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A supplement to DISCOVER magazine

9/8/10 11:39 PM

THINGS
20

DISCOVER

DISCOVER® (ISSN 0274-7529) is published monthly, except for combined issues in January/February and July/August, by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612.
Volume 31, number 9; copyright 2010 Kalmbach Publishing Co. Periodical postage paid at Waukesha, WI, and at additional mailing offices. In Canada, mailed under publication mail agreement 40010760, P.O. Box 875,
STN A Windsor, ON, N9A 6P2. GST Registration #BN12271 3209RT. SUBSCRIPTIONS: In the U.S., $29.95 for one year; in Canada, $39.95 for one year (U.S. funds only), includes GST; other foreign countries, $44.95
for one year (U.S. funds only). Back issues available. All rights reserved. Nothing herein contained may be reproduced without written permission of the publisher. POSTMASTER: Please address all subscription correspondence, including change of address, to DISCOVER, P.O. Box 37808, Boone, IA 50037, or call toll-free 800-829-9132; outside the U.S., 515-247-7569. Printed in the U.S.

80

BY DEAN CHRISTOPHER

THINGS
YOU DIDN’T
KNOW
ABOUT
LANGUAGE

20

1. The voice box sits lower in the throat in humans
than it does in other primates, giving us a uniquely
large resonating system. That’s why we alone are able
to make the wide range of sounds needed for speech.
2. That also explains Mariah Carey, Barry White, and
Robin Williams. 3. Unfortunately, the placement of our
voice box means we can’t breathe and swallow at the
same time, as other animals can (choke). 4. Fortunately, the human voice box doesn’t drop until about
9 months, which allows infants to breathe while nursing. 5. Still the one: Mandarin is the long-standing
champ among world languages with 845 million native
speakers, about 2.5 times as many as English. 6. But
more than 70 percent of all the home pages on the
Internet are in English, and more online users speak
English than any other language, making it the world’s
lingua franca (assuming you consider brb, omg, g2g, and
rofl English). 7. Hey, the world will never change—
right? English is mandatory for every student in China,
starting in third grade. But in America, only 3 percent of
elementary schools and 4 percent of secondary schools
even offer Chinese. 8. Many science-related English

words starting with the letters al—including algebra,
alkaline, and algorithm—are derived from Arabic, in
which the prefix al just means “the.” 9. This is a legacy
of the medieval era, when ancient Greek and Roman
knowledge was largely lost in Europe but preserved
and advanced among scholars in the Islamic world.
10. Modern technology is making everything smaller,
even our words. “Bits of eight” shrank to become byte,
“modulate/demodulate” became modem, “picture
cell” became pixel, and of course “web log” became
blog. 11. At the other end, the longest word recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease
caused by inhaling volcanic silicon dust. 12. Grüss dich,
Dunkelheit, mein alter Freund. Three- to five-day-olds
born into French-speaking families tend to cry with
the rising intonation characteristic of French; babies
with German-speaking parents cry with falling tones,
much like spoken German. Infants may start learning language in the womb, it seems. 13. The neural
equipment for language development then seems
to ripen between birth and age 3. People deprived of
language before puberty (due to isolation or abuse, for
instance) might later learn a limited supply of words,
but they never develop the ability to make meaningful
sentences. 14. Other clues about language processing
come from damaged brains. People who have sustained
an injury to a region called Broca’s area have trouble
producing even short phrases, indicating it is critical
to speech. 15. And damage to the brain’s superior
temporal gyrus can lead to Wernicke’s aphasia. Patients
sound as if they are speaking normally, but what they
say makes no sense. 16. In old Westerns, Native
Americans often made a sound like “ugh.” This wasn’t
a commentary on the plots; it was a naive attempt to
reproduce the sound of the glottal stop of many Native
American languages, produced by briefly closing the
vocal cords during speech. 17. !Say !What? When
the Dutch encountered Africa’s Nama people, whose
language includes clicking sounds, they dubbed them
Hottentots, Dutch for “stuttering.” 18. Really foreign
sounds: Spanish Silbo, a whistle language, has only four
vowel and four consonant sounds. Audible for miles,
it resembles bird calls and is indigenous to—where
else?—the Canary Islands. 19. Indian Sign Language is
the world’s most widespread silent language, with some
2.7 million users. 20. Another sound of silence: More
than one-third of the world’s 6,800 spoken languages
are endangered. According to UNESCO, about 200
tongues now have fewer than 10 surviving speakers.

CODY TREPTE

versuta) with an eye toward developing eco-friendly
pesticides. Proteins in this spider’s venom target
the nervous system of insects but leave humans
unharmed. 8. First, though, there’s the unpleasant
matter of getting the venom. Workers at the Spider
Pharm in Yarnell, Arizona, “milk” up to 1,000 spiders
a day. 9. The bugs are anesthetized with carbon
dioxide, then zapped with electricity, which makes
them release venom into minuscule glass capillaries connected to their fangs. 10. Web master:
Todd Blackledge at the University of Akron finds
that spider silk could be used as synthetic muscle.
Adjusting humidity up and down causes the silk to
expand and contract with 50 times the punch of the
equivalent mass of human muscle. 11. Blackledge
envisions spider silk someday being used to operate
miniature robotic devices and drug delivery systems.
12. Unlike many sticky things, the glue of orbed
web spiders gets stronger in the presence of water,
polymer scientists working with Blackledge have
discovered, suggesting that it might prove a useful
adhesive for surgery or for underwater engineering.
13. Spider-goat, Spider-goat, does whatever a spider
can: By manipulating genes, molecular biologists
at the University of Wyoming have gotten goats to
produce milk containing the protein that makes up
spider silk. 14. Next, scientists aim to introduce the
silk gene into alfalfa, which is far more efficient to
mass produce and, frankly, less creepy. 15. Safe sex:
The male nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) will
bring a silk-wrapped insect to a female prior to mating so she will eat the gift—instead of him. 16. Safer
sex: The funnel-web spider Agelenopsis aperta has a
different approach, putting the female into a cataleptic state before mating so she won’t cannibalize
him. 17. Scientists at Radford University in Virginia
say the A. aperta male can disable the female from
4.5 centimeters (about 2 inches), suggesting he may
be deploying a gas to knock out the femme fatale.
18. Cheap date: Certain cobweb spiders dine on
bugs poached from others’ webs. 19. Others dispense with the killing entirely. The jumping spider
Bagheera kiplingi—named in the 1800s after the
panther in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book—is mostly
a vegetarian. 20. Don’t want one of these things
jumping in your salad? Steven Kutcher, spider
wrangler on the film Arachnophobia, says a dusting
of talcum powder or a spritz of Lemon Pledge makes
a tabletop or other flat surface too slippery for the
critters to get any traction.

DV1110THINGS1A_QG.indd 80

YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT...

