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Do Cameras Really Add 10 Pounds?

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For everyone who’s ever been unhappy with the way they look in a picture or on video, there’s almost always someone there to try and comfort them by pointing out that the camera “adds ten pounds” to its subjects.

Sometimes this just excuses actual flabbiness, but some people swear up and down that the phenomenon is real and cameras actually fatten us up. What’s going on?

Flash Problems

A few different things, one simply being the way the subject is shot. Strong, flat light directed straight at a person—like from a bad lighting setup or the camera’s flash—flatten the features of a subject by killing shadows. Those head-on shots of you at the family reunion look bad, in part, because your cousin’s camera flash flattened and fattened you.

The camera itself also shoulders some of the blame. Telephoto and wide angle lenses each distort an image in their own ways. No matter the type lens, though, there’s also the problem of a camera having just one of them.

Seeing in Stereo

Most of us look at the world through two eyes, and our brains take what we see with each one and fuse it into a single image, which allows us to perceive depth. With only one eye—its lens—a camera lacks our accurate depth perception. Unless the photographer creates some illusion of depth by using distance cues, light, and shadow, or by composing their shots in certain ways, the lack of it makes their photos and subjects come out looking flatter than they really are, which also makes them seem wider.

Another difference between a two-eyed view of the world and a one-eyed view that factors in is the way they capture the background behind the subject. Background features hidden from one eye can be seen by its partner, and together they capture overlapping views that a single eye or camera can’t. This means that a single eye has a different perception of the width of the subject relative to the background than two eyes working together.

Michael Richmond, a physics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, illustrates this effect with a few photos of a coffee mug against a patterned background sheet. He took one photo straight on like the lone eye of a camera would see it, one photo four centimeters to the left of center the way your left eye would see it if your nose was directly at the center and one photo four centimeters to the right of center the way your right eye would see it. He then merged the perspectives of the latter two “eyes” by cutting both those pictures through the center of the mug and fusing the right side of the right eye's picture with the left side of the left eye's picture to get something like what the brain would create.

In both pictures, the mug is the same number of pixels across, but there’s a huge difference in the way the camera view and the combined “two-eyed” view capture the background. In the camera view, background appears narrower, and the mug looks much “fatter” against it.

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Are the Northern Lights?
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Over the centuries, many have gazed up at one of the Earth’s most fascinatingly beautiful natural wonders: the Northern Lights. In the past couple of weeks, some lucky American stargazers have gotten the chance to see them from their very own backyards—and could again this week, according to Thrillist. But what are they?

Before science was able to get a read on what exactly was happening in the night sky, ancient tribes had their own theories for what caused the jaw-dropping light show. Many early beliefs had roots in religion, such as that the light was a pathway souls traveled to reach heaven (Eskimo tribes) or that the light was an eternal battle of dead warriors (Middle-Age Europe). Early researchers were a bit more reasonable in their approximations, and most surrounded the idea of the reflection of sunlight off the ice caps. In 1619, Galileo Galilei named the lights the aurora borealis after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning, after concluding they were a product of sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere.

Today, scientists have come to the general agreement that the lights are caused by the collision of electrically charged solar particles and atoms from our atmosphere. The energy from the collisions is released as light, and the reason it happens around the poles is because that's where the Earth’s magnetic field is the strongest. In 2008, a team at UCLA concluded that “when two magnetic field lines come close together due to the storage of energy from the sun, a critical limit is reached and the magnetic field lines reconnect, causing magnetic energy to be transformed into kinetic energy and heat. Energy is released, and the plasma is accelerated, producing accelerated electrons.”

"Our data show clearly and for the first time that magnetic reconnection is the trigger," said Vassilis Angelopoulos, a UCLA professor of Earth and Space Sciences. "Reconnection results in a slingshot acceleration of waves and plasma along magnetic field lines, lighting up the aurora underneath even before the near-Earth space has had a chance to respond. We are providing the evidence that this is happening."

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter, due to the Earth’s position in relation to the sun (shorter days means darker night skies). And by the way, it’s not just the North Pole that puts on a show—there are Southern Lights, too. There are also aurora borealis on other planets—including Mars—so rest assured that future generations born “abroad” will not miss out on this spectacular feat of nature.

Haven’t seen them yet? Traditionally, the best places to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights are in Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. Maybe you'll get lucky this week and sneak a peek from your very own window. Check out Aurorasaurus for regular updates on where they are showing.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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