Archive for: August, 2013

Friday Weird Science repost: How much sun could a good beard block?

Aug 30 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

NOTE: Sci's got some major stuff going on professionally which requires her full attention. I would hate for you all to go without your weekly dose of Friday awesome, however, and so have arranged these reposts. Thanks for your patience!


...ok I guess that probably won't work for some of us. Fake beards, maybe?


I know a guy with a rather luxuriant amount of facial hair. I once asked him if he ever put sunblock on it. Get in the cracks, you know? He said of course not, hair blocks sun. He's never gotten a burn there, after all.

This is definitely true enough, I've never gotten a sunburn where my hair is, either. But how much sun does a good beard block if a good beard could block sun?

Answer? It blocks the sun that a good beard could block if a good beard could block sun.* At least, depending on the angle, and the thickness of the beard. But how to find out PRECISELY?!

Well for that you need SCIENCE. Science and fake heads with beards on them. On a weathervane. Really.


By now I think we all know the risks of UV radiation from the sun. Wear layers, slather on some SPF 30 until your skin can take no more, wear a hat, etc. But what about facial hair?

To investigate this point, the scientists in this study needed to look at the UV damage caused by the sun, at various angles, and with different lengths of facial hair. And since humans guys probably can't hold very still for the many hours it would take to measure this...well, this is what they built.
(I would have LOVED to see this thing hangin' out behind someone's lab on campus. Science in action, my friends!!)

They authors then looked at protection from UV radiation (using dosiometry, which measures dose exposure to UV radiation) at several angles of sunlight, and on several angles of chin, cheek, upper jaw, etc. They had a no beard condition, a "short" beard condition (10 mm on the upper lip, 40 mm on the chin), and a "long" beard condition (up to 20 mm on the upper lip and 90 mm on the chin). The beards were fake, as manikin heads have a terrible record of growing their own facial hair.

What you can see here is the exposure ratio, after 1 hour in the sun with the face angled up to receive the light (described as horizontal, they did 1 hour at most angles, except for the 25ish degree angle, which had 2 hours of exposure). You can see that beard presence significantly decreased the amount of UV exposure. When teased apart, the longer beards provided more protection.

So clearly, in addition to all our layers and sunblock, we need to be growing us some beards! Or, possibly, get fakes. There are of course caveats. Wither the stubble, my friends?! Wither the short goatee?! The "short" length here was 40mm long on the chin (almost 2 inches), which is pretty hefty, and the "long" was full on lumberjack. But most guys don't have facial hair that long, what protection, if any, are they getting? Does a couple of mm do any good? Or do we need to start a trend for some long and luxuriant facial locks?

Me, I think fake beards are going to be all the rage next summer.

Parisi AV, Turnbull DJ, Downs N, & Smith D (2012). Dosimetric investigation of the solar erythemal UV radiation protection provided by beards and moustaches. Radiation protection dosimetry, 150 (3), 278-82 PMID: 22090417

*How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?

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Scicurious Guest Writer! Quantum Mechanics

Aug 28 2013 Published by under Scicurious Guest Writers

Today's Scicurious Guest Writer is up at SciAm Blogs, and Rory Fenton is writing to us about Quantum Mechanics, and how they could soon be running your computer! And if he writes about physics and I can get it, I'm pretty sure everyone else can, too. Head over and check it out!

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Does optogenetics light up your life?

Aug 26 2013 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

Sci is at SciAm blogs today, talking about optogenetics. One of my colleagues over there isn't so enthusiastic. I rather disagree. Check out our arguments! I want to see who "wins". 🙂 Head over and check it out.

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Friday Weird Science repost: The physics of the strapless evening gown

Aug 23 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

NOTE: Sci's got some major stuff going on now professionally which requires her full attention. But as I would hate for you all to be stuck without your Friday weird science (who could IMAGINE such a thing), I've arranged for some reposts.


Today's Friday Weird Science comes to you courtesy of Marc Abrahams, the founder of the IgNobel Prizes (which I'm going to next week! So excited!!). The study was featured in his new book, This is Improbable, and Marc was kind enough to send me a copy of this paper when I asked about it. (Ok, honestly, Marc has sent me a freakin' AVALANCHE of papers...because there were just that many awesome ones. And those were only the first 40 pages of the book! Marc Abrahams will be the official patron saint of weird science for the next year at least. Worship him, ye masses).

I didn't even have to come up with a fun title for this one!

Charles E. Siem "A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown" (last edited online 7/2010).

This is a funny little paper. I'm not sure it was ever peer reviewed, you can only find copies of it online, I have no record of where it was published, etc, etc. Not only that, it is entirely theoretical in nature, containing no references to literature on the subject, and with no studies into the actual physics (apparently due to a lack of female volunteers, as you read'll probably figure out why).

