Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Fighting Holiday Fatigue: How to make it to Midnight

The holidays can be rough on your body. Between dinners, parties, eating insane amounts of cookies, and travelling, by the time you make it to New Year’s Eve you may find yourself teetering on your feet like a character in Mortal Combat with “Finish Him!” flashing over your head. The most obvious manifestation of the holiday grind is fatigue. As you struggle to get all your shopping done and make it to the necessary relatives’ houses at the same time that you constantly adjust your sleep schedule, it is totally understandable to end up extremely tired. However, understandable as it may be, December shows no mercy. We cap off this exhausting time of year by ritualistically staying up until midnight. Fortunately, a keen understanding of science can help you boost your energy and make it to the ball drop alert and possibly even in a good mood.


The first key to the energy puzzle is eating the right foods. While you may be tempted to load up on sugar to propel you into the night, holiday favourites like cookies and chocolates are a bad idea. Sure, they will give you a boost immediately after you eat them as your blood sugar spikes, but empty calories burn through quickly, after which you will be saddled with a sugar crash. Likewise, you’ll want to take it easy on any leftover Christmas turkey, as the natural tryptophan will make you groggy and longing for a nap. Instead you’ll want to reach for foods that will provide you with stable energy over the long haul. Foods that take longer to digest and that are rich in nutrients are your best bets. WebMD recommends peanut butter on whole wheat crackers, yoghurt, nuts, and carrots with low-fat cream cheese.


With all the running around and socializing you’re bound to do at the New Year’s Eve party of your choosing, it is easy to forget to drink water. To make things worse, there will likely be a steady flow of wine, champagne, eggnog, and other festive libations at hand which will drain your body of water even more (alcohol is a diuretic, which makes you pee a lot), while the depressive effects make you want to sleep. But when you want to stay awake, water is your friend. Keeping properly hydrated allows all your body’s systems to function more efficiently so you waste less energy. Staying hydrated also keeps your body temperature more stable. Predictable metabolism is the key to your body making effective use of the fuel you provide it with. All great reasons to keep a glass of nature’s magic elixir close by on your way to the countdown.


Another important factor in fighting fatigue is arranging your surroundings to promote energy. Your body naturally picks up on a lot of external cues, including temperature and light exposure, and adjusts your internal clock accordingly. Anyone who has ever heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder understands that as the days get shorter and light gets more scarce, it is natural to feel less energetic and even depressed. If you are hosting a New Year’s Eve party and want to keep your guests awake and engaged, make sure the room is well lit. You may also want to invite a lot of people to keep conversations dynamic and ongoing. Experts agree that engaging in mentally stimulating activities – like talking to other people – can help keep energy levels high.


Finally, and somewhat confusingly if you read our article last week about how to make yourself fall asleep, exercise is a great way to moderate your energy levels. While working out at high intensity can definitely exhaust you, working out at a moderate level for 20 to 30 minutes can actually give you an energy boost. Doing so regularly can also help with that whole efficiency thing we’ve been talking about. Keeping your body in tip-top shape will make the most of the energy you already have.

When you have the energy to make it through the party without fixating on getting to sleep, New Year’s Eve can potentially be one of the highlights of your holiday season. If you plan ahead and avoid leaning on shortcuts like caffeine (or PCP), you will find yourself happy, healthy, and awake right up until the clock strikes midnight.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Sketchy Fact #109: Family Feasts

Sharing a meal with family around the holidays is an evolutionary instinct to build strong bonds by
offering your most valuable food stuffs. Anthropologists believe that even 2 million years ago, Homo ergaster (an ancestor of modern humans) gathered food for feasts.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Chasing Z’s: How to Fall Asleep on Christmas Eve

