"The Heart of the Matter"

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Transcripts: 516-3 to 516-5

Week: 516.3 Guest: Joel Achenbach Topic: Why Things Are - Part One Host: Richard NEMA Producer: Ed Graham

NEMA: This is a three part series of fascinating and obscure facts about the human body with Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach, author of Why Things Are and Why Things Aren't.

NEMA: Mr. Achenbach, in your book you deal with a lot of obscure questions or some of them are very obscure about everything from physics to food and weather but the area of greatest interest to us right now is going to be things about the human body and health but first what inspired you to write such a book?

ACHENBACH: I've always been sort of pathologically curious and I think a lot of people out there, a lot of your listeners are hungry for information. They want to know stuff about the world.

NEMA: One of the main chapters I want to deal with is some of the questions that you answered in the chapter called the "Glorious Temple That is the Human Body." Just out of curiosity, did you run across a few questions that you wanted to answer and they were just too arcane or obscure and you never got an answer to them so they never made it into the book?

ACHENBACH: There's a lot of questions that I didn't do because people are sort of obsessed with their bodies so I thought the bathroom related questions I didn't do, you know what I mean? Because this is a newspaper. I work for The Washington Post and people are always sending me letters. They want to know about "Why does my body do this?" and so some of those things I didn't really touch but the truth is is that the body and how it works and the biology and your brain, these are the most fascinating areas of all I think. For example, I did a piece once on sexuality and why is it different for so many different people? Why isn't everyone exactly the same in what they find to be sexually interesting? Why does it vary from person to person? And these are the kind of things that I've been trying to do over the years - I try to do more biology more than just about anything.

NEMA: Well, the name of the program that you're on right now with me is The Heart of the Matter so let's thematically tie into that and start with a logical question right out of your book and the question is "Why doesn't the heart get tired the way other muscles do?"

ACHENBACH: It's a different kind of muscle, okay? You can say it's a super strong muscle. You have two kinds of muscles in your body. You have skeletal muscle and you have your cardiac muscle. The mitochondria in your heart muscle make up about 30% - 35% of the volume of the cell that a normal skeletal muscle, the mitochondria take up only about 1% or 2% of the volume. Now the mitochondria are the little engines with the cell that convert food to energy so as a result your heart muscle just doesn't get as taxed as easily as skeletal muscle.

NEMA: I would be curious to know if you've ever run across any evidence that somebody on an Olympic committee somewhere is trying to do some research to get the higher density of that mitochondria into muscles that are normally used by athletes?

ACHENBACH: Yeah. My guess is that you can't do it, that it would require some sort of genetic reprogramming and that you'd end up - you wouldn't want cardiac muscle in your arms. There's a reason that you don't have your entire body covered with cardiac muscle. You don't need to burn that much energy with each of your muscles.

NEMA: Join me for part two on "Why Things Are" with Joel Achenbach.


Week: 516.4 Guest: Joel Achenbach Topic: Why Things Are - Part Two Host: Richard NEMA Producer: Ed Graham

NEMA: This is part two in a three part series on fascinating facts about the human body with Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach, author of Why Things Are and Why Things Aren't.

NEMA: Why doesn't the hair on your arms grow as long as the hair on your head?

ACHENBACH: Hair is hair, pretty much, no matter where it is on your body. The difference is the hair on you arms just doesn't grow for as long a duration. Its growing cycle, its phase may last only a couple of months whereas the hair on your head will grow and grow and grow and grow for years. You can have hair that will grow on your head for six or seven years before it falls out. It varies from person to person but basically what's wrong with the hair on your arms - it stops growing after a couple of months and then it falls out.

NEMA: There is great variation among individuals between how much their hair will grow. Some people's hair will grow all the way to the floor. Other people - it will only grow to their shoulders.

ACHENBACH: That's genetically determined and there are people whose hair will might grow a little more quickly and also it will grow instead of for five or six years, it might grow for 10 or 15 years and it will go all the way to the floor. Most people cannot grow hair to the floor because before your hair got that long, it would fall out.

