How should I know

As some of you know, I did not grow up in upstate New York. I actually grew up in Northeast Philadelphia. I'd say it's one of the nicer and safer areas of the city but it is nonetheless a part of the city.

That means, it is part of the Philadelphia school district. I went to some of best public schools there were in the area but they were still underfunded, overcrowded and at times depressing. There weren't nearly as many opportunities as there are in more well off neighborhoods and the drop out rate was high. Some kids went home to dangerous areas of the city or broken homes. School was their only sanctuary.

Parent involvement is typically lower in less fortunate areas. Not for lack of caring... try holding down three jobs just to make ends meet. School and after school activities are lifesavers for your household.

I graduated from Northeast High School (NEHS) in 2005 and it truly had many unique programs. There was a culinary department, a day care where students could work and a program for the mentally handicapped. Honestly, I'm not exactly sure what has or hasn't been cut but I know many are gone.

One program I know has been cut is project SPARC, which is why I was inspired to write this blog post. I just found out a couple weeks ago and it was heart breaking. I couldn't stand the thought that something that defined my high school career and prepared me for college, as well as my current career, will no longer be around for future students to experience.

Hopefully, Jessica Hattina, the current robotics manager of the project will not mind if I steal her Facebook comment that answers the question, "What is project SPARC?". She put it so well, I don't think I need to go over it again...

"...SPARC [Space Research Center] originated in 1962 by Mr. Robert A. G. Montgomery and was designed to introduce the study of aerospace research to high school students. These students designed and built a three-man space capsule mock-up to test the student astronauts ability to handle the space environment. With the help of a grant from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Heart Association, the program purchased electronic equipment and began to study in flight control instrumentation. Project SPARC was so highly recognized for its work that, during the summer of 1963, NASA invited 18 SPARC students to tour the Marshall Space Flight Center.

After President George W. Bush's announced his vision for the Space Exploration, the project was then updated to simulate the NASA Constellation program and its mission to return to the moon. In 2009 Project SPARC [had their] first [simulated] Constellation mission [in which] six students [were sent] to the moon and establish[ed] a two-module lunar habitat. SPARC facilities include the 'Shuttle Orbiter mock-up built by the students, [an] actual Apollo training capsule from NASA, an eight station mission control, a movie and animation learning center and electronics and a robotics laboratory..."

What makes SPARC so special? It's one of a kind; students from all over the city apply to NEHS's magnet program to participate. It provides a chance to learn engineering skills and has produced several generations of engineers and scientists that are contributing to the scientific community everyday. It gives those kids that are shunned for being geeks a place to go and be creative. Not to mention it's space related and... I love space!

Now that I have shared information about this amazing project that has lost all funding, I just want to explore why programs like this are so important for students everywhere.

First off, students in inner cities are already at a disadvantage. There parents typically don't have much money to spare and college can seem like a far away dream. These types of programs make students stand out when they applying to college and other higher education programs. Extracurricular activities, especially those related to a student's field of interest and those in which a student has held a leadership position, can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Extracurricular activities teach students things they can't get in the classroom. Having a common goal with those who are passionate about things you are is very powerful. It allows for more creativity, team work and a real sense of responsibility.

Some studies have shown that these programs can help students reduce stress. Whether that comes from it being a physically active sport or from it being about doing something they enjoy, reduced stress in this competitive world is always a positive thing.

Student can show off talents that they might otherwise not be able to. The fact is, not everyone meant to go to college and work a nine to five job. Programs teaching cooking skills, mechanical skills and sports can be just as helpful as math and science in getting into advanced education programs. These careers have great pay and can provide someone with satisfaction in life.

These programs keep kids busy and off the streets. In cities this is especially important. Everyone wants to feel they belong somewhere. Providing positive environments gives them a place to focus their energy in a positive way, as opposed to getting into gangs, drugs and other risky behaviors.

Perhaps most importantly, statistics show that students who participate in such activities do better in school. This prompts higher self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.

So, hopefully this will convince you to join the campaign to save project SPARC located at: No matter where you are from, where you went to school or where your children went to school, taking a stand against the discontinuation of these programs helps children everywhere.

Alright everyone, I can finally confess why I've been so absent. I just moved across the country to Silicon Valley and it has been a hectic process. Now that it's ended and everything is unpacked, I can get back to the more important things... like answering your questions! And just in time to since it's cold and flu season :-)

This week's question is all about what leaves you susceptible to these diseases.

