Science: Technoquest

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The Independent Culture
Q Are some people more likely to get addicted to drugs than others?

Many people use potentially addictive substances regularly without getting addicted (for example, the social drinking of alcohol), but others find themselves becoming dependent on their use. There may be additional reasons for the over-use of drugs, such as depression, and social or family environment may influence whether or not use turns into abuse.

Our genes may also have something to do with it, but research in this area is still at a very early stage. Almost certainly there is no single "addiction" gene.

Q Drinks cans are either 330 or 440 millilitres in size. Why?

The 330ml can comes from the US 10oz size, so is an imported size. The 440ml size is slightly harder to explain. All cans are 2 11/16 inches in diameter because that maximises the number you can pack on a wooden pallet for transporting. Most beer cans are now 500ml because 10 years ago beer manufacturers offered a free 13.5 per cent on the 440ml size, and this has now become standard. But why was the initial size 440ml? We haven't been able to find out. If anyone knows, tell us!

Q Who first suggested that the Earth was spinning?

Nicholas Copernicus, in 1542.

Q What is synaesthesia?

It is an unusual condition in which the senses get cross-wired. A person with synaesthesia may see colours when they hear a sound, or actually taste words; stimulation of one sense, it seems, causes an inappropriate stimulation of another. The most common form of synaesthesia is seeing or hearing words in colour. The condition affects about 1 in 25,000 people and is more common in women than in men, and more synaesthetics are left- handed than the population average, but the significance of this is unclear.

No one really knows what goes on in the synaesthetic brain. One theory is that the region of the brain normally receiving input from the ears also gets some information from the eyes. Brain imaging shows that areas of the cortex which normally receive information from the eyes are also activated when the person hears a sound. This would suggest that there is some cross-wiring in the brain.

But other researchers argue that this is too simplistic, and that synaesthetics have an unusual limbic system (the centre of emotion in the brain). They suggest that the limbic system pulls together fragments of memories from all over the brain and pastes them together to produce a complete memory. Normally we are not conscious of this process, but perhaps synaesthetics are. This may explain why inappropriate sensory data pops up in their mind.

Synaesthetics do not think of their unusual ability as a handicap. Most are sorry that the rest of us live in such a colourless world.

Q What is the name of the super-absorbent material in nappies?

The material in nappies that absorbs urine is sodium polyachromade. It starts off in the nappy as a powder and can absorb 30 times its weight to become a gel.

You can also visit the technoquest World Wide Web site at http://www.sciencenet.org.uk

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