Mysteries of the morning shower

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Science is not just about the big things, like evolution, the Big Bang, genetics, being called Dawkins or Hawking and going on Start the Week to talk to Melvyn Bragg about the big things like evolution, the Big Bang, genetics, etc. It's also about the small things in life, like bathrooms.

Professor Rudolf Reinhardt has specialised all his life in the science of bathrooms. He has never been asked on Start the Week to talk about it. But he is not bitter. He understands why Melvyn Bragg never answers his letters. He thinks that Melvyn Bragg probably does not believe there is such a thing as the science of bathrooms.

And is there such a thing?

"Oh, yes," he will tell you, "there certainly is a science of bathrooms. There are things that happen in bathrooms which happen nowhere else in the world. If you ignore bathroom behaviour, you exclude part of the natural world."

Let's get this straight. Are you talking about the way people behave, or the way things behave in bathrooms?

"Not people," shrugs the professor. "Human behaviour baffles me. It does not interest me. What interests me are things like the behaviour of feet in the shower. You know that if you stand in a bath to have a shower, the underside of the feet sometimes stick to the enamel of the bath? When you reach for the taps or the soap, you take a step forward and fall over because your feet are stuck to the bath!"

Yes, I had noticed this before. But I thought I was the only person it happened to.

"No, no. It is general. But because it happens in the bathroom, nobody mentions it."

What causes it?

"Well, basically, it is some form of spontaneous suction that occurs when dry skin is surrounded by wet precipitation and meets another dry object. Or maybe the combination of water and dirt on the foot makes a glue solution. Or maybe ... "

You mean, you don't know?

"That's right. We don't know. Nor do we know why it is always impossible to get the mix of hot and cold water right in a shower. Always!"

But surely the mix is sometimes right?

"Oh, sure," says Professor Reinhardt, "but it never stays right. Have you not noticed that when a shower seems right it gradually gets hotter or colder?"

Yes, but that is because someone else in the house has just turned a tap on.

"No, my friend. We have experimented with empty houses, with people taking showers all alone, and even then the temperature changes."

I see. What other bathroom phenomena are there?

"Many, many. For instance, there is the strange process whereby, when we step out of a shower, there is always a patch of soapy foam left somewhere on our bodies, no matter how well we have rinsed ourselves."

Yes, very true.

"I call this Reinhardt's Syndrome."


"Because I discovered and named it."

I mean, why does it need a name?

"So that I will be remembered when I am dead. Long after I am gone, people will be about to step out of the shower and they will stop and say, 'Hold on! Reinhardt's Syndrome!' And they will locate one more patch of foam. Incidentally, this also applies to shaving. There is always one more bit, usually on the earlobe. And if there is no foam, then there is always one bit of stubble you forgot to shave."

It isn't really on the same level as Alzheimer's Disease and Hodgkinson's Disease, is it?

"No, but at least it isn't a disease. Have you noticed that medical scientists always have diseases named after them, and never cures? It's always Bright's Disease but never Fleming's Penicillin. Well, having a syndrome is one step up."

Right. Tell us more about bathroom science.

"One of the curious scientific laws governing bathrooms is the fact that a bathroom is the worst place to get dry after a bath. The air is so saturated with water after a bath that when you rub a towel over yourself you are merely moving areas of damp around. Scientifically speaking, get out of a bathroom to get dry.

"There is a classic description of this in a Woody Allen short story. Do you remember it?"

No, I don't think ...

"He's just had a shower, and the warm mist is billowing out of his bathroom into his sitting- room. In an effort to clear it, he opens the window, but instead of the warm mist going out, cold dry air comes in. In the middle of his living-room the cold front meets the warm front and it starts raining on his carpet! One of the great moments in world literature, I think, at least for a bathroom scientist."

If Professor Reinhardt cannot get on Melvyn Bragg, he will be available for consultation here, so please let us have all your queries about bathroom science.

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