I'm sure that when you were a kid, your mother would yell at you not to go outside with a wet head because you could catch a cold. Or she'd make you come back in for your sweater. Or yell at you to put on a hat. But sorry to say to all the mother's out there, it is now known that being wet or cold does not cause you to catch a cold. The cause is the more than 200 hundred viruses that can lead to the common cold but the rhinovirus is by far the most common.

These viruses are airborne. So, when someone sneezes droplets of mucus are released into the air. Then you walk by and breathe in those droplets, causing you to get sick.

If that isn't scary enough, they can live on any surface in your house, out at the mall or in the office. So, hand washing and keeping your hands away from mouth, nose, and eyes is probably your best defense.

So where is the wet head theory come from?

Well, it probably started around 1878 when French chemist Louis Pasteur performed some experiments on some unlucky chickens. He wanted to see if he exposed the chickens to anthrax and dipped their feet in freezing cold water, would it increase the likelihood of catching the illness.

In the first round of the experiment, all the chickens caught anthrax and died. Then in a second trial, he repeated the exact same experiment but then wrapped the chickens in a warm blanket. The chickens survived. So from this simple experiment it makes sense to think being wet and cold can lower your immunity.

Another study done during World War I, showed that soldiers who were in out in the trenches, cold and wet, were much more likely to get sick and die than those in the barracks.

Some people also believe that the body's heat leaves through the head (hence the obsession with hats on babies). This is simply not true; heat loss is pretty evenly distributed throughout the body.

So, if the cold and wetness isn't the problem then why do we get sick in the winter? Well, one reason is there is very low humidity. When the humidity is low, it dries out your nasal passages making it easier for viruses to enter the body.

Not to mention, in the winter we spend a lot more time inside... together. And since these diseases are so easily transmitted from person to person, once one person is infected, everyone else is doomed. Think about schools, work, animal shelters... all germ factories.

The "theory of togetherness" is further supported by the fact that in areas where it does not get cold, cold and flu season correlates with the rainy season. People tend to stay inside, when it rains and therefore get sick.

So, what can you do to protect yourself from getting sick this cold and flu season?

If you want to be really sure, quarantine yourself to your bedroom and stay there until the season is over. But if you do that you will probably miss all the holiday fun that will be upon us soon. My recommendation? Wash your hands, buy a humidifier and pop some vitamin C so you can enjoy the holiday treats!

So, I know it's been a while since I've written. I've been traveling quite a bit and am excited to share what I learned from my adventures! But, I've been busy trying to catch up on everything so I haven't had the time to write it all down.

Anyway, I decided to sit in a few creative writing classes this semester and this week's assignment was to choose one of the seven deadly sins and write something to "sell" the sin. In order to do that, I did a little bit of research. So, lucky me, I'm killing two birds with one stone until I have more time to gather my thoughts!

Before I start: this postis not intended to make any religious statement or convey any opinion or belief of any single religion. It is simply the facts as collected from varies sources.

Like I said, there are seven deadly sins. Why seven? Well, God's magic number seems to be seven. It took seven days to create the Earth. The seventh day is a day of Sabbath, rest and religious reflection/observation.

Here is a brief description of each...

Pride: Some people believe that pride is the underlying cause of all sin. Pride, or vanity in some texts, is the need/want to be better than others. A person takes self-love to the extreme and it leaves them blind to the good in others. In hell, you will be broken on the wheel, your animal in a horse and color is violet.

Lust: Commonly thought of as intense sexual desire but can also be applied to the excessive drive for anything. Your eternal damnation will be spent surrounded by fire and brimstone (a.k.a. sulfer). The animal you are assigned is a cow and your color is blue

Gluttony: The most complicated if you ask me. Most people think of it as excessive eating which deprives the hungry of food. If you are Jewish, this is true. But if we look at the medieval Catholic church, eating too soon (before scheduled meals), eating elaborate foods (anything with spices), eating too quickly, eagerly or daintily are all considered offenses. What will you be doing in hell? Eating of course! Unfortunately it's rats, toads and snakes... Your animal is a pig (obviously) and the color orange paints your walls.

Greed: Refers to the desire to acquire unnecessary things. It is usually applied to material possessions. Hoarding, theft and pursuit of material wealth are all part of being greedy. If you are guilty of this sin, you have a pot of boiling oil to look forward to, being friends with a frog and loving the color yellow.

