October 7 – The Straight Poop

Today’s factismal: Typhoid Mary killed at least three people and made another fifty-one ill, just by cooking without washing her hands.

The woman who would come to symbolize the need for effective medical laws was born 144 years ago today. Originally known as Mary Mallon, she would eventually come to be recognized the world over as “Typhoid Mary”, the very public face of a disease that was considered one of the world’s worst scourges.

Typhoid fever is a disease caused by bacteria that live in your gut. It lasts about a month and causes inflammation of your intestines (which isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds like) along with a high fever, a slow heartbeat and bloody nose; during the later stages, it also causes diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and is the most common cause of death. For most of the sufferers, typhoid fever is a temporary inconvenience but it can be deadly. Every year, it infects an estimated 24 million people and kills about 200,000 people. Fortunately, the introduction of chlorination to the American water supply has reduced the local infection rate to near zero.

But back in 1900, there was no water in the water supply. Not that it would have done much good, as Mary didn’t believe in washing her hands. Not after she used the restroom and not before she started cooking. (I will now pause so you can all say “Eew!”). And, to make matters worse, Mary’s body had come to an arrangement with the bacteria that caused typhoid; they wouldn’t kill her and she wouldn’t worry about them. As a result, Mary was the perfect carrier. She’d start working for a family as a cook and then leave as soon as they all started getting ill. Over a period of seven years, she worked for ten families all of which had people come down with typhoid fever. When she was finally identified as the carrier by the local doctors, she refused to be treated for typhoid or to give up cooking. As a result, she was held as a “medical prisoner” for three years until she promised to stop working as a cook.

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

Of course, her promise lasted just long enough to get her out of isolation. Once she was free,s he started cooking again and people started getting sick again. As before, every time someone became ill, she’d quit and find a new job. Her continual job changes made it more difficult for the medical establishment to find her but they finally did in 1915. This time, she was confined for life. Though she was allowed visitors, they were forbidden to touch her or to accept so much as a glass of water from her hands for fear of spreading the disease. Her intransigence did have one good side-benefit; it forced the federal and state officials to recognize the danger that a carrier could pose to unsuspecting innocents. Thanks to her unwashed spree, there are now laws on the books of every state governing when and how a person can be held to prevent the spreading of a disease.

Of course, typhoid fever isn’t the only disease that can be spread by contaminated water. If you’d like to help scientists and medical practitioners by monitoring the water quality and purity in your neighborhood, then flow over to the World Water Monitoring Challenge:
http://www.wwmd.org/About.aspx

June 24 – Hug A Lug

Today’s factismal: The simplest way to improve your health is fun and free and right at your fingertips!

If you ask just about anyone what the simplest thing you can do to improve your health is, they’ll probably tell you “Eat better and exercise more”. And those things are good. Improving your diet can protect you from cancer, heart disease, and even Alzheimer’s. As for exercise, doctors have long known that if it were a pill, everyone would be taking it. Exercise improves your mood, gives you more energy, and can even make you look younger. But believe it or not, there is something that is even simpler to do that offers almost as many benefits as diet and exercise do. What is it? Hugging!

Hugs are good for every animal! (My camera)

Hugs are good for every animal!
(My camera)

That’s right – a simple hug each day can provide you with an amazing number of health benefits. It is no surprise that people who hug more often have better relationships with others (i.e., are more popular). What is a surprise is that they also have fewer colds than non-huggers do and may even help with weight loss by reducing levels of cortisol (the “stress hormone”). Not bad for something that is free and fulfilling, huh?

No word on if hugging dinosaurs improves your health (My camera)

No word on if hugging dinosaurs improves your health
(My camera)

Now if you want to participate in a citizen science project about hugs, it is pretty simple – so simple that no project is needed. Just look at the first ten people you meet and guess their mood. Are they happy? Bored? Distracted? Now offer hugs to the next ten people you meet. How did their mood change after the hug? And how did yours change? And if you’d like to keep track of how hugs help your symptoms, why not try Patients Like Me? This project connects people with health problems together so that they can learn from each other. To learn more, give your browser a big squeeze at:
https://www.patientslikeme.com/

May 13 – Silly String

Today’s factismal: The newest medical test uses a piece of string.