1. Think about money, work, economic outlook, family,

20
BY REBECCA COFFEY

can kill a person in less than an hour, and its fangs
can bite right through a shoe. 2. But for most people,
fear of spiders is a far greater problem than the spiders
themselves. Researchers at the University of São
Paulo have developed an improbable way to undo
arachnophobia by having patients stare at pictures
of “spiderlike” objects—a tripod, a carousel, a person
with dreadlocks. 3. Quackery? Apparently not. In a
2007 study, the scientists reported a 92 percent success rate. 4. And there is an upside to spider bites.
Take the Brazilian wandering spider, Phoneutria
nigriventer, whose venom causes painful penile erections that last for many hours (that’s the bad news).
5. The good news: The responsible toxin could yield
new treatments for erectile dysfunction. 6. The venom of the South American tarantula Grammostola
spatulata might be used to treat atrial fibrillation. It
contains a peptide that can calm an irregular heartbeat brought on by stress. 7. Back in Australia, Glenn
King at the University of Queensland is studying
the Blue Mountains funnel-web spider (Hadronyche

MICHAEL & PATRICIA FOGDEN/MINDEN PICTURES

…spiders and language and stress—and that is
THINGS
THINGS
YOU DIDN’T
wonderful,
YOUjust
DIDN’T the beginning! A total of 240
KNOW
KNOW
ABOUT
ABOUT
STRESS
SPIDERS
weird, and just plain eye-opening insights
about the world around you.
1. The venom of the Australian funnel-web spider

BY REBECCA COFFEY
ILLUSTRATION BY
JONATHON ROSEN

DISCOVER (ISSN 0274-7529, USPS# 555-190) is published monthly, except for combined issues in January/February and July/August. Vol. 32, no. 2. Published by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O.
Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612. Periodical postage paid at Waukesha, WI, and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to DISCOVER, P.O. Box 37808, Boone, IA 50037. Canada Publication
Agreement # 40010760, return all undeliverable Canadian addresses to P.O. Box 875, STN A Windsor, ON, N9A 6P2.
Back issues available. All rights reserved. Nothing herein contained may be reproduced without written permission of Kalmbach Publishing Co., 90 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10011. Printed in the U.S.A.

and relationships. Feeling anxious? You should be. In
a 2010 American Psychological Association survey,
those five factors were the most often cited sources of
stress for Americans. 2. Stress is strongly tied to cardiac
disease, hypertension, inflammatory diseases, and
compromised immune systems, and possibly to cancer.
3. And stress can literally break your heart. Takotsubo
cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” occurs
when the bottom of the heart balloons into the shape
of a pot (a tako-tsubo) used in Japan to trap octopus. It’s
caused when grief or another extreme stressor makes
stress hormones flood the heart. 4. The hormone cortisol is responsible for a lot of these ill effects. Elevated
cortisol gives us a short-term boost but also suppresses
the immune system, elevates blood sugar, and impedes
bone formation. 5. Even the next generation pays a
price: Researchers at the University of California, San
Francisco, find an association between high cortisol in
mothers during late pregnancy and lower iqs in their
children at age 7. 6. Stress during pregnancy has also
been linked to offspring with autism. 7. But enough
stressing! One way to relax: a career of mild obsolescence. Surveying 200 professions, the site CareerCast.
com rated bookbinder the least stressful job of 2011.
(Most stressful: firefighter and airline pilot.) 8. Or find
a new home. The online journal Portfolio.com looked
at America’s 50 biggest metro areas, analyzing such

criteria as employment, income, circulatory disease,
sunshine, and murder rate, and ranked Salt Lake City
as the least stressful. 9. The tensest? Detroit. 10. Lesson: Landing a 737 at Coleman Young International
Airport is not a good way to unwind. 11. Can’t relocate?
Perhaps you should take up violent video games.
Researchers at Texas A&M International University
gave 103 subjects frustrating tasks, then asked them to
play. Among subjects with a history of violent gaming,
the fake mayhem of Hitman: Blood Money and Call of
Duty 2 did a great job of easing stress. 12. You might
also try eating your veggies. Yale researchers reported
in the journal Military Medicine that after survival training, “carbohydrate administration”—eating complex
carbs like those in carrots and potatoes—boosted soldiers’ cognitive functioning. 13. No such luck with the
simple carbs in cake and cookies, alas. 14. And watch
what you don’t eat. Neuroscientists at the University
of Pennsylvania fattened up mice for four weeks, then
abruptly cut their caloric intake. When exposed to
stress, the animals responded with more depressionand anxiety-like behaviors than did their nondieting
peers. 15. One of the mouse stressors that the Penn
scientists used: being hung by the tail for six minutes.
16. Over at Louisiana State University, rats were subjected to unpredictable foot shocks and then allowed to
self-administer intravenous doses of cocaine. They used
more once the stress started. Who could blame them?
17. Addled brain syndrome: Scientists at the University
of Minho in Portugal and the U.S. National Institutes of
Health found that chronically stressed lab rats respond
habitually and ineffectively to stimuli. Trained to press a
lever to receive a treat, the rats kept pressing even after
they’d been fed. 18. The stressed rats’ brains showed
shrunken neurons in the dorsomedial striatum (an area
associated with goal-directed behavior) and growth in
the dorsolateral striatum (related to habitual behavior).
19. The results suggest that people, too, get locked into
rote behavior by stress. Sure enough, other studies show
that the primate hippocampus—central to learning
and memory—is damaged by long-term exposure to
cortisol. 20. Still, do you ever get the feeling that some
scientists are just taking out their stress on lab rats?

80
DISCOVER

DV0311THINGS1A_QG.indd 80

DISCOVER (ISSN 0274-7529, USPS# 555-190) is published monthly, except for combined issues in January/February and July/August. Vol. 32, no. 5. Published by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle,
P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612. Periodical postage paid at Waukesha, WI, and at additional mailing offices. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to DISCOVER, P.O. Box 37808, Boone, IA 50037. Canada
Publication Agreement # 40010760, return all undeliverable Canadian addresses to P.O. Box 875, STN A Windsor, ON, N9A 6P2.
Back issues available. All rights reserved. Nothing herein contained may be reproduced without written permission of Kalmbach Publishing Co., 275 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10001. Printed in the U.S.A.

1/4/11 11:34 AM

CIR-PRM-DSC2012

80
DISCOVER

20
THINGS
YOU DIDN’T
KNOW
ABOUT
STRESS
BY REBECCA COFFEY
ILLUSTRATION BY
JONATHON ROSEN

1
DISCOVER

1. Think about money, work, economic outlook, family,
and relationships. Feeling anxious? You should be. In
a 2010 American Psychological Association survey,
those five factors were the most often cited sources of
stress for Americans. 2. Stress is strongly tied to cardiac
disease, hypertension, inflammatory diseases, and
compromised immune systems, and possibly to cancer.
3. And stress can literally break your heart. Takotsubo
cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome,” occurs
when the bottom of the heart balloons into the shape
of a pot (a tako-tsubo) used in Japan to trap octopus. It’s
caused when grief or another extreme stressor makes
stress hormones flood the heart. 4. The hormone cortisol is responsible for a lot of these ill effects. Elevated
cortisol gives us a short-term boost but also suppresses
the immune system, elevates blood sugar, and impedes
bone formation. 5. Even the next generation pays a
price: Researchers at the University of California, San
Francisco, find an association between high cortisol in
mothers during late pregnancy and lower iqs in their
children at age 7. 6. Stress during pregnancy has also
been linked to offspring with autism. 7. But enough
stressing! One way to relax: a career of mild obsolescence. Surveying 200 professions, the site CareerCast.
com rated bookbinder the least stressful job of 2011.
(Most stressful: firefighter and airline pilot.) 8. Or find
a new home. The online journal Portfolio.com looked
at America’s 50 biggest metro areas, analyzing such

