13 Scientific Explanations for Everyday Life

iStock
iStock

Science holds our lives together. It explains everything from why bread rises to why you need gas to power your car. In his book Atoms Under the Floorboards, author Chris Woodford lays out the abstract science that underlies the everyday world, from the big (how do skyscrapers stay up?) to the small (why does my laptop get hot when I’m watching Netflix?). Along the way, he also calculates the answers to whimsical questions like, “How many people would I have to gather together to keep my house warm without heat?” (A lot, but not as many as you'd think.) Here are 13 things we learned about the world through his eyes.

1. A POWER DRILL COULD SET YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE, IN THEORY.

Because of friction, electric drills generate heat. The motor, the drill bit, and the wall all get hot. It takes about 2000 joules of energy to heat one kilogram of wood just 1°C. Assuming a typical power drill uses 750 watts of electricity, and it puts out 750 joules of energy, Woodford calculates that it would take just four minutes to set fire to a wooden wall in a 68°F room.

2. STICKY NOTES COME OFF EASILY BECAUSE THEIR ADHESIVE IS UNEVEN.

Post-it Notes feature a plastic adhesive that is spread out in blobs across the paper. When you slap a Post-it onto your bulletin board, only some of these blobs (technically called micro-capsules) touch the surface to keep the note stuck there. Thus, you can unstick it, and when you go to attach it to something else, the unused blobs of glue can take over the adhesive role. Eventually, all the capsules of glue will get used up or clogged with dirt, and the sticky note won't stick anymore.

3. GUM IS CHEWY BECAUSE IT'S MADE OF RUBBER.

Early gums got their elastic texture from chicle, a natural type of latex rubber. Now, your bubble gum is made with synthetic rubbers like styrene butadiene (also used in car tires) or polyvinyl acetate (also used in Elmer’s glue) to mimic the effect of chicle.

4. OFFICE BUILDINGS ARE EVER-SO-SLIGHTLY TALLER AT NIGHT.

After all the employees go home, tall office buildings get just a little taller. A 1300-foot-tall skyscraper shrinks about 1.5 millimeters under the weight of 50,000 occupants (assuming they weigh about the human average).

5. A LEGO BRICK CAN SUPPORT 770 POUNDS OF FORCE.

LEGOs can support four to five times the weight of a human without collapsing. They are strong enough to support a tower 375,000 bricks tall, or around 2.2 miles high.

6. POLISHING SHOES IS LIKE FILLING IN A ROAD'S POTHOLES.

Regular leather appears dull to the eye because it’s covered in teeny-tiny scrapes and scratches that scatter whatever light hits the material. When you polish a leather shoe, you coat it in a fine layer of wax, filling in those crevices much like a road crew smoothes out a street by filling in its potholes. Because the surface is more uniform, rays of light bounce back toward your eye more evenly, making it look shiny.

7. YOU COULD HEAT YOUR HOUSE WITH JUST 70 PEOPLE.

People give off body heat, as anyone who has been trapped in a small crowded room knows. So how many people would it take to warm up your home with just body heat in the winter? About 70 people in motion, or 140 people still, figuring that humans radiate 100-200 watts of heat normally and that the house uses four electric storage heaters.

8. DENSITY EXPLAINS WHY COLD WATER FEELS COLDER THAN AIR AT THE SAME TEMPERATURE.

Because water is denser than air, your body loses heat 25 times more quickly while in water than it would in air at the same temperature. Water's density gives it a high specific heat capacity, meaning it takes a lot of heat to raise its temperature even a little, and it's very good at retaining heat or cold (the reason why hot soup stays hot for a long time, and why the ocean is much cooler than land). Water is a great conductor, so it's very effective at transferring that heat or cold to your body.

9. WATER CLEANS WELL BECAUSE IT HAS ASYMMETRICAL MOLECULES.

Because water molecules are triangular—made of two hydrogen atoms stuck to one oxygen atom—they have slightly different charges on their different sides, kind of like a magnet. The hydrogen end of the molecule is slightly positive, and the oxygen side is slightly negative. This makes water excellent at sticking to other molecules. When you wash away dirt, the water molecules stick to the dirt and pull it away from whatever surface it was on. This is also the reason water has surface tension: it’s great at sticking to itself.

10. THE "PULSE" SETTING ON A BLENDER WORKS BETTER BECAUSE OF TURBULENCE.

When your blender stops chopping up food and begins just spinning it around in circles, it’s because everything inside is spinning at the same rate. Instead of actually blending ingredients together, it’s experiencing laminar flow—all the layers of liquid are moving in the same direction with constant motion. The pulse function on the blender introduces turbulence, so instead of the fruit chunks rolling around the side of the blender, they fall into the center and get blended up into a smoothie.

11. BABIES' BODIES CONTAIN MORE WATER THAN ADULTS.'

Adults are around 60 percent water. By contrast, newborn babies are about 80 percent water. But that percentage quickly drops: A year after birth, kids' water content is down to around 65 percent, according to the USGS.

12. GLASS BREAKS EASILY BECAUSE ITS ATOMS ARE LOOSELY ARRANGED.

Unlike other solid materials, like metals, glass is made up of amorphous, loosely packed atoms arranged randomly. They can’t absorb or dissipate energy from something like a bullet. The atoms can’t rearrange themselves quickly to retain the glass’s structure, so it collapses, shattering fragments everywhere.

13. CALORIE COUNTS ARE CALCULATED BY INCINERATING FOOD.

Calorie values on nutritional labels estimate the energy contained in the food within the package. To figure out how much energy is in a specific food, scientists use a calorimeter. One type of calorimeter essentially burns up the food inside a device surrounded by water. By measuring how much the temperature of the water changes in the process, scientists can determine how much energy was contained in the food.

This story originally ran in 2015.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

A New DNA Test Will Break Down Your Cat's Breed

Basepaws
Basepaws

Modern DNA testing kits can reveal a lot of information about you just by sending your spit off to a lab for analysis. As a result, it's easier than ever to learn about your personal ancestry and health risks. And now, the same goes for your cat, too.

Basepaws is now offering what it calls the "world's first DNA test for cats," which can tell you which breeds your beloved fur baby likely descended from, in addition to other information about their characteristics. The CatKit will reveal whether your little Simba is more similar to an American Shorthair, Abyssinian, or one of the other 30 breeds on record, as well as determining which of the "big cats" (think lions) your kitty has the most in common with.

Here's how it works: After receiving your kit in the mail, you will be asked to collect a DNA sample from your feline friend. The current kit includes adhesives for collecting cat hair, but Basepaws will soon roll out new kits that call for saliva samples instead. (This will provide a more consistent DNA sample, while also allowing staff to process more samples at once, according to a company spokesperson. It also will make it easier to collect samples from hairless cats like Sphinxes.)

A cat DNA test result
Basepaws

Once you collect the sample, just mail it in and wait eight to 12 weeks for your report. Basepaws uses sequencing machines to "read" your kitty's genetic code, comparing it to the sequences of other cats in its network. "More than 99 percent of your cat's genetic sequence will be similar to every other cat; it's the small differences that make your cat unique," Basepaws writes on its website.

In the future, Basepaws will also be able to determine your cat's predisposition for certain diseases, as well as their personality and physical traits. The company holds on to your cat's genetic data, allowing it to provide updates about your cat as the Basepaws database continues to grow.

Order a kit on the Basepaws website for $95. Enter the code "MEOWRCH-I5W3RH" at the checkout for a 10 percent discount.

And don't feel left out if you're a dog lover rather than a cat person—Wisdom Panel offers a similar service for canine companions. Its kit is available for $73 on Amazon.

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