News for Nerds - The 'Hair in Your Food' Edition

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  • Posted by: Dom Testa|
  • 8/16/2013 |
  • 10:00 am
News for Nerds - The 'Hair in Your Food' Edition

Welcome back to News for Nerds! This week we'll investigate why some people remember dreams and others don't, and we'll get to the bottom of all the excitement (and controversy) around the big Hyperloop announcement this week. But first, here's a story guaranteed to make you look closer at your next meal.

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If you've ever pulled a strand of human hair out of your food and nearly gagged in response, hey, we can all relate. That's a pretty gross experience.

It is not, however, harmful to your health. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration doesn't even place a limit on the number of hairs that can be served to consumers. Why would they? According to the FDA, they've received exactly zero reports of illness related to ingesting hair.

Dr. Maria Colavincenzo, a dermatologist at Northwestern University, explains why the gross-out factor is greater than the health-risk factor. She tells our friends at Popular Science that hair is comprised of a densely-packed protein called keratin, which is chemically inactive. It is theoretically possible that staph bacteria could cling to human hair and work its way into your system, causing an upset stomach or even diarrhea. But in reality, the trace amounts of staph that might fit on a few strands of hair probably wouldn't be enough to make you sick.

But wait, there's more! Not only is hair relatively safe to ingest (in small doses, of course), but you may have already eaten some today. You see, food manufacturers use an amino acid called L-cysteine to stabilize dough and stimulate the taste buds that detect salty, savory flavors. And while some manufacturers derive L-cysteine synthetically, some boil human hair in hydrochloric acid to extract it.

Happy eating, everyone!

- from Popular Science

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What is the future of high-speed public transportation? California is already at work on a $68 billion high-speed rail project, hoping to catch up to the rest of the world in that department.

But that's not good enough, says real-life comic-book hero Elon Musk. The billionaire behind Tesla motors and SpaceX, Musk has now unveiled a design for high-speed transit that he's calling the Hyperloop. It would allow commuters to get from Los Angeles to San Francisco, a distance of nearly 400 miles, in 35 minutes. And for a cost of about $20 each way.

The technology that would make all this happen is called electromagnetic acceleration. Here's how it works: Travelers would recline in low-pressure steel tubes inside specialized pods that race along at speeds up to about 760 miles per hour. The pods would rev up from their starting stations using magnetic linear accelerators, with periodic boosts from a linear induction motor. The journey from point A to point B would be nearly frictionless due to a cushion of compressed air between the pods and the tube's inner surface. The sensation, they say, would be a lot like flying in an airplane. And the whole thing would be powered by solar panels.

At a cost of $6 billion, such a system would be exponentially cheaper than current alternatives, such as the California high-speed rail project. And while not everyone is feeling as optimistic as Musk, he's not someone I'd be eager to bet against.

- from NBC News

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And finally, have you ever noticed that some people remember their dreams with more consistency than others? Which camp do you fall into?

A team of sleep researchers in France is trying to understand why this difference exists -- why do some of us remember all our dreams, and others hardly any? They haven't fully answered this question just yet, but they've made some surprising discoveries that might help explain how we process and retain our dreams.

In one study, 36 people had the electrical activity in their brains recorded via electroencephalography while they sat and listened to background music. Periodically, they would hear their own first name. Sometimes they were asleep, and sometimes they were awake. Half of the group were labeled 'high recallers' because they reported remembering their dreams almost every day. Others, who reported remembering dreams only a few times per month, were labeled 'low recallers'.

While asleep, there was very little difference between the brain activity of the high recallers and the low recallers. However, when awake, the brains of high recallers responded much more strongly to hearing their own name. This has to do with a brain wave known as the alpha wave, and it could be a sign that people who remember their dreams are engaging more brain regions overall.

It could also mean that high recallers, with more alpha waves firing during the night, are more likely to wake up immediately after a stirring dream, and thus more likely to remember the dream, fresh from sleep.

More research is needed to flesh all of this out, but in the meantime, just keep sleeping (and dreaming) as you normally would.

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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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