Q. Toilet paper dates back to medieval China but all sorts of things have been used as “bum fodder,” really, whatever was handy. Can you name some of them?
A. In China, waste paper was being used for wiping by the end of the sixth century, and the 14th century saw establishment of the world’s first toilet paper industry, says Graham Lawton in “The Origins of (almost) Everything,” a “New Scientist” book. “A document in 1393 records that 720,000 giant sheets of toilet paper, measuring two feet by three feet, were produced for the Ming imperial court.”
Ancient Rome employed xylospongium, a sponge soaked in vinegar, wine or salt water on the end of a stick. For the Vikings, sheep’s wool was the common wipe; for those in medieval Britain, it was cotton or linen, with a “groom of the stool” performing the task for the nobility. And since the hand was always “handy,” many cultures used the left for wiping and the right for eating.
Surroundings were often the determining factor: American pioneers used dried corn stalks; the Inuits employed moss in the summer, snow in the winter; and sailors at sea used the frayed end of a ship’s rope, kept dunked in a bucket of seawater. And for 19th-century Americans, the Sears Roebuck catalogue had a second life: “Many catalogues were printed with a hole in the top left-hand corner to make them easy to hang next to the latrine.” (Source: “Bum Fodder: An Absorbing History of Toilet Paper” by Richard Smyth)
Q. The bird population has undergone a significant decline in recent years, caused at least in part by night-time collisions with power lines. What clever way have scientists devised to minimize the danger?
A. In one month in 2009, 300 Sandhill cranes perished from collisions with marked power lines at Nebraska’s Rowe Sanctuary, says Rachel Berkowitz in “Scientific American” magazine.
Knowing that half of all avian species can see ultraviolet light, wildlife biologist James Dwyer had the idea of using near-visible UV light to illuminate power lines. Working with utility consulting firm EDM International and Dawson Public Power District, the team developed these new lighting systems, installing them on a tower supporting a power line. “Over a 38-night period, crane collisions decreased by 98 percent when the lights were on….” Moreover, the researchers did not detect any negative effects on other species: “insects did not swarm toward the lights, nor did bats or nighthawks do so in pursuit of a meal.”
This new UV system may prove useful for existing lines and in hotspots where endangered bird species nest and feed.
Q. Long-distance flyers know the feeling of jet lag, but what is “eating jet lag”? And why might diet-conscious folks want to know?
A. Spanish researchers Maria Fernanda Zeron-Rugerio and Maria Izquierdo-Pulido were intrigued that disrupted sleep patterns were linked to weight gain, “probably because our bodies aren’t used to processing food eaten at night, which seems to lead to the storage of extra fat,” says Alice Klein in “New Scientist” magazine. They wondered if eating meals later on weekends might have a similar effect, since it’s common to sleep in on weekends and have breakfast and other meals later as well. This they called “eating jet lag.”
To test this out, their team surveyed more than 1100 Spanish and Mexican students and found that “almost two-thirds had an hour or more of eating jet lag on weekends,” with breakfast tending to become brunch. And “those who reported more than 3.5 hours of eating jet lag on weekends had higher body mass indexes on average than those with no eating jet leg, regardless of their diets or how much they slept or exercised (‘Nutrients’).”
Perhaps, the researchers say, our internal biological clock prepares our metabolism to process food at specific times and gets confused when we eat later on weekends.