If there is one thing that is surer in this world than death or taxes, it is the ingenuity of medical researchers in coming up with new tests to help us live longer, better lives. The tests can be as sophisticated as personalized DNA sequencing or as simple as measuring yourself with a piece of string. But no matter how simple or how complicated the test, the end result is information that can lead to better health.

Since DNA tests are pretty complicated, let’s look at how that piece of string is used and what the test means. To start with, find a long piece of string  and drop it down from the top of your head to the floor. Mark it and cut it so that you  have string that is as long as you are tall. Now match the two ends of the string with each other and stretch the string out into a pair of strings that are half as long as the original one. Now, wrap the doubled string around your middle so that it passes over your belly button. Do the ends meet? Or is there a gap?

stringtest

If the ends meet, then you pass the test. But if they don’t then you should probably start thinking about what you eat and how much you exercise because you just failed the string test. This test is a variant on the more familiar Body Mass Index (BMI) test that has been used for decades to help doctors pinpoint patients who need to work on their weight. As with the BMI, people who fail this test are at a higher risk of developing problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and gallstones. However, unlike the BMI (which provides a general measure of fit or fat), the string test tells doctors specifically if the extra weight you’ve got is carried around your middle (dangerous) or elsewhere (not so dangerous). Interestingly, in a recent study of the test about one third of the people who passed the BMI failed the BMI indicating that they had an unhealthy fat distribution even though they were near their “ideal weight”.

So the next time you go to your doctor, don’t be surprised if she brings out a piece of string!

February 18 – Making Sparks

Today’s Factismal: The first modern battery was built in order to investigate frog’s legs.

Today is Alexandra Volta’s 270th birthday. In lieu of the normally-scheduled factismal (on noise pollution), I’ve substituted a rerun of another factimsal about Volta’s creation of the modern battery. Enjoy!

If you’ve studied the history of science, then you know that nothing drives the discovery of new things like an argument between two scientists. Cope fought with Marsh and the result was an (almost literal) explosion of new dinosaur discoveries (including some that weren’t). Hawking fought with Presskill and the result was a deeper understanding of how black holes work (and a new encyclopedia for Presskill). Newton fought with Leibnitz and the result was a new type of math that would describe the universe and plague college freshmen forever after. And, around 1780, Galvani fought with Volta and the result was the discovery of how nerves work and how to create electricity.

As with most feuds, it started over something small but interesting. While Galvani was working with frog’s legs, trying to tease out the secret of the nerves, his assistant touched a frog’s leg with a scalpel – and it twitched! If your pork chop dinner jumped up and did the tango, you wouldn’t have been half as astonished as the two scientists were. They quickly tried an assortment of things to replicate the result and discovered that it only worked when the metal scalpel touched the frog’s leg; feathers, wooden sticks, and quill pens had no effect. Galvani declared that he had discovered “animal electricity” and sent the details out to the world.

Volta, who was a sometime colleague of Galvani’s, wasn’t convinced. He replicated the experiment and was able to make twitching frog’s legs of his own, but he didn’t think that the secret was in the animal; he thought that it was in the scalpel. If the electricity were in the animal (as Galvani supposed), then just about anything would have made it twitch. But if the electricity were being created by the metals, then only being touched by a metal thing would make it twitch. And in a series of experiments stretching over several months, that’s exactly what Volta proved: it was the two metals that made the electricity.

Look, ma! I made a battery!

Look, Ma! I made a battery!

But then Volta went one step further and made the world’s first modern wet cell battery. He kept the two metals but substituted paper soaked in salt water for the frog’s legs (the paper stacked better than frogs legs do). By alternating layers of metal and slipping paper between the metal, Volta was able to generate a steady electric current. The modern lead-acid battery (found in most cars) was born.