criteria as employment, income, circulatory disease,
sunshine, and murder rate, and ranked Salt Lake City
as the least stressful. 9. The tensest? Detroit. 10. Lesson: Landing a 737 at Coleman Young International
Airport is not a good way to unwind. 11. Can’t relocate?
Perhaps you should take up violent video games.
Researchers at Texas A&M International University
gave 103 subjects frustrating tasks, then asked them to
play. Among subjects with a history of violent gaming,
the fake mayhem of Hitman: Blood Money and Call of
Duty 2 did a great job of easing stress. 12. You might
also try eating your veggies. Yale researchers reported
in the journal Military Medicine that after survival training, “carbohydrate administration”—eating complex
carbs like those in carrots and potatoes—boosted soldiers’ cognitive functioning. 13. No such luck with the
simple carbs in cake and cookies, alas. 14. And watch
what you don’t eat. Neuroscientists at the University
of Pennsylvania fattened up mice for four weeks, then
abruptly cut their caloric intake. When exposed to
stress, the animals responded with more depressionand anxiety-like behaviors than did their nondieting
peers. 15. One of the mouse stressors that the Penn
scientists used: being hung by the tail for six minutes.
16. Over at Louisiana State University, rats were subjected to unpredictable foot shocks and then allowed to
self-administer intravenous doses of cocaine. They used
more once the stress started. Who could blame them?
17. Addled brain syndrome: Scientists at the University
of Minho in Portugal and the U.S. National Institutes of
Health found that chronically stressed lab rats respond
habitually and ineffectively to stimuli. Trained to press a
lever to receive a treat, the rats kept pressing even after
they’d been fed. 18. The stressed rats’ brains showed
shrunken neurons in the dorsomedial striatum (an area
associated with goal-directed behavior) and growth in
the dorsolateral striatum (related to habitual behavior).
19. The results suggest that people, too, get locked into
rote behavior by stress. Sure enough, other studies show
that the primate hippocampus—central to learning
and memory—is damaged by long-term exposure to
cortisol. 20. Still, do you ever get the feeling that some
scientists are just taking out their stress on lab rats?

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

THINGS YOU DIDN’T
KNOW ABOUT FIRE
By LeeAundra Keany

1. Fire is an event, not a thing. Heating wood or other
fuel releases volatile vapors that can rapidly combust
with oxygen in the air; the resulting incandescent bloom
of gas further heats the fuel, releasing more vapors
and perpetuating the cycle. 2. Most of the fuels we use
derive their energy from trapped solar rays. In photosynthesis, sunlight and heat make chemical energy (in the
form of wood or fossil fuel); fire uses chemical energy
to produce light and heat. 3. So a bonfire is basically a
tree running in reverse. 4. Assuming stable fuel, heat,
and oxygen levels, a typical house fire will double in size
every minute. 5. Earth is the only known planet where
fire can burn. Everywhere else: Not enough oxygen.
6. Conversely, the more oxygen, the hotter the fire. Air is
21 percent oxygen; combine pure oxygen with acetylene,
a chemical relative of methane, and you get an oxyacetylene welding torch that burns at over 5,500 degrees
Fahrenheit—the hottest fire you are likely to encounter.
7. Oxygen supply influences the color of the flame. A

LeeAundra Keany coaches public speaking to support her
writing habit. www.thecontrarypublicspeaker.com

2
DISCOVER

ANTHONY ARCIERO/GALLERYSTOCK.COM

20

low-oxygen fire contains lots of uncombusted fuel particles and will give off a yellow glow. A high-oxygen fire
burns blue. 8. So candle flames are blue at the bottom
because that’s where they take up fresh air, and yellow at
the top because the rising fumes from below partly suffocate the upper part of the flame. 9. Fire makes water?
It’s true. Place a cold spoon over a candle and you will
observe the water vapor condense on the metal...
10. ...because wax—like most organic materials, including wood and gasoline—contains hydrogen, which
bonds with oxygen to make H2O when it burns. Water
comes out your car’s tailpipe, too. 11. We’ve been at
this a long time: Charred bones and wood ash indicate
that early hominids were tending the first intentional
fires more than 400,000 years ago. 12. Nature’s been at
it awhile, too. A coal seam about 140 miles north of Sydney, Australia, has been burning by some estimates for
500,000 years. 13. The ancient Greeks started fire with
concentrated sunlight. A parabolic mirror that focuses
solar rays is still used to ignite the Olympic torch.
14. Every 52 years, when their calendar completed a
cycle, the Aztecs would extinguish every flame in the
empire. The high priest would start a new fire on the
ripped-open chest of a sacrificial victim. Fires fed from
this flame would be distributed throughout the land.
15. Good burn: The 1666 Great Fire of London destroyed
80 percent of the city but also ended an outbreak of
bubonic plague that had killed more than 65,000 people
the previous year. The fire fried the rats and fleas that carried Yersinia pestis, the plague-causing bacterium.
16. The Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin was the second deadliest blaze in United States history, taking 1,200 lives—
four times as many as the Great Chicago Fire. Both conflagrations broke out on the same day: October 8, 1871.
17. America’s deadliest fire took place April 27, 1865,
aboard the steamship Sultana. Among other passengers
were 1,500 recently released Union prisoners traveling
home up the Mississippi when the boilers exploded. The
ship was six times over capacity, which helps explain the
death toll of 1,547. 18. The Black Dragon Fire of 1987, the
largest wildfire in modern times, burned some 20 million
acres across China and the Soviet Union, an area about
the size of South Carolina. 19. Spontaneous combustion
is real. Some fuel sources can generate their own heat—
by rotting, for instance. Pistachios have so much natural
oil and are so prone to heat-generating fat decomposition that the International Maritime Dangerous Goods
Code regards them as dangerous. 20. Haystacks,
compost heaps, and even piles of old newspapers and
magazines can also burst into flame. A good reason to
recycle discover when you are done.