Sloth: Can refer to general avoidance of physical/mental actions but mostly it is the avoidance of that one is supposed to do. You won't be lazy any longer when you are thrown in a pit with snakes, your only company is a goat and you are wearing light blue.

Wrath/Rage/Anger: Uncontrolled hatred towards someone or something. It often goes hand in hand with envy. You will be sentenced to dismemberment, possibly by your bear companion and see only red.

Envy: Coveting what another has. This may or may not be accompanied by wrath or ill feelings towards the person. Maybe some freezing water will teach you and your green dog a lesson.

Note: all references to animals/color/punishments are in accordance with the views in the The Picture Book of Devils, Demons and Witchcraft, by Ernst and Johanna Lehne and engravings by George Pencz. Plus it's pretty important to point out that almost all sins were seen to be related to women somehow way back when. Some might see this as sexist but I'm choosing to say it's because women are in touch with their emotions and not afraid to express what they want!

Each of the sins is associated with a demon from religious texts. Pride is the sin Satan committed when he was banished from heaven, Mammon was guilty of greed, Asmodeus lust, Leviathan envy, Bellzebub was a glutton, Ammon succumbed to his wrath and Belphrgor was guilty of sloth. Maybe some other time I'll go into the details of each demon but it would definitely take a while so we will pass on it for now.

For each sin, we possess weapons, in the form of virtues, to control ourselves. Kindness can control envy, abstinence defends you against gluttony, chastity takes down lust, patience stops wrath, humility can help you swallow your pride, diligence keeps you away from sloth and liberality will combat greed.

Of course, there are many more types of sin. Violation of the Ten Commandments is one example. But these are the sins that supposedly will provide a one way ticket to hell. I personally am guilty of gluttony and sloth on a regular basis. There is nothing like a lazy day spent eating junk food in my opinion. I took both of the following quizzes which told me as such...



Take the quizzes if you dare and share your results in the comments!

Peter Parker was bit by a radioactive spider and he turned into Spiderman. The
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were ordinary turtles until they were exposed to radioactive waste. Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk after he was exposed to gamma rays. The Fantastic Four, the Phoenix from X-Men, Daredevil... all were made superheros by exposure to some type of radiation.

The question is... what effect does radiation actually have on the human body?

First off... what is radiation? Well, radiation is a type of energy and there are several different types that fall into this category.

Some radiation is always lurking in the background. It comes from cosmic rays or from radioactive sources that naturally exist in the environment. There's really not anything we can do to prevent it or to completely eradicate it. Generally speaking, it's not harmful.

Things like light, radiowaves and microwaves are non-ionizing radiation. Your wireless devices, microwave ovens and sun tan all use this type of radiation. While it can be harmful to the body, think about the bad sun burn you got when you forgot sun screen, it's not nearly as damaging as ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is produced by unstable atoms. When an atom is unstable, it does whatever necessary to become stable again. In order to do this, it emits its excess energy or mass. The energy or mass that is given off in the form of electromagnetic waves or particles is radiation. Examples of this are x-rays, gamma rays and beta and alpha radiation.

Now, there are two types of radiation exposure. Internal exposure which occurs when radioactive materials enter the body directly and external exposure which occurs when such materials wind up on a person's skin or clothes.

Our bodies can handle a certain amount of radiation and does on a daily basis. But at high doses, we start to see hair loss, burns and skin redness. Lower doses given over long periods of time can be dangerous as well. Radiation can alter cells. These new and sometimes harmful cells then are able to divide the same way your healthy cells do. This can lead to cancer years after the exposure ceases.

If a person is exposed to high doses of radiation in a short period of time, it is likely the person will develop acute radiation syndrome (also known as radiation sickness). The exposure causes cellular degradation. Low white and red blood cell levels, nausea and vomiting, headache and decreases level of consciousness are all symptoms one has been exposed to high levels of radiation. The skin may show signs of redness and blistering. The body has a decreased ability to heal and cancer is much more likely to occur.

So then you ask how can radiation be helpful in treating cancer? Well, a high-energy radiation beam is directed at the tumor to damage the DNA of cancer cells. The damage is either done to the cell directly or by charging particles within the cell that will later alter the cell's DNA. In either case, the hope is that the damage will leave the cancer cells unable to reproduce. They will then die off and the body will dispose of the cells naturally.

And what about x-rays and other similar tests? Medical imaging technology can, and most likely has, caused cancer... but it has saved more people than it has harmed. Like everything in medicine, you have to way the risks and benefits with your doctor and make decisions accordingly.