If you’d like to build a “Voltaic pile” of your own, all you’ll need is five nickels, five pennies, some paper towels, a plate, and a bowl of salt water. First cut small circles out of the paper, just slightly smaller than a penny. Next, put a nickel down on the plate. Dip a paper circle into the salt water and then place it on top of the nickel. Top it with a penny, then dip another paper circle into the salt water and put it on top of the penny. Continue stacking the coins and paper until you’ve got a tower ten coins high. Your battery is now done! To see if it is working, you can try connecting it to a LED or ammeter with a pair of wires or simply touch the ends of the wires to your tongue; the bitter taste you get is caused by the flow of electricity across your tongue.

And the coolest thing about making that Voltaic pile is that it means you’ve made something sciency. For more science making ideas, go to:
http://makezine.com/day-of-making/

October 18 – Winner By A Landslide

One of the amazing things about science is how often things at one scale apply at another as well. For example, you can measure the way that a cup of lye reacts with a cup of water and know how much heat will be produced if you use a ton of lye and a ton of water instead. Or you can simulate an earthquake using a piece of spaghetti and that will teach you something about how the San Andreas behaves. Or, as Peter and Mary are about to discover, you can use a pile of rice to discover why the Earth is round.

 

The images on the television were both frightening and fascinating. There had been a heavy rainfall in California and the runoff was rapidly eroding the base of a cliff, causing parts of the cliff to collapse in large chunks that splashed mud and mayhem when they fell. That would have been fascinating enough but on top of the cliff were several multi-million dollar mansions that were following the formerly stable cliff on its downward plunge.

“Wow!” said Peter as he watched a particularly large chunk of a swimming pool fall twenty stories into the surf below. “That was amazing!”

“Yes,” agreed Mary. “I’m glad that they got all of the people out. But what about their stuff?”

“I guess they’ve got insurance,” Peter replied. “But why did they build on the cliff?”

“Probably for the view. But what I want to know is why isn’t the cliff still still standing?” Mary puzzled. “It was doing OK before the rain, so why fall now?”

“I dunno. Who could we ask?” Peter wondered.

“Well, Mr. Medes is on vacation this week, so we can’t ask him,” Mary said. “And your mom is an astronomer, so she wouldn’t know. That just leave my dad. But he’s an engineer. He probably won’t know either.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” Peter said. “Let’s go ask him!”

With that the two young scientists left the den where they had been watching television and sought out Mary’s father. Since it was Saturday, the first place they checked was the kitchen; in addition to being a popular engineering professor at the local university, he was also an amateur gourmet chef who liked to make special meals on weekends. Sure enough, he was in front of the stove, cooking raw rice in oil and fragrant spices.

“Oh, boy!” Mary exclaimed. “Costless Rican Rice again?”

“You betcha!” her father replied. “I wanted to use up the last of that roast chicken and we had enough vegetables to make this interesting. Peter, would you like to stay for dinner?”

“I’ll ask my mom,” Peter said as his belly rumbled in response to the smell of the cooking. Mary’s father laughed at the sound.

“It sounds as if your stomach has already decided the answer will be ‘yes'”, he said as he stirred the rice. “So what may I do to help you two? Or are you just drawn to the sight of a master turning leftovers into a meal fit for a king?”

“We had a question about cliffs,” Mary said. “Why do they fall down?”

“That is an excellent question!” Her father boomed in response. “And I’ll tell you the answer just as soon as I toss these odds and ends into the rice.”

With that, Mary’s father scrapped chunks of cooked chicken and vegetables that were left over from the previous week’s meals into the rice. Pouring in a carefully measured amount of water, he gave the mass a final stir and put a lid on top. He then turned the heat down and turned to his daughter and her friend.

“So you want to know why cliffs fall down,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, we saw these cliffs in California that were falling apart and dragging the houses that were on top of them into the mud,” Mary said. “But the cliffs were only about two hundred feet tall. We’ve got skyscrapers that are ten times as tall. So why do the skyscrapers stand up and the cliffs fall down?”

“It turns out that you have come to exactly the right person to answer that question,” her father replied. “Though Peter’s mother might have done just as well; this applies to her field as well.”