It is the eve of Christmas Eve (December 23) and around the world children are on their best behaviours in anticipation of the night that Santa will travel to every house on the planet, delivering gifts using his advanced stealth technology and potentially a super-fleet of military aircraft. However, the anticipation of Christmas morning is counterproductive to the means by which we bring it closer. Put simply, we can all relate to getting so damn excited about the holidays that it becomes impossible to sleep the night before. Not only does this make the time pass more slowly; it prohibits Santa from working his techno-magic and breaking into our houses undetected. With that in mind, we have four methods you can use to get yourself to sleep and out of the fat man’s way:


The most obvious solution to the problem is to pop a few sleeping pills or down a bottle of Nyquil. Sleep medications work in a few different ways. For some medications (allergy meds in particular), drowsiness is just a side effect of their main purpose. These medications are appealing because they are easy to acquire and are generally less dangerous than prescription sleep aids. The drugs that are harder to get, however, tend to be more targeted in their strategies. Most sleeping pills bind to your brain’s GABA receptors. GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. In layman’s terms, it is a chemical produced naturally in your brain that dials down activity.  Some prescription sleep aids are able to bind to GABA receptors in regions of the brain specifically associated with sleep, leaving other areas unaffected. Other, newer medications can even target the part of your brain that produces your body’s natural sleep-wake rhythms (the hypothalamus). These solutions aren’t perfect, though. They can lead to memory loss, hallucinations, and even instances of sleep-walking. Also, some people have an “issue” drugging their kids for something as trivial as getting them to sleep on a non-school night, so let’s explore some other options and try to find a kid-friendly one.


When in doubt, break out the eggnog. Truly, words to live by. As many of us are aware, part of the process of gradually poisoning yourself with alcohol is that, at some point, you might pass out. Alcohol is a depressant, meaning that it impairs function in certain parts of your brain. We all know the impact this can have on coordinated motor functions like walking and talking, but it also applies to the deeper, more primal regions of your brain that control very basic things like keeping you conscious. As alcohol spreads through your brain it naturally wants to equally disperse itself. That means, while you may only want to turn off the parts of your brain that are preventing you from talking to the attractive intern at the office Christmas party, eventually the booze will work its way into your brain’s alertness centre. When that happens, your body will basically shut down. This may be a good thing if your goal is to suddenly find yourself waking up in a bathtub on Christmas morning, but it does have its drawbacks. Completely ignoring the prospect of an absolutely epic hangover (turn down the Christmas carols, please) you may overshoot your target level of intoxication and end up dead from alcohol poisoning. Sorry, kids.


Simple and to the point, a well-placed blow to the head will send you off to dreamland in a snap. Ask any boxer to describe getting knocked out and you will quickly understand the process. Over the course of a fight, as punches pile up, boxers often describe feelings of numbness, stumbling, loss of coordination, trouble thinking and eventually total collapse. Basically what is happening is that as your head snaps around in response to impact, your brain smashes up against your skull. When that happens, normal function gets scrambled in the same way it does when you drop your cell phone from an uncomfortable height. This is potentially the worst way to put yourself to sleep. First off, if Santa finds you unconscious and bloody, he might infer reasons to put you on the naughty list. Second, concussions are damaging and – given enough of them – fatal. Definitely not worth the risk.


In the end, the best solution to our sleep dilemma is the one you least want to hear at this relaxing time of year. As it is for basically every other physical problem, exercise is the safest answer. Exercise fatigues your body and mind at the same time that it produces melatonin, a neuro-chemical that controls sleep and repairs muscles. For the average person, regular aerobic exercise is one of the simplest ways to ensure a better, more restful night’s sleep. Even people with insomnia benefit from exercise, albeit at a slower pace. Research has shown that regular exercise over a period of four months can begin to restore normal sleep cycles in even the most sleep deprived people. So if you routinely have trouble sleeping and want to be prepared for Christmas, start running on Labour Day.

So there you have it! Plenty of options to help you get to sleep. This list isn’t exhaustive, though. There are many other ways to overcome the urge to stay up all night, including not ingesting sugar or caffeine before bed (lay off the cocoa), and lowering the temperature of your room (crack the window, it’s only a minor blizzard). See you on Christmas morning. Sweet dreams!

