News for Nerds - The 'Braids & Brackets' Edition

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 3/22/2013 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - The 'Braids & Brackets' Edition

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we'll explore the many ways that science can improve an Oreo cookie, and we'll explain why you know more about your dog's emotions than you think. But first, here are your headlines.

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My longtime radio partner Jane London asked this simple question: what causes our hair to turn gray?

To get the answer to that question, first we need to understand what gives our hair its natural color in the first place. Initially, all hair is without any pigment at all, which makes it look white. Over time (and beginning in the womb), a type of pigment called melanin begins to shade our hair. Your particular shade depends on the distribution, type, and amount of melanin in the middle layer of the hair shaft.

Eventually the production of melanin slows down and/or stops altogether, mostly because of age and genetics. Your genes regulate the pigmentary production of each individual hair follicle, and when that production begins to wane, your hair turns gray before going all the way back to white, where it began. There are other factors that play a part, too, including hormones, pollutants, chemical exposure, and even climate.

While we're on the subject, here are a few fun facts about hair:

  • An average scalp has 100,00 - 150,000 hairs.
  • Hair is strong! An average head of hair could hold 10-15 tons if the scalp was strong enough.
  • Human hair grows autonomously; if all our hair was on the same cycle, we would molt like animals.

- from The Library of Congress

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This week marks the kickoff of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, and millions of us have already filled out the long shot lottery tickets otherwise known as brackets. So I got to wondering: what are the odds of picking every single game correctly?

Um, not good.

The basic odds of you filling out a perfect bracket this year are 1 in 9.2 quintillion -- that's a nine with 18 zeroes behind it. Put differently, it's 500,000 times more than our $17 trillion national debt. You're more likely to hit four holes-in-one in a single round of golf than you are to predict the winning outcome of every tournament game.

But wait! Those numbers don't take into account standard basketball logic, such as the probability that a top-seeded team will advance in the first round against a bottom-seeded team. If you have a reasonable amount of knowledge about the NCAA tournament, your odds of nailing a perfect bracket are actually more like 1 in 128 billion. Using that number, if everyone in the U.S. filled out a complete bracket, we'd see a perfect one every 400 years.

Here's DePaul math professor Jay Bergen to explain:

- from The USA Today

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Here are a few other cool science stories that you might enjoy:

  • If your friends think you're crazy when you claim that you can interpret your dog's feelings just by looking at his face... well, here's some vindication for you. Research shows that people can reliably read a dog's facial expressions -- but in a weird twist, non pet-owners are actually better at it.
  • NASA's top official has some high-tech advice on what we should do in the event that a deadly asteroid is headed toward Earth: he says we should pray.
  • And if you haven't been following the ongoing quest to find the best way to dismantle an Oreo cookie, you're missing out. Here's one of my favorites, from physicist David Neevel:

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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month! And please send any juicy News for Nerds tips to me right here!

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