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

20

THINGS
YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT
MAGNETISM

BY REBECCA COFFEY
ILLUSTRATION BY
JONATHON ROSEN

3
DISCOVER

1. Magnetism is familiar to every fifth grader, but
describing it can confound even the most brilliant
physicist. 2. Take the case of Richard Feynman.
When asked to explain magnetism, he urged his bbc
interviewer to take it on faith. After seven minutes of
stonewalling, he finally said, “I really can’t do a good
job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms
of something else that you’re more familiar with
because I don’t understand it in terms of anything
else that you’re more familiar with.” 3. He did break
down and try for a few seconds before abandoning the attempt. Those seconds were packed with
oversimplifications: “All the electrons [in a magnet]
are spinning in the same direction.” 4. But who
better than Feynman would have known that not all
electrons spin in the same direction? 5. And they
don’t actually spin. “Spin” is just a physicist’s term for
the little magnetic north and south poles baked into
every electron. The orientation of those poles defines
the direction of the electron’s (somewhat imaginary)
rotation. 6. Why does every electron have those

poles? As soon as someone finds out, we’ll get back
to you. 7. Here is what we do know. Within an atom,
each electron is usually paired with an oppositeoriented electron so that their magnetic pulls cancel
each other out. 8. But if some of the electrons are
unpaired, they can be induced to move around so
that their poles line up, creating a net magnetic field.
The arrangement of the electrons in metals makes
them particularly open to magnetic peer pressure.
9. diy refrigerator magnet: Apply an external magnetic field to some hot metal. Cool it so the aligned
electrons get frozen in place. Slap on your local
plumber’s business card, and—voilà! 10. Yin Seeks
Yang for Magnetic Relationship. All magnets have
north and south poles, and opposite poles attract:
North poles seek south poles seek north poles seek
south poles seek . . . 11. You are standing on a magnet right now. The earth’s magnetic field is created
by electric currents in an ocean of molten iron at its
core. That’s why the north pole of a compass needle
points . . . er . . . why north? Since north poles are
attracted to south poles, the “north” arrow on your
compass actually points toward the earth’s south
magnetic pole, which is the one up north. Got it?
12. And the earth’s magnetic south (aka “north”)
pole isn’t even precisely at the geographic north pole.
Right now it is in the Arctic Ocean, near northern
Canada. 13. Worse still, it is constantly drifting in
response to currents in the earth’s core. It is moving
toward Siberia at a rate of up to 35 miles per year,
according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Hey, shift
happens. 14. Ancient mariners navigated by lodestone,
naturally occurring magnetic rocks. 15. Where lodestones come from is another mystery of magnetism.
Some geologists think they are created when lighting
strikes iron-rich rocks. 16. Microbes, birds, and
some other animals have magnetic crystals inside
their bodies that allow them to orient themselves.
17. That is probably why loggerhead turtles can
migrate 8,000 miles in unfamiliar waters while humans
can get lost looking for the men’s room at Olive Garden.
18. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (mri) machines
generate a field 60,000 times as intense as the
earth’s to vibrate the hydrogen atoms in your body;
in response, the atoms emit radio waves that are
analyzed to produce a map of your insides. 19. Using
a sensor the size of a sugar cube, researchers from the
National Institute of Standards and Technology can
track the magnetic pattern of a human heart. 20. The
signal is faint, but the good news is that science has
proved attraction is quantifiable. Word up, Hallmark.

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

THINGS
YOU DIDN’T
KNOW
ABOUT
SPIDERS

BY REBECCA COFFEY

4
DISCOVER

MICHAEL & PATRICIA FOGDEN/MINDEN PICTURES

20

1. The venom of the Australian funnel-web spider
can kill a person in less than an hour, and its fangs
can bite right through a shoe. 2. But for most people,
fear of spiders is a far greater problem than the spiders
themselves. Researchers at the University of São
Paulo have developed an improbable way to undo
arachnophobia by having patients stare at pictures
of “spiderlike” objects—a tripod, a carousel, a person
with dreadlocks. 3. Quackery? Apparently not. In a
2007 study, the scientists reported a 92 percent success rate. 4. And there is an upside to spider bites.
Take the Brazilian wandering spider, Phoneutria
nigriventer, whose venom causes painful penile erections that last for many hours (that’s the bad news).
5. The good news: The responsible toxin could yield
new treatments for erectile dysfunction. 6. The venom of the South American tarantula Grammostola
spatulata might be used to treat atrial fibrillation. It
contains a peptide that can calm an irregular heartbeat brought on by stress. 7. Back in Australia, Glenn
King at the University of Queensland is studying
the Blue Mountains funnel-web spider (Hadronyche

versuta) with an eye toward developing eco-friendly
pesticides. Proteins in this spider’s venom target
the nervous system of insects but leave humans
unharmed. 8. First, though, there’s the unpleasant
matter of getting the venom. Workers at the Spider
Pharm in Yarnell, Arizona, “milk” up to 1,000 spiders
a day. 9. The bugs are anesthetized with carbon
dioxide, then zapped with electricity, which makes
them release venom into minuscule glass capillaries connected to their fangs. 10. Web master:
Todd Blackledge at the University of Akron finds
that spider silk could be used as synthetic muscle.
Adjusting humidity up and down causes the silk to
expand and contract with 50 times the punch of the
equivalent mass of human muscle. 11. Blackledge
envisions spider silk someday being used to operate
miniature robotic devices and drug delivery systems.
12. Unlike many sticky things, the glue of orbed
web spiders gets stronger in the presence of water,
polymer scientists working with Blackledge have
discovered, suggesting that it might prove a useful
adhesive for surgery or for underwater engineering.
13. Spider-goat, Spider-goat, does whatever a spider
can: By manipulating genes, molecular biologists
at the University of Wyoming have gotten goats to
produce milk containing the protein that makes up
spider silk. 14. Next, scientists aim to introduce the
silk gene into alfalfa, which is far more efficient to
mass produce and, frankly, less creepy. 15. Safe sex:
The male nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis) will
bring a silk-wrapped insect to a female prior to mating so she will eat the gift—instead of him. 16. Safer
sex: The funnel-web spider Agelenopsis aperta has a
different approach, putting the female into a cataleptic state before mating so she won’t cannibalize
him. 17. Scientists at Radford University in Virginia
say the A. aperta male can disable the female from
4.5 centimeters (about 2 inches), suggesting he may
be deploying a gas to knock out the femme fatale.
18. Cheap date: Certain cobweb spiders dine on
bugs poached from others’ webs. 19. Others dispense with the killing entirely. The jumping spider
Bagheera kiplingi—named in the 1800s after the
panther in Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book—is mostly
a vegetarian. 20. Don’t want one of these things
jumping in your salad? Steven Kutcher, spider
wrangler on the film Arachnophobia, says a dusting
of talcum powder or a spritz of Lemon Pledge makes
a tabletop or other flat surface too slippery for the
critters to get any traction.

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

THINGS
YOU DIDN’T
KNOW
ABOUT
LANGUAGE
BY DEAN CHRISTOPHER

CODY TREPTE

20

1. The voice box sits lower in the throat in humans
than it does in other primates, giving us a uniquely
large resonating system. That’s why we alone are able
to make the wide range of sounds needed for speech.
2. That also explains Mariah Carey, Barry White, and
Robin Williams. 3. Unfortunately, the placement of our
voice box means we can’t breathe and swallow at the
same time, as other animals can (choke). 4. Fortunately, the human voice box doesn’t drop until about
9 months, which allows infants to breathe while nursing. 5. Still the one: Mandarin is the long-standing
champ among world languages with 845 million native
speakers, about 2.5 times as many as English. 6. But
more than 70 percent of all the home pages on the
Internet are in English, and more online users speak
English than any other language, making it the world’s
lingua franca (assuming you consider brb, omg, g2g, and
rofl English). 7. Hey, the world will never change—
right? English is mandatory for every student in China,
starting in third grade. But in America, only 3 percent of
elementary schools and 4 percent of secondary schools
even offer Chinese. 8. Many science-related English

