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Why Does the Shower Curtain Always Try to Get Me?

For those of you who take baths or are simply unconcerned with hygiene, let me explain the horror that is the “shower curtain effect.” You get in a nice hot shower first thing in the morning. You’re barely awake, but the womb-like confines offer the perfect space to transition from sleepy cretin to functioning human. Until, of course, the shower curtain – who you thought was your friend, who you thought you could trust – gives in to its strange, powerful attraction to running water and billows in towards you. On a good day, it’s a minor annoyance. On a bad day, it’s an unspeakable horror and the curtain actually, like, touches you. And it’s cold. And maybe even a little slimy.

Why does the curtain do this to us? Great minds have been struggling with the problem for years, but until recently all anyone offered were hypotheses. Nobody ever actually tested these explanations and made the results public until a few years ago. That experiment gave us a pretty solid answer, but the theoretical work that came before it is pretty interesting, too. Let’s explore the small handful of different answers that have been suggested over time.

The Bernoulli Principle Hypothesis
We talked about the Bernoulli’s principle the last time I wrote about bathroom science. It states, basically, that an increase in velocity of a fluid (liquid or gas) results in a decrease in pressure around it. With shower curtains, the principle was thought to come into play like this: The water coming out of the shower head causes the air in the shower to start flowing in the same direction that it's traveling, which is parallel to the curtain. The air moving across the inside of the shower curtain causes the air pressure to drop, and the difference in pressure between the two sides of the curtain causes it to move in toward the lower-pressure area. For most of the time that people have been talking about the shower curtain effect scientifically, this has been the leading explanation.

The Buoyancy Hypothesis
Warm air rises up and out of the shower. The air density in the shower is reduced and, like in the Bernoulli hypothesis, the difference in pressure between the shower and outside of the curtain makes the curtain move inward. The big problem with this hypothesis? The curtain still moves in even if you run an ice cold shower.

The Coand? Effect Hypothesis
Jearl Walker, a professor of physics at Cleveland State University who used to write Scientific American’s “Amateur Scientist” column, suggested that the Coand? effect, the tendency of a fluid in motion to adhere to a surface or vice versa, was at work.
* * *
Now, these hypotheses are all well and good. They’re plausible explanations. One was even suggested by a guy who knows a thing or two about physics (and has put his hand in molten lava and poured liquid nitrogen in his mouth to demonstrate its principles). But they don’t mean much without data to back them up.

In 2001, David Schmidt, from the University of Massachusetts, put his own hypothesis to the test and gave us the first evidence-backed explanation to every showerer’s pet peeve.

The Horizontal Vortex Hypothesis
Using a computer model of a shower, Schmidt found that the shower head’s spray creates a horizontal vortex with a low-pressure area center that sucks in the shower curtain. We’ll let Schmidt, who won the 2001 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for his work, explain his study and its results a little more. As he explained it to Scientific American:

To do the calculation, I drafted a model of a typical shower and divided the shower area into 50,000 minuscule cells. The tub, the showerhead, the curtain rod and the room outside of the shower were all included. I ran [the modeling software] for two weeks on my home computer in the evening and on weekends (when my wife wasn't using the computer). The simulation [which ran some 1.5 trillion calculations] revealed 30 seconds of actual shower time.

When the simulation was complete, it showed that the spray drove a vortex. The center of this vortex, much like the center of a cyclone, is a low-pressure region. This low-pressure region is what pulls the shower curtain in… It is a bit like a sideways dust devil. But unlike a dust devil, this vortex doesn't die out because it is driven continuously by the shower.

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More Details Emerge About 'Oumuamua, Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties. Now, a team from the University of Hawaii's Institute of Astronomy has published a detailed report of what they know so far in Nature.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid. New observations have researchers concluding that 'Oumuamua is unusual for more than its far-flung origins.

It's a cigar-shaped object 10 times longer than it is wide, stretching to a half-mile long. It's also reddish in color, and is similar in some ways to some asteroids in own solar system, the BBC reports. But it's much faster, zipping through our system, and has a totally different orbit from any of those objects.

After initial indecision about whether the object was a comet or an asteroid, the researchers now believe it's an asteroid. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our own.

'Oumuamua may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form. The 750,000 asteroids we know of are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, trapped by the Sun's gravity. But what if, billions of years ago, other objects escaped? 'Oumuamua shows us that it's possible; perhaps there are bits and pieces from the early years of our solar system currently visiting other stars.

The researchers say it's surprising that 'Oumuamua is an asteroid instead of a comet, given that in the Oort Cloud—an icy bubble of debris thought to surround our solar system—comets are predicted to outnumber asteroids 200 to 1 and perhaps even as high as 10,000 to 1. If our own solar system is any indication, it's more likely that a comet would take off before an asteroid would.

So where did 'Oumuamua come from? That's still unknown. It's possible it could've been bumped into our realm by a close encounter with a planet—either a smaller, nearby one, or a larger, farther one. If that's the case, the planet remains to be discovered. They believe it's more likely that 'Oumuamua was ejected from a young stellar system, location unknown. And yet, they write, "the possibility that 'Oumuamua has been orbiting the galaxy for billions of years cannot be ruled out."

As for where it's headed, The Atlantic's Marina Koren notes, "It will pass the orbit of Jupiter next May, then Neptune in 2022, and Pluto in 2024. By 2025, it will coast beyond the outer edge of the Kuiper Belt, a field of icy and rocky objects."

Last week, University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

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Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics
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Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.

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