Issue 74

The best time to be alive, extreme athleticism of pregnant people, and the best wine to bring to parties

June 16, 2019

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.

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“This is still the best time to be born for most people.”

Found while meeting Bill Nye.

When I was a kid, I believed anything and everything was possible with determination and a positive attitude. A lot of that came from my parents: They’re both chemists who encouraged me to read and write anything I wanted, to ask questions, and to dream big.

That same sentiment was frequently reflected back to me on the television screen as I watched Bill Nye, the Science Guy. Nye is a household name for American millennials. He was the host of a ~30 minute American TV show in the 90s in which he and fellow scientists brilliantly explained basic science for an elementary school audience. (He had a lot of help—be on the lookout for that story later.)

I completely idolized Nye, and I even met him when I was 7 (thanks Mom and Dad!). I think by now, most people have moved on, but I think about Nye a lot as a fellow science communicator. My dream has always been able to remind people that science is a great, wonderful force that we all benefit from daily.

But when I sat down with Nye on June 8, I was feeling a bit deflated. The news cycle is exhausting, and a lot of the time, it highlights what science hasn’t been able to do for us yet. Furthermore, as much as I love reporting on the body, sometimes I’m at a loss when I learn all the ways that systems inside us can fail. I look at global population trends and climate change and I think that even with scientific advances that have improved our lives so much, we’re just going to give ourselves more problems to solve, each more impossible than the last.

Nye, however, disagreed with me. He is relentlessly optimistic—something I learned from speaking with him last year—and reminded me that, based on a number of metrics, now is the best time to be alive. Most humans growing up today have better resources, like access to quality food and education, than those even a few generations before. There’s still a lot of work to be done, of course, but we can’t ignore progress humanity continues to make.

He’s not the only one with this opinion—it’s the same argument championed by Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, my colleague Akshat Rathi, and my former editor Elijah Wolfson.

Nye’s optimism comes from looking at the next generation of scientists. He believes that if you see how brilliant and motivated kids today are, you realize that as long as we empower them with education, they’re the ones who are gonna solve all these future problems I’m so worried about. The kids, he said, are doing all right—and we’ll be just fine if we listen to them.

Image description: A selfie of me on the left and Bill Nye on the right with the National Press Club logo in the background.

Do you have opinions about Bill Nye? I’d like to hear them for a story I’m working on. Email me at scrapfacts@gmail.com or kfoley@qz.com. Responses will be considered on the record.

It takes about 70,000 calories to grow a human baby in the womb.

Found while reporting: Pregnancy pushes the body nearly as much as extreme endurance sports.

Last week, my coworker Daniel Wolfe and I teamed up to visually break down a paper with an interesting finding: In the faced of prolonged exertion—as in, weeks to months of pushing ourselves to the max nearly every day—our metabolisms actually slow down to a rate of about 2.5 times what we normally burn.

Image description: A chart showing our bodies can burn about 2.5 times their resting metabolism when competing in long-term endurance activities.

Pregnancy is an interesting point on that map. It’s longer than any endurance event at 40 weeks (some of the other points on that chart are weeks of hiking, or near-daily marathons for 20 weeks), and, in total takes about 70,000 additional calories of energy, according to Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke, and author of the above study.

Previous work suggests that pregnancy and lactation causes the body to burn about twice what it normally does—which would appear to continue the imaginary trend line above. It also kind of makes sense that it would be below the 2.5x threshold, because pregnancy requires one to gain weight.

Bonus fact: Why the 2.5x threshold, you ask? A limited number of overfeeding studies—in which participants are intentionally overfed and move very little—have suggested that 2.5x our normal caloric intake is as much as our bodies can routinely handle (think weeks at a time, not only US Thanksgiving Day). Of course, evidence is limited, because…well, would you want to sign up for that kind of work?

If you’re going to a party and you’re not sure of the menu, bring white, not red wine.

Found while reporting this obsession email on smellscapes.

I talked to a sommelier named Tim Keenan for a story about our sense of smell.

Smell, he said, make up about a quarter to a third of our experience drinking wine. The aromas your nose picks up when you life a glass of wine to it are like a movie trailer for your taste buds—they should tell you some of the flavors you’re about to experience, but not all of them.

He also said that wine is meant to be paired with food—which isn’t always present at some evening festivities. If you’re only drinking wine without eating, it’s best to try something lighter, with fewer tannins (naturally occurring bitter, lip-puckering flavors), like a white wine or a rose. In general, red wines (or tannin-heavy wines) go down rougher without food that complements them—like red meats. White wines, though, tend to go down smooth if they’re the only flavors in your mouth.

Keenan, therefore, recommends bringing a bottle of white to any party where you’re not sure what kind of food will (or won’t) be served.

That said, any rules about wine are silly! All of us have slightly different senses of smell, tastes, and preferences. The best wine is the stuff you enjoy, Keenan said.

Bonus fact: Your tastebuds, like your olfactory neurons, are pretty ancient chemical receptors. They’re some of the few neurons that are directly exposed to the outside world, although olfactory neurons have a slightly protective cover of snot.

Image description: Michael Scott sniffing a white wine and proclaiming that it is, in fact, white.

Stuff I learned from others:

Scientists are trying to give carp herpes to try to get them out of US midwestern waters. Racism and capitalism exacerbated tuberculosis in South Africa. Talking about themselves reduces burnout in doctors. In the US, marketing drugs to consumers helps jack up the price. Israel is such a start-up hub, there are now direct flights between Tel-Aviv and San Francisco. Movement, not exercise, is the key to fitness.

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

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Image description: a sketched headshot of me.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.