Cooling Through Sweat

Cooling Through Sweat

The physics of how sweat cools us down is pretty interesting. I can’t remember the specific physics formula that calculates the cooling effect of evaporation, but as water molecules leave the skin, they take some heat energy with them, leaving the body slightly cooler. But how well this system works is also dependent on the weather and air conditions that the sweat would potentially evaporate away into.
In Gulp, Mary Roach describes some of the important factors for this process. “When the air around you is saturated with moisture, your sweat – most of it, anyway – has no where to evaporate to. It beads on your skin and beads down your face and back. More to the point, it doesn’t cool you.” The water in your sweat has to evaporate away for cooling to take place. When the air is too humid for the water to evaporate away into (an over simplification of the physics I’m sure) then you can’t take advantage of the cooling potential of sweat.
Roach continues, “It’s the humidity, but it’s also the heat. When the air is cooler than 92 degrees Fahrenheit, the body can cool itself by radiating heat into the cooler air. Over 92 – no go.” Hot air rises through convection, allowing cooler air to replace the hotter air, cooling you off as slightly cooler air replaces the hotter air around you. At a certain point however, there is no cooler air moving in to replace the hot air coming from your body. Roach also writes, “a breeze cools you by blowing away the penumbra of swampy air created by your body. If the air that moves in to take its place is cooler and drier, so, then, are you.”
Sweating is an incredible ability that helps keep us cool, but its efficiency is dependent on the weather outside our body. We can sweat all we want, but if the air that is around us isn’t cooler and drier than we are, we won’t enjoy the benefits of sweating. We won’t dry off in the air, we won’t cool down, and we will be gross and swampy.
Internal Review Boards & Patient Harm

Internal Review Boards & Patient Harm

During the COVID-19 Pandemic internal review boards (IRB) were scrutinized for delaying potential treatments and vaccines to fight the coronavirus that causes COVID. IRBs exist to ensure that scientific research doesn’t harm patients. Throughout the history of science, many dubious science experiments have been carried out by less than fully considerate scientists. An IRB is a useful tool to ensure that researchers have real reasons to conduct experiments that may cause some type of physical or psychological harm to participants, and to ensure that researchers do as much as possible to mitigate those harms and adequately address the safety and needs of subjects before, during, and after an experiment.
However, in recent years many researchers have argued that IRBs have become too risk averse and too restrictive. Rather than purely focusing on the safety and health of research participants, IRBs have been criticized as protecting the brand of the research institution, meaning that some valuable and worthy science is denied funding or approval because it sounds weird and if it doesn’t go well could reflect poorly on the academic standing of the institution that approved the study. Additionally, well meaning IRBs can cause extensive delays, as each study is reviewed, debated, and approved or denied. Studies that are denied may have to make adjustments to methodology and approaches, and re-deigning studies can add additional time to actually get the study up and running. For many research studies this may be more of an inconvenience for the researcher than anything else, but during the COVID-19 pandemic, these delays have been sharply criticized.
COVID moves fast, and a delay of one month for a study that could prove to be life saving means that more people would die than would have died if the study had not been delayed. This means that in the interest of promoting safety, an IRB can create a delay that harms life. Mary Roach wrote about these concerns years before the pandemic in her book Gulp, “rather than protecting patients, IRBs – with their delays and prodigious paperwork – can put them in harms way.” If checking the right boxes on the right forms and submitting the right paperwork at the right time is more important than the actual research, we could see delays that hold back treatments, preventative vaccinations, and cures for deadly diseases.
The Pandemic has shown us how serious these delays can be. IRBs may have to be rethought and restructured so that in times of emergency we can move quicker while still addressing patient safety. For science where time is important and risk is inherent in the study, we may have to develop a new review or oversight body beyond the traditional IRB structure to ensure that we don’t harm patients while trying to protect them.
People Eat Physics - Gulp - Mary Roach - Joe Abittan

People Eat Physics

In the book Gulp, Mary Roach explores what it is that makes us like certain foods. She investigates different qualities of different foods in an attempt to discern what food attributes make us like different things. There are the obvious taste and texture qualities, but she investigates further, and finds that there is a lot of physics involved in which foods we like and which foods we don’t like.
Roach quotes researcher Tony Van Vliet in her book writing, “People eat physics. You eat physical properties with a little bit of taste and aroma. And if the physics is not good, then you don’t eat it.” This quote followed the explanation of an experiment regarding potato chips. Researchers found that manipulating sound waves, to eliminate the crunch sounds of the chips, made people think they were eating old, stale chips, when in fact they were eating fresh chips. Eating, an activity dominated by taste and the mouth, it turns out is also greatly impacted by the ears.
“Crispness and crunch are the body’s shorthand for healthy,” Roach continues. When we eat, our noses play a big role, the touch receptors in our mouth play a huge role, and it turns out even our ears play a huge role. Without realizing it, we are using a huge amount of our senses to determine whether food is healthy, safe to eat, and nutritious. When the physics don’t align for any given physical property of the food, we will experience it differently. Add red coloring to white wine and people won’t experience it as a white wine. Mute the crunch on chips and people will think they are old and stale. People eat physics just as much as they eat food.

