Author Archive

“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

Bumblebee Flight is Not Scientifically Impossible

By Terry D. Johnson

The myth that bumblebee flight is scientifically impossible persists today. Even some presidential hopefuls believe it. Don’t be fooled. This tale’s been floating around since the 1930s, back when aerodynamics was emerging from a science.

Various luminaries in the field of fluid dynamics have been accused of popularizing the idea, which seems to have originated in a collaboration between French entomologist Antoine Magnan and his assistant, the mathematician André Sainte-Laguë. Sainte-Laguë had done a primitive calculation on the aerodynamics of bumblebee flight, assuming that the wings we perfectly smooth and flat. They also ignored more complicated aerodynamics in favor of a simpler model.

These assumptions made the calculation easier…and the answer wrong. Magnan himself wrote: “One shouldn’t be surprised that the results of the calculations don’t square with reality.” That didn’t stop the myth from achieving enough lift to take off.

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Source: Wikipedia, Naturenet

Image: Wikimedia (gnu)

August 9, 2011 at 2:00 am 4 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

Things You Didn’t Know You Could Clean (or Cook!) in Your Dishwasher

By Kaye Nemec

Dishwashers were an amazing invention. Long gone are the days of hand washing and drying dishes every night. Now we can simply load up the dishwasher, turn it on and wake up to a fresh load of sparkly, clean dishes.

What many of my fellow dishwasher-loving friends may be pleased to learn is that your dishwasher has some major, hidden potential that extends way behind your basic dinner plate and water glass. Below is an extensive list of items that can also be washed in your dishwasher BUT, before scrolling down read this: your dishwasher can also be used for cooking.

It’s true. And of all things, salmon seems to be the most popular choice for dishwasher cuisine. Sounds like a bad internet rumor but it has been proven accurate over and over again. Check out this recipe if you’re so inclined.

Trying to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for your entire extended family? Save yourself some time by throwing all your baked potatoes in the dishwasher. They won’t cook and/or mash themselves but it will save you the time of having to scrub them all clean!

Now, on to that list of other dishwasher safe items…

  • Baseball caps
  • Small toys
  • Flip-flops
  • Garden tools (without wood handles)
  • Plastic hair brushes and combs
  • Toothbrushes
  • Fake flowers (on a light setting)
  • Kitchen sponges, vegetable brushes etc.
  • Makeup brushes
  • Hubcaps and wheel covers
  • Pet toys
  • Broom heads and dust pans
  • Fan faceplates
  • Sports equipment (shin guards, knee pads, golf balls etc.)
  • Vent covers
  • Window screens
  • Keyboards (some swear by this, some would never trust it)

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Sources: Real Simple, Home Ever After , The Bachelor Guy

Photo: tidefan (cc)

June 14, 2011 at 2:00 am 19 comments

Some Avacados Contain Half the Fat of Others

By Kaye Nemec

‘Tis the season for backyard barbecues, refreshing drinks and summertime snacks — like guacamole made from fresh avocados. There are several guacamole recipes available but obviously the ingredient you can’t do without is avocado.

Seventy-five percent of the U.S. avocado crop is made up of Haas avocados grown in California. These are the avocados most people in the U.S. are familiar with and are, most likely, the only variety they can even name. But, it turns out there are other varieties of avocados – and one of them even has half the fat of a Haas avocado.

Fuerte avocados are grown in Florida and are actually larger than Haas avocados. Traditional Haas avocados have about 22 ½ grams of fat and 250 calories. The Fuerte varieties have only about 11 grams of fat and 125 calories.

Additional varieties of avocados include Zutano, Bacon and Cocktail. The Cocktail avocados are only one or two ounces each and do not contain the pit found in most other varieties.

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Sources: Avocado Central, WHFoods

Photo: ingserban

June 9, 2011 at 2:00 am 5 comments

Pro Baseball Teams Use 900,000 Balls Each Year

By Kaye Nemec

It’s the top of the 6th inning in the Milwaukee Brewers vs. Washington Nationals baseball game and the TV announcers just provided me, and the rest of the at-home audience, with an interesting fact. According to the Brewer’s equipment manager, 6 dozen brand new baseballs are prepared before each home game. Some games an additional 2 or 3 dozen balls will be used before the final out.

And that got me researching…

On average, Major League Baseball teams go through 900,000 baseballs each season. Any time a ball is thrown in the dirt, dinged by a bat or scuffed up, it is taken out of the game and of course, all homerun and foul balls go home with a lucky fan. Thousands of additional balls are tossed into the stands by generous players.

In order to prevent teams from having to travel with dozens of balls, equipment managers have agreed that the home team will provide the away team with 6 dozen balls before each game. Individual teams are still responsible for providing their own batting practice balls – which is usually 14 or 15 dozen balls, some of which are brand new and some that have been used in a game.

Some used balls are also sent to minor league teams to use for practice. Thankfully 900,000 balls are not simply thrown out each year. However, some would argue they are still a complete waste given the price tag. If you calculate in tax and shipping, the average cost of a dozen baseballs is $72.00. That means the MLB is spending around $5.5 million dollars each season on baseballs alone.

Sources: Post-Gazette

Photo: Paul Hadsall

May 25, 2011 at 2:00 am 10 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

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