“It does?” Peter asked. “How?”

“You’ll see!” Mary’s father replied. “To start with, we’ll need a couple of plates, some toothpicks, and some uncooked rice.”

Mary quickly went to the pantry and grabbed the things that her father had listed off. Her father took the plates from her and placed on in front of each of the scientists. He then gave them each a toothpick and poured a cupful of rice onto each plate.

“In front of each of you is a pile of rice,” he said. “What I want you to do is to make the tallest cliff of rice that you can by scraping away the rice at the bottom of the pile with the toothpick. When you are done, what do you think the cliff will look like?”

“It will be just like a real cliff,” Peter confidently said. “It will go straight up.”

“I’m no so sure,” Mary countered. “I think it will be a lot slope-ier. It will probably lean over more.”

“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” her father said. “Start scraping!”

What do you think will happen? Try the experiment yourself!

The two started scraping at the base of their rice piles. But as soon as they would start to build up a small cliff, the bottom would slide out and a small cascade of rice would flow down, turning the vertical wall into a horizontal slope. After a few minutes of diligent scraping, Peter tossed down his toothpick in disgust.

“I give up!” he declared. “The rice won’t make a cliff! It is even worse than what we saw on TV!”

“Peter’s right,” Mary agreed. “You can’t make a tall cliff out of rice.”

“You are both right,” her father said. “You can’t make a tall cliff out of rice and you can’t make a skyscraper out of sand. And in both cases, the reason is the same.”

“It is?” Mary asked.

“Yes,” her father replied. “What is happening is that every stack of stuff is a balance of two things. There is gravity, which is pushing down on all the parts of it and there is cohesiveness which is trying to keep everything together. When gravity pushed on the center of a pile of rice or a cliff or a skyscraper, the force is straight down. That creates pressure on the grains of rice which gets bigger as you go deeper into the pile. The rice on top feels very little pressure while the rice at the bottom feels a lot. If the pressure on a grain of rice is about the same as the pressure on the grains around it, everything is stable and nothing moves. But if the pressure is lower on one side, then things naturally try to move in that direction. And when the difference in pressure is greater than the cohesiveness, then -”

“You get a landslide!” Mary exclaimed.

“That’s right!” her father agreed. “If you watched carefully during your experiment, then you probably saw that the rice-slides only happened on the side where you were scraping. That was because that was the only side where the pressure was changing.”

“Oh!” Peter said with a look of sudden understanding. “And that’s why the cliffs were falling. When the water eroded enough of the base, the pressure from the dirt piled up in the cliff was more than the strength of the stuff holding the cliff together and – pow! – we got a landslide!”

“That’s right. And that should also tell you why you can’t build a twenty story cliff of rice or a two hundred story cliff of sand,” Mary’s father said.

“Because rice isn’t as strong as sand and that’s not as strong as the steel in a skyscraper!” Mary said. “But why could Peter’s mother have told us this, too?”

“Because she works with planets,” her father replied. “And the one part of the definition of a planet that everyone agrees on is that they are round thanks to their own gravity.”

“I don’t get it,” Peter said.

“Imagine that you are building a cliff of sand,” Mary’s father said. “What happens if it gets too tall?”

“Some of it collapses,” Peter said.

“OK, now imagine that you’ve got a pile of sand as big as a planet,” Mary’s father said. “What happens to that cliff?”

“It will collapse,” Mary said.

“And if the cliffs that creates are too tall?”

“Then they will collapse too,” Peter said.

“And what happens if you keep doing that all around the planet-sized sand pile?” Mary father asked.

“I get it!” Mary said. “No matter where you look, the sand piles can only be so tall. And that means that everywhere you look, everything is about the same distance from the center of the planet. And that makes it -”

“Round!” Peter and Mary chorused together.

“That’s right,” Mary’s father said. “And now, if you two will clean up your budding planets and if Peter will call his mother, we can eat dinner.”

With that reminder, Peter’s stomach once more rumbled threateningly and all three laughed as they set the table for dinner.