The Science of Detergents

For an episode in the latest season of Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell travelled to Cincinnati to meet the product development teams at Proctor and Gamble behind their laundry and dish detergents. Gladwell was floored by the amount of science and research put into every element of detergents. It turns out there is a lot of effort that goes into developing the perfect soap, and there is good reason for it too. Good detergents allow for cold water washing, which drastically reduces the energy and carbon emissions associated with running a dishwasher or washing machine. Good detergents make things more efficient, which we need if we want to address the climate crisis. P&G has rows of washing machines and dishwashers all testing different formulas of detergents, to examine performance, wear and tear on the machines and clothes/dishes, and how their products perform relative to competitors.
I was reminded of Galdwell’s podcast when I looked back at a line from Mary Roach’s book Gulp. She writes, “Higher-end detergents contain at least three digestive enzymes: amylase to break down starchy stains, protease for proteins, and lipase for greasy stains (not just edible fats but body oils like sebum). Laundry detergent is essentially a digestive tract in a box. Ditto dishwashing detergent: protease and lipase eat the food your dinner guests didn’t.”
The two authors both highlight the surprising amount of effort in terms of science and research that goes into something most of us overlook. Detergents contain digestive enzymes that we may have in our bodies to make them more effective. Real scientific application and study has gone into giving us something so mundane, but it can still have a real impact on how our world moves forward while addressing climate change. Its comical to think of detergents as a digestive tract in a box, but it really is an important and scientifically interesting field of study.
Scientific Obsessives - Mary Roach - Gulp - Malcolm Gladwell - The Bomber Mafia

Scientific Obsessives

In the author’s note for his book The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell writes about people with obsessions. He writes, “I realize when I look at the things I have written about or explored over the years, I’m drawn again and again to obsessives. I like them. I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up every day life and just zero in on one thing. … I don’t think we get progress, or innovation, or joy, or beauty without obsessives.”
Obsessives, Gladwell argues, are neither good nor bad, but often play crucial roles in the advancement of technology, the winning of historical wars, and in the development of society. Making scientific breakthroughs, convincing large numbers of people to live their lives a certain way, and pushing through failure until one finds a new way to do something often requires an obsessive quality in order to persevere, connect minuscule dots along the way, and stay interested in something that others barely care about.  Mary Roach would agree.
In her book Gulp, Raoch writes, “Dr. Silletti was delighted to hear that  I wanted to visit the saliva lab. People rarely ask to visit Erika Silletti’s lab. I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry. I think it’s fair to say that some degree of obsession is a requisite for good science, and certainly for scientific breakthrough.”
Studying something as off-putting and seemingly boring as human saliva requires an obsessive quality about science, research, inquiry, and the human systems that form the first part of our digestive system. I can’t imagine lots of people are eager to listen to Dr. Silletti talk about her research, it probably isn’t fun dinner or cocktail party talk, but Dr. Silletti continues on with her lab. Her discoveries, and the discoveries of everyone working in rather gross areas of science, are dependent on a level of obsession. Without such obsession, the scientists and researchers would not carry on studying their particular fields, and we wouldn’t get the breakthroughs and discoveries that come from their science. This is the argument that Roach makes in Gulp, and it is part of her explanation for why she has written so many books that focus on the relatively gross side of scientific inquiry.
In the end, Roach and Gladwell reach the same conclusion. Technological and scientific advances require obsessives. Progress is not linear, science is not clear cut, and new discoveries and breakthroughs require patience and a willingness to believe that something is crucially important, even when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. Obsessives are the ones who will spend every minute of the day thinking about the tiniest new discovery and trying to apply that to their specific obsession, ultimately paving the way for breakthroughs. We owe a lot to obsessives, and we should thank the obsessive researchers and the obsessive journalists for the breakthroughs and stories about how those breakthroughs came to be.
Chemicals and Food

Chemicals & Food

Several years back there was a huge amount of outrage over Subway using a chemical in their bread that is also found in yoga mats. The chemical created a structure that provided extra fluff to the bread, and did the same thing when combined with the various polymers of a yoga mat. People were shocked to learn that a yoga mat component was being used in their bread and feared that it could be causing cancer or leading to a whole host of bad health outcomes.
The yoga mat bread chemical is one example of our fear of chemicals and impurities in our food. The fear of impurities and synthetics is not isolated to food, and is a major component of postmodernism that we can see in different aspects of our culture. It is something I have been thinking about a lot today as we struggle to convince people across the globe to trust vaccines. We like things that are natural, see the diets of cavemen as superior and better for our bodies than modern processed diets, and want to avoid all consumer goods that have complex origins and require lots of chemicals to produce. Some of these desires are motivated by fears of climate change, some are motivated by a distrust of authority, and some come from a general uncertainty of things we cannot pronounce and don’t understand. But often, this postmodernism stance doesn’t make any sense at all.
In the book Gulp, Mary Roach writes the following about our  postmodern chemical food fear, “A quick word about chemicals and flavors. All flavors in nature are chemicals. That’s what food is. Organic, vine-ripened, processed and unprocessed, vegetable and animal, all of it chemicals.” Roach explains that ideas of natural, organic, and chemical free don’t really make sense. Anything can sound bad and dangerous when written out and described in terms of its chemicals, but truly everything around us is made of different chemicals. When people isolate a single chemical in a food, soap, or clothing product, they are likely playing up our fear to drive some sort of action on our part. Postmodernism in this way is an abusive tactic often utilized to get us to buy something more expensive.
It is tempting to criticize people for being dumb and not knowing that water, pineapples, and cotton shirts are all made of chemicals. But the point is that across our culture many of us have the same postmodernist reaction. We might not be afraid of food chemicals, but for many of us, we probably prefer products that don’t appear to be as touched by science as those which appear to be artificial, unnatural, or man-made. We want to eat local, we want to understand how our things are made and produced, and we want to feel connected to the earth. Technology has given us things which are actually less harmful to ourselves and  the planet than some of the products we buy to protect ourselves and the planet, but science is complex and hard to understand, and our culture is having a reaction against the science. All-natural foods, anti-vaccine sentiments, and reactions against technology all represent something similar – a fear of the unknown and man-made, even if that fear isn’t warranted. We are all susceptible and should be thinking about how we make science, technology, and progress less scary for the world.
Visual Versus Olfactory

Visual Versus Olfactory

I like to remind myself that I don’t experience the world around me the same way that my dog experiences the world. One of the biggest differences for us is that as a human I primarily experience the world by picking up on visual cues, whereas my dog primarily experiences the world through olfactory cues. My smelling ability isn’t very good, but my vision is pretty great. My dog’s vision isn’t very good, but her smelling is phenomenal. “Humans are better equipped for sight than for smell,” writes Mary Roach in Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, “We process visual input ten times faster than olfactory.”
While we can smell, hear, and sense pressure changes on our skin, it is primarily our eyesight that helps us perceive and move about our world. We gain more information from looking at something than we do from smelling, tasting, and even feeling that same thing. That is why so much of our art is visual, why we paint our homes and cars, and why movies and videogames are able to keep our attention so well. Our brains pick up on and process visual stimuli much quicker than other stimuli.
In the human brain, a huge amount of space is dedicated to visual processing. Much more of our brains matter is dedicated to visual processing than olfactory processing, as Roach’s quote above indicates. This is why our brains are so much quicker at decoding and deciphering visual stimuli. In other animals, such as my dog, the part of the brain dedicated to visual processing is not as large relative to other brain regions. My dog has more brain space dedicated to olfactory processing than visual processing, relative to my brain, and thus perceives the world acting on different primary stimuli.
In the book The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich shares research which suggests that certain visual activities, like reading, change the structure of the brain. In the case of reading, the brain space dedicated to processing visual symbols grows as one reads more and the brain tends to give up space related to facial recognition. We get better at reading quickly, but worse at remembering faces.  In Gulp, Roach explains that this kind of process is likely taking place very early on in childhood development. She quotes a scientist who she interviewed that explains that parents of infants go out of their way to label and identify objects that can be visually observed, but parents do not go out of their way to label sounds, smells, or other stimuli. We can spend hours identifying and labeling the tiny differences that we can observe in everything from different species of bugs to 1000 piece puzzles, but we don’t often spend a lot of time differentiating between all the aromas in the smell of coffee, all the different flavors in a slice of chocolate cake, or all the different sounds in an orchestra. In these instances, we take all the different components and experience them as one, unless we train to identify all the different components.
Our visual processing is truly impressive, but it is worth recognizing how much we rely on what we can see, and why. The world is a lot bigger than just what our minds can process from the visual information that we take in. Remembering how much of our brain is dedicated to visual processing can hep us better contextualize our experiences of the world and recognize when we are being overly biased toward visual information. Malcolm Gladwell’s final podcast of his most recent season, all about the power and potential of dogs’ olfactory processing, is a great reminder of why we shouldn’t be too biased toward what we can see.