Friday, 18 December 2015

Sketchy Fact #108: The Speed of Santa

If Santa weren’t magic, the G-forces needed to move fast enough to deliver presents to every child in the world would be 17,500 times more powerful than gravity and crush him into a singularity.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Stealth Santa: Ramping up the sneak-factor

‘Twas the night before christmas, and all through the house,
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.  
The stockings were hung, on the chimney with care,
in the hopes that St. Nicholas would soon arrive and use his advanced knowledge of science and technology to break into your house.  

OK, perhaps Santa won’t pull a total Ocean’s Eleven style heist, but let’s face it, most burglars use the door or window when trying to infiltrate your home. It takes a special kind of crazy to try to break into a house, totally unseen, through the chimney. Luckily, Santa keeps up to date with his weekly Sketchy Science reading, and understands how to use the laws of nature to craft the ultimate stealth entrance.

The first hurdle Santa needs to overcome is ensuring the reindeer-powered flight to your home is totally undetectable. Since the 1940’s, radar technology has been used by the military to track objects moving on land, air, and sea. As radar technology becomes more advanced, so does the technology used to thwart it. A radar blasts out a high powered radio wave and waits for it to bounce off of things and come back to the receiver - kind of like an echo. When surfaces are round, like a typical airplane fuselage, part of the wave will reflect back to the receiver, making it very easy to spot. Stealth airplanes, on the other hand, have very sharp, angled, and pointed surfaces, which deflect the radio waves and scatter them in many different directions. They are also made of materials which help to absorb the radio waves. With some slight modifications to his sleigh, Santa can easily deflect most of the radar, while I’m sure his top notch R&D team has investigated the configuration of reindeer fur which best maximizes radar wave absorption.

Now that santa is able to get around at altitude without being spotted, how does he manage to land on the roof undetected? Could Santa become invisible to the naked eye? There are already successful examples of invisibility paneling (, which essentially place cameras all around the object meant to become invisible, then project each image onto LCD panels on the opposing side. Each LCD panel shows an image of whatever is directly behind it, creating the illusion of invisibility. While these invisibility panels work well for nice, planar surfaces, like Santa’s stealth sleigh, how would he go about hiding the reindeer? In these cases, it’s best to use flexible materials which are able to distort light. In fact, a team at UC Berkeley have created an 80 nanometer thin material that can be wrapped around odd shaped surfaces and make them invisible in certain wavelengths of light ( This technology can be used to make invisibility cloaks for the reindeer or Santa himself, though unlike Harry Potter, Santa doesn’t need magic to make his stuff work. If only Hogwarts taught classes in nanomaterials.

With Santa safely on the rooftop undetected, how does he manage to squeeze his portly body down the chimney? This seemingly impossible feat is made possible by the highly skilled elves at the north pole who specialize in genetic engineering, and managed to splice some octopus DNA in with Santa’s. Without the burden of bones or air sacks, octopi upwards of 600 pounds are able to fit through holes the size of a quarter ( With that kind of squeezing savvy, Santa could get into your house through a poorly sealed window, let alone a gaping chimney-sized hole in the roof.

Once inside, all he has to do now is drop off a few presents in complete silence. So, how does he manage to creep around without making a peep? Of course, there are some military grade sneaking shoes he could use, which help to absorb sounds when creeping about, however, such technology wouldn’t help with creaky floor boards. Instead, Santa opts for a more complete solution, such as a hoverboard made from liquid nitrogen cooled superconductors ( Such a device leverages the Meissner effect, which describes how placing a superconductor near a magnetic field induces an electric current, which in turn creates a magnetic field around the conductor. The two magnetic fields interact and apply opposing forces on each other, allowing Santa to levitate off the ground and hover around the living room. It should be noted, however, that for the hoverboard to work, the floor needs to also contain some kind of magnetic material. While that’s not typically the case for carpeted or hardwood floors, let’s just say Santa and his team have a far advanced understanding of material science and has figured that one out.

