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The Science of Spicy: Four Amazing Things Chili Peppers Can Do

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The hottest thing about chili peppers isn't the way they taste; it's everything else they can do for you.

1. They Strangle Cancer

Human cells aren't the happy go-lucky little fellows we'd like to imagine. In fact, our cells commit suicide on a regular basis, via a process called apoptosis. Unlike the messy deaths that happen when a cell is injured or diseased, apoptosis is a peaceful passing, wherein an otherwise healthy cell reaches the end of its life span, then shuts down, shrinks, and is absorbed by its neighbors. But with certain types of cancer, the natural process of apoptosis doesn't occur. Unwilling to go quietly into the great night, cancer cells rage on, refusing to die, continuing to multiply, and eventually forming tumors.

That's where chili peppers come in. New studies have shown that capsaicin—the chemical compound that gives chili peppers their kick—may be the key to controlling cancer cells. During the past few years, research has indicated that capsaicin can induce apoptosis in cancers of the lungs, pancreas, and prostate. In the case of prostate cancer, researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles found that capsaicin also slows the cancer's ability to grow. This means chili-pepper treatments could be lifesavers for men who've survived one bout of cancer but are at risk of another.

Of course, that doesn't mean that people should start feasting on pepper-only diets just yet. Right now, there's little evidence that gorging on chilies will prevent healthy males from getting the disease. In fact, thus far, all research tests on capsaicin have been limited to Petri dishes and some very unlucky mice. That said, scientists remain optimistic about the pepper's potential to help control the disease.

2. They Fight Off Barnacles

Any good sailor knows that barnacles are bad news. If enough of these water-dwelling pests clamp onto a boat's hull, it becomes less hydrodynamic. In fact, barnacle build-ups can force ships to use as much as 30 percent more fuel. That's why many seafarers choose to safeguard their vessels by coating them with anti-barnacle paint. The only problem is that these paints are generally filled with toxic chemicals and metals.

Fortunately, in the early 1990s, an American sailor named Ken Fischer came up with a better idea. While chowing down on a Tabasco-laced sandwich, Fischer realized that barnacles might not share his love for spicy food. His hunch was right. Before long, Fischer was making millions off his pepper-based repellant, Barnacle Ban.

Surprisingly, barnacles might not be the only sea creatures averse to chili peppers. The Kuna tribe of Panama reportedly still sails with strings of chilies tied to their boats. The peppers supposedly make the ships (and the Kuna themselves) less appetizing to sharks.

3. They Numb the Pain

In addition to killing cancer and fending off barnacles, capsaicin has the ability to dull pain. When it hits the tongue, the spice activates pain receptors that fire up that burning sensation. But after a while, the same process depletes the body of Substance P, a chemical involved in the perception of pain. The message "ouch" stops getting through to your brain, and your discomfort fades.

Medical science has already turned this trick into over-the-counter creams for arthritis, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Someday, capsaicin could revolutionize anesthesiology. Have you noticed that after a trip to the dentist, you talk funny and can't move parts of your face? That's because traditional anesthesia temporarily deadens your senses to the extent that you lose control of those body parts. In October 2007, however, researchers at Harvard Medical School announced that they'd used capsaicin to numb rats without rendering them immobile. The researchers first injected rats with capsaicin and then with a local anesthetic. As the capsaicin flowed through the pain reception pathways, the anesthetic followed in its footsteps, deadening any discomfort while leaving the rats free to scurry about their cages.

In the future, this could mean better painkillers—ones that could make it possible for women in labor to be mobile after an epidural or allow dental patients to move their faces normally after getting a filling.

4. They Make You Forget How Bad They Taste

Although pepper fanatics are always itching for new ways to assault their taste buds, chilies aren't actually addictive. Numerous scientific studies have shown that chili peppers don't induce physical cravings, withdrawal, or loss of control—the classic signs of addiction. Yet, there is something about peppers that keeps people coming back for more.

Scientists think that when pain receptors come into contact with capsaicin, it triggers the body to release endorphins—chemicals that bind to the same receptors in the brain as opiates such as heroin and morphine. And while endorphin highs from peppers aren't like the ones in Trainspotting, they can provide enough of a euphoric kick to keep people engaged in the actions that release them, such as jogging or bungee jumping. This observation may go a long way toward explaining why humans are the only mammals that keep eating chili peppers, even though the sensation burns. Scientists believe that the little high we get from the spice has helped us convince ourselves that we like the taste. The truth is that we do the same thing—for the same sort of pleasurable payout—with other bitter flavors such as coffee, tobacco, and beer.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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