 

October 1 – Puttin’ On The Blitz

Today’s factismal: At the first bioblitz, citizen scientists identified 974 species in under 24 hours; that’s one species every ninety seconds!

One of the more interesting things about becoming a citizen science is how it changes the way that you view the world around you. You may suddenly start noticing patterns in the weather, or see beauty in the night sky that you hadn’t seen before. Or, if you take part in a bioblitz (an intense, day-long effort to identify every species in an area), you may realize just how many different species we share our world with – even in an urban environment.

The first bioblitz was held nearly 17 years ago in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, located in Washington, DC. The citizen science volunteers were people just like you who decided to spend a couple of hours looking at the plants and animals in the park and trying to build a catalog of them. And in the 24 hours that it took to complete the bioblitz, they discovered 974 different species, including one lonely little protozoan, 650 types of insect, 150 types of plants, 76 types of birds, and nine types of mammals (not counting people). By cataloging all of these different species, they were able to get a better understanding of how the local ecosystem works. And, by repeating the bioblitz each year, they’ve been able to track how that ecosystem is changing and to determine what (if anything) they need to do about it.

If this sounds like fun to you, then why not participate in a bioblitz near you? And if there isn’t one near you, then why not work with your local park department or college to do a bioblitz? (Teachers: This also makes a great educational opportunity!) To learn more, head over to National Geographic’s FieldScope which will give you the tools you need to put on your very own bioblitz:
http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/programs/fieldscope/?ar_a=1

September 23 – The Straight Poop

Today’s factismal: Typhoid Mary killed at least three people and made another fifty-one ill, just by cooking without washing her hands.

The woman who would come to symbolize the need for effective medical laws was born 144 years ago today. Originally known as Mary Mallon, she would eventually come to be recognized the world over as “Typhoid Mary”, the very public face of a disease that was considered one of the world’s worst scourges.

Typhoid fever is a disease caused by bacteria that live in your gut. It lasts about a month and causes inflammation of your intestines (which isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds like) along with a high fever, a slow heartbeat and bloody nose; during the later stages, it also causes diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and is the most common cause of death. For most of the sufferers, typhoid fever is a temporary inconvenience but it can be deadly. Every year, it infects an estimated 24 million people and kills about 200,000 people. Fortunately, the introduction of chlorination to the American water supply has reduced the local infection rate to near zero.

But back in 1900, there was no water in the water supply. Not that it would have done much good, as Mary didn’t believe in washing her hands. Not after she used the restroom and not before she started cooking. (I will now pause so you can all say “Eew!”). And, to make matters worse, Mary’s body had come to an arrangement with the bacteria that caused typhoid; they wouldn’t kill her and she wouldn’t worry about them. As a result, Mary was the perfect carrier. She’d start working for a family as a cook and then leave as soon as they all started getting ill. Over a period of seven years, she worked for ten families all of which had people come down with typhoid fever. When she was finally identified as the carrier by the local doctors, she refused to be treated for typhoid or to give up cooking. As a result, she was held as a “medical prisoner” for three years until she promised to stop working as a cook.

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

Of course, her promise lasted just long enough to get her out of isolation. Once she was free,s he started cooking again and people started getting sick again. As before, every time someone became ill, she’d quit and find a new job. Her continual job changes made it more difficult for the medical establishment to find her but they finally did in 1915. This time, she was confined for life. Though she was allowed visitors, they were forbidden to touch her or to accept so much as a glass of water from her hands for fear of spreading the disease. Her intransigence did have one good side-benefit; it forced the federal and state officials to recognize the danger that a carrier could pose to unsuspecting innocents. Thanks to her unwashed spree, there are now laws on the books of every state governing when and how a person can be held to prevent the spreading of a disease.

Of course, typhoid fever isn’t the only disease that can be spread by contaminated water. If you’d like to help scientists and medical practitioners by monitoring the water quality and purity in your neighborhood, then flow over to the World Water Monitoring Challenge:
http://www.wwmd.org/About.aspx