With the presents safely and silently delivered under the tree, Santa can now relax and enjoy some of the delicious eggnog and baked goods left out on the counter. However, with the all the cookies he inevitably eats along his nightly journey, hopefully he’s aware of any nutmeg added to all the delicious food he’s consuming, as in high doses, nutmeg can actually act as a hallucinogen ( Such a misstep would be disastrous to his otherwise perfectly executed stealth mission.

So when out on the lawn there arises such a clatter,
and you spring out of bed to see what’s the matter,
hopefully you don’t find Santa Claus arguing with your christmas decorations.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Sketchy Fact #107: Bombs Away

The word "mistletoe" comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning "little dung twig" because the seeds are spread through bird droppings. How romantic...

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Burn Baby Burn: The Science of a Perfect Yule-time Fire

The holidays are about ambiance. If you can’t surround yourself with the right festive atmosphere, then it will take much more of an effort to get into the spirit of the season. Obviously, decorations and a Christmas tree (or menorah or Festivus pole, depending on your leanings) go a long way to setting the mood; but nothing quite matches a crackling fire for creating warm and cozy feelings in the cockles of your heart.

The problem with fire is that it is difficult to manage and generally a pain in the butt. If you don’t keep it under control, it will burn up your presents and send you to the hospital. If you don’t constantly stock it, your fire will burn itself out and leave you shivering in the cold. That is probably why as human civilization has developed, we’ve outsourced our fire-making to power plants. But even if we are a lazy bunch of spoiled brats, we’ve never lost our love for just being in the presence of flames. Why else would they have an endless loop of a burning log on Netflix during December?

Streaming may be more convenient, but starting your own fire brings a sense of accomplishment and the effect is much more authentic. With that in mind, let’s dive into what makes a good fire.

First, most of us know that fire needs three elements: heat, fuel, and oxygen.

The interesting thing about fire is that it is not a thing by itself; rather, it’s more of an event. It is the outcome of taking a piece of matter containing compounds that react with oxygen and then heating them up enough so that they can combust. These compounds generally include hydrogen and carbon. Flames themselves are just super-heated carbon atoms that give off light as they rise away from the base of the blaze.

For our purposes, a fire starts when you heat up a piece of wood to a temperature where cellulose (the stuff wood is made of) begins to break down. As it does so, it releases gases containing reactive compounds. As heated molecules in cellulose are exposed to the oxygen in the surrounding air, they break apart and create new bonds, generally producing water and carbon dioxide. As atoms recombine, they rise and give off heat. The reason flames taper off into a point is that as the gases in the fire rise, they gradually spread out and begin to cool down. The tip of a flame is the last point at which they are close enough together for some atoms to still glow (incandesce).

Okay, so now we know what fire is, but how to we get one started? First, you have to pick the kind of wood you want to burn, as not all woods are created equal. Hardwoods like ash, oak, beech, and apple are dense, so they burn hot and last a long time; however, they are tough to heat to ignition temperature and they lack the satisfying crackle that a good Christmas fire needs. The reason they are dense is because the trees from which these woods come grow slowly with few air or water pockets between the wood fibers. By contrast, softwoods like pine, light easier and crackle like a cereal elf, but they burn quickly and the liquid sap they contain can create a flammable build-up in your chimney. The best choice for Christmas, then, is fir. Woods like Douglas fir are moderately dense, they crackle, and they have less sap.

The key to getting your fire going is in the shape of the wood, and the key factor in shape is surface area. To heat up enough cellulose to start the self-perpetuating chemical reaction we’re going for, we’ll want to start with pieces of wood with a larger surface area. This means that as much of their mass as possible is exposed to the oxygen with which we are trying to get it to react. To help you visualize what I’m talking about, imagine a piece of paper so large that it weighs 10 lbs (4.5 kg). It has a large surface area and will burn much faster and light much easier than a block of wood that weighs 10 lbs.

