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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Weird Science

Air Date: Week of

It turns out that when your toast falls on the floor butter side down it’s not just bad luck. There’s a simple scientific explanation. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jay Ingram author of “The Velocity of Honey and More Science of Everyday Life,” about toast, honey and what science is behind the weirdly inexplicable things in our lives.


CURWOOD: You know the situation. You're sitting there in a crowded concert hall, and you feel like someone is staring at you. So you turn around, and, sure enough, someone three rows back is giving you the eye. Does that mean that you can actually sense when someone is checking you out?

Here to answer some of life's more puzzling questions - or, to put it another way, the weird physics of the extremely ordinary - is Jay Ingram. He's host of the Canadian Discovery Channel's Daily Planet and author of the new book, "The Velocity of Honey: And More Science of Everyday Life." Hi, Jay.

INGRAM: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Okay, how fast is honey?

INGRAM: Well, it depends on the height you're dropping it onto your toes. The higher it is, the faster it's going to fall. It also coils up in a really interesting way on your toes, too. You know, honey dripping on toes is just one of the many everyday experiences that has really interesting science in it.

CURWOOD: Why is it that toast when it falls on the floor lands butter - and, for that matter, honey - side down?

INGRAM: Well, it's not Murphy's Law that something will go wrong. And it's not even the possibility that maybe 50 percent of the time it lands butter-side up but you don't think about that later. You always curse it when it lands butter-side down, and you remember those. It's actually a very simple answer and that is--it really has to do with the height of the table above the floor.

Most kitchen tables where you're eating you're eating your toast are about the same height. And here's the thing: if the toast tips off the edge of the table, then it starts to rotate, so when it's rotating, if you gave it enough time, it could rotate a full 360 and land butter-side up and you'd be okay.

Or, if the kitchen table were just inches above the floor, the toast could tilt but not quite fall over. It will rotate less than 90 degrees and settle back so that it was still butter-side up. And it turns out that toast falling off the edge of a table and rotating, if it's a typical table, doesn't have enough time to do a full 360 and will land butter-side down.

CURWOOD: Just about every time.

INGRAM: I'd be willing to say every time, unless you fling it so it Frisbees its way across the floor and lands butter-side up.

CURWOOD: (LAUGHS) But wait a second, you're saying scientists sit around studying which side toast is going to land on when it goes off the table?

INGRAM: Yeah, so there's two ways of reacting to this. One, I detect in your voice, a kind of arching of the eyebrows. "What? Scientists do this?" But you know, scientists have senses of humor too, and I'm quite sure that those scientists who've investigated this are doing it partly to collect the data because it's kind of interesting; partly just to amuse themselves and, hopefully, others.

CURWOOD: You know, what's so funny about this book, Jay, are the lengths that these scientists seem to want to go to describe these phenomenon. They set up these big, complicated, and sometimes they must be costly, experiments trying to unravel these things. You know, I guess the chapter that you wrote in your book, "The Velocity of Honey," that really attracted me about this extensive experimentation is this, "Are You Staring At Me?" this chapter.


CURWOOD: And this is what happens when you pull up at a stoplight; Jay, you should tell the story, you wrote the book.

INGRAM: Well, this is actually, I think, a fantastic experiment. Because what they wanted to know was if somebody's stares at you, do you generally interpret it as a threatening gesture? And what is your reaction? But the psychologists who did this thought the best way to do this was to do it at a traffic light. So what they did was they had somebody come up on a scooter, stop at a red light, and then wait for a car to pull up beside them, and then the scooter driver turned and just stared at the driver. And then, you can't just go and ask the driver what their reaction is, but you can do one really neat thing, which is time how fast it takes the driver of the car to get to the other side of the intersection when the light turns green.


INGRAM: And then you can, of course, set up a control where you actually have the scooter sitting next to the car but not staring at each other. So drivers that were stared at took considerably less time, I think it was 1.2 seconds less. Now, you know, maybe you just want to race the scooter, so they eliminated that by substituting a pedestrian that stared at the car instead of the scooter. This was a neat way of saying, "Look, something was happening in this situation that made people behave differently."

And they even tried the weirdest things because - other weird things, I should say - because, you know, maybe they were driving away because they just thought it was strange that someone would stare at them, not some sort of thing that could actually be connected with staring. So they had a guy actually sitting on the sidewalk with a hammer picking apart his sidewalk with his hammer when the car pulled up. Now that's incongruous, right?


INGRAM: But people didn't pull away as quickly. So, it actually had to do with the sort of dominance hierarchy aspect of being stared at.

CURWOOD: Jay Ingram, I want you to tell us the science of love at first sight. Is there such a thing?

INGRAM: Well, you know, I think the science of love at first sight is probably fairly skimpy. I can tell you one thing, though, and this is really my favorite example of this and it has to do with looking in people's eyes. There was a very neat experiment done a long time ago now, I think in the 1950s, showing that dilated - let me set this up.

Let's say that you, Steve, are walking into a party. You meet a woman, you look into her eyes, and you notice unconsciously that her pupils are dilated. Well, there's an automatic human reaction that when you look into somebody's eyes and see that their pupils are dilated, that says to you, again, unconsciously, that they are interested in you.

And you can show that pupils dilate when looking at objects of interest even when people are just hungry and you show them a beautiful chocolate cake; their pupils will dilate.


INGRAM: This is why women used to put drops of belladonna in their eyes - "beautiful women," of course, is the translation - centuries ago. Because they knew if they dilated their pupils then men who looked into their eyes would think the women were interested in them and then the men would be interested in the women and this would start something going.

CURWOOD: Now, this book is mostly fun, but there's a scary chapter in here, Jay. It's the one called "Time Passes Faster." Can you explain what that's all about?

INGRAM: Well, we all know, if we've been living long enough, as you get older time seems to move more quickly. And, you know, I think this is pretty common. You remember summer vacation when you were in grade 6 or grade 5? It seemed to take forever. Well, summer vacations now you barely catch your breath before you have start work again in the fall.

One of the questions is why does this happen? And it seems that one of our biological clocks in our brain slows down with age, just as many things slow down. And with a slower clock, more events seem to happen in a given time, so it feels like time is moving faster. The more interesting aspect, though, to me, is just how much faster is it?

And a guy named Robert Lemlich came up with an equation in the mid-70s or so, and he argued that…here's the really depressing part of this: Let's say that you're 40 right now, and you're going to live to 80. So you feel like, "hey, I've got half my life ahead of me." Lemlich says, well, you may have literally another 40 years, half your life, but it's not going to feel like that. And he did some calculations and showed that when you're 40 time is probably seeming to pass by, subjective time is going twice as fast as it did when you were ten. On that basis, you've really actually already lived more than 70 percent of your subjective life. So, you think you have half your life left; it's only going to feel like 30 percent of your life. And by the time you're 60, that 20 years is only going to feel like 13 percent of your life.

CURWOOD: Oh my God, so, at age 20 then, you feel like half your life is over?

INGRAM: That's right. And you know what's interesting? There was a passage written in 1837 by England's poet laureate Robert Southey. He says, "Live as long as you may, the first 20 years are the longest half of your life. They appear so while they're passing, they seem to have been when we look back on them, and they take up more room in our memory than all the years that succeed them."

CURWOOD: Jay Ingram's new book is called "The Velocity of Honey." Thanks for the sweet story, Jay.

INGRAM: Thank you.



"The Velocity of Honey" by Jay Ingram


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