words starting with the letters al—including algebra,
alkaline, and algorithm—are derived from Arabic, in
which the prefix al just means “the.” 9. This is a legacy
of the medieval era, when ancient Greek and Roman
knowledge was largely lost in Europe but preserved
and advanced among scholars in the Islamic world.
10. Modern technology is making everything smaller,
even our words. “Bits of eight” shrank to become byte,
“modulate/demodulate” became modem, “picture
cell” became pixel, and of course “web log” became
blog. 11. At the other end, the longest word recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary is pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease
caused by inhaling volcanic silicon dust. 12. Grüss dich,
Dunkelheit, mein alter Freund. Three- to five-day-olds
born into French-speaking families tend to cry with
the rising intonation characteristic of French; babies
with German-speaking parents cry with falling tones,
much like spoken German. Infants may start learning language in the womb, it seems. 13. The neural
equipment for language development then seems
to ripen between birth and age 3. People deprived of
language before puberty (due to isolation or abuse, for
instance) might later learn a limited supply of words,
but they never develop the ability to make meaningful
sentences. 14. Other clues about language processing
come from damaged brains. People who have sustained
an injury to a region called Broca’s area have trouble
producing even short phrases, indicating it is critical
to speech. 15. And damage to the brain’s superior
temporal gyrus can lead to Wernicke’s aphasia. Patients
sound as if they are speaking normally, but what they
say makes no sense. 16. In old Westerns, Native
Americans often made a sound like “ugh.” This wasn’t
a commentary on the plots; it was a naive attempt to
reproduce the sound of the glottal stop of many Native
American languages, produced by briefly closing the
vocal cords during speech. 17. !Say !What? When
the Dutch encountered Africa’s Nama people, whose
language includes clicking sounds, they dubbed them
Hottentots, Dutch for “stuttering.” 18. Really foreign
sounds: Spanish Silbo, a whistle language, has only four
vowel and four consonant sounds. Audible for miles,
it resembles bird calls and is indigenous to—where
else?—the Canary Islands. 19. Indian Sign Language is
the world’s most widespread silent language, with some
2.7 million users. 20. Another sound of silence: More
than one-third of the world’s 6,800 spoken languages
are endangered. According to UNESCO, about 200
tongues now have fewer than 10 surviving speakers.

® (ISSN 0274-7529) is published monthly, except for combined issues in January/February and July/August, by Kalmbach Publishing Co., 21027 Crossroads Circle, P.O. Box 1612, Waukesha, WI 53187-1612.
for one year (U.S. funds only). Back issues available. All rights reserved. Nothing herein contained may be reproduced without written permission of the publisher. POSTMASTER: Please address all subscription correspondence, including change of address, to DISCOVER, P.O. Box 37808, Boone, IA 50037, or call toll-free 800-829-9132; outside the U.S., 515-247-7569. Printed in the U.S.

5
DISCOVER

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

20
By LeeAundra Keany

6
DISCOVER

1. Sausages, a blend of meat or
blood protein, fat, and spices, were
the first processed food. In The Odyssey Homer unflatteringly compares
Odysseus to a fat sausage. 2. The
English word sausage comes from
the Latin salsus, meaning “salted.”
Salt is key to a good link because it
dissolves the muscle fiber in meat so
the fat can float in a chewy protein
matrix. Hungry yet? 3. The Roman
word for sausage, botulus, is the
origin of the word botulism. The
sausage production process creates
a warm, moist, anaerobic environment ideal for Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that produces
the botulin toxin. 4. In Asia and
later the Mediterranean, sausages
were left out to ferment, producing
lactic acid that retarded the growth
of spoilage bacteria. 5. Nitrites—
chemicals added to cure the sausage—kill botulism more reliably.
6. Unfortunately, nitrites also
combine with amines, the natural
breakdown products of proteins, to
form cancer-causing nitrosamines.
7. Before you vegetarians get on
your high tofu horse: Nitrites and
their chemical relatives, nitrates,
are ubiquitous in plants, including
vegetables and grains. 8. Over the
past 60 years vegetables, fish, and
home-canned foods have caused
more outbreaks of botulism than
beef, pork, and chicken. 9. And
he’s still here to tell the tale. Joey
“Jaws” Chestnut scarfed 68 hot dogs

in 10 minutes at the 2009 Nathan’s
Famous International Hot Dog
Eating Contest on Coney Island, the
current world record. 10. Tip for
trying this at home: Soak the bun in
water. 11. Another tip: Don’t try this
at home. Hot dogs cause 17 percent of
food-related asphyxiations in children
under 10. 12. Zigeunerwurst, bierschinken, and jagdwurst. Germany
produces the greatest variety of
wursts, with over 1,000 combinations
of ingredients. 13. Does the thought
of haggis make you want to hurl?
You can do it for real at haggis-hurling
competitions held at the Scottish
Highland Games. 14. The record is
held either by Alan Pettigrew, who
hurled a 1 pound 8 ounce haggis
more than 180 feet, or Lorne Coltart,
whose 1 pound 4 ounce haggis traveled 214 feet 9 inches. Some sports
have better record keeping than others. 15. Not retching yet? Take some
time to consider haggis ingredients:
sheep’s stomach, lamb heart and
lungs, beef, suet, onion, oatmeal,

salt, spices, and stock, simmered in
the stomach of the sheep. 16. You
thought you didn’t want to know
what was inside. Traditional sausage
is encased in the submucosa, the
collagen layer of animal intestines.
For mortadella, that means cow
bladders; for liverwurst, pig bungs.
17. Too-hot hot dogs: The friction
inside a meat grinder running full
tilt can create a temperature of
120°F. To keep from melting the
fat, some sausage makers dip their
grinders in liquid nitrogen.
18. Modern hot dogs incorporate
the most complex process in sausage making, emulsification. Wieners must be blended perfectly so
that the fat is evenly distributed and
stabilized by protein. 19. Mark Post
at Germany’s Maastricht University
is trying to create sausage minus the
pig. For his prototype he is growing
mouse muscle from stem cells in
a petri dish. Thousands of muscle
strips later: cruelty-free mouse sausage. 20. Now are you hungry?

DAVID LIDBETTER/GALLERY STOCK

THINGS YOU
DIDN’T KNOW
ABOUT
SAUSAGE

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

20
THINGS YOU DIDN’T
KNOW ABOUT KISSING
BY SHERIL KIRSHENBAUM • ILLUSTRATION BY JONATHON ROSEN

1. Only you: Human lips are different from those of all other

Sheril
Kirshenbaum’s
latest book is
The Science of
Kissing: What Our
Lips Are Telling Us
(January 2011,
Grand Central
Publishing).