Once you get your fire going and it is generating enough heat on its own, you can throw in pieces with decreasing surface areas until eventually you can burn a big yule log. A big, slow burning piece of dense wood will keep you warm and entertained for hours as you drink your eggnog and revel in holiday cheer.

Now, get to roasting those chestnuts.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Sketchy Fact #106: Teenage Tree Dream

It takes, on average, fifteen years for a Christmas tree to grow to just the right size for your living room.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The ‘Nog Dog Spills the Truth about a Holiday Classic

Hey you cool cats, I’m the ‘Nog Dog and the daddios at Sketchy Science have asked me to fill your glasses with truth about the silky smooth holiday concoction we call eggnog. While it may only be socially acceptable to down this tasty beverage for one month of the year, some jive turkeys have tried to take even that away from us ‘nog aficionados, claiming that this nectar of the gods is in fact a bacterial gut bomb waiting to happen. It’s time to set the record straight and get back into the Christmas spirit, if you catch my drift.

First up, let’s lay down what true eggnog is made up of. Contrary to the name, the key is dairy. Milk, cream, heavy cream, or the whipping kind - the choice is yours, but we can thank cows for the bulk of our ‘nog foundations. Beyond that, all you need is some combination of eggs, sugar, spices (nutmeg for purists such as myself), and booze (bourbon is the modern go-to, but I prefer the colonial staple: rum).

The Hurdles of Curdles

The trouble with this formula is acid. Milk, it turns out, is 87% water with the rest being a hip party with fats and proteins forming the conga line. Most (80%) of those proteins are casein –the rest are whey – and when casein meets acid, it binds up into uncool chunks - most of us know as curdles. Water is a neutral liquid with a pH of 7, smack dab in the middle of the scale; but thanks to all the other stuff in milk, we are starting off on the acid side of true with a pH of around 6.7. That isn’t quite enough to make casein lump up (that’s why all milk isn’t full of curdles). The problems start when booze crashes the party.

If we were making our ‘nog with rocket fuel (100% ethanol), things would stay as cool as the other side of the pillow; but spirits like bourbon and rum are only about 40% alcohol with the rest being an acidic mix of compounds with a total pH way down around 3 or 4. Try mixing that kind of booze with milk and you’ll end up with a tub of not-quite-cheese.

To solve the problem, use fattier dairy products like cream or heavy cream. Believe it or not, fat is the friend of smooth ‘nog, as the lipids that make up fats slow down the formation of curdles. The higher the concentration of fat, the smoother the end product will be. That’s why I cozy up with heavy cream this time of year and it’s 36% fat profile.

Science v. Salmonella

The other constant criticism of Christmas in a cup is that raw eggs have a risk of bringing salmonella to the party, turning your holiday mixer into a race for the bathroom. For starters, salmonella is about as common as a chocolate snowflake. Only around 8% of modern henhouses are salmonella carriers and only 0.012% of eggs from contaminated flocks carry this party pooper – pardon the pun. But let’s pretend that salmonella is everywhere. Even then, eggnog is a safer bet than Rudolph saving Christmas.

Researchers at Rockefeller University have spent the past 40 Decembers studying salmonella in ‘nog and their findings should set your mind at ease. Where booze was the villain in our first ‘nog-conundrum, it’s the hero this time around. The alcohol in rum, bourbon, or brandy can zap salmonella back to October, if you give it enough time. Researchers Vince Fischetti and Raymond Schuch sampled ‘nog brews after one day, one week and three week intervals to see how much salmonella hung around once booze was in the mix. After one day and one week, purposely contaminated batches (containing the same amount of salmonella as in ten raw eggs) would still leave you feeling sorry, but by three weeks their petri dishes were as clean as your grandma’s couch and totally safe to drink.

So it ends up that the key to totally safe ‘nog is slow aging. The booze will keep the bacteria at bay and fuel some passionate sing-alongs come Christmas Eve – provided you start your batch by the end of November. Obviously this can’t work for virgin ‘nogs, so use cooked or pasteurized eggs for the batches you whip up for anyone too young to drink. Just another reason why Christmas isn’t just for kids.

