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Anatomical quirks: 10 things you didn't know about your body

Bill Bryson's new book, "The Body: A Guide For Occupants," provides important (and funny) lessons in anatomy, neuroscience, physiology, biology, and more.

Anatomical quirks: 10 things you didn't know about your body

English anatomist John Banester (1533 – 1610) delivers the Visceral Lecture at the Barber-Surgeons' Hall in London, 1581.

Photo credit: Henry Guttmann / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • American-British scholar, Bill Bryson, has written a fascinating user's guide to the human body.
  • The Body: A Guide For Occupants provides important lessons in anatomy, neuroscience, physiology, biology, and more.
  • Though we've learn a lot about ourselves in the last two centuries, it's still clear there's much we don't know.

As far as medicine and science have come, we remain ignorant of much of how our body functions. It's a challenge for us, for instance, to wrap our heads around the ecosystems that live within us — that are us. Indeed, even for the self-aware animal that we are, we're still in a nascent phase of understanding what we really are.

That's why we need writers like Bill Bryson. His new book, The Body: A Guide for Occupants, continues the American-British scholar's quest to understand nearly everything — as evidenced by his 2004 book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Most well-known for travel books such as A Walk in the Woods and Notes From a Small Island, Bryson's nonfiction writing is as enjoyable as his journals galavanting around the globe — not nearly as humorous, but he lets plenty of quips slip into this latest work as well.

Below are 10 factoids about yourself (and, more generally, our species) that you might not have known. If only this book had been available during my high school years, I might have retained more than I did than with those dry biology textbooks. Educators, take note.

To hear Bryson explore his new work, make sure to check out a recent episode of our podcast, Think Again.

Bill Bryson, travel writer, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on October 10, 2015 in Cheltenham, England.

Photo credit: David Levenson / Getty Images

The Resistance is Growing

Much of our stomach bacteria is healthy, yet for a multitude of reasons our gut ecosystem is becoming infertile. First off, we owe Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming a note of thanks for discovering penicillin, which immediately saved millions of lives. Yet, even in 1945 he warned of the dangers of microbes growing a resistance to this newly discovered medicine known as antibiotics.

As Bryson writes, from the 1950s through the '90s, three new antibiotics were introduced in the U.S. every year; now the number is one every other year. Sadly, pharmaceutical companies would rather focus on drugs that people need to take for decades (like statins and SSRIs) than on low moneymakers that will be obsolete in a few years.

Overuse fattening up farmed animals, C-sections (in which the baby does not pass through the wash of microbes in the mother's vagina), and our own misuse all seem to blame. For example, 20 percent of all antibiotic usage is for sinus problems, yet antibiotics do not help sinus problems. Bryson continues, "Almost three-quarters of the 40 million antibiotic prescriptions written each year in the United Stats are for conditions that cannot be cured with antibiotics."

Brain Efficiency

The human brain is hungry. Weighing just 2 percent of our body weight, it consumes 20 percent of our energy requirements. Whether you're watching TV or doing complex math, your brain burns roughly 400 calories every day. Thinking more doesn't result in a greater calorie burn. In fact, the opposite is true.

"An academic at the University of California at Irvine named Richard Haier used positron emission tomography scanners to find that the hardest-working brains are usually the least productive. The most efficient brains, he found, were those that could save a task quickly and then go into a kind of standby mode."

Balancing Act

Our vestibular system is responsible for balance. Located inside of our ears, a gel informs our brains whether we are going left or right, up or down. When spinning in a circle, the gel keeps moving when we stop, resulting in that peculiar disorientation children seem to love. Fascinatingly, our brain isn't interpreting it as merely a pause.

"When loss of balance is prolonged or severe, the brain doesn't know quite what to make of it and interprets it as poisoning. That is why loss of balance so generally results in nausea."