7
DISCOVER

animals because they are everted, meaning that they purse
outward. 2. But we are not the only species to engage in
kissing-like behaviors. Great apes press their lips together
to express excitement, affection, or reconciliation.
3. Scientists are not sure why humans kiss, but some
think the answer lies in early feeding experiences. Through
nursing and (in some cultures) receiving pre-chewed
food from a parent’s mouth, infants may learn to associate lip pressure with a loving act. 4. Another possibility:
Smelling a loved one’s cheek has long served as a means
of recognition in cultures around the world, from New
Zealand to Alaska. Over time, a brush of the lips may have
become a traditional accompaniment. 5. And yet kissing
is not universal, leading some experts, like anthropologist
Vaughn Bryant of Texas A&M, to think it might actually
be a learned behavior. 6. The Roman military introduced
kissing to many non-kissing cultures (after its conquests

were over, presumably); later it was European explorers who
carried the torch. 7. Being close enough to kiss helps
our noses assess compatibility. In a landmark study,
evolutionary biologist Claus Wedekind of the University of
Lausanne in Switzerland reported that women prefer the
scents of men whose immunity-coding genes are different from their own. Mixing genes that way may produce
offspring with a stronger immune system. 8. Wedekind’s
experiment, widely known as the “sweaty T-shirt study,”
involved very little sweat. Male participants were asked
to shower beforehand so their scent would be faint. 9. The
earliest literary evidence for kissing comes from northern
India’s Vedic Sanskrit texts, written 1,000 to 2,000 years
ago. A portion of the Satapatha Brahmana mentions lovers
“setting mouth to mouth.” 10. Love Is the Drug: Dopamine,
a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of desire and
reward, spikes in response to novel experiences, which
explains why a kiss with someone new can feel so special.
11. In some people, a jolt of dopamine can cause a loss of
appetite and an inability to sleep, symptoms commonly
associated with falling in love. 12. Can’t Get Enough of Your
Love: Dopamine is produced in the ventral tegmental area
of the brain, the same region affected by addictive drugs like
cocaine. 13. In men, a passionate kiss can also promote the
hormone oxytocin, which fosters bonding and attachment, according to behavioral neuroscientist Wendy Hill
of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. 14. Holding hands
and kissing reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol,
thereby lowering blood pressure and optimizing immune
response. 15. And a passionate kiss has the same effect
as belladonna in making our pupils dilate. 16. Prelude to
a Kiss: Two-thirds of all people turn their head to the right
when kissing, according to psychologist Onur Güntürkün
of Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany. This behavior
may mirror the head-turning preference observed in babies
and even in fetuses. 17. Evolutionary psychologists have
discovered that men are far more likely to prefer sloppy
tongue kisses than women. 18. The exchange of saliva
could provide a reproductive advantage for males. During
an open-mouthed kiss, a man passes a bit of testosterone
to his partner. Over weeks and months, repeated kissing
could enhance a female’s libido, making her more receptive to sex. 19. Always brush and floss, boys. Evolutionary
psychologist Gordon Gallup of the State University of New
York at Albany found that when deciding whether to kiss
someone, women pay much closer attention than men
do to the breath and teeth of their partner. 20. You Give
Love a Bad Name: One milliliter of saliva contains about
100,000,000 bacteria.
www.DiscoverMagazine.com

THINGS YOU
DIDN’T KNOW
ABOUT THE
PERIODIC TABLE
By Rebecca Coffey

Mendeleyev is above. Rebecca Coffey’s blog, The Excuses I’m
Going With, is at rebeccacoffey.blogspot.com

8
DISCOVER

their number of protons, or “atomic
number,” which determines an atom’s
configuration of oppositely charged
electrons and hence its chemical
properties. 12. Noble gases (far right
on the periodic table) have closed
shells of electrons, which is why they
are nearly inert. 13. Atomic love: Take
a modern periodic table, cut out the
complicated middle columns, and
fold it once along the middle of the
Group 4 elements. The groups that
kiss have complementary electron
structures and will combine with each
other. 14. Sodium touches chlorine—
table salt! You can predict other common compounds like potassium chloride, used in very large doses as part
of a lethal injection. 15. The Group 4
elements in the middle bond readily
with each other and with themselves.
Silicon + silicon + silicon ad infinitum
links up into crystalline lattices, used to
make semiconductors for computers.
16. Carbon atoms—also Group 4—
bond in long chains, and voilà: sugars.
The chemical flexibility of carbon is
what makes it the key molecule of life.
17. Mendeleyev wrongly assumed that
all elements are unchanging. But radioactive atoms have unstable nuclei,
meaning they can move around the
chart. For example, uranium (element
92) gradually decays into a whole series
of lighter elements, ending with lead
(element 82). 18. Beyond the edge:
Atoms with atomic numbers higher
than 92 do not exist naturally, but they
can be created by bombarding elements with other elements or pieces
of them. 19. The two newest members
of the periodic table, still-unnamed
elements 114 and 116, were officially
recognized last June. Number 116
decays and disappears in milliseconds.
20. Physicist Richard Feynman once
predicted that number 137 defines the
table’s outer limit; adding any more
protons would produce an energy that
could be quantified only by an imaginary number, rendering element 138
and higher impossible. Maybe.

APIC/GETTY IMAGES

20

1. You may remember the Periodic
Table of the Elements as a dreary chart
on your classroom wall. If so, you never
guessed its real purpose: It’s a giant
cheat sheet. 2. The table has served
chemistry students since 1869, when it
was created by Dmitry Mendeleyev, a
cranky professor at the University of St.
Petersburg. 3. With a publisher’s deadline looming, Mendeleyev didn’t have
time to describe all 63 then-known
elements. So he turned to a data set of
atomic weights meticulously gathered
by others. 4. To determine those
weights, scientists had passed currents
through various solutions to break
them up into their constituent atoms.
Responding to a battery’s polarity, the
atoms of one element would go thisaway, the atoms of another thataway.
The atoms were collected in separate
containers and then weighed. 5. From
this process, chemists determined
relative weights—which were all
Mendeleyev needed to establish a useful ranking. 6. Fond of card games, he
wrote the weight for each element on
a separate index card and sorted them
as in solitaire. Elements with similar
properties formed a “suit” that he
placed in columns ordered by ascending atomic weight. 7. Now he had a
new Periodic Law (“Elements arranged
according to the value of their atomic
weights present a clear periodicity
of properties”) that described one
pattern for all 63 elements. 8. Where
Mendeleyev’s table had blank spaces,
he correctly predicted the weights and
chemical behaviors of some missing
elements—gallium, scandium, and
germanium. 9. But when argon was
discovered in 1894, it didn’t fit into any
of Mendeleyev’s columns, so he denied
its existence—as he did for helium,
neon, krypton, xenon, and radon.
10. In 1902 he acknowledged he had
not anticipated the existence of these
overlooked, incredibly unreactive elements—the noble gases—which now
constitute the entire eighth group of
the table. 11. Now we sort elements by

For a printable periodic table visit: discovermagazine.com/web/periodictable

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

THINGS YOU DIDN’T
KNOW ABOUT ALCOHOL
By LeeAundra Keany

1. Sobering disclaimer: The family of compounds
known as alcohols are all toxins that can kill you,
whether instantly, quickly, or gradually. 2. Yet one
of them—ethyl alcohol, or ethanol—is a staple of
the human diet. Archaeologist Patrick McGovern
speculates that fermented beverages were made as
early as 100,000 years ago, when people first spread
out of Africa. 3. The seeds Johnny Appleseed sold
to farmers throughout Ohio and Indiana produced
apples that were inedible, but perfect for making
hard cider. 4. According to the Drunken Monkey
Hypothesis, our zest for alcoholic beverages derives
from our distant ancestors’ impulse to seek the
ripest, most energy-intensive fruits. 5. Designated
driver at the zoo: The Malaysian pen-tailed treeshrew
routinely chugs the equivalent of nine glasses of
wine a night in naturally fermented nectar, and yet it
remains fully functional. 6. For a treeshrew, that is.
7. Fermentation occurs when enzymes, typically produced by yeast, convert sugar molecules in grapes or
grains into ethanol. 8. That process can also happen
in your digestive system, spiking every 100 ml of
blood with 0.01 to 0.03 mg of alcohol. 9. Seriously,
officer! Japanese doctors have observed patients
with “auto-brewery syndrome,” in which high levels
of candida yeast in the intestines churn out so much

