13 Scientific Explanations for Everyday Life

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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.

12 Facts About Diabetes Mellitus

iStock/mthipsorn
iStock/mthipsorn

Thirty million Americans—about 9 percent of the country's population—are living with diabetes mellitus, or simply diabetes. This chronic condition is characterized by sustained high blood sugar levels. In many patients, symptoms can be managed with insulin injections and lifestyle changes, but in others, the complications can be deadly. Here's what you need to know about diabetes mellitus.

1. There are three types of diabetes.

In healthy people, the pancreas produces enough of the hormone insulin to metabolize sugars into glucose and move the glucose into cells, where it's used for energy.

But people with type 2 diabetes—the most common form of the disease, accounting for about 95 percent of cases—either can't produce enough insulin to transport the sugars, or their cells have become insulin-resistant. The result is a buildup of glucose in the blood (a.k.a. high blood sugar or hyperglycemia). Type 2 diabetes typically develops in adults.

Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, makes up the remaining 5 percent of chronic cases and most often develops in children and young adults. With this condition, the initial problem isn’t blood sugar levels, but insulin production: The pancreas can’t make enough insulin to process even normal amounts of glucose. The sugar builds up as a result, leading to dangerous concentrations in the bloodstream.

The third form, gestational diabetes, only afflicts pregnant people who weren’t diabetic before their pregnancy. The mother's blood glucose levels usually spike around the 24th week of pregnancy, but with a healthy diet, exercise, and insulin shots in some cases, diabetes symptoms usually can be managed. Blood sugar levels tend to return to normal in patients following their pregnancies.

2. The mellitus in diabetes mellitus means "honey sweet."

Around 3000 years ago, ancient Egyptians described a condition with diabetes-like symptoms, though it wasn't called diabetes yet. It took a few hundred years before the Greek physician Araetus of Cappodocia came up with the name diabetes based on the Greek word for "passing through" (as in passing a lot of urine, a common diabetes symptom). English doctor Thomas Willis tacked on the word mellitus, meaning "honey sweet," in 1675, building on previous physicians' observations that diabetic patients had sweet urine. Finally, in 1776, another English physician named Matthew Dobson confirmed that both the blood and urine of diabetes patients were made sweeter by high levels of glucose in their blood.

3. The cause of one type of diabetes is well understood; the other, not so much.

A person’s lifestyle is a key predictor of developing type 2 diabetes. Factors like being overweight or obese, consuming a high-calorie diet, smoking, and seldom exercising contribute to the risk. Foods and drinks that are high in sugar—soda, candy, ice cream, dessert— may contribute to hyperglycemia, but any food that’s high in calories, even if it's not sweet, can raise blood sugar levels.

In contrast to these well-established factors, medical experts aren’t entirely sure what causes type 1 diabetes. We do know that type 1 is an autoimmune disease that develops when the body attacks and damages insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Some scientists think that environmental factors, like viruses, may trigger this immune response.

4. Family history also plays a role in diabetes risk.

If a parent or sibling has type 2 diabetes, you are predisposed to developing pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes. Lifestyle habits explain some of these incidences, since family members may share similar diets and exercise habits. Genetics also play a role, but just because one close relative has diabetes does not mean you're destined to. Research conducted on identical twins, which share identical genes, showed that the pairs have discordant risk. Among twins in which one has type 1 diabetes, the other has only a 50 percent chance of developing it; for type 2, the risk for the second twin is 75 percent at most.

5. Racial minorities are at a higher risk for developing diabetes.

Many racial minority groups in the U.S. have a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes. Black Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and some groups of Asian Americans are more likely to have pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes than white Americans. This can be partly explained by the fact that some of these groups also have higher rates of obesity, which is one of the primary risk factors of type 2 diabetes. Socioeconomics may also play a role: One study shows that people with diabetes living in poverty are less likely to visit diabetes clinics and receive proper testing than their middle-income counterparts. According to another study, diabetic people without health insurance have higher blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol rates than insured diabetics. Genetics, on the other hand, don’t appear to contribute to these trends.

6. Diabetes is one of the world's deadliest diseases.

With proper management, people with diabetes can live long, comfortable lives. But if the disease isn’t treated, it can have dire consequences. Diabetics make up the majority of people who develop chronic kidney disease, have adult-onset blindness, and need lower-limb amputations. In the most serious cases, diabetes leads to death. The condition is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, killing more people than breast cancer and AIDS combined.

7. Millions of Americans are pre-diabetic.

According to the CDC, 84 million adults living in the U.S. are pre-diabetic: Their blood sugar is higher than what’s considered safe, but hasn't yet reached diabetic level. In pre-diabetic patients, blood glucose levels after eight hours of fasting fall between 100 and 125 milligrams per deciliter, and diabetic levels are anything above that. People with pre-diabetes are not just at a greater risk for type 2 diabetes, but also for heart disease and stroke. Fortunately, people who are diagnosed with pre-diabetes can take steps to eat a healthier diet, increase physical activity, and test their blood glucose level several times a day to control the condition. In some cases, doctors will prescribe drugs like metformin that make the body more receptive to the insulin it produces.

8. After climbing for decades, rates of diabetes incidence are declining.

In the U.S., the rate of new diagnoses skyrocketed 382 percent between 1988 and 2014. Globally, 108 million people had diabetes in 1980, but by 2014 that number was 422 million.

But thanks to nationwide education and prevention efforts, the trend has reversed in the U.S., according to the CDC. Since peaking in 2009, the number of new diabetes cases in America has dropped by 35 percent. In that same timeframe, the number of people living with diagnosed diabetes in the U.S. has plateaued, suggesting people with the condition are living longer.

9. The first successful treatment for type 1 diabetes occurred in 1922.

Prior to the 20th century, type 1 diabetes was usually fatal. Diabetic ketoacidosis—a toxic buildup of chemicals called ketones, which arise when the body can no longer use glucose and instead breaks down other tissues for energy—killed most patients within a year or two of diagnosis. In searching for way to save children with juvenile (type 1) diabetes, Canadian physician Frederick Banting and medical student Charles Best built on the work of earlier researchers, who had demonstrated that removing the pancreas from a dog immediately caused diabetes symptoms in the animal. Banting and Best extracted insulin from dog pancreases in University of Toronto professor J.J.R. Macleod's lab. After injecting the insulin back into dogs whose pancreases had been removed, they realized the hormone regulated blood sugar levels. On January 11, 1922, they administered insulin to a human patient, and further refined the extract to reduce side effects. In 1923, Banting and Macleod received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work.

10. A pioneering physicist discovered the difference between type and and type 1 diabetes.

In the 1950s, physicist Rosalyn Yalow and her research partner Solomon Berson developed a method for measuring minute amounts of substances in blood. Inspired by Yalow's husband's struggle with diabetes, Yalow focused her research on insulin. Their "radioimmunoassay" technology revealed that some diabetes patients were still able to produce their own insulin, leading them to create two separate categories for the disease: “insulin-dependent” (type 1) and “non-insulin-dependent” (type 2). Prior to that discovery in 1959, there was no distinction between the two types. In 1977, Yalow won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Medicine for the radioimmunoassay, one of only 12 female Nobel laureates in medicine.

11. Making one insulin dose once required tons of pig parts.

Insulin is relatively easy to make today. Most of what's used in injections comes from a special non-disease-producing laboratory strain of E. coli bacteria that's been genetically modified to produce insulin, but that wasn't always the case. Until about 40 years ago, 2 tons of pig pancreases were required to produce just 8 ounces of pure insulin. The pig parts were typically recycled from pork farms.

12. A quarter of diabetes patients don’t know they have it.

The symptoms of type 2 diabetes can develop for years before patients think to ask their doctor about them. These include frequent urination, unexplained thirst, numbness in the extremities, dry skin, blurry vision, fatigue, and sores that are slow to heal—signs that may not be a cause for concern on their own, but together can indicate a more serious problem. Patients with type 1 diabetes may also experience nausea, vomiting, and stomach pain.

While serious, the symptoms of diabetes are sometimes easy to overlook. That’s why 25 percent of people with the illness, 7.2 million in the U.S., are undiagnosed. And that number doesn’t even cover the majority of people with pre-diabetes who aren’t aware they’re on their way to becoming diabetic.

There Are 2373 Squirrels in New York's Central Park, Census Finds

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iStock/maximkabb

Central Park in New York City is home to starlings, raccoons, and exotic zoo animals, but perhaps the most visible fauna in the area are the eastern gray squirrels. Thanks to a team of citizen scientists, we now know exactly how many of the rodents occupy the space—approximately 2373 of them, according to a census reported by Smithsonian.

In October 2018, a group called the Squirrel Census—with help from the Explorers Club, the NYU Department of Environmental Studies, Macaulay Honors College, the Central Park Conservancy, and the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation—organized a squirrel survey across all 840 acres of Central Park. For 11 days, more than 300 volunteers staked out their sections of the park twice a day—at dawn and dusk when the crepuscular animals are most active—and noted each squirrel they spotted. They also recorded how the squirrels looked, vocalized, behaved, and reacted to humans.

The research was analyzed and presented at an Explorers Club event in New York City on June 20. All the non-peer-reviewed findings—which includes a printed report, an audio report on a vinyl 45, 37 pages of data, collectible squirrel cards, and large maps of the park and the squirrel locations—are available to purchase for $75 from the Squirrel Census website.

This isn't the first time a massive census has been conducted of a public park's squirrel population. In 2011, the Squirrel Census launched with its first survey of Atlanta's Inman Park. They've conducted satellite squirrel counts at other parks, but Central Park is just the second park the organization has investigated in person.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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