So, exposure to radiation probably isn't going to make you a superhero. But the theory isn't completely out there. As discussed, it can cause genetic mutation and there may be some gene in the human body that can be altered to give us new abilities. Genetic mutation after all is how we evolved into the beings we are today...
The great Marion Alteri, our local horse racing expert (see her blog: Marizy Doats), brings us this week's question. What is the average air speed velocity of a laden swallow? To this I say: Ha-ha. Very funny.

If you don't get the joke, it's a reference to the movie Monty Python's: The Holy Grail. They need to cross a bridge to continue their quest but in order to do so, they have to answer the above question. If you haven't seen it, click here to see the clip from the movie. I also recommend the completely unrelated skit  Monty Python's Flying Circus - Frontiers in Medicine... it's my favorite.

Now, as you've seen in the movie (or in the clip I linked above) I could shoot back with, "What do you mean, an African or European Swallow?" and call it a day, but I'm going to take the high road. Hopefully, my answer will get us all across the bridge... even if it's in a less than funny manner.

This was certainly a tricky question to say the least. Lots of physics involved that I have pushed to those dusty corners in my mind. Not to mention you need to know a little bit about swallows.

Leave it to Marion to make me think this hard...

Let's start with what an unladen swallow is. The simple answer, it's a bird. The more complicated answer is that it's a bird with 74 distinct species of swallow. Some found in Africa, others in Europe.

What is air speed velocity? It's the relative velocity between some object, in this case the swallow, and the air.

In order to calculate the airspeed you have to take the difference between ground speed and the wind speed. Ground speed is the speed in which an object moves relative to some reference point on the ground. Wind speed is the speed in which the air moves relative to some reference point on the ground.

If there was a case in which a day had absolutely no wind, the ground speed is equal to the wind speed. Of course this is highly unlikely to ever happen.

This definition applies best to planes. When dealing with animals is a little different. To find the airspeed velocity of a bird, one must calculate the Strouhal number. The Strouhal number is usually used in the calculation of speed of fish in water. In that case, it is the ratio of frequency of the tail moving and the forward speed of the animal. A man named Graham K. Taylor discovered the same principle can be applied to birds and other animals that can fly.

For birds, the Strouhal number is the frequency multiplied by the amplitude of the wings divided by the animal's speed through the air. The frequency is the number of times the bird beats its wings a second and the amplitude is the distance the wing travels in one beat.

To get an approximate airspeed, Taylor said to invert the midpoint Strouhal number (which is 0.3). This means that the airspeed about 3 times the product of the frequency and the amplitude.

There is a very detailed blog on that discusses all the fun mathematical details of the Strouhal Number if you are interested. Here's a link: The Strouhal Number in Cruising Flight

Now, in the case of the swallow, the Strouhal number is actually less than the average so it doesn't work right out of the box. For all the details, see: Estimating the Airspeed Velocity of an Unladen Swallow

In the end, it's concluded that the airspeed velocity of a (European) unladen swallow is about 24 miles per hour or 11 meters per second.

But, the real question is not about swallows at all. King Arthur in the movie had two coconut shells that he banged together to simulate the sound of a horse galloping. No one seems to know where he got them. So, the real question is how did the coconut get to medieval England? Is it possible that a swallow carried it over?

Well, I'm never one to make the claim that something is impossible. However, the swallow would have a very hard time even carrying the smallest of coconuts. It's little wings would have to beat extremely fast and it would have to be able to fly for a very long time without a break. And if the swallow carried over a seed, the coconut tree probably wouldn't survive very long as it thrives in tropical weather.

it is a lot more likely that coconuts were brought over by the Portuguese from India in the 16th century. Another possibility is that they "floated" through the ocean from India or possibly Australia to England and were discovered around that time.

Now, the legend of King Arthur takes place in about the 12th century and evidence suggests coconuts did not get to England until the 16th century (as I just stated).

So, there is a very distinct possibility that the whole thing is just a mistake on the part the writers of Monty Python.

On second thought, I think it's just what they do. It's a comedy and there is a recurring theme throughout the whole movie trying to figure out where the coconuts came from. It doesn't have to make sense. It's just funny to think about... I'm sure historical accuracy wasn't exactly their concern...
So, you are sitting at your computer and everything is going swimmingly. Then suddenly your wrists start to hurt, your fingers get tingly. You give your hands a shake and get back to work. Then about twenty minutes later, the pain is back again. Other activities become harder too. Palming a ball, knitting, cutting up vegetables for dinner... any repetitive motion hurts.
You pop two or three Motrin and move on. You think it's just fatigue, so you start taking more breaks while doing these tasks. Or you simply ignore it. Either way, the problem isn't going to go away. In fact, it will probably keep getting worse.