I hope I’ve set your mind at ease as we move into ‘nog-season. Until next year, this is the ‘nog dog signing-off.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Food for Thought: The Case for Science-Based Farming

Over the past decade, the issue of food production has rightfully gained a lot of attention. Documentaries like Food Inc. and the modern animal welfare movement have gotten us all thinking about what we eat and how it is produced. While this is a great thing, generally speaking, getting informed about the food you eat doesn’t help anyone if your knee-jerk reaction to new information is to abandon all the progress we’ve made over the past century.

The world of 2015 is very different from the one of a hundred years ago. The global population has doubled, and doubled again. As we begin to rethink food production and learn from past mistakes, it is tempting to romanticize a time in the past when everything was done by hand without the use of pesticides. The simple fact is, that system doesn’t work in 2015 if you want to feed everyone; but a more important question is: would we even want it to?

Setting aside for a minute the ways in which we raise animals for food, let’s focus on fruits and vegetables. The driving goal for food production needs to be sustainability. While it may be easy to produce a bumper crop by dumping harmful pesticides on every farmer’s field, that doesn’t help anybody if the field is radioactive the next year and the nearby ocean is so full of contaminated runoff that the fish have five eyes and are made of poison. Sustainability is the idea that we should farm as efficiently as possible in a way that doesn’t waste resources or make it impossible for people in the future to grow the same food in the same place.

So which is more sustainable: the classic version of farming with overalls and hand-picked food, or the cold, machine-driven methods of today where tomatoes live in greenhouses and are only ever outside as we move them from the truck into the grocery store? As much as we all love overalls, it may be time to relegate them to the wardrobes of urban, loft-living art students.

Let’s continue looking at tomatoes, since most people have tried to grow them at some point. If you’ve ever potted a tomato plant on your balcony, you know how tough it can be to get even a single snack out of a plant, never mind a pot of pasta sauce. Modern tomato farms use greenhouses to direct as much light as possible onto plants. They recycle carbon dioxide from industrial practices to speed plant growth, and they don’t need to use much pesticide because they are enclosed. The upshot is that they can grow 70 kg (154 lbs) of tomatoes in one square meter of soil. Try producing that on your balcony.

Modern farms can also be insanely efficient with water, if they have a mind to. In an enclosed system where water condenses on the walls of a greenhouse and is collected and recycled, one kg (2.2 lbs) of tomatoes can be grown using between 4 and 6 liters (1 – 1.6 gallons) of water.  By comparison, farms that allow water to evaporate away – I’m looking at you, overalls – need as much as 60 liters (16 gallons) to grow the same amount.

One area where technically advanced farming is at a disadvantage is in transporting food to the places it needs to go for people to buy it. Large industrial farms are located away from cities where large plots of farmable land exist. However, even here science and technology have made things better. Foods in transport are often stored with gases, chips, or in bags that ensure they ripen at just the right time, leading to proportionally less waste than traditional farmers can manage. The carbon footprint of shipping these foods is also a problem, but as electric vehicle technology improves and the world moves towards renewable energy systems, those impacts can also be reduced.

The lesson here is that knowledge and technology will help us feed the world in a sustainable way and we shouldn’t shun improvements to farming processes on principle alone. With the right policies in place to ensure that corporate greed does not win out over environmental sustainability and healthy produce, high-tech farming will save lives and keep us all fed.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The Lowdown on Language – Aphasia and your Brain

Language is something that we often take for granted, but it is at the core of what makes humans such an impressive species. Right this second, as you are reading this sentence, your brain is seamlessly recognizing the squiggles that form the letters, linking the squiggles together to form sounds in your head, connecting the sounds to form words, and connecting the words to let you know what the message is that I’m trying to communicate. And you can somehow manage to do all that while simultaneously eating a sandwich. Humans are masters of language.

