Why S___ Happens

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Dr. Peter J. Bentley, a research scientist at University College London, can answer questions on almost any scientific topic. His book Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day explores 39 typical mishaps — breaking a bone, losing your balance, getting crapped on by a bird — and explains exactly what happens and why. Bentley talked to TIME about the science behind a bad day.

TIME: You write about why we get dizzy — the liquid in our inner ears sloshes around. Is that similar to when people get motion sickness?
Bentley: Yes, it is. We're all hardwired to correlate a jolt in our balance with a jolt in our vision systems; that helps us maneuver through the world. If one happens without the other, it's a bit weird and we don't like it so much. Basically, if you're in a vehicle, your vision is stationary. You aren't seeing the bumps in the road, but you are feeling them, and that's when you start getting uncomfortable.

It reminds me of an experiment you can perform on yourself. When we move around, our eyes are hardwired to balance things out, a bit like an antishake mechanism in a camera. As we wobble about, our eyes wobble to smooth out the picture. They can move up and down and left and right, but our eyes balance in a rotational way as well. If you look in a mirror and tilt your head all the way to one side so that one ear is pointing to the ceiling, and then tilt your head all the way to the other side, look at what your eyes are doing in the mirror. Your eyes are actually rotating around in their sockets, on an axis from your nose to the back of your head. It looks really weird and a bit freaky.

You also talk about honeybees, and you mention the dance that bees do to tell other bees where food is. I've always wondered, How did we figure something like that out? Did a bunch of scientists sit around one day and suddenly go, "Oh, so that's what they're doing!"?
Basically, we ran a bunch of experiments on bees and it was clear that they had some way of telling each other what was going on. They were definitely communicating something, but it wasn't clear what. So a number of trials were conducted where certain factors were controlled. One of the factors [that was] changed was the direction of the sun. And the bees' behavior changed. When they went back in the hive, they started wiggling about differently. The next step is to correlate the exact position of the sun with the direction in which they do their dance. It's detective work, basically. (Read about honeybees in California's almond orchards.)

You also write about bird poop.
That I did.

One of the things you mention is that white bird poop means a bird is stressed. But when I see it around, it's almost always white. Are birds always stressed?
I meant when it's almost completely white. Um, I don't know how much detail you want, but the dark bits in the middle? If you don't see any of that and it's all white, then the bird is a bit more stressed.

You talk about blood and muscles. One of the things you mention is varicose veins. What exactly are they?
Well, your blood runs all over your body, so it obviously has to go against the direction of gravity sometimes. The only way you can do that is to have valves. They keep the blood from falling back down in between your heart pulses. Varicose veins are when valves don't work. Blood can't work its way up anymore, so it starts to pool and the vein starts to swell and it gets painful and horrible. At the moment with our technology, we can't replace the valve, so the cure is often to strip them out and rely on the remaining healthy veins.

You claim that if you scratch the top part of a CD, where the label is, it's actually worse than if you scratch the bottom.
Yes, it's surprising, isn't it? The laser looks through the clear bit, so we assume that's the delicate side. But actually, because of the way they're made — you start off with this lump of clear plastic and then you stick the foil on it, and then you stick a label on top of that — it's much thinner on the label side than it is on the other side. If you scratch the clear side, you can kind of polish it out. But if you scratch the label side, you're screwed. This is why jewel cases are designed to hold CDs in the air and stop [both sides] from touching.

So you pretty much know everything about everything?
Obviously, I can't answer everything, but the point of the book is to encourage people to be curious. Little kids have it right — running around and asking "Why?" all the time is the right thing to do. I think we should all keep doing that. And that's why being a scientist is the best job in the world. There's a lot of misinformation out there, like the CD thing, and it's nice to be able to explain the truth to people. With a little effort, you can learn something that lets you see the world in a completely different light.

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