I'm a health and science reporter who learns way more stuff than I can fit in my stories. Here, those tidbits get a chance to see the light of your inbox every week.

Issue 57

Rude whales, fat-soluble hormones, and Christmas at Hallmark

Dec. 1, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

Not a single whale chews its food.

Found while reporting: Millions of years ago, whales lost all their teeth and sucked in their snacks.

Whales are the rudest.

I’m kidding, they’re perfect creatures. Whales today either have baleen, which are straw-like protrusions that strain out krill or other small prey from ocean water, or they have teeth. These teeth are basically non-essential, though. Whales may chomp down on their prey, but then swallow the rest of their meals whole. Orcas use their teeth the most—they rip their food in big chunks.

At one point in time, whales actually had massive teeth and chewed their food. But over time, they ate smaller and smaller food, so their teeth became less necessary. Eventually, about 33 million years ago, some whales lost all their teeth, in fact, before they developed baleen.

Bonus fact: Whales have intense stomach acid. Because they don’t chew their food, they have to be able to break down huge chunks of meat filled with bones and cartilage.

Super bonus fact: Whales also have some of the best kidneys of the animal kingdom. When they slurp their food, they inevitably eat a lot of salt water—which you can imagine would be highly dehydrating and hard on the heart. Super kidneys can help filter out some of this salt.

When I asked the lead author of this work, Carlos Peredo, how whales got their fresh water, he said it was through their food—but that was only as best as scientists could tell. It’s still a mystery!

Some medicines for inner organs are best absorbed through the outer one.

Found while reporting: A male hormonal birth control is no longer a pipe dream.

This week, a new phase two clinical trial for a hormonal birth control for men began (there are three clinical trials before a drug gets approved). This is exciting, because right now men have only two options for birth control: condoms or a vasectomy.

This new product, called NES/T is actually a topical gel that contains two hormones: Progestin and testosterone. Progestin shuts down sperm production, which in turn shuts down internal testosterone production. The testosterone from the gel replaces it, so men feel fine. After they stop using the gel, their sperm production should rev back up again.

When I think of topical gels, I usually think of medicine targeted at the skin—our largest organ, and my personal favorite. But it turns out, skin can be a great delivery for some kinds of hormones, too. Stephanie Page, one of the lead clinicians on this work, explained that testosterone and progestin are steroid hormones—which means it’s fat soluble. Our skin contains fat, so these hormones can get into the blood stream and to the male reproductive organs more quickly than it can through pills in this particular case.

The only worry is that this gel applied at home could accidentally come into contact with someone else. Page explained that they gave thorough instructions to men in the trial (all of whom were partnered with a woman) to wash their hands after applying the gel to their shoulders, and that they should not allow anyone to touch their bare shoulders for up to four hours after application.

Hallmark is the most excited of any of us that it’s the holiday season.

Found while reporting: The twinkly Christmas rom-com feeds on the disappointment of women.

If you’ve never seen a Hallmark made-for-TV Christmas movie, don’t worry. There are 37 new films released this year alone.

Hallmark was the OG creator of formulaic, cheesy holiday rom coms. I think part of the reason they’re doing so well is because women (their target audience) are bummed out. For the past couple of years, the news cycle has featured a lot of awful things. A lot of these events demonstrated the inequalities and mistreatment that women around the world still face, despite the fact that we’re in the 21st century. These silly, low-budget rom coms provide a break from current events, but also show a world where True Love is easy and conquerors all. It’s a world that is both enviable and outrageous all at once.

This is purely an argument I made with my coworker Sam Rigby, but still near and dear to my heart.

If you haven’t seen any of these movies but are now excited to check them out, don’t worry, we also made you a drinking game. I’d suggest playing it with a viewing of Netflix’s A Christmas Prince Two: The Royal Wedding.

Stuff I learned from others:

The announcement of the genetically-edited twins was a PR disaster, from Akshat Rathi for Quartz. A longer read, but a fascinating story behind an incredible health story.

This week, the Supreme Court heard a case involving the fraudulent supplement “Cobra Sexual Energy.” Underwhelmingly, the case itself was about whether or not the timeliness of an appeal was valid. From Nicholas Florko for STAT News.

In the ocean, you can hear photosynthesis happening when tiny little bubbles pop, from Sarah Keartes for Hakai magazine.

Animal of the week: Jumping spiders, who secrete a high-protein milk for their babies.

This is not a jumping spider, but it is a cute spider.

Long read of the week: “The neuroscience that shows us what it’s like to be a dog,” from Ephrat Livini for Quartz.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

Issue 56

The Thanksgiving leftovers edition


Nov. 24, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

We recently made the switch to Substack! Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.

This week was Thanksgiving in the US. Instead of the usual round up of facts, I present to you an abridged list of things I am grateful for:

  1. The US Government Accountability Office for shining a light on bogus supplements even before other organizations do.

  2. The team at Georgia Tech that figured out that wombats have colons with varying degrees of elasticity to make uniquely square poops.