LeeAundra Keany coaches
public speaking to support her
writing habit. Her website is
thecontrarypublicspeaker.com

9
DISCOVER

ISTOCK

20

alcohol that they can cause drunkenness. 10. No
digestion required. Ethanol is such a small, simple
molecule—just two carbon atoms, six hydrogens,
and a spare oxygen—that it pours directly out of the
stomach and small intestine into the bloodstream.
11. A lean, muscular person will be less affected by
drink than someone with more body fat: Water-rich
muscle tissues absorb alcohol effectively, preventing it from reaching the brain. 12. Drunkenness is
considered an impairment of the neurons in your
head, but Australian researchers recently reported
that part of the feeling may result instead from the
effect of ethanol on the brain’s immune system. The
finding could lead to new treatments for alcoholism.
13. The times they are a-changin’. In 1895 AnheuserBusch launched Malt-Nutrine, a 1.9 percent-alcoholcontent beer prescribed by physicians as a tonic
for pregnant women and a nutritional beverage for
children. 14. Until 1916 whiskey and brandy were
listed as scientifically approved medicines in the
United States Pharmacopeia. 15. Drinking and driving: Surplus wine in Sweden is distilled into ethanol,
mixed with gasoline, and sold to service stations.
16. Ethanol was widely used as an industrial fuel in
America until a tax on alcoholic beverages, levied
to help pay for the Civil War, prompted a switch to
kerosene and methanol. 17. Methanol, a distillation
of wood pulp, can destroy the optic nerves. “Blind
drunk” was Prohibition-era slang for damage
caused by drinking grain alcohol that had been cut
with methanol by unscrupulous bootleggers.
18. Interstellar brewery: The nebulas where stars
form abound with hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen,
the atomic building blocks of alcohol. 19. Sure
enough, astronomers found vast quantities of ethanol—as much as that in 400 trillion trillion beers—
in G34.3, an interstellar cloud
some 10,000 light-years from
Earth. 20. Resolution for 2012:
Don’t stare at the cork. The
carbon dioxide in champagne
bottles creates 90 pounds of
pressure per square inch, three
times the pressure in automobile
tires. Flying corks can cause
retina detachment, double
vision, and blindness.
Happy New Year!

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

20 THINGS YOU
DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT
THE PENCIL

2 And bad juju for anyone linked
to Watergate: In his autobiography,
G. Gordon Liddy describes finding
John Dean (whom he despised for
“disloyalty”) alone in a room. Spotting
sharpened pencils on a desk, Liddy
fleetingly considered driving one into
Dean’s throat.
3 Graphite, a crystallized form of
carbon, was discovered near Keswick,
England, in the mid-16th century. An
18th-century German chemist, A. G.
Werner, named it, sensibly enough,
from the Greek graphein, “to write.”
4 The word “pencil” derives from the
Latin penicillus, meaning—not so
sensibly—“little tail.”
5 Pencil marks are made when tiny
graphite flecks, often just thousandths
of an inch wide, stick to the fibers that
make up paper.
6 Got time to kill? The average pencil
holds enough graphite to draw a line
about 35 miles long or to write roughly
45,000 words. History does not record
anyone testing this statistic.
7 The Greek poet Philip of Thessaloníki
wrote of leaden writing instruments in
the first century B.C., but the modern
pencil, as described by Swiss naturalist
Conrad Gesner, dates only to 1565.
8 French pencil boosters include
Nicolas-Jacques Conté, who patented
a clay-and-graphite manufacturing
process in 1795; Bernard Lassimone,
who patented the first pencil sharpener
in 1828; and Therry des Estwaux, who
10
DISCOVER

invented an improved mechanical
sharpener in 1847.
9 French researchers also hit on the
idea of using caoutchouc, a vegetable
gum now known as rubber, to erase
pencil marks. Until then, writers
removed mistakes with bread crumbs.
10 Most pencils sold in America
today have eraser tips, while those
sold in Europe usually have none. Are
Europeans more confident scribblers?
11 Henry David Thoreau—American,
but a confident scribbler all the
same—used pencils to write Walden.
And he probably got them free. His
father owned a pencil-making business
near Boston, where Henry allegedly
designed his own pencils before
becoming a semi-recluse.
12 In 1861, Eberhard Faber built the
first American mass-production pencil
factory in New York City.

NASA engineers worried about the
flammability of wood pencils in a pureoxygen atmosphere, not to mention the
menace of floating bits of graphite.
18 Those concerns inspired Paul Fisher
to develop the pressurized Fisher
Space Pen in 1965. After the Apollo 1
fire, NASA banned pencils in favor of
his pen on manned spaceflights.
19 The world’s largest pencil is
a Castell 9000, on display at the
manufacturer’s plant near Kuala
Lumpur. Made of Malaysian wood and
polymer, it stands 65 feet high.
20 At the other extreme, engineers at
the University of California at Santa
Barbara have used an atomic force
microscope as a kind of pencil to draw
lines 50 nanometers (two millionths of
an inch) wide. Just because they could.
Dean Christopher

13 Pencils were among the basic
equipment issued to Union soldiers
during the Civil War.
14 The mechanical pencil was patented
in 1822. The company founded by
its British developers prospered until
1941, when the factory was bombed,
presumably by pencil-hating Nazis.
15 Je suis un crayon rouge. After
the 1917 Soviet revolution, American
entrepreneur Armand Hammer was
awarded a monopoly for pencil
manufacturing in the USSR.
KELLY REDINGER/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS.

1 There is no risk of lead poisoning if
you stab yourself (or someone else)
with a pencil because it contains
no lead—just a mixture of clay and
graphite. Still, pencil wounds carry
a risk of infection for the stabees,
lawsuits for stabbers.

16 More than half of all pencils come
from China. In 2004, factories there
turned out 10 billion pencils, enough to
circle the earth more than 40 times.
17 Pencils can write in zero gravity and
so were used on early American and
Russian space missions—even though

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20 THINGS YOU
DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT HYGIENE
1 “Hygiene” comes from Hygieia, the
Greek goddess of health, cleanliness,
and . . . the moon. Ancient Greek gods
apparently worked double shifts.
2 The human body is home to some
1,000 species of bacteria. There are
more germs on your body than people
in the United States.
3 Not tonight dear, I just washed my
hands: Antibacterial soap is no more
effective at preventing infection than
regular soap, and triclosan (the active
ingredient) can mess with your sex
hormones.
4 Save the germs! A study of over
11,000 children determined that an
overly hygienic environment increases
the risk of eczema and asthma.
5 Monks of the Jain Dharma (a
minority religion in India) are forbidden
to bathe any part of their bodies
besides the hands and feet, believing
the act of bathing might jeopardize the
lives of millions of microorganisms.
6 It’s a good thing they’re monks.
7 Soap gets its name from the
mythological Mount Sapo. Fat and
wood ash from animal sacrifices there
washed into the Tiber River, creating a
rudimentary cleaning agent that aided
women doing their washing.