What's wrong? Well, someone asked me and I actually had to ask myself this question not too long ago. So, I'm happy to share my findings and acquired knowledge with everyone...

It could actually be one of many problems but we are going to discuss two: carpal tunnel syndrome and cubital tunnel syndrome  Both problems are becoming more and more common as we use computer more often and for longer periods of time. In fact, if you are someone who sits at a computer all day, it's considered a job hazard.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is more prevalent and consequentially it's more commonly known. But what is it exactly? Carpal tunnel syndrome is the neuropathy of the median nerve that is the result of compression of the carpal tunnel in your wrist.

A mouthful huh? Well, let's break it down. Neuropathy is a fancy word for damage to the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system consists of the nerves in your arms, legs, hands, feet and so on... pretty much all nerves besides the brain and spinal cord. The median nerve is a nerve that is located in the upper part of your limbs (arms and legs). It is the only nerve that runs through the carpal tunnel which is why it is affected by the compression of this area. The carpal tunnel is a passageway for the median nerve to connect the palm side of the hand to the forearm.

Cubital tunnel syndrome is a type of ulnar nerve entrapment. Entrapment in this context just means pinching or an obstruction of the nerve. The obstruction occurs in the cubital tunnel which is along the outer edge of the elbow. The ulnar nerve is another nerve that is part of the peripheral nervous system.

Now that we covered that... what happens when you compress or obstruct a nerve? Well think of what happens when you step on a hose. The water is blocked. Now this is a bit of a labored metaphor since signals to the brain don't get backed up but the action potentials nerves use to transmit messages to the brain are compromised. Signals won't get back to the brain which is why you experience pain and numbness. This compression overtime will cause damage to the nerve and this can become permanent.

If you suspect you have a problem, going to your doctor sooner rather than later is a good idea. In fact... I recommend this for any chronic pain or numbness but I digress. Your doctor may choose to perform an electromyography (EMG) and/or nerve conduction study (NCS). This will determine which problem you have and the severity of the condition.

Having experienced such tests I can say neither is particularly pleasant but it's nothing to be avoided. It doesn't last all that long and it was more uncomfortable than painful. During a NCS, the doctor (or nurse) electrically stimulates of the area of your body with the issue and measures your reaction time. During an EMG, very fine needles are inserted into the muscle and you have to tense the muscles in order to measure their level of functionality.

If you are diagnosed, what treatments are available? Carpal tunnel can be minimized by using an ergonomic keyboard and vertical mouse, taking breaks when performing repetitive tasks and practicing good posture. Another good thing to do is to wear wrist splints at night to keep your wrists straight. That prevents eight hours of pressure on your wrists (and you should be getting eight hours whenever possible!). Cubital tunnel can be relieved by refraining from leaning on your elbows on a hard surface for long periods of times. Wearing elbow pads can help as well as keeping your arms straight whenever possible.

If you are still suffering, cortisone shots may be administered to the affected area. Cortisone is a naturally occurring hormone in the body that is released in response to stress. Corticosteroid is a synthetic version of cortisone that is injected. It reduces inflammation and pain by suppressing the immune system. Long term use is not advised as it can cause anxiety, cataracts, depression, insulin resistance among other problems. Short term effects are pain, infection and pigment changes at the injection site. Otherwise in the short-term it's pretty safe.

If none of that helps, your doctor may recommend surgery. The surgery involves the cutting of the transverse carpal ligament or shifting the ulnar nerve in the case of cubital tunnel syndrome. This will relieve pressure on the nerve and alleviate (most) symptoms.

Some people are prone to having such conditions. Women and those with a smaller stature are more likely to experience problems. There is also a genetic component.

So, what can you do to prevent these problems from happening? Be mindful of your daily activities and making use of ergonomic devices and work stations can help. And, as I discussed in another blog about yoga, it's so important to listen to your body. Pain and numbness aren't comfortable but they are your body trying to tell you something. So... listen :-)

P.S. If you get sudden and/or extreme numbness anywhere on your body and it's not something you'd experienced before... you may want to seek medical attention. This goes with the idea of listening to your body... better to be safe than sorry!