In addition to allowing us to communicate complex messages across impossible spans of time, language is responsible for another great human achievement: understanding that different parts of our brains do different things. It may seem obvious, but for a very long time, we didn’t have the faintest clue what was going on up there.

The thing about people with difficulties in how they understand and produce language is that, compared to people with other neuronal deviations, they are easy to study. First of all, language impairment is obvious. Whereas a problem like face-blindness or colour-blindness can go unrecognized for a person’s entire life (researchers estimate that as many as 2% to 2.5% of people could be prosopagnosic, or face-blind, to some degree), language is something we notice more quickly because we rely so much on verbal communication. Second, language impairment frequently leaves unaffected the areas of the brain that control behaviour, intelligence, and curiosity. The upshot is that you have otherwise normal (or in some cases brilliant) people who just aren’t able to talk, read, or write as easily as others.

Back in the early 19th century, when scientists were still scratching their heads about the way our heads worked, having cooperative patients was a huge advantage. That is likely the reason that language was one of the first systems to be identified in a somewhat useful way. As early as 1825, a Frenchman by the name of Jean Baptiste Bouillaud predicted that language function would be located in the left-hand side of the frontal lobes of the brain.

In 1861, Bouillaud’s own son-in-law, Ernest Auburtin, was working with a patient with an exposed frontal lobe (if that sounds gross to you, don’t read our story about Phineas Gage) and noticed that when pressure was applied to that part of the brain, the patient lost the ability to speak. Auburtin predicted that after the patient died he would find a lesion on the left frontal lobe. Unfortunately for Auburtin, his patient was of hearty stock and lived to see another researcher by the name of Paul Broca prove Auburtin’s prediction correct. Subsequently, and pretty unfairly, the speech area that was discovered is now called Broca’s area.

Dysfunction in Broca’s area produces what is called non-fluent aphasia, meaning that a person has a tough time retrieving and producing words. This does not mean the words are not in the person’s head, just that there is a problem with the connections that move them from memory to the mouth or pen. What is really curious is that verbs and the use the grammar suffer the most.

Deeper research into language also revealed the brain area humans use to understand words. Named for its discoverer, Carl Wernicke, Wernicke’s area is located in the left temporal lobe of the brain (behind your temple) and directly connects to Broca’s area. Wernicke’s area helps us understand the sounds of speech, and its function can be built up or lost depending on a person’s environment. For example, people who grow up speaking Japanese often lose the ability to distinguish between the sounds made by “L” and “R”, since their language doesn’t require them to and their brain is out of practice.

The other function of Wernicke’s area is in producing speech, but where people with difficulties in Broca’s area have a hard time producing sounds and words, people with problems in Wernicke’s area talk a lot. The problem is, what they say makes no sense. It is a string of nonsense that researchers call “word salad.”

Problems with language, or aphasias, come in all shapes and sizes, to the extent that a person dealing with aphasia can almost seem like they are faking it. For example, researchers Bryan Kolb and Ian Q. Wishaw describe a patient in their book Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology, who suffered from anomic aphasia, meaning that he could not retrieve the names of objects. When shown a picture of a ship’s anchor and asked what it was, he couldn’t name the item but replied, “I know what it does… you use it to anchor a ship.” The patient could use the word as a verb, but not as a noun.

The take home message here is that no brain is perfect. Some of us have a hard time with sports, others can’t cook, some people are quick to feel sad or angry, and others struggle with language. It is up to each of us to show the world the things we’re good at, while trying to improve on the things we’re not… At least until we can repair our brains with nano-bots and everyone is as smart as Da Vinci.


Kolb, B & Wishaw, I.Q. (2009) Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology. Worth Publishers. New York, NY, U.S.A.