Inner Pharmacy

Over the course of your life, you'll secrete roughly 31,700 quarts of saliva. In an interesting comparison, Bryson notes that this is equivalent to "two hundred or so deep baths." As I recently wrote about, salivary diagnostics is an important developing field of medicine. A recent discovery, Bryson writes, is opiorphin, a natural painkiller produced by our saliva. While six times more potent than morphine, we produce very little amounts of it — not enough to avoid the pain of hot pizza on the roof of your mouth, but still, an essential biological feature that helps us manage pain.

Pain in the Head

Speaking of pain management, only our brain — an organ that itself cannot feel pain — can feel pain. Headaches are not even our brain hurting, regardless of how deeply we feel it. Of all the various types of pain there are, some confer evolutionary benefit by warning you to avoid something while others seem to be a design failure. For example, we usually don't feel the pain of cancer until after it's already ravaged our body. Not much of a warning system, that one.

There is not much of a difference between physical and emotional pain. Both can be diminished through a variety of means, such as "pleasant aromas, soothing images, pleasurable music, good food, and sex." Another important factor is expectation. Bryson concludes, "In many ways, we feel the pain we expect to feel."

Bill Bryson on the miraculous human body

Younger is Not Better

Up until relatively recently, children went through puberty around age 16 or 17. That dropped drastically in the last century due to improved nutrition. There's a problem, however: young girls are now menstruating as early as seven or eight, and there is a link between excess estrogen and cancer later in life. You solve one problem — in this case, malnutrition — and suddenly others appear.

Allergic Nation

While there is no clear reason why we develop allergies at all, between 10 to 40 percent of the world's populations suffer an allergy to something. Strangely, the richer the nation, the more allergies its citizens get. While there is a genetic link, it's only an increased chance that you'll get what your parents have (about 40 percent). Genes are not destiny, unless they are.

One thing is certain, however: babies born through a C-section are eight times more likely to develop allergies (as well as more likely to be struck with diabetes, asthma, celiac disease, and obesity). Today, 60 percent of all births through C-section are because of convenience, not necessity. There's a reason babies are born the way they are. By not allowing for that (unless medically necessary), we're doing our children more harm than the temporary good of reduced pain during childbirth.

Stop Eating So Damn Much

In 1915, an average American spent half of their weekly income on food. Today that number is closer to 6 percent, yet we're eating more than ever. As our biology dictates a hoarding mentality, health care systems pay the price, mostly due to processed foods (almost all of which contain added sugars). As Bryson puts it, "We are in the historically extraordinary position that far more people on Earth suffer from obesity than from hunger."

That Said, Weight Isn't Everything

We know that obesity creates many health problems, but a hyper-focus on "clean eating" and a holistic lifestyle doesn't mean you're going to avoid all of biology's ills.

"Roughly 40 percent of people with diabetes, chronic hypertension, or cardiovascular disease were fit as a fiddle before they got ill, and roughly 20 percent of people who are severely overweight live to a ripe old age without ever doing anything about it."

The body is certainly confusing.

Finally, A Few Myths

It's incredible how easily swayed we are. For example, in 1968 a doctor published a letter (not a study or research) describing how uneasy he felt after dining in Chinese restaurants. He speculated that MSG might be the cause. It wasn't, but for decades we've labeled it as toxic. It's not; it's an essential component of the glorious taste sensation, umami.

Genetically speaking, humans don't reproduce. We recombine.

The marketing ploy that has men taking testosterone supplements to stave off the natural 1 percent yearly decline starting in their '40s? Putting it back in is more likely to harm you: men increase their risk of a heart attack or stroke by taking these supplements.

Ten thousand steps a day? That myth is based on a single study done in Japan in the 1960s that was on shaky ground to begin with. This said, you should be walking. Ten thousand is roughly equivalent to five miles; studies of hunting and gathering societies, which are comprised of generally fit populations, have a "slightly" higher average: 19 miles per day.

Sleep is for the consolidation and transferring of memories? Maybe.