In this paper, the author lays out the physics of the strapless dress. He begins by rhapsodizing on the strapless dress, and the many other ways in which women dress "to bring about [the] libido-awakening infliction on the poor male". He touches briefly on sheer tops, skin tight bodysuits, sweaters ("Another powerful attractant is the tightly fitted garment. A well-known example of the type of weapon is the sweater" You can't make this stuff up), and makes a brief mention of the bikini. He then moves on to his main subject, the strapless dress:

A delightful device which has sufficiently aroused the masculine sex is the use of durable but fragile-appearing cloth which gives the impression that at any moment the garment will slip down or that, better yet, certain parts may slip out of place. The best example of this method of attracting the attention of the weak and susceptible male is the strapless evening gown.

(Sci must note that I have worn a good share of strapless dresses in my time, and I never once thought of them in this light. This is something about the male gaze that I never needed to know. I will never look at my old bridesmaids dresses the same way...)

Once over the lingering pleasure of the many ways in which women dress, the author gets down to the question at hand, namely: How DOES this type of dress stay up. And being a guy who, I conjecture, has never seen a woman getting into or out of a strapless dress, he did not go to the immediate and sensible answer: Boob Tape.

Nope. He went to physics. And there certainly is a good deal of physics involved.

To aid us in our scientific foray, the author presents us with Figure 1:

It was here that I began to wonder if the author had ever seen a woman at all, let alone one wearing a strapless dress. But I think mostly he just couldn't draw.

But here we can see the main forces at work here. We have the forces F1 and F2, equal (presumably) and opposite, forcing the breasts apart (lift and separate!). You have the weight of the top (W), and the upward force of the fabric (V), which is due to the tightness of the fabric above the navel (plane A). Enough upward force (V), and the whole thing is at equilibrium and nothing falls down.

But that's ASSUMING there is enough upward force. Is there? If you take plane B alone (B for boobs! And obviously not for scientific reasons, no indeed!), you will see that there's not enough upward force to counteract the weight of the fabric (and, presumably, the breasts in it, which are not made of air, though silicone is of course an option). If you can't hold that dress up by sheer force of lift and separate...well you can't hold it up at all. The author claims that "If the female is naturally blessed with sufficient pectoral development, she can supply this very vital force and maintain the elemental strip at equilibrium." But I can tell you that sufficient pectoral development be damned, fabric won't stay up of its own will up there.

So how do you make up the difference? Here we have two options. The designer of the dress can use friction (F) to keep the dress from moving. If you increase F, the perpendicular normal force will also be increased, and the dress will stay up. When I think of increasing friction, I think of the rough side of velcro against my chest, and that doesn't sound pleasant, but what he means is that you can increase normal force by making the point at the tip of the breasts as tight as possible, which does indeed work, but can produce boob-squishery, or what is colloquially known as "baby heads".

Next, the author gets into the issues at hand when a lady decides not only to go strapless, but also to go BACKLESS ("some females require that the back of the gown be lowered to increase the exposure and correspondingly attract more attention.").
(Again...has this person EVER seen a breast in its natural habitat?! That shape's...oh dear)

Now he refers to the downward angle known as "t", but which I cannot find in either of the figures. Anyway. Now you're backless. How do we keep these puppies from basking in the sun? Since you have less force coming in from the sides, you need to increase the force from below.

And as many women will know, this means boning.

This, my friends, is the inside hardware of your strapless dress. The thin lines you see are flexible plastic (or metal or even actual bones) boning, which gives the inside structure and allows the top to remain vertical despite whatever is inside it. If you ever see a strapless bridesmaids dress, for example, feel the inside of the top. It's firm. Some of them freakin' stand up on their own. That's boning.

However, as the author notes, there are other forces at work. Most particularly the downward forces caused by things like dancing, walking,, and which require people wearing strapless dresses to haul them up when they think no one is looking. Strapless dress wearers of the world? I give you, BOOB TAPE. Know it. Love it.

But you have to keep in mind, this is all theoretical! "Many females have been asked to volunteer for experiments along these lines in the interest of science, but unfortunately, no cooperation was encountered. There is also the difficulty of the investigator having the strength of mind to ascertain purely the scientific facts." wonder he had trouble getting volunteers.

The author maintains that the engineering of strapless gowns will have to remain trial and error. I think many of the people at this past week's New York fashion week could easily tell him it's been done. And the answers are tightness, fit, fabric, boning...and boob tape.

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Treading water

Aug 21 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Hi guys, Sci here. I'm afraid that things are more stressed than usual at around these parts. In fact, I may really, finally, have bitten off more than I can chew. So, things are going to be slow around here for a while. I'll have posts up on Mondays at SciAm as usual. Fridays will be reposts because you, and I, cannot live without our weird science. I might be able to resurface in three weeks or so. Thanks.

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Exercise to sleep? Or sleep to exercise?

Aug 19 2013 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

Sci is at SciAm Blogs today, writing about exercise and sleep. We all think that exercise should make you sleep like a baby, but may be that sleeping like a baby makes you exercise! Sort of. Head over and check it out.

Note: The irony of this post being that I wrote it while I could not not sleep...and subsequently skipped my workout. Of course.

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Tell me again how pseudonyms are lame

Aug 17 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

It's starting to come up yearly, or so. Maybe a little less often. It's like a weather pattern, the blogging El Nino, briefly stirring up, and then going away, somewhat predictable, but just rare enough that you forget.

But here it is again, someone telling the world that they don't understand why people use pseuds. That pseuds limit impact. I understand the concerns, but every time someone blogging under their real name says they "don't understand" why anyone would use a pseudonym...I always tend to hear a vague note of patronizing. That pseuds are slightly disreputable. That there is something vaguely embarrassing about them, and if we were all adults, we'd all blog under our real names and be civil all the time.Today it's from Terry at Small Pond Science, a site that I usually like quite a lot. I really appreciate the perspective of someone from a smaller college, as opposed to the ones I usually see on large research institutions. It's interesting to see similarities and differences and I admire his dedication to teaching and students.

But I have to disagree with his views on pseuds. And as a former Pseud myself, who is now a "real adult blogger" under my own name, I still believe that pseuds can make a big impact, and that pseudonyms are an incredibly important voice in the science blogsphere.

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Friday Weird Science: Gonads and Stress, gonads and stress, gonads and stress...

Aug 16 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

(One of the oldest memes on the internet. And, in my opinion, one of the best)

We all worry about stress for lots of reasons: weight gain, depression, headaches, insomnia. But have you ever worried about what doing to your 'nads?

Well, if you are the common starling, perhaps you should.

McGuire et al. "The direct response of the gonads to cues of stress in a temperate songbird species is season-dependent" PeerJ, 2013.

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Death by Sugar?

Aug 14 2013 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

We've been hearing a lot about sugar lately. Every few years, a new bugbear of diet comes to haunt us. First it was fats. Then it was carbs. Now it's sugars. Sometimes it's gluten or cholesterol. And it's pretty scary to see all the studies come out. I worried about my sugar intake, now I'm worried about my artificial sweeteners, and now I should be worried about sugar again?!

Possibly I should be. A new study out yesterday showed that "safe" levels of sugar are still harmful to mice.

But being a good little science nerd, I'm not just believing Nature News (though in general I like them very much). I'm getting my hands on the study itself. And I'm sharing it with you.

Ruff et al. "Human-relevant levels of added sugar consumption increase female mortality and lower male fitness in mice" Nature Communications, 2013.


(Admit it, your mouth started watering. With GUILT. Source)

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Hadrian's Wall Hike Part the Last

Aug 13 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

I figure it's about time I finished up the tale of Mr. S and I heading to the "wilds" of the United Kingdom to hike Hadrian's Wall.

It's funny the relationships you strike up on the wall. A bunch of us, couples, groups of friends, families, are all hiking the same distance per day, often at the same pace. And because there's very little out there on parts of the wall, it means we often stayed in the same places and ate at the same places. We got to know each other. Throughout each day, you'll leapfrog each other, as you stop for photos or a rest, or they do. Apparently we were the "fast" Americans, who hiked a bit faster than some of the other groups, and who didn't give up after the first day like some other Americans on the hike.

This night we ended up at the Samson Inn in Gisland, an adorable little pub that had some really tasty food (and it wasn't all pub food! There was risotto and lasagna!!), chatting with the other hikers about what we'd seen that day, It's a nice sense of camaraderie.

The hotel, Bush Nook, was incredibly charming, even though it was a LONG slog up the hill from the trail.

The next day we headed out for another "short" day (8 miles). It was short, but it was full of things to see. We started out seeing Birdoswald Fort, which has more than just Roman history (this becomes a good thing after a while, because while Roman history is great...all the forts and milecastles and turrets look the same. That's actually on purpose. But still). After the Romans left, other people (possibly locally recruited soldiers who were formerly part of the Roman army) remains and settled the fort area. New buildings were built on the old ones, all the way up to a Bastle in the 15th century (a fortified farmhouse, meant to discourage Border Reivers, or raiders. Not the Firefly kind. The Scottish kind. The farmhouse had windows only on the upper floors. The lower floor housed livestock and had only one, very strong, door. The people lived above, and the ladder connecting the upstairs and downstairs could be raised if the Reivers came in to steal your cattle). Now, the site is a beautiful 18th century farmhouse, surrounded by Roman walls.