I really wanted to get this question answered in time for mother's day, but it's been a busy few weeks. Besides, I didn't get to see my mother to celebrate until this week, so I think it still counts. Plus, mothers definitely deserve recognition more than one day a year. So, to all the moms out there... this one is for you.

We have all heard the term maternal instinct and there is antidotal evidence of its existence. Mothers, when given the option, will leap in front of a bullet rather than let their child die. I mean that both figuratively and literally. But is this instinctual? Or is it something else?

To start, this bond (whatever it may be) is not true of all mothers. Among non-human life forms, we see that there are mothers who will eat their children, abandon them and give them away.

On the flip side, many are very protective of their children. They fight off predators, risking their life. Some primates will carry the body of their dead young, as if unable to accept the loss. When a baby empire penguin dies, the mother will try and steal another penguin's baby to replace hers. I'm not a hundred percent sure if any of this proves maternal instinct or not but it does show a bond has formed with their young.

Mothers of the animal kingdom have also been known to take on the responsibility of children that are not their own when their biological mother is unable to.

Obviously, humans don't eat their children. When a mother puts a baby up for adoption, it's not abandonment. It's often a very hard decision and is not because the child is unwanted. If anything, it's a selfless act; they truly believe that the baby will have a better life with someone else. But bonding with a child that is not your own, may suggest there is something else linking a mother to her child.

Studies conduct with the aid of MRIs have shown that women respond more to their own children than other children who are displaying signs of the same level of stress or happiness. I'm not sure if this study included any women who had adopted children. I'd guess no since that would add another variable but I'd be interested to see the results of such a study.

But does that prove the bond is instinctual? Or are mothers responding to something else? Is this bond caused by biological factors, such as the exchange of hormones before and after a child is born?

In cases where a child is the result of a traumatic experience, if the child is unplanned or the mother doesn't have the means to care the child, there is less of a bond. In such situations, there is a higher rate of postpartum depression. There is a feeling of resentment and disconnect. This is certainly not true in all cases but it is statistically more likely.

The truth is, we really aren't sure yet. I'm inclined to say there might be a level of instinct but it's more than that. However, in society if a woman doesn't love children, it's assumed that she would be a bad mother to her own children. If she isn't instantly bonded with her children after birth, she's frigid and not a "real" woman. Those things simply aren't true.

While I don't have children, I know plenty of women who do. Some of them aren't fond of other people's children. Some love all children. Some felt an instant bond, others didn't. But they are all the best mother's they can be... which is all one could ever ask for.

Being a mother is a huge commitment and can be exhausting. I commend all those who take on the challenge. Especially, my own mother... for without her, I wouldn't be writing this. And I mean that in the obvious way but also because of her love and faith in me.

So... hi mom! Happy belated mother's day!

We have all seen the public service announcements about not talking on a cell phone or texting while driving. But does anyone ever say don't talk to your passengers? We are social creatures and silence makes us uncomfortable. It would be very hard for people to stay silent for long periods of time. And could they even enforce that? Maybe there could be a way to measure decibel levels in a car but then we'd also have to eliminate radios and they do serve a purpose while driving. They provide a way to communicate information to drivers (I'm sure at some point you've been the signs that say something like, when lights are flashing tune to 520 AM). Plus, there have been many studies that have shown reasonable use of a radio is safe while driving. Things that can be dangerous about the radio are: having it so loud that it impairs hearing and changing it while driving.

I digress. I recently took a defensive driving course and a woman in the class asked why using a cell phone was dangerous and talking to a passenger was not. I was sure they were different but didn't know of any proven theories and/or reasons. So, I did some research and I thought others would be interested in what I found out.

Fact: about 80% of accidents and 65% of close calls happen because the driver is distracted for about 3 seconds. So, the broader question is, what takes your attention away from the road for more than 3 seconds?

Doing things like playing with the radio, changing the destination on your GPS, searching for something in the car, putting on make-up or brushing your hair, changing the climate control settings and adjusting mirrors are all such distractions. Some more talked about distractions are texting and cell phone use.

Studies have shown that texting while driving it actually worse than driving drunk. A driver's reaction time is about four times slower while texting. In terms of stopping distance, a person needs to allow about 4 extra feet to brake while drunk, thirty-six extra feet when reading a text/email and seventy extra feet for writing an email/text. There is an alarming number of accidents that have been associated with texting while driving especially among young people (however that's because young people are more likely to text while driving not that older people are better at texting while driving).

