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We have many phobias, and the words to describe our fears

Q.  2020 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, founder of the nursing profession and undoubtedly the most famous nurse in history.  A fierce reformer and bold iconoclast, did you know she was a pioneering statistician as well?

A.  Born into a wealthy British family and schooled in mathematics, Nightingale trained in a well-respected German nursing school and served as superintendent of a London hospital for governesses, says Joshua Hammer in “Smithsonian” magazine.  With the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1858, she was dispatched to an area outside Constantinople where thousands of wounded and sick British soldiers were quartered, many of them wracked by frostbite, gangrene and typhoid fever.  She did what she could to minister to them, despite bureaucratic impediments.

When Nightingale returned to England after the war, she and a government statistician gathered data from military hospitals in Constantinople that confirmed what she had long suspected:  “Nearly seven times as many British soldiers had died of disease in the Crimean War than in combat, and the deaths dropped dramatically once hospitals at the front were cleaned up.”  With the findings published in graphic illustrations, the military improved hospitals throughout Great Britain, and Parliament voted to finance the first comprehensive sewage system for London. 

Though often bedridden with a war-contracted malady, Nightingale continued to gather data on every aspect of medical care, believing that “using statistics to understand how the world worked was to understand the mind of God.”  Says Hammer, “In 1858, she became the first woman to be made a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society.”

Q. Based on millions of measurements from 25,000 patients, German physician Carl Reinhold August Wunderlich concluded in 1851 that normal human body temperature is 37.0C (98.6F). However, modern studies consistently find a value around 36.6C (97.9F).  Why the difference?

A. The change is typically written off as measurement bias due to poorly calibrated 19th-century thermometers.  But after analyzing 677,423 body temperature readings from three different cohort populations spanning 157 years of measurement, Stanford researcher Myroslava Protsiv and her colleagues (published in eLife) found that “men born in the early 19th century had temperatures 0.59C higher than men today.”  The decrease was continuous — about -0.03C per decade — over the entire timespan, so the authors conclude that the change is unlikely to be due to measurement bias. And a similar trend holds for women, based on data since 1971.

Why the decline?  The authors speculate that it may be due to reduced prevalence of various infections. But whatever the reason, “humans in high-income countries have changed physiologically over the last 200 birth years with a mean body temperature 1.6% lower than in the pre-industrial era.”

Q.  Phobias come in many forms:  cynophobia (fear of dogs), coultophobia (fear of clowns) and arachnaphobia (fear of spiders).  The suffix “phobia” can also mean “a strong dislike,” as in “trypophobia,” not officially recognized in the medical community and without any obvious threat to the afflicted person.  Do you know its meaning?

A.  It’s fear of holes, or perhaps not holes per se.  “It might not even be a phobia, because research suggests it is triggered by disgust,” says David Adam in “New Scientist” magazine.  As urban environments become more dominated by patterns from tiles, bricks and other materials, certain of these patterns can be bad for the brain, and more people may develop trypophobia.  “Triggering images had high levels of contrast repeated at regular, but not frequent, intervals”: holes, bumps, Swiss cheese, empty honeycombs.  “Holes have shadows even under diffuse illumination, enhancing their contrast.”

Scientists are still puzzling its underlying reason:  Is the visual signature contrast similar to patterns on some of the world’s most venomous animals?  Or is it the circular shapes on the skin or irregular clusters of pustules produced by diseases like smallpox or typhus? 

There seems to be no easy fix for those affected by trypophobia.  For now, architects and designers can try to account for this overactive disgust response to certain patterns in their products and buildings.

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