Posts tagged ‘kyle kurpinski’

“Raisin Fingers” May Be an Evolutionary Advantage

By Kyle Kurpinski

If you have ever gone swimming for several hours or taken a really long bath, then you are probably familiar with the phenomenon referred to as “pruney fingers” or “raisin fingers.” A common explanation for this wrinkling of the hands (and feet) is that the skin absorbs excess water when submerged, which causes it to expand. This expansion increases the surface area of the skin, thereby resulting in wrinkles. So while these pruney fingertips may have the appearance of being shrunken or shriveled, they are actually larger than they were when dry. It has been suggested that fingers and toes are more susceptible to this effect than other areas of the body due at least in part to a lack of hair follicles, which produce sebum – an oily secreted substance that may act as a temporary protective barrier against water absorption.

But water uptake is only part of the story. As early as the 1930s, scientists noted that patients with palsy-related nerve damage in their hands showed no signs of water-induced wrinkling in the areas specifically affected by the impaired nerves. This insight suggested that the nervous system is actively involved in the wrinkling process, and additional research has shown that vasoconstriction – narrowing of the blood vessels – plays a role as well. A modern view of raisin fingers goes something like this: prolonged immersion leads to excess water uptake by the skin; the resulting electrolyte imbalance causes neurons to fire more rapidly, which causes blood vessels to constrict, thereby reducing blood flow underneath the skin and leading to a decrease in skin tension, thus causing wrinkling. This process is clearly more complicated than simple water-induced swelling, which is probably why most people have never heard about it. The complete physiological mechanism of action is likely a combination of water-induced swelling and vasoconstriction.

But none of this explains why fingers that look like little dried fruits should be a part of our biology in the first place. A new theory (put forth in a recent article in the journal Brain, Behavior and Evolution) proposes that wrinkles on the fingers and toes may actually act as miniature drainage channels to displace water and increase grip in wet conditions, similar to the rain treads on the tires of a car. In other words, when your fingers and toes get really wet, they wrinkle up to counteract the slickness of the water. Additional work still needs to be done for the theory to become more widely accepted, but it appears that the raisiny morphology may be an evolutionary adaptation for life in slippery environments.

As a professional bioengineer I feel inclined to run my own experiments, but I’m still waiting for my hot tub/climbing wall grant to go through.

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Sources: Amazing Health Trivia, WonderQuest, Wikipedia, Nature, 1Mark Changizi, et al

Image: Brian Zambrano (cc)

December 28, 2011 at 2:00 am 11 comments

The “Asparagus Effect” is Not Universal

By Kyle Kurpinski

Have you ever noticed a peculiar odor from your urine after eating asparagus? If so, you’re not alone. The “asparagus effect” has been documented since at least the 1700’s and was scientifically analyzed as early as 1891 when a chemist named Marceli Nencki attributed the smell to the chemical “methanethiol.” Most people would probably be satisfied with this explanation and move on, but science leaves no stone unturned; we now know that the distinct aroma is actually due to an intricate combination of sulfur-containing compounds (including methanethiol) formed during the breakdown of asparagusic acid.

So, mystery solved, right? Not quite.

Ask around, and you will find that only a portion of the population actually experiences the asparagus effect. A few early studies in the 1980’s reported that not everyone could smell the asparagus-induced odor, but those who could smelled it in all available samples, suggesting that everyone produces the aroma after eating asparagus, but only a portion of the population has the ability to detect it; a characteristic that was subsequently linked to a specific mutation in a group of olfactory genes. However, a more recent study in 2010 reported that a small percentage of people may not produce the odor at all, likely due to differences in the way they metabolize asparagusic acid.

In short, if you don’t notice the odor in your pee after an asparagus-heavy meal, you either have a unique, asparagus-proof metabolism or you simply lack the smell receptors to perceive your own stinkiness. If you do experience the asparagus effect, keep in mind that the odor-inducing precursor compounds are more prevalent in younger plants, so the smell will be less pronounced if you eat asparagus that is a little more mature. The effect is also extremely rapid – producing smelly pee in as little as 15-30 min after ingesting – so plan ahead if you’re thinking about eating asparagus on a hot date.