Cell phone use is another big distraction for drivers. Astonishingly, for every ten people with a cell phone, eight will admit to using them while driving on a semi-regular basis. This is despite the statistics that show one third of accidents in the United States are caused by cell phone use; that's about the same chance of an accident as if you are legally drunk.

And don't be fooled: there is little or no difference between holding a cell phone while driving and using a hands-free device. This shows that it is not having a hand off the wheel that is distracting but the conversation itself. In fact, some studies have shown that while on a cell phone, you are paying about 75-80% of your attention to the conversation and the rest on the road... a little scary don't you think?

Anyway, the only notable difference I found was that, hands-free devices are legal to use in many states while driving and using a cell phone is not. So, if what you are concerned about is not getting a ticket, hands-free is the way to go.

All that said, studies show that talking on a cell phone (or doing any other of the mentioned tasks) is a lot more distracting than talking to a passenger. When you have someone in the car with you, they are experiencing the road with you. The advantage there is that they will stop talking to you when conditions become more dangerous and also provide a second set of eyes. They might see something that the you do not. This concept is known as shared attention and obviously does not exists while on a cell phone. While conversations can be a bit of a distraction, they aren't even close to being as distracting as a cell phone.

The bottom line is that we believe that we multi-task well. I've heard a variety of people say things like, "Other people can't talk on a cell phone and drive but I can." We tend to overestimate our talents. But the truth is, none (or a very select few) of us can do two or more things at the same time efficiently. You can only focus on one major task at a time and driving never seems to be that major task and people are killed. So, next time you take a call or need to send a text, pull over. There's a shoulder for a reason. And if your passenger, or passengers, are being a distraction ask them to keep quiet. Turn your radio down to a reasonable level and try to only adjust it at stop lights. It's those little things that will save your lif.

Someone says to me, "Let's go on that roller coaster" and I am on the verge of having a panic attack from the time I get in line, to the time I'm off the ride. I put on skis and I go so slow down the mountain that it's comical and frustrating to my friends. I went para-sailing and screamed the entire time. Needless to say, I didn't see all that much. Heights, going fast, being out of control... all things that I hate.

I cannot understand why anyone would jump out of a perfectly good airplane or why people would jump off a bridge attached to a cable. And unless you waved a whole bunch of money in front of my face, you'd have to push me out of the plane or off the bridge. I'd be like a cat who doesn't want to go in their cage; you'd have to pry my hands off the ledge or from the door.

That being said, I can at least face some of my fears so I'll claim being just a little bit brave. Still, bravery hasn't gotten me over any of the fear. I'm terrified the whole time I participate in the things my friends talk me into and I don't like it one bit.

The point this... some people love these things. They like to feel afraid. Some people don't. Why? What makes different people respond to the same situation differently? Well I went on a quest to figure it out.

When we are scared, there are two options. Run or defend yourself. This is known as the fight-or-flight response and is instinctual. During this response, the hypothalamus becomes active. This area of the brain helps keep balance between calm and stress in the body. This activation triggers the adrenal glands which secrete the neurotransmitter and hormone epinephrine. Epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, activates the sympathetic nervous system. Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for regulatory functions in the body such as your heart rate, muscle contraction, blood vessel and air passages and pupil dilation.

In this heightened state, your ability to feel pain decreases and strength and awareness increase to aid in your survival. This is made possible by the increased blood and oxygen flow to your muscles and the increase in the conversion rate of glycogen to glucose, giving the body more fuel.

This strength you gain can appear superhuman. People have lifted cars off children and even fought polar bears and won. So why not use this strength all the time? Well, when the sympathetic nervous system is active, your parasympathetic nervous system is suppressed. Since the parasympathetic nervous system controls much of the immune system, high levels of stress for long periods of time can leave a person at risk for disease and infection. So when someone says, "Calm down you'll give yourself a heart attack!", you shouldn't just write it off as an exaggeration. It is actually possible. The good news is that once the stress is eliminated, your immune system gets a quick boost to make up for it's earlier supression.

Alright so what causes the addiction to this fight-or-flight response? It's the feeling a person gets during and after "rush" of adrenaline in the body. It can make a person feel euphoric and endorphins are released. This feeling is what people chase when they jump out of airplanes or off bridges. It's what attracts people to extreme sports and causes them to participate in high risk behaviors. Further, the risk level of behavior often has to increase as a person becomes tolerant of a behavior and the fight-or-flight response is no longer triggered. So an extreme adrenaline addiction can be dangerous not only in the effects that stress has on the body but also just the situations you have to put yourself in in order to get the feeling.

