under a microscope, worked up some advanced mathematical models and decided that your skin should just fall apart like crepe paper in the rain every time you take a bath.
What We Just Found Out
Math. Math is under our skin, doing its mathy work, keeping our skin intact and unmelted.
Take a look:
That's a model of a gyroid, which is a geometrical shape found all over the natural world. Mathematicians think that fibers of keratin in our skin are actually woven into this shape as well, which is important, because it means the skin can expand but keep its structure because the fibers have so many connections to one another. With this pattern, the fibers can "swell to fill a volume seven times greater than its original shape."
That's what's happening when your skin wrinkles. It's absorbing water, which makes it grow in volume. Since the rest of your hand is still the same size, your skin begins to wrinkle the same way a glove would if it was too big for your hand. As unnerving as it might be to think that your skin is getting too baggy for the rest of your body, it's better than the alternative.
Most geometric models, when asked to grow in volume, just break up. To illustrate this, try taking a bath in a tub made of corrugated cardboard. Not so easy, is it? That's because unlike your skin, that cardboard is woven together in a gyroidless pattern, which falls apart.
As scientists learn more about gyroids, they might be able to use the pattern for synthetic skin, bandages, bulletproof vests and more weather-resistant housing for the homeless population.
How Scratching Relieves an Itch
There is nothing more primitively satisfying that scratching an itch. Babies, dogs, monkeys and people with crabs do it like their lives depend on it. It's one bodily function that you don't have to work hard to accomplish, and you don't have to agonize over the consequences or make any kind of decision beyond the simple brain-to-hand order "scratch." For most of us, scratching an itch is a simple endeavor that gives an immediate reward: itch relief.
Yeeeeaaaah, that's the spot.
But for people with certain skin, immune system and psychological ailments, scratching is a whole other compulsive and painful ball of wax. For doctors, one of the most baffling symptoms a patient can report is unexplained itching. How are you supposed to treat something like that when, up until recently, nobody had any clue how scratching relieves an itch?
What We Just Found Out
Here's a shocker: It's not your skin that's making you itch, nor is it your skin that's getting relief when you scratch. All of that itching and scratching business is controlled by a specific set of neurons in the spinal cord. Here's the six-step experiment that scientists used to figure out what's behind your urge to scratch the dozens of itches that this paragraph has made you suddenly aware of all over your body:
Step 1: Paralyze and sedate some monkeys.
Step 2: Put electrodes on their spinal nerves.
Step 3: Inject monkey legs with histamine to give them the itches.
Step 4: Watch monkey spinal neurons fire up; dance a little jig for the fun of it.
Step 5: Scratch monkey legs, but not in the same place the histamine was injected.
Step 6: Observe the calming down of monkey spinal neurons.
Step 6(a): High-five someone.
Maybe throw in a little crazy for good measure.
Did you catch that? They made the monkeys itch in once place -- say, their little monkey knees -- then scratched them (with a sciencey metal scratching device) in an altogether different spot -- let's say their monkey butts. And according to their monkey spines, the misplaced scratch did the trick.
Obviously, this is huge news for the world's population of sleeping paralyzed monkeys, but it could also mean a lot of relief for a lot of itchy people who doctors decided were crazy when they couldn't find the poison ivy that was making them scratch holes in their skin.
How Cats Drink
Trying to explain the difference between cats and dogs is like trying to explain the difference between a hamburger and a double homicide. Cats are so haughty and mysterious that we've put them on a fancy pedestal of elegance, while dogs are pretty much the George Wendts of the animal kingdom. If you met a talking dog in a bar, you'd probably buy him a beer and ask him to tell you his life story. If you met a talking cat, you'd probably start speaking with a British accent and "harumphing" so he would stop judging you.
And you still wouldn't be good enough.
Added to the mystery is the fact that until recently, no one quite understood how cats drink. In fact, no one really thought much about it and just assumed that cats drank like dogs -- using their tongues to form a kind of backward cup. Watch:
Kind of a convoluted way of wetting your whistle, but, hey, whatever floats your boats, dogs. Like most animals, cats lack the capacity to suck past infancy, but unlike dogs, they can't quite work their tongues into ad hoc cups. But what they've got going on is whole lot cooler.
What We Just Found Out
Every time a cat gets a drink, it's doing complex physics with its mouth.
Here's how it works: First the cat dips its little kitty tongue into the water, then it whips it back, pulling up a column of liquid with it. Just before gravity draws its watery prey back to the bowl, KA-CLOMP! Garfield snaps that airborne drink into his chops.
And they can get four laps in a second. So unless your eyes have the power to slow down time (in which case, you should really be playing Major League Baseball and watching less cat drinking), you really can't be blamed for missing the mystery.
The coolest part, besides the ka-clompage, is that cats are hard-wired to calculate exactly when they can catch the most water. If they snap too soon, they'll get just a drip, but if they wait too long, they'll get a swallow of nothing, because the water will already be back in the bowl. Scientists actually made a robocat tongue machine to measure how fast a cat should lap to get the most water. But it was too late, because the cats were already lapping at that exact speed.
How Glaciers Form
For years, science has explained the formation of glaciers using the "layer-cake growth model for ice sheets," because they know we won't pay attention to illustrations that aren't either shiny or delicious. The theory is based on the assumption that glaciers grew from the top down, like a layer cake. Snow fell and froze to the top of the glacier, making it bigger and heavier and pushing more of it underwater.
And they are delicious.
For as long as humans have known about glaciers, we've thought they formed from this top-down process. It wasn't just an excuse for scientists to envision the Arctic as one massive coconut layer cake. The model is responsible for all that neat stuff you learned about ice ages in the past, and it also helps scientists build their glacial melt models. You know, the ones predicting when all the coastal cities need to call it a day.
What We Just Found Out
There's more than one way to build a glacier! Yes, the accumulation of falling snow is one way, and it's perfectly fine, if you're into that sort of thing. But the other way is from the bottom up. In the spring of 2011, scientists found out that liquid water under glaciers can actually freeze and thaw, depending on the insulation and friction from the ice above. The refrozen ice not only can constitute half of the thickness of some glaciers but also can violently change their landscapes, as you can imagine would happen when a glacier is taking a piggyback ride on a flowing river of water that suddenly solidifies.
And that's when it gets pissed off.
So if we went back to the coconut-layer-cake analogy, it would be like the baker deciding to add icing and cake to the top and bottom layers, maybe while wearing roller skates, because he's a wild card.
So what does this mean to us? It means our glacier ice-melt models are shot. Because if the top layer of melting ice is getting replaced by an invisible (to us) bottom layer of solidifying ice, how are we going to predict the glacier's thickness? And did we mention that it takes "aircraft equipped with ice penetrating radars, laser ranging systems, gravity meters and magnetometers" to find this subglacial refreeze ice party in the first place? So it's not like we can just check out Google Earth to see what's shaking at the poles. It's also ruined all of our ice-dating methodologies. We can't count on the top layer being new and the bottom layer being old when refrozen ice is screwing and warping all the layers above it. Everything we understand about ice ages and climate change comes from correctly dating that ice -- something we just can't do anymore.
Dude. Not cool.
But hey, at least we've got that whole ozone hole figured out, right? Right? Science? Why are you coughing uncomfortably and staring at your shoelaces? Crap.
Kristi Harrison is an editor here. And you can follow her on Twitter here.
For more ways scientists aren't as good at their jobs as you'd expect, check out 6 Insane Discoveries That Science Can't Explain and 6 Creepy Animal Behaviors That Science Can't Explain.