NEMA: All right. Here's one that probably almost everyone can identify with. Why is the toenail on the little toe so hard?

ACHENBACH: I have been assured by experts that it is in fact not any thicker than your big toenail, that the difference is just that because it's small, it looks like it's harder but what has happened is a condition called "onychogryphosis," I believe is how you pronounce it, which is when you wear bad footwear, when your shoes are too tight, you can cause sort of a hardening of that little toenail. It's kind of bent over and sort of all smashed looking but it's not in fact harder than the other toenails. It's just smaller and so we notice it more. It's just more like a little knob.

NEMA: Why don't doctors get sick from treating so many infectious patients?

ACHENBACH: Infections are not transmitted through the air. Most diseases are not airborne and as a result the doctor can be looking right at you and be having a conversation with you. He's not going to get sick from talking to you. The bigger danger is transmission from the hands and that's why doctors wash their hands so obsessively because the hands are the vector for disease and that's why hospitals were so dangerous over 100 years ago before doctors even realized they needed to wash their hands. The germ theory of disease came along so late. Semmelweis was the first person to go around saying "Hey, you've got to wash your hands," and that was the late 1800s.

NEMA: Okay. On to the next question, why is a short nap so rejuvenating?

ACHENBACH: The thing about a nap is - people should nap. It's natural to nap. It's not like a weakness. We have a society that seems to believe that there's something wrong with you if you don't want to work nonstop.

NEMA: Join me for part three on "Why Things Are" with Joel Achenbach.


Week: 516.5 Guest: Joel Achenbach Topic: Why Things Are - Part Three Host: Richard NEMA Producer: Ed Graham

NEMA: This is part three in a three part series on fascinating facts about the human body with Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach, author of Why Things Are and Why Things Aren't. I asked Mr. Achenbach why naps are refreshing.

ACHENBACH: We have a society that seems to believe that there's something wrong with you if you don't want to work nonstop from the beginning of the morning till the end of the day but we're definitely designed through a million years of evolution to want to take a little nap. What actually happens that causes you to feel so rested is a little mysterious because even the whole area of sleep is something that people don't really understand why we do it at all. It's sort of an area of science that people are investigating very energetically right now because if you think about it from a Darwinian standpoint, the whole idea of someone shutting down and lying down on the ground and being completely vulnerable, feels sort of counter-intuitive, but it's clear that something happens when we sleep and when we dream that causes our brain to sort of download all of the tension and stress and information that is acquired over that last 10 or 12 hours and to sort of reset itself, kind of like when you re-boot a computer or something. Even a five or ten minute nap will really make a huge difference at the end of the day particularly.

NEMA: All right. Here's one that I think everyone needs to know just to get on with their lives. Why do your digits get shriveled up in the bathtub?

ACHENBACH: They don't actually get shriveled up. What happens is they expand if anything when the water is getting down into the skin and causing it to expand and sort of fold up and wrinkle up the same way that carpeting in your house will fold up if you spill something on it. The skin is very porous. Water gets in there. The water molecules sort of wedge themselves between the fibers and the tissues in your skin. It just buckles up. It just swells and buckles up.

NEMA: Actually there are certain neurological diseases predominantly that if your skin doesn't do what you're calling shrivel up when it is wet, it's an indication that a person has a disease process going on so it's actually a diagnostic technique in trying to narrow down certain diseases.

ACHENBACH: I didn't know that....

NEMA: Okay. Here's one that definitely will have everyone's attention. Why do we itch?

ACHENBACH: Well, for a while there it was thought that itching was related to pain but in fact, it's a completely different sensation. The definition among scientists of an itch is that it makes you want to scratch. It evokes a desire to scratch. Pain however just hurts. Sounds sort of obvious but it's a distinct sensation and the studies they've done show that there are specific nerves pathways that specifically are designed to register itch as opposed to pain. There are these little nerve fibers called nociceptors. Some of them respond to pain and others respond to both pain and to itch producing stimuli but the itch signal has its own pathway through your spinal cord.

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