Why are some people addicted to it and not others? That's up for debate. Some people believe it's simply context for a person. Do they see the dangerous side or the fun side first? Others make the claim that it's maturity. As we get older, have more responsibilities, danger seems less appealing. People who are naturally anxious and those who hate feeling out of control, are less likely to enjoy adrenaline. But defining this is like defining why some people who drink wind up as alcoholics and some people don't. Genetics, environmental factors, personality... there probably isn't just one reason.

As I've said I like all things space so when someone asked me what it really would be like to be sucked out into space, I was curious as well. I think everyone has seen a science fiction film where this happens. But how realistic are those movies?

Hollywood wants to make things look good. Something like being sucked out into space scares people because space is the ultimate unknown. There's no air, it's cold and is probably the most harsh environment a human being would have to face. You might be surprised to know that it actually isn't as bad as our imaginations make it out to be. And it certainly isn't as dramatic.

Alright, so imagine that you are on a space ship, or shuttle or some other vehicle in space and the hull is breached or the airlock is released and you happen to be in the same room. Since you are some poor no-named crew member you get sucked out into space. What is the first thing you do?

Probably scream. Which might not be a bad idea. Logic might say that you should hold your breath but that would actually be a bad idea. Holding your breath may just damage your lungs. This effect is similar to what can happen if a scuba diver holds his/her breath during ascend. You risk an air embolism. This is a fancy way of saying air bubbles are released into the blood stream. If a large enough air bubble can block the blood flow to the lungs causes respiratory distress. Another possible outcome is that your lungs could tear or collapse. The fancy word for this is atelectasis.

If your lungs aren't damaged, you still have quite a few other things to worry about and very little time to worry about them. With such low pressure on the outside of the body, hypoxia will occur. This means that the blood looses oxygen. Because when exposed to space this will happen very rapidly, you'll only have 10 to 15 seconds of consciousness. Part of me thinks that is a blessing in disguise. Would you really want more than that amount of time to think about the fact that you are floating through space without a space suit? But it's not just the oxygen levels in your blood that drop. Carbon dioxide levels will decrease as well. This condition is known as hypocapnia and can cause various nervous system malfunctions.

Once ambient pressure is eliminated (that's the pressure of the air on your body), your bodily fluids will start to turn to water vapor. In other words, your blood boils. Of course put that way, it sounds a lot worse than it is. This may cause some frost to appear in the mouth or around the eyes which is probably where the idea of the body freezing came from.

There are some other minor problems as well. If you happen to be in the direct line of some UV-rays from a star... well you may get a really bad sunburn. Your eardrums may burst due to the pressure build up in the body. It will leave you deaf but won't kill you. There may be some swelling of the skin and other tissues but if you are luckily enough to get rescued, it will likely be reversed.

It varies, but generally you have about 90 to 120 seconds to be saved. If you are lucky and get back inside within that time frame, you may live without any permanent damage. After that, your official cause of death will either be heart failure or asphyxia (medical term for suffocate). Of the two, heart failure is the most likely because you'll probably die before asphyxia kicks in. Heart failure is caused by the pressure build up in the veins when the blood evaporated. Eventually the heart will give out, unable to function.

So as much as it pains me to say science fiction has failed us, it has. You won't explode, or burn and you won't instantly freeze if you find yourself out in space without a space suit. It's not even a death sentence as there are people who have survived being exposed to a vacuum. Just hope that you have some friends near by to get you back inside...

I found a quiz (click image below) to determine how long you could survive in space based on things like weight, age, fitness and knowledge of how to survive. I'm not sure how accurate it is; my guess is not very. My time is not really all that impressive so I think I'll just stay on planet Earth to be on the safe side.


So how long can you survive? Take the quiz and post your results!

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Nicole Wardle

Nicole Wardle has a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science and Psychology and a master's in Computer Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Since graduation, she has been working for Kitware, a local open-source software company, as a research and design engineer. In her spare time, she enjoys writing science fiction, knitting, yoga and volunteers at the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.

No stranger to research, Nicole completed two theses on Natural Language Processing while at RPI. Now, she is going to put those research skills to the test in order to acquire knowledge about the things she never had time to or even considered learning before. And you will reap all the benefits!

You are invited to suggest topics by emailing her at and leave comments to further explore any topic.