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Source: Wikipedia, Monell Center, The Guardian, The Discovery Channel, British Medical Journal

Image: Jonathan Moreau (cc)

July 10, 2011 at 12:00 pm 5 comments

Shakespeare Coined Hundreds of Words and Phrases In Use Today

By Kyle Kurpinski

Among high schoolers (and even among many adults) William Shakespeare’s writing has a reputation for being horrendously confusing. Consider this quote from The Tempest (IV, i, 51-54):

Look thou be true; do not give dalliance

Too much the rein: the strongest oaths are straw

To th” fire i’th” blood: be more abstemious,

Or else, good night your vow!

I am well out of high school, but passages like that remind me why I majored in Engineering and not English Lit.

Yet, the Bard’s reputation for using baffling and “archaic” language isn’t necessarily well-deserved. Estimates vary as to the exact number of unique words found in Shakespeare’s complete works, but there is a general consensus that his plays and poetry contain approximately 1,700 words never previously seen in print, and not all of them are obscure relics like crant (garland/crown) or rigol (circle). Here is just a small sampling of “everyday” words originally given to us by William Shakespeare:

  • Bloody
  • Bump
  • Critic
  • Eyeball
  • Gloomy
  • Gossip
  • Housekeeping
  • Hurry
  • Laughable
  • Lonely
  • Obscene
  • Road
  • Skim milk

If that wasn’t enough of a contribution, the Bard also created phrases such as:

  • Wear one’s heart upon one’s sleeve
  • Love is blind
  • Good riddance
  • Heart’s content
  • Discretion is the better part of valour
  • A foregone conclusion

Shakespeare didn’t necessarily invent all these bits of language; he wrote at a time when English was rapidly evolving and mass publishing was in its early stages, so in some cases he may have only been the first to print them. But even if he didn’t coin all these terms from scratch, most scholars seem to agree that he was probably responsible for a fair share. Confounding verses and outdated words aside, Shakespeare should be remembered for what he was: one heck of an incredible writer and a pioneer of new language. To see more of Shakespeare’s commonly used words and phrases, click on the sources below.

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Source: No Sweat Shakespeare, Shakespeare-Online, WordSpin, The Phrase Finder, Wikipedia

Image: Wikipedia

May 23, 2011 at 2:00 am 2 comments

How to Chop Onions Without Crying

By Kyle Kurpinski

Plants, like all other living organisms, are composed of cells. When you eat a vegetable, or chop it with a knife, some of these cells are ruptured and their contents are released. Certain plants, like the onion, have developed defense mechanisms against this type of destructive action. When onion cells are destroyed, enzymes called alliinases initiate a series of chemical reactions resulting in the release of synpropanethial-S-oxide (also known as onion lachrymatory factor, or LF), a volatile gas that stings the eyes. To combat the stinging effect of the gas, the lachrymal gland at the corner of each eye produces tears to help wash the irritant away. For the plant, LF is an excellent natural deterrent against roaming herbivores, but for humans, it makes us look quite silly and emotional when preparing salad.

There are many ways to reduce or eliminate the “onion effect” during chopping, all of which involve minimizing your exposure to the noxious LF gas:

1) Chop under water. Copious amounts of water can help prevent LF gas from reaching the eyes. Try peeling the onion under running water and/or chopping the onion in a large water-filled bowl.

2) Chill or freeze the onion. The enzymes required to produce LF work well at room temperature, but are inhibited under colder conditions. By chilling the onion before cutting, you greatly reduce the activation of the chemical reactions.

3) Use a sharp blade. A sharper blade causes less damage to the onion cells, thereby releasing less chemicals.

4) Use a fan. Disperse the LF gas by aiming a small fan towards your cutting area and away from you.

5) Wear goggles. Protective eyewear can help prevent LF gas from reaching your eyes. You’ll need something that forms a seal around your eyes, however; standard glasses won’t do.

6) Do not chop the root. The root of the onion contains a greater concentration of the alliinases than the rest of the plant. By avoiding the root (or at least saving it for the end) you can reduce the amount of LF produced during chopping.

