Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the world’s odder happenings. This week: (small) mysteries of the unexplained.
If you’re wondering why the Cape’s skies remained dry until last week and then our luck suddenly turned, it’s possibly because I washed my linen and went to work without taking it off the line. And if you’re wondering why it rained again after that, it could be because I was encouraged by the clear skies in between and hung the whole sorry mess out all over again. You’re welcome, Cape Town. I gave up then. It’s still hanging up. You might call this laziness. I call it taking one for the team.
For that matter, I’m not sure why politicians have spent all this time praying for rain when the obvious solution to the drought has simply been to painstakingly dry-polish our cars (no hoses, remember) and park them outside. I bet that’d bring a deluge.
But this got me thinking about life’s little mysteries. Some are easy to answer. For instance: Why does it rain when you do the washing or clean your car? Possibly because, like me, you didn’t check the weather report.
Why is the thing you’ve lost always in the last place you look? Because if you keep looking after you have found it, you are an idiot.
It turns out a few other little mysteries also have a logical explanation. Remember the five-second rule of dropping food on the floor? I thought that was just a thing people said to cheer themselves up before diving for the prodigal chip. Apparently, however, it intrigued scientists enough to merit study. Researchers at the UK’s Aston University dropped toast, pasta, biscuits and sweets on to various floor surfaces and tested them for the presence of common bacteria at time points between three and 30 seconds. (This is what you call first-world research funding. Though it’s still a step behind a team of researchers in France, dedicated to learning why teapots drip.) They found that bacteria do transfer within five seconds, but that the food is – in general – still edible. Now you know.
That coffee you’re spilling, even when it has a lid on? As it happens, the lid can make spillage worse. Not wanting to be outdone by the teapot team, researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, decided to investigate coffee spilling at a fluid dynamics conference in 2011. Apparently, the inspiration for the study was watching “overburdened participants trying to carry their drinks to and fro”. (Once again proving that there is a never-ending supply of first-world problems to solve.)
“I cannot say for sure if coffee spilling has been detrimental to scientific research to any significant extent,” said study author, mechanical engineer Rouslan Krechetnikov. “But it can certainly be disruptive for a train of thought.”
By recording volunteers carrying their coffee cups, Krechetnikov and his graduate student, Hans Meyer, found that a combination of cup size, coffee fluid dynamics, and the way we walk all add up towards a natural frequency of fluid sloshing, amplified by the body’s ongoing movement. But – more specifically – putting a lid on the cup doesn’t necessarily help. As the coffee sloshes away, some splashes along the underside of the lid. When the two streams collide, they shoot out of the drinking hole. Voila! A hot coffee fountain.
Are you that poor sucker who gets sick the second you go on holiday? You’re not alone. There are many reasons this might happen, besides terrible, Shakespearean irony. According to GP Dr Evelyn Reich, these range from overworking yourself in preparation for your holiday, which compromises the immune system; to falling victim to the many bacteria having a fine old germ party in the dry, poorly circulated air on aeroplanes. Travel illness is also common because travellers may be exposed to bugs they have never encountered before, says Reich.
Had a song stuck in your head lately? If not, you’re about to. No thanks to CBS News, who kindly identified Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance as the most common earworm, meaning I have been singing it for the duration that I’ve been writing this column. And now you’re singing it too, because I have paid it forward. (Misery enjoys company.)
Also on the list of top 10 earworms were the aptly-named Can’t Get You out of my Head by Kylie Minogue and Moves Like Jagger by Maroon 5. The research, led by the study’s Kelly Jakubowski, PhD, of Durham University in the UK, was published in the journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. It studied all sorts of characteristics of earworms: which songs are likely to get stuck in your head, who is prone to suffering earworms, and what gets rid of them. (The earworms, that is, not the people – annoying though it may be to listen to someone humming one.)
According to Jakubowski, who must have had a devil of a time trying to get Lady Gaga out of her head for the duration of her research project, “musically sticky” songs usually have a “fast tempo, along with a common melodic shape and unusual intervals or repetitions”. These unusual intervals include “unexpected leaps” or “more repeated notes” such as in My Sharona by The Knack.
Unsurprisingly, Jakubowski also dedicated some of her research to getting rid of earworms, otherwise presumably she’d still be singing My Sharona today. She recommends either listening to the song all the way through, to break the repetitive loop, or listening to a different song as a form of musical exorcism – though she didn’t phrase it exactly like that. Other studies (yes, several charitable souls researched this phenomenon) recommend solving puzzles like anagrams or sudoku, while a study published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology found that chewing gum helped. Yes, really: moving the jaw interferes with short-term memory and the ability to imagine sound.
Lastly, in case you thought you were paranoid, rest assured the toast does land buttered side down. Some have attempted to explain this phenomenon before, arguing that the butter creates extra weight on one side. However, scientists have finally discovered the formula for the way toast falls, and it’s a little more nuanced. It has to do with the drag created by the butter, which affects the toast’s rotation. Food science expert Professor Chris Smith and his team at Manchester Metropolitan University dropped over 100 slices of buttered toast on the floor in search of answers. In 81% of cases, the toast fell buttered side down.
According to Smith, this is down to the height of the average table, too, rather than the hatred of the universe against your personal toast.
Smith and his team used a table of approximately 75cm high. “The upshot is that if you want to ensure your toast lands butter side up then you should invest in a higher table – approximately 8ft high – that allows the toast to rotate a full 360 degrees.
“Failing that,” he added helpfully, since eight-foot tables may not be practical for everyone, “try not to drop the toast”.
For those of a mathematical turn of mind, the formula was (w-Rav)/t=R, where R is the number of rotations, w is the speed of rotation, t is the time available, and Rav is the rate of rotation influenced by drag.
On the plus side, at least now you know: if you pick the toast up within five seconds, you can still eat it. DM
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Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson