Curious Folks Ask: 162 Real Answers on Amazing Inventions, Fascinating Products, and Medical Mysteries - Sherry Seethaler (2009)

Preface

Inquiring minds want to know. What’s the big deal about low-carb diets? What causes muscle aches when you get the flu? How did the ancient Egyptians build the Giza Pyramids? Does it matter what brand of gasoline you buy? Could adult stem cells have as much promise as embryonic stem cells? Is a horsepower really the power of one horse? Does chocolate cause acne? What makes glue sticky? How is it possible to design bifocal contact lenses? What causes dandruff?

And sometimes, inquiring minds ask questions that other inquiring minds did not even realize they wanted to know. Why do we get skin cancer from sun-damaged skin when damaged cells are continually sloughing off and being replaced? What causes out-of-body experiences? Is the Star Wars lightsaber possible? Are there beneficial viruses, just as there are beneficial bacteria? Why do some people have second toes that are longer than their big toes? Is increased environmental noise leading to increased violence? With their unwieldy number system, how did the ancient Romans engineer their magnificent buildings?

These are some of the 162 questions compiled in this science Q&A anthology. The questions come from real people who range in age from high schoolers to octogenarians (and probably even younger and older folks too). Some of them are scientists, and others tell me, “I’m not a science person, but I’ve always wanted to know…” What they share is a deep curiosity about the world around them. The questions and answers in Curious Folks Ask can rekindle the natural wonder about science and the world around us that we all shared as children but that frequently gets pushed aside in formal education settings.

Since I began writing a weekly science Q&A for the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2004, not a week has gone by that I haven’t learned something surprising from answering readers’ questions. People often ask me if I know the answers off the top of my head. Sometimes I do, or think I do, but I extensively research each answer because, after all, science is constantly progressing. There is always something new—perhaps a different way of thinking about things, a controversy where none was evident initially, or a myth that has masqueraded as the truth for so long that many well-informed people have been fooled.

For example, the notion that getting chilled can cause one to catch a cold is dismissed as an old wives’ tale by many usually reliable sources. However, a careful search of the peer-reviewed scientific literature turns up a more interesting story, which is revealed in the first Q&A in Chapter 5. This illustrates a unique feature of Curious Folks Ask. The concise, palatable answers highlight not just what is known, but also where gaps in scientific understanding exist. Perhaps these mysteries will even inspire a young reader or two to take up the torch and begin a journey into scientific research.

This book is organized into eight chapters of questions and answers about humans and our creations, encompassing a plethora of topics in human biology, rounded out with a touch of chemistry and physics. Individual Q&As are self-contained but are grouped according to the natural themes that arise in people’s questions. The questions range from the products of our civilization, to our bodies and how they work, to the nemeses that bring us down, to what makes us tick, to the latest health fads.

• Chapter 1, “Ingenious Inventions.” Whether high-tech or seemingly mundane, ancient or futuristic, interesting science is behind every one of our inventions. Folks ponder their origins, how they work, and how to troubleshoot them.

• Chapter 2, “Chemical Concoctions.” Chemical-free is the latest silly buzzword being used to market food, personal-care products, and other stuff. Of course, everything, including us, is made of chemicals. Questions about fuel, soap, decaffeination, glue, and more provide insights into the amazing power of chemistry to transform our lives.

• Chapter 3, “Body Parts.” Wisdom teeth, appendix, knuckles, and toes—our body parts are mysterious, and sometimes downright odd. How we get our parts, why we have them, and what they do are some of the things people ponder.

• Chapter 4, “Bodily Functions.” Itching, yawning, sneezing, sweating—our bodies are rather busy, even when we are doing nothing. Kids, and folks who have grown into perfectly civilized adults, wonder how and why their bodies work as they do.

• Chapter 5, “Pesky Pathogens.” Viruses, bacteria, and now prions sure do make it hard to stay healthy. No matter how far medicine advances, they continue to outsmart us. How to keep ahead of these pesky, and sometimes deadly, pathogens is never far from people’s minds.

• Chapter 6, “Assorted Ailments.” When we are not under siege by microbes, we still have aches and pains, illnesses, and embarrassing conditions. Young and old alike ask what causes them and why they occur.

• Chapter 7, “Uniquely Human.” How we got here, what sets us apart from our fellow creatures, and what makes us feel a certain way may be age-old questions, but modern research is constantly providing a fresh perspective.

• Chapter 8, “Health Nuts.” Health advice seems to change every time we pick up a newspaper. From carbs, to free radicals, to gaining the most benefit from exercise, health nuts want the real scoop.

It’s all here: the myths, mysteries, oddities, familiar but strange, everyday to exotic. Each answer succinctly synthesizes the current state of a body of research so that you can answer the “whys” of a child in your life, captivate people at cocktail parties, or just satisfy your own inquiring mind.