Later in the day we came to Lanercost Priory, a lovely romantic ruin that used to house Priests, which also suffered a lot from Reivers until the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII.


(But first, very hairy cow. Very cute. Very hairy)


(The old entrance to Lanercost Priory)



(Romantic ruins are romantic)


(Sneaky PB and J)

Side Note: Apparently PB & J is not the hiking staple is the UK that it is in the US. I never ONCE saw peanut butter anywhere at breakfast or anything. We always got ham sandwiches or turkey with some kind of jelly in it. Maybe because of allergies? But it's SUCH a great fuel. The ham was fine, but after a while, I really began to crave some peanut butter. Luckily, we brought our own hiking fuel, which included things like trail mix, energy bars, and little single packets of peanut butter! I jury-rigged myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as seen above, on a scone. It was DELICIOUS. I have no shame.

In the afternoon we reached Walton, where one of the couples we were friends with (from Holland) was trying to get a cab. Apparently dialing a country code on a cell phone is a headache. But they made a local friend and soon all was well! We ended up in one of the lamer hotels that night, but no spiders.

PS: I am officially sick of The English Breakfast. I want porridge. How do you make that stuff? It's GREAT.

Hadrian's Wall: Day the Last

Well, not REALLY the last day. You can hike the trail all the way from Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway. We were stopping at Carlisle, because we didn't really have any more time, and because all the best bits of wall are between Heddon on the Wall and Carlisle.

Our final day was 12 miles, which goes VERY quickly when it's all flat. We raced along and were done for the day in 5 hours (except for the 1.5 hours we stopped at a pub along the way. What?). Hadrian's wall walk complete!


(And the walk was lined in ADORABLE houses)


(Houses with feline guardians)


(The Stag Inn, where we got lunch and pints. I love that all the pubs look like this. Our sports bars have no personality)


(The bridge to Carlisle! Mission complete)

Yeah, it was only 12 miles of nice flat ground, but it should say something that we got to the final hotel (very nice), and...fell asleep.

But JOY! JOY! We were in Carlisle! It's a small town has more than one place to eat. And more than one KIND of food! You have to understand that we'd been living on English Breakfasts and Pub Food for days. We got Italian. It was GREAT.

We said a sad goodbye to our hiking companions (so nice! I wish I'd thought to get email addresses or something), and headed to see Carlisle castle. Like everything here, they have exhibit on Mary Queen of Scots (who apparently stayed in the Castle).


(The castle)

There is an old wine cellar in the bottom that was used during the Parliamentariat as a dungeon, and contained slick spots on the wall. "Licking stones", where the moisture used to run down and which is prisoners licked smooth as they tried to get at the water.


(The shiny bit in the middle)

Side Note: Dear English Heritage, Your tours are lame. You have to pay and then you have to pay MORE for a book, and if you don't, there's no signage or anything really interesting to tell you anything about the site! This plagued us throughout our travels. You need an audiotour, guys. The ones at Holyrood House and the Edinburgh Castle were brilliant. Invest in those. We'd pay for them. Love, Me.

The Carlisle Cathedral was also very lovely.


The ceiling inside is particularly stunning.



(Neat floor tiles)

We grabbed some Indian food for dinner, and the next day, it was on the train to London, and then, home (though it should be noted we got stuck in the Tube for about 40 minutes when there was something stopping the central line).

There's not question it was a trip for the ages! So much fun, and so many lovely things to see. Like this:


(Like this. My favorite sign)

Things I miss already:

1. SCONES. Scones and cream teas. My scones never taste like that. I wonder what I'm doing wrong.

2. The atmosphere of the pubs around there. The fake ones in the US try for it, but never succeed. It's so nice to be able to sit there, with comfortable seats and nice beer in a quiet, snug place.

3. English bacon. So nice. So ham like.

4. It was so nice and cool!!! Everyone there complained of a heat wave, but no. You have NO IDEA.

Things I don't miss:

1. Pub food. Sorry. Sausages and potatoes and all are fine, but...

2. Sheep poop.

3. Cow pats.

4. High prices. The people running stuff along the wall KNOW they are the only pub for miles and we're on foot. And they price to take advantage. That said, it's not that terrible.

Anyway, thanks for coming along as we re-write our journey!! Who knows where the next world stop will be? 🙂

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