Finally, we don't lose most of our body heat through our heads. Body heat is evenly distributed. If you walk out in winter without a hat, however, you are risking losing body heat through that area because it's exposed. Listen to your mom and put on a hat, dummy.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Image source: carlos castilla/Shutterstock
  • Quantum particles can tunnel through seemingly impassable barriers, popping up on the other side.
  • Quantum tunneling is not a new discovery, but there's a lot that's unknown about it.
  • By super-cooling rubidium particles, researchers use their spinning as a magnetic timer.

When it comes to weird behavior, there's nothing quite like the quantum world. On top of that world-class head scratcher entanglement, there's also quantum tunneling — the mysterious process in which particles somehow find their way through what should be impenetrable barriers.

Exactly why or even how quantum tunneling happens is unknown: Do particles just pop over to the other side instantaneously in the same way entangled particles interact? Or do they progressively tunnel through? Previous research has been conflicting.

That quantum tunneling occurs has not been a matter of debate since it was discovered in the 1920s. When IBM famously wrote their name on a nickel substrate using 35 xenon atoms, they used a scanning tunneling microscope to see what they were doing. And tunnel diodes are fast-switching semiconductors that derive their negative resistance from quantum tunneling.

Nonetheless, "Quantum tunneling is one of the most puzzling of quantum phenomena," says Aephraim Steinberg of the Quantum Information Science Program at Canadian Institute for Advanced Research in Toronto to Live Science. Speaking with Scientific American he explains, "It's as though the particle dug a tunnel under the hill and appeared on the other."

Steinberg is a co-author of a study just published in the journal Nature that presents a series of clever experiments that allowed researchers to measure the amount of time it takes tunneling particles to find their way through a barrier. "And it is fantastic that we're now able to actually study it in this way."

Frozen rubidium atoms

Image source: Viktoriia Debopre/Shutterstock/Big Think

One of the difficulties in ascertaining the time it takes for tunneling to occur is knowing precisely when it's begun and when it's finished. The authors of the new study solved this by devising a system based on particles' precession.

Subatomic particles all have magnetic qualities, and they spin, or "precess," like a top when they encounter an external magnetic field. With this in mind, the authors of the study decided to construct a barrier with a magnetic field, causing any particles passing through it to precess as they did so. They wouldn't precess before entering the field or after, so by observing and timing the duration of the particles' precession, the researchers could definitively identify the length of time it took them to tunnel through the barrier.

To construct their barrier, the scientists cooled about 8,000 rubidium atoms to a billionth of a degree above absolute zero. In this state, they form a Bose-Einstein condensate, AKA the fifth-known form of matter. When in this state, atoms slow down and can be clumped together rather than flying around independently at high speeds. (We've written before about a Bose-Einstein experiment in space.)

Using a laser, the researchers pusehd about 2,000 rubidium atoms together in a barrier about 1.3 micrometers thick, endowing it with a pseudo-magnetic field. Compared to a single rubidium atom, this is a very thick wall, comparable to a half a mile deep if you yourself were a foot thick.

With the wall prepared, a second laser nudged individual rubidium atoms toward it. Most of the atoms simply bounced off the barrier, but about 3% of them went right through as hoped. Precise measurement of their precession produced the result: It took them 0.61 milliseconds to get through.

Reactions to the study

Scientists not involved in the research find its results compelling.

"This is a beautiful experiment," according to Igor Litvinyuk of Griffith University in Australia. "Just to do it is a heroic effort." Drew Alton of Augustana University, in South Dakota tells Live Science, "The experiment is a breathtaking technical achievement."

What makes the researchers' results so exceptional is their unambiguity. Says Chad Orzel at Union College in New York, "Their experiment is ingeniously constructed to make it difficult to interpret as anything other than what they say." He calls the research, "one of the best examples you'll see of a thought experiment made real." Litvinyuk agrees: "I see no holes in this."

As for the researchers themselves, enhancements to their experimental apparatus are underway to help them learn more. "We're working on a new measurement where we make the barrier thicker," Steinberg said. In addition, there's also the interesting question of whether or not that 0.61-millisecond trip occurs at a steady rate: "It will be very interesting to see if the atoms' speed is constant or not."

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