10 That’s their excuse, anyway:
Excrement dumped out of windows
into the streets in 18th-century London
contaminated the city’s water supply
and forced locals to drink gin instead.
11 A seventh grader in Florida recently
won her school science fair by
proving there are more bacteria in ice
machines at fast-food restaurants than
in toilet bowl water.
12 There’s no “five-second rule” when
it comes to dropping food on the
ground. Bacteria need no time at all to
contaminate food.
13 The first true toothbrush, consisting
of Siberian pig hair bristles wired into
carved cattle-bone handles, was
invented in China in 1498. But tooth
brushing didn’t become routine in the
United States until it was enforced on
soldiers during World War II.
14 Please don’t squeeze the corncob.
In 1935, Northern Tissue proudly
introduced “splinter-free” toilet paper.
Previous options included tundra moss
for Eskimos, a sponge with salt water
for Romans, and—hopefully splinterfree—corncobs in the American West.
15 NASA recently spent $23.4 million
designing a toilet for the Space Shuttle
that would defy zero gravity with

suction technology at 850 liters of airflow
per minute. That’s a lot of money for a
toilet that sucks.
16 In 1843, Oliver Wendell Holmes
Sr. campaigned for basic sanitation
in hospitals. But this clashed with
social ideas of the time and met with
widespread disdain. Charles Meigs,
a prominent American obstetrician,
retorted, “Doctors are gentlemen, and
gentlemen’s hands are clean.”
17 Up to a quarter of all women
giving birth in European and American
hospitals in the 17th through 19th
centuries died of puerperal fever, an
infection spread by unhygienic nurses
and doctors.
18 TV kills! University of Arizona
researchers determined that television
remotes are the worst carriers of bacteria
in hospital rooms, worse even than toilet
handles. Remotes spread antibioticresistant Staphylococcus, which
contributes to the 90,000 annual deaths
from infection acquired in hospitals.
19 It is now believed President James
Garfield died not from the bullet fired
by Charles Guiteau but because the
medical team treated the president
with manure-stained hands, causing
a severe infection that killed him three
months later.
20 What on earth made them think
manure-stained hands were remotely
acceptable to treat anyone?
Liza Lentini and David Mouzon

M. NEUGEBAUER/ZEFA/CORBIS.
CREDITS

8 Ancient Egyptians and Aztecs rubbed
urine on their skin to treat cuts and
burns. Urea, a key chemical in urine, is
known to kill fungi and bacteria.

9 In a small victory for cleanliness,
England’s medieval King Henry IV
required his knights to bathe at least
once in their lives—during their ritual
knighthood ceremonies.

11
DISCOVER

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

All those petri dishes, but
nary a handkerchief to
hand: Thanks to a wayward
sneeze, Alexander Fleming
discovered a new antibiotic.

12 Perhaps he should have chucked it
out instead: In 2005 the Environmental
Protection Agency identified a Teflon
ingredient, perfluorooctanoic acid, as
a “likely carcinogen.” It is now in the
bloodstream of 95 percent of Americans.
13 After a 1992 drug trial in the Welsh
mining town of Merthyr Tydfil, male
subjects reported that sildenafil citrate
hadn’t done much for their angina, but
it did have an unusual side effect on
another part of their anatomy. Today the
drug is sold as Viagra.

1 There went our best chance: In
the ninth century, a team of Chinese
alchemists trying to synthesize an “elixir
of immortality” from saltpeter, sulfur,
realgar, and dried honey instead invented
gunpowder.
2 German scientist Hennig Brand stored
50 buckets of urine in his cellar for
months in 1675, hoping that it would
turn into gold. Instead, an obscure mix of
alchemy and chemistry yielded a waxy,
glowing goo that spontaneously burst
into flame—the element now known as
phosphorus.
3 Soldiers supplied the raw material in
vast, sloshing quantities until the 1750s,
when Swedish chemist Carl Scheele
developed an industrial method of
producing phosphorus. He discovered
eight other elements, including chlorine,
oxygen, and nitrogen, and compounds like
ammonia, glycerin, and prussic acid.
4 Scheele was found dead in his lab at
age 43, perhaps owing to his propensity
for tasting his own toxic chemicals.
5 Kevlar, superglue, cellophane, Post-it
notes, photographs, and the phonograph:
They all emerged from laboratory blunders.
6 The Flash, created in 1940 for AllAmerican Publications, was the first comic
12
DISCOVER

book hero to develop superpowers after a
lab accident, attaining “super speed” after
inhaling “hard water” vapors.
7 Other beneficiaries of the Freak Lab
Mishap include Plastic Man (struck by a
falling drum full of acid), the Hulk (irradiated
by an experimental bomb), and of course,
Spider-Man (bitten by a radioactive spider).
8 In real life, perhaps a bigger risk
comes from lab-contracted diseases.
The world’s last documented case
of smallpox killed photographer
Janet Parker in 1978 after the virus
escaped from a lab at the University of
Birmingham in England.
9 But sometimes humans strike back:
Alexander Fleming, famous for his
serendipitous discovery of penicillin, also
chanced upon an antibiotic enzyme in
nasal mucus when he sneezed onto a
bacterial sample and noticed that his snot
kept the microbes in check.
10 The lab-accident rate in schools and
colleges is 100 to 1,000 times greater than
at firms like Dow or DuPont.
11 In 1938 DuPont chemist Roy
Plunkett opened a dud canister of
tetrafluoroethylene gas and discovered an
amazing, nearly friction-free white powder.
He named it Teflon.

14 In 1943 Swiss chemist Albert
Hoffman inadvertently absorbed a small
quantity of lysergic acid through his
fingertips and experienced “dizziness . . .
visual distortions . . . [a] desire to laugh.”
The age of LSD had begun.
15 Hoffman’s long, strange trip continues.
He turned 100 this past January.
16 Why he’s not the father of the electric
chair: While trying to electrocute a turkey,
Benjamin Franklin sent a whopping jolt
from two Leyden jars into his own body.
“The flash was very great and the crack
as loud as a Pistol,” he wrote, describing
the incident as an “Experiment in
Electricity that I desire never to repeat.”
17 In 1965 astronomers Arno Penzias and
Robert Wilson scrubbed their Bell Labs
radio antenna to rid it of pigeon droppings,
which they suspected were causing the
instrument’s annoying steady hiss.
18 That noise turned out to be the
microwave echo of the Big Bang.
19 The world has scores of superpowerful
particle accelerators. Last year, a fireball
created at the Relativistic Heavy Ion
Collider in Upton, New York, had the
characteristics of a black hole. Physicists
are reasonably sure that no such black
holes could escape and consume Earth.
20 Reasonably.
Sean Markey

www.DiscoverMagazine.com

CORBIS.

20 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT
LAB ACCIDENTS

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