    +1 to Patricia Yang, the mechanical engineer and head of this team, who emailed me past me deadline to tell me that wombat poop is also some of the driest poop on the planet, with less than 50% water content.

    +1 to David Hu, Yang’s lab leader, who has won an Ig Nobel Prize for his work on classifying the speed of mammal urination, and who also published a piece this week on the unique hairs on cat tongues that help them groom themselves.

  3. Epidemiologists, for tracking how demographic shifts will change how global disease burdens develop over time.

  4. Scientists who pursue work that stays on the fridge for decades, but eventually gather enough evidence to prove that their original hunch is worth investigating.

  5. Human research participants. These men and women are one of the main reasons behind the major medical advancements today.

    +1 to neuroscience research patients. If you’re reading a paper that talks about cell activity in human brains (not information taken from an fMRI, which looks at blood flow in the brain to indirectly gauge activity), you’re probably reading work done by people who were undergoing monitoring neurological monitoring as part of their treatment for epilepsy. These patients have electrodes placed on their brains—a procedure way too invasive for otherwise healthy participants— to watch for seizure activity. While they’re undergoing monitoring, they graciously perform a few thinking tasks for neuroscientists simultaneously.

    Thanks to these particular participants, neuroscientists have been able to study the place cells that help us make mental maps, what happens in the brain when we blink, and how phosphenes (the colors you see when you apply light pressure to your closed eyes) could hold clues for depression treatment, among many other lines of work.

  6. Vaccines. If you haven’t already, get your flu shot.

  7. My team at Quartz. I work with a team of journalists committed to explaining complicated aspects of the future through words, data visualizations, and videos. It is truly inspiring to work alongside a group of brilliant people so committed to this kind of public service.

    +1 for editors, for taking a first draft (sometimes with with embarrassing typos) and working with us writers to make it something we’re really proud of.

  8. Charts, for being there when words don’t do information justice.

  9. Gritty.

  1. You, dear friend <3. Because the only thing more fun than learning about the weird and wonderful world around us is sharing it with others.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

Issue 55

Heroes of metabolic studies, mysterious vape cartridges, and an early PMS "treatment"

Issue 55 // Nov. 17, 2018

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

This is the first issue sent out through Substack. Archives of from Tinyletter can be found here.

We owe a lot to the people who participate in metabolic studies.

Found while reporting: We now know when we burn the most calories, thanks to 10 volunteers in a brutal study.

A paper came out last week suggesting that, at complete rest, we tend to burn more calories in the afternoon and evening than in the morning. This is because of our body’s internal circadian rhythms, which are cycles of hormones that fluctuate regardless of “external time,” or what the clocks read. In total, these changes mean that we burn about 130 more calories in the afternoons at rest than we do in the dead of night.

The conclusion of the work was fairly straightforward. But the experiment designed to test it was insane.

This experiment required figuring out how a person’s natural circadian cycles works, which meant somehow hiding all external cues about time from him or her. So 10 brave men and women (five of each) committed to living for over a month in total isolation from the outside world—no natural light, clocks, internet, or phones. Instead, they lived entirely by the schedules dictated by the research team.

Some participants lived on a regular 24-hour schedule to serve as a control group. The experimental participants lived 28-hour days, kind of like they were flying to a timezone four hours behind them. This “extended day” meant that scientists could see fluctuations in their core body temperatures (taken through the rectum, no less) and the amount of carbon dioxide they were exhaling, both of which served as a proxy for their metabolisms. In total, they lived this way for 37 days, presumably with a lot of books and movies.

But it wasn’t just for the experimental period that these people had to alter their lifestyles. For three weeks prior to the experiment, they had to commit to not drinking any caffeine, alcohol, or taking any kind of medication. All of these factors can tweak our natural circadian cycles.

I was talking about this work with a friend earlier this week, and they brought up an interesting point: basically no one has a totally unaltered circadian cycle. Most of us drink coffee or tea, let alone a beer. Aspirin or other daily prescription medications are incredibly common. Plus, these people weren’t exercising—which also changes the way the body burns off energy throughout the day.

So although it’s interesting to see how we metabolize calories at certain times throughout the day, I’m not sure it’s actually applicable to the vast majority of people.

No one really knows what’s in all those flavored vape cartridges.

Found while reporting: Juul will stop selling teens’ favorite e-cigarette flavors in stores.

E-cigarettes don’t don’t contain tobacco, which the main ingredient that causes so many different kinds of health problems associated with smoking. They do contain nicotine, though, so originally when they came on the market, manufacturers they’d be a great alternative for people trying to quit smoking.

Although adults enjoy e-cigs, teens love them.

The US Food and Drug Administration has decided to make it its mission to stop teens from smoking. One way to do that, the organization figured, was to crack down on vaping. There’s some evidence that suggests that smoking e-cigarettes leads to smoking real cigarettes.