7) Chew gum. This one is a little weirder, and doesn’t seem to work as well for many people, but it’s still an option if you can’t do any of the above. Supposedly, vigorous chewing causes you to breathe more through your mouth, which disperses the LF gas and directs it away from your eyes and lachrymal glands.

8) Use a “better” onion. If you’re desperate for a truly tear-free onion, genetic engineering provides an alternative to freezing and gum chewing. In 2008, researchers at the New Zealand Institute for Crop & Food Research utilized gene-silencing technology to suppress a gene required for LF production. No more LF, no more sobbing over your chopping board.

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Source: Wikipedia – Onion, Wikipedia – Alliinase, e-How

Image: Wikipedia

April 11, 2011 at 2:00 am 14 comments

Your Passport May Expire Before The Expiry Date

By Kyle Kurpinski

Expiration dates are funny things. For instance, if I take a swig from a jug of milk that expires next week, I expect to get a mouthful of milk, not sour gym socks. Unfortunately, expiration dates are occasionally imperfect, and the gym sock thing tends to happen from time to time. But when it comes to something non-perishable, like a coupon booklet or an driver’s license, these dates should be a little more concrete. Or so you would think, anyway.

My cousin was recently on her way to Malaysia when she encountered a bit of a snafu at the airport. For travel to Malaysia, it’s not enough to simply have a “valid” passport (i.e. one that has not yet expired). Rather, US citizens must have at least six months remaining before the printed expiration date. My cousin only had five. She actually made it all the way through security before the airport authorities realized their mistake and stopped her from boarding. Trouble is, she had already flown from Portland to San Francisco with her sorta-valid passport, and now she had no choice but to turn around and go back. Even if her trip to Malaysia was only going to last one day, travel regulations would still have forbade the journey without the six-month buffer. I’m sure there are plenty of logical reasons for such a requirement (contingency for an unexpectedly prolonged trip, prevention of illegal immigration or fraud, etc. etc.), but my cousin’s experience still seems like the travel equivalent of buying your milk in May only to discover that it already soured last Christmas.

To make things even more complicated, each country has its own unique rules regarding passport validity. Most countries simply abide by the given date, but some – such as Malaysia, Brazil, and India – require a six-month window, while others – such as Switzerland, Greece, and Denmark – require only three months. When exactly does this window start or end? That’s different for every country too. In some cases it’s calculated from the date of entry into the foreign territory, while in others it’s based on the return date. If you’re planning to travel abroad, you can find the specific rules for each country on the State Department’s website.

Keep in mind that passport renewals typically take about six weeks, so it’s always best to plan ahead when making your travel arrangements. If you’re just learning of these rules before an impending trip, you can apply for an expedited renewal, which takes only two weeks, but also costs an additional $60. If you’re already at the airport (like my cousin was) please have a safe trip back to your house.

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Photo: Amy Barker (cc)

Sources: Wikipedia , Joel Widzer, and The U.S. Department of State

February 18, 2011 at 2:00 am 7 comments

New Contributors are Joining the Team

When I started this blog in 2009, I was writing five days per week. I was doing that in the evenings after my day job and was able to keep it up until August of 2010.

In a summer blog update, I asked for others to contact me if they wanted to contribute to the site. One of the first people to contact me was Kaye Nemec; she was already writing great content for other sites, so it was a perfect fit. Since then, she’s contributed some very popular posts:

Today, I’m happy to announce that we’ve got two more contributors joining the team. Kyle Kurpinski and Terry D. Johnson. They’re co-authors of the educational, yet satirical, book, How to Defeat Your Own Clone. Kyle has a PhD in Bioengineering (among other degrees) and works at a medical device startup in the Bay Area. Terry has a Masters in chemical engineering from MIT and teaches bioengineering at Berkeley. You can checkout more detailed bios of everyone on the about page.

Kyle’s first post, Standard Keyboards are Designed to Slow You Down,will be online tomorrow. We’re excited to be working with these guys and I know you’ll enjoy their work too.

Chad Upton, Editor

January 23, 2011 at 2:43 pm 1 comment


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