Issue 75

Life's off-switch, generous soccer players, and sleepy birds

June 29, 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.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here.


Is one of life’s off switches a disease?

Found while reporting this obsession email.

Multicellular life was designed to end.

There are many external things that can induce cell death—radiation, infection, trauma, etc. But our cells also have their own internal grim reaper: Their own DNA.

It seems that cells only replicate a certain number of times before they stop, and enter a stage called senescence before dying. In the 1960s, a scientist called Leonard Hayflick identified this limit as between 40 and 60 replications—hence its name, the Hayflick limit.

In the decades that followed, other biologists found that perhaps, this limit was the result of the shortening of protective protein caps on our chromosomes called telomeres. With each division, these telomeres get a little bit shorter, making the chromosome a little more vulnerable to potentially fatal copying mistakes that could lead to cancer. Theoretically—and the science isn’t totally certain yet—when a cell’s telomeres have gotten really short, the cell has reached its limit and gone into senescence.

Senescence is a poorly understood state. Senescent cells don’t look any different from normal cells, but they give off proteins that can sometimes act as distress signals to the body’s immune system (perhaps an old evolutionary immune system trick). And yet, even though they may be an internal prevention against cancer, they also seem to contribute to aging in some way, Jan van Deursen, a cancer biologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told me. They tend to be present in high numbers in older, sicker mice. When members of van Deursen’s lab removed them from old mice, however, the mice looked and acted like they were younger again.

So it would seem like maybe, if we figured out how to get rid of senescent cells after they form—or even maybe before they form by extending a cell’s Hayflick limit—we could slow aging and extend our lives.

There are a lot of questions science still has to answer in this field. It’s still not clear if that Leonard Hayflick’s theory is absolutely true for all cells in our bodies, and if they all have the same Hayflick limit. And also, we don’t know how much this limit works to prevent cancer. We’d want to figure that out before messing with it for sure.

And there’s an administrative problem—at least in the US. Aging, you see, is technically not a disease. It’s just a part of all life. So there’s no federal funding for scientists who are trying to stop aging. Instead, the best efforts we’ve got to fight aging have come from super wealthy, Silicon Valley types like Peter Thiel, which creates a bias in the research. (Van Deursen has also created a startup in this space around his work.)

My colleague Sangeeta Singh-Kurtz has written about these immortality startups extensively. Frankly, it all sounds a little nutty. The subtext to these companies is something my colleague Ephrat Livni astutely pointed out earlier this week: We don’t really want immortality. Instead, we want to be forever young. And that is a whole different game.

The first female soccer players were philanthropists.

Found while reporting: Women soccer players are younger than men because they can’t afford longer careers.

I was shocked to learn that the US women’s World Cup tournament is just a year or so older than I am.

Turns out that for five decades in the 20th century, soccer was considered “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged." From 1921 to 1971, most national teams did not allow women to compete.

However, prior to 1921 during the first World War, women’s soccer was huge—particularly in England. Per Deutsche Welle news (cited earlier), in 1917 women who worked at a weapons studio in Preston England formed a soccer league and donated any money they raised with their games to injured soldiers and their families. After generating a crowd of 53,000 and raising 10 million pounds total (not clear if that’s 1921 pounds or 2019 pounds—still pretty impressive) for charity, they were shut down in 1921.

A DC local bird has a skill we all need: microsleeping.

Found on my first time birding.

Last week, I was invited (read: shamelessly invited myself) to go birding with an acquaintance in Washington, DC, where I live. At 6:30 am, we met at Malcom X Park and took walk around to see what we could learn about some of the local birds. We saw some house sparrows, some European starlings, and some chimney swifts!

Chimney swifts look like flying cigars with narrow wings. They got their name because, when they aren’t flying, hang out on vertical surfaces like the inside of chimneys. They can’t perch like most birds, and recent trends in architecture moving away from chimneys have actually hurt their populations in the north and midwestern parts of North America.

They also spend the majority of their time flying. Although they roost at night, they’re also capable of shutting off parts of their brains while they fly to get a micro-sleep in, like dolphins.

Image description: A silhouette of a bird sitting in on a branch.

This is not a chimney swift. It’s a catbird, which has one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard.

In general, I loved birding because it was so good to take a minute to learn about life that I usually ignore. That, and being up and out in the morning made it a 10/10 experience.

Other stuff I wrote:

The researcher behind the smartphone “horns” study sells posture pillows (Scoop!🍦)

A new study that ties common medications to dementia highlights the need for early detection

A Twitter account corrects one of the biggest problems in health reporting (if you’ve learned anything from this newsletter, it should be to ALWAYS check for absolute risk.)

And my last Bill Nye take for a while on how, after 26 years, Bill Nye the Science Guy still holds up. My favorite thing that Nye has ever said (and that I’ve ever seen/heard him say anywhere, frankly) with regard to why he set out to create such an inclusive science education show:

“I was born a white guy in the US. English is my first language. What else do you freaking want?…It gets back to this notion that every little kid complains about, which is life is not fair. I don’t think anybody would argue that it is. But wouldn’t it be better if it was?”

Stuff I learned from others:

Facebook accidentally named its new cryptocurrency off a famous tampon brand. Old millennials love CBD. You can buy Kirkland brand stuff on Amazon. Wanna make money? Be an anesthesiologist. The US is picking a fight with Canada over Arctic shipping routes. Stamps.com helped bust a counterfeit drug ring.

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

If you love Scrap Facts, consider sending it to a friend. Send your feedback and scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Image description: a sketched headshot of me.

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