This week was the end of a 60-day period the FDA had given to vape companies to figure out how to get teens to stop smoking. Rumors had been circulating that they’d ban the sales of all the flavors of vape cartridges other than mint, menthol, and tobacco (which are available in cigarettes).

There are thousands of vape flavors. Companies figured out that teens love sweet things, so a lot of them have names like “cake,” “cinnamon bun,” or “candy.”

But no one really knows what’s in these combustible flavorings, and some studies have suggested that they could contain harmful substances. One paper from earlier this year found that when you burn some of these flavors, you end up smoking some totally unknown compounds that aren’t on the ingredient list. Another found that these sweet flavors are damaging to white blood cells, causing them to swell up, which could conceivably lead to asthma, COPD, or even dental disease.

Sure, these studies aren’t on actual people yet. But to be fair, scientists can’t know the long-term studies of vaping because it just hasn’t been around for that long.

On Thursday of this week, the FDA said they wouldn’t ban flavored vapes from being sold in stores—which came as a bit of a surprise. Now all flavored vape cartridges will have to be in a separate part of retail stores inaccessible to people under 18. Instead, the organization is pursuing a ban of flavored cigars and menthol cigarettes.

At one point, a (male*) doctor thought a good way to cure PMS would be with a nice dose of radiation to the ovaries.

Found while reading: Gross Anatomy, by Mara Altman (special thanks to Corinne Purtill for introducing me to the book!)

Throughout medical history, there’s this pattern of scientists discovering something, and then doctors trying to use it to try to cure everything.

Scientists discovered radioactivity in the late 1800s. By the early 1900s, doctors were trying to use it for all sorts ailments like lupus and tuberculosis (it didn’t work). Although they quickly figured out that things like radium were toxic, there was lingering hope it could be used medicinally in some cases.

Back in the 1930s, a doctor named Robert Frank thought that maybe the “reckless” behavior some women exhibited just before their periods—“premenstrual tension,” or PMT, as he called it—could be from too much estrogen in the ovaries. So maybe if you just irradiated the ovaries to stop them from producing estrogen, you’d get rid of the PMT! And if you didn’t have any radiation handy, you could also just try cutting the ovaries out, or loading up the body with a crap ton of testosterone.

He was right about one thing: all of the above did stop menstruation, so you got rid of PMT. But that definitely did more harm than good to any of his poor patients.

Bonus fact: I was surprised to learn that the term “premenstrual syndrome” actually coined by a woman—a gynecologist named Katharina Dalton in the 1950s.

On the one hand, Dalton was a feminist hero: She was acknowledging that some women experience really severe symptoms of PMS or periods themselves. These symptoms totally merit medical study and intervention.

But on the other, she gave people a reason to think that women are inherently less stable than men—an idea that still persists in sexism today. In the 80s, Dalton testified in a couple of court cases saying that women should be given lesser sentences for their crimes because they performed them before their cycles. Because, you know, they couldn’t help it.

Super bonus fact: At first, it was super fishy to me that scientists had tried so hard to to save or transplant damaged penises, but not ovaries. Turns out, it’s not sexism—it’s futile medicine. Given the position of a woman’s ovaries, if they’re that badly damaged, the rest of her body is probably beyond repair.

*is anyone surprised?

Stuff I learned from others:

Bats can swim, which means that we too can do anything we set out to do with enough determination, from Sarah Todd for Quartz at Work.

Scientists are creating a whole Journal of Controversial Ideas, and it will offer the option of writing with a pseudonym for those who are worried about retribution from their peers, from Annabelle Timset for Quartz.

A walk in the woods led biologists to discover a microbe unlike any other kind of life, from Emily Chung for CBC News.

Animal of the week: HEDGEHOGS. DC is getting really close to passing a law that would allow hedgehogs to be legal pets. These little goofs got their name because they snort like pigs when they rummage through hedge roots looking for snacks.

Long read of the week: Last week, Quartz reporter Olivia Goldhill published a huge investigative feature on Compass, the shady nonprofit turned for-profit company quietly building a monopoly on magic mushrooms.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram. Top image by E. Y. Smith.

Welcome to Scrap Facts

A newsletter for those with insatiable curiosity.

Hi! My name is Katherine Ellen Foley, and I am incredibly curious. I hope you are, too!

I’m a science and health reporter, currently writing for Quartz (qz.com). My job is to bring readers science and health stories with all the facts they need to know. But I always struggle to kill my darlings—all those extra things I learn while reporting that don’t make the final draft.

In June 2017, I created Scrap Facts. Each week, I write up and send out the best of what I learned on the job (or out and about). Most of these tidbits will be about medical sciences, medical history, physiology, animal news, environmental science, and occasionally space.

I’m moving this newsletter over from Tinyletter. Archives of previous Scrap Facts are available here. For now, this newsletter is free to anyone and everyone—subscribe and share away!

Curious about me? You can check out my personal page here, my author page with Quartz here, my Twitter here, and Instagram here.

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