Friday, 13 November 2015

Sketchy Fact #104: This is your Brain on Ice Cream

Brain freeze is an evolutionary reflex to protect you from damaging your brain. It is known to science as sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia. Try saying that with a mouthful of ice cream.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Hot and Heavy – The Truth about Diamonds

Humans are brilliant animals. Over the eons, we have used our ingenuity and problem solving to craft a civilization that, as imperfect as it can be, does a pretty effective job of keeping us out of the food chain. However, clever as we may be, we have a few weaknesses. Chief among them are greed, the ability to be manipulated, and an inexplicable fondness for shiny things. The perfect symbol of these primeval flaws is the modern diamond engagement ring. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, scientifically speaking, diamonds are impressive things. They are made from the same single ingredient as coal: carbon; but we proudly put one in jewelry, while we are content to throw the other in the fire.

A common misconception about diamonds is that they form from coal as the Earth does its thing by applying heat and pressure. In fact, if coal has ever had anything to do with diamonds, it has been incidental and insignificant, and has produced some pretty lousy diamonds. If you need proof, consider that most natural diamonds on Earth are between 1 and 4 billion years old, while coal (which formed from dead plants before bacteria evolved to have the ability to digest wood) has only been around for about 500 million years.

So if coal isn’t the culprit, where do diamonds come from? It turns out there are several answers:

Deep Source Eruptions – Most diamonds form in the layer of semi-molten rock that the Earth’s crust floats around on. We call this the mantle, and it is not a place you want to find yourself in. The section of the mantle where diamonds generally form is around 150 km (90 miles) below the surface, so for starters it would be hard to get out of. Second, it is hot, around 1,050 C (2,000 F). To make matters worse, the pressure is about 725,000 pounds per square inch

While this would really, really suck for any human without a magical ship from a crappy sci-fi movie, it is quite a swell place for diamonds to form. Carbon dioxide, trapped in the mantle when the Earth first formed, undergoes a “redox reaction” due to the extreme conditions. The carbon oxidizes (rusts, in its own weird way) and gains electrons. When the pressure is suddenly reduced very rapidly – say, when a weak section of Earth’s crust drifts over top of it – the molten rock erupts to the surface, the carbon condenses, and forms diamonds. This process is responsible for all the commercial diamonds in the world.

Subduction – Diamonds can also form as the Earth’s tectonic plates bump and grind. As dense oceanic plates grind underneath lighter continental plates, the resulting heat and pressure can produce diamonds. This process could involve coal as a carbon course, but it is more likely that the material comes from limestone and other rocks.

Impact Sites – Being underneath an asteroid as it impacts the Earth is one of the few places you could find yourself that would be worse than the mantle, but, if you can run away in time and get back before anyone else, you could score big. The heat and pressure from the impact has the ability to metamorphosize carbon and produce diamonds. The catch is that the biggest ones you are likely to find, thanks to the keen smashing ability of objects from space, would be in the 1 mm range. That would make for a pretty insulting engagement ring.

Space – Diamonds can also form in space as objects smash into each other at high speed. The process is basically the same as it is at impact sites on Earth. Except in space, no one can hear your fiancĂ©e shriek with delight… well, maybe David Bowie.

The curious thing about diamonds is that, as much as we value them, they aren’t at all rare. Since 1870, when massive diamond deposits were discovered in Kimberley, South Africa, the world has basically had all the diamonds we could want. In fact, last week a team of chemists at John Hopkins University reported that the complex “redox reaction” that forms diamonds could be produced by water under the right conditions. Given the amount of water on Earth, there is probably a shocking amount of diamond mines just waiting to be discovered.

The only reason diamonds are expensive is because of that pesky manipulation and greed we started the article with. After the diamond rush of 1870, a company that came to be called DeBeers bought up all the diamond producing mines in existence and began to sharply limit the supply to keep prices high. They coupled that with a 20th century ad campaign that tried to convince us all that the only way to show someone you love them enough to marry them is to put a shiny hunk of carbon on their finger.
Dropping 3 month’s salary (cue the hysterical laughing) on a ring seems a lot less special when you realize there is basically an infinite supply of replicates in some rich guy’s vault.