What is Mercury in Retrograde, and Why Do We Blame Things On It?

NASA
NASA

Crashed computers, missed flights, tensions in your workplace—a person who subscribes to astrology would tell you to expect all this chaos and more when Mercury starts retrograding. In 2019, that means March 5-28, July 7-August 2, and October 31-November 20. But according to an astronomer, this common celestial phenomenon is no reason to stay cooped up at home for weeks at a time.

"We don't know of any physical mechanism that would cause things like power outages or personality changes in people," Dr. Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, tells Mental Floss. So if Mercury doesn’t throw business dealings and relationships out of whack when it appears to change direction in the sky, why are so many people convinced that it does?

The History of "Mercury in Retrograde"

Mercury retrograde—as it's technically called—was being written about in astrology circles as far back as the mid-18th century. The event was noted in British agricultural almanacs of the time, which farmers would read to sync their planting schedules to the patterns of the stars. During the spiritualism craze of the Victorian era, interest in astrology boomed, with many believing that the stars affected the Earth in a variety of (often inconvenient) ways. Late 19th-century publications like The Astrologer’s Magazine and The Science of the Stars connected Mercury retrograde with heavy rainfall. Characterizations of the happening as an "ill omen" also appeared in a handful of articles during that period, but its association with outright disaster wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today.

While other spiritualist hobbies like séances and crystal gazing gradually faded, astrology grew even more popular. By the 1970s, horoscopes were a newspaper mainstay and Mercury retrograde was a recurring player. Because the Roman god Mercury was said to govern travel, commerce, financial wealth, and communication, in astrological circles, Mercury the planet became linked to those matters as well.

"Don’t start anything when Mercury is retrograde," an April 1979 issue of The Baltimore Sun instructed its readers. "A large communications organization notes that magnetic storms, disrupting messages, are prolonged when Mercury appears to be going backwards. Mercury, of course, is the planet associated with communication." The power attributed to the event has become so overblown that today it's blamed for everything from digestive problems to broken washing machines.

What is Mercury Retrograde?

Though hysteria around Mercury retrograde is stronger than ever, there's still zero evidence that it's something we should worry about. Even the flimsiest explanations, like the idea that the gravitational pull from Mercury influences the water in our bodies in the same way that the moon controls the tides, are easily deflated by science. "A car 20 feet away from you will exert a stronger pull of gravity than the planet Mercury does," Dr. Hammergren says.

To understand how little Mercury retrograde impacts life on Earth, it helps to learn the physical process behind the phenomenon. When the planet nearest to the Sun is retrograde, it appears to move "backwards" (east to west rather than west to east) across the sky. This apparent reversal in Mercury's orbit is actually just an illusion to the people viewing it from Earth. Picture Mercury and Earth circling the Sun like cars on a racetrack. A year on Mercury is shorter than a year on Earth (88 Earth days compared to 365), which means Mercury experiences four years in the time it takes us to finish one solar loop.

When the planets are next to one another on the same side of the Sun, Mercury looks like it's moving east to those of us on Earth. But when Mercury overtakes Earth and continues its orbit, its straight trajectory seems to change course. According to Dr. Hammergren, it's just a trick of perspective. "Same thing if you were passing a car on a highway, maybe going a little bit faster than they are," he says. "They're not really going backwards, they just appear to be going backwards relative to your motion."

Embedded from GIFY

Earth's orbit isn't identical to that of any other planet in the solar system, which means that all the planets appear to move backwards at varying points in time. Planets farther from the Sun than Earth have even more noticeable retrograde patterns because they're visible at night. But thanks to astrology, it's Mercury's retrograde motion that incites dread every few months.

Dr. Hammergren blames the superstition attached to Mercury, and astrology as a whole, on confirmation bias: "[Believers] will say, 'Aha! See, there's a shake-up in my workplace because Mercury's retrograde.'" He urges people to review the past year and see if the periods of their lives when Mercury was retrograde were especially catastrophic. They'll likely find that misinterpreted messages and technical problems are fairly common throughout the year. But as Dr. Hammergren says, when things go wrong and Mercury isn't retrograde, "we don't get that hashtag. It's called Monday."

This piece originally ran in 2018.

How Is a Sunscreen's SPF Calculated?

Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images
Rawpixel/iStock via Getty Images

I’m a pale person. A very pale person. Which means that during these hot summer months, I carry sunscreen with me at all times, and apply it liberally. But I’ve never really understood what those SPF numbers meant, so I asked some sun care to break it down for me—and to tell me how to best apply the stuff so that I can make it through the summer without looking like a lobster.

Soaking up the sun ... safely

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and it indicates a sunscreen’s ability to block UVB rays. The concept was pioneered at the Coppertone Solar Research Center in 1972; in 1978, the FDA published an SPF method based on Coppertone’s system, according to Dr. David Leffell, chief of Dermatologic Surgery and Cutaneous Oncology at Yale.

The numbers themselves stand for the approximate measure of time a person who has applied the sunscreen can stay out in the sun without getting burned. Say you get burned after 20 minutes in the sun without sunscreen; if properly applied (and reapplied), SPF 30 will allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer without burning than if you were wearing no protection at all. So, theoretically, you should have approximately 600 minutes, or 10 hours, in the sun. But it’s not an exact science because the amount of UV light that reaches us depends on a number of factors, including cloud cover, the time of day, and the reflection of UV rays off the ground, so it’s generally recommended that you reapply sunscreen every two hours (or even sooner).

What gives a sunscreen a higher SPF comes down to the product’s formulation. “It’s possible that an SPF 50 might contain slightly more of one or more sunscreen active ingredients to achieve that higher SPF,” Dr. Patricia Agin, president of Agin Suncare Consulting, says. “But it’s also possible that the SPF 50 might contain an additional active ingredient to help boost the SPF performance to SPF 50.”

No matter what SPF your sunscreen is, you’ll still get a burn if it’s not properly applied. So let’s go over how to do that.

How to apply sunscreen

First, make sure you have a water-resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen—which means that it protects against both UVB and UVA radiation—with an SPF of at least 30. “Typically, you don’t have to buy sunscreen that has an SPF higher than that unless you have very sun sensitive skin,” Leffell says. “That’s a very small percentage of the population.” (Redheads, people with light eyes, and those who turn pink after just a few minutes in the sun—you’ll want to load up on SPF above 30.)

Twenty minutes before you go out to the beach or the pool, begin to apply your sunscreen in an even coat. “Don’t apply it like icing on a cake,” Leffell says. “I see these patients and they’ve got the tops of their ears covered with thick, unevenly applied sunscreen, and that’s not a good sign.” Sunscreen sprays will easily give you that even coat you need.

Whether you’re using lotion or a spray, when it comes time to apply, Leffell recommends starting with your scalp and face, even if you plan on wearing a hat. “Make sure you’ve covered the ears and nose and under the eyes,” Leffell says. “Then, I would move down to the shoulders, and make sure that someone can apply the sunscreen on your back beyond the reach of your hands.”

Other areas that are important that you may forget to cover, but shouldn’t, are the tops of your feet, the backs of your hands, and your chest. “We see it all the time now—the v of the chest in women has become a socially and aesthetically huge issue when they are 50 and beyond. Because even though they can treat their faces with all sorts of cosmetics and procedures, the chest is much harder, and they are stuck with the face of a 40-year-old and the chest of a 60-year-old. You want to avoid that using sunscreen.”

Another important thing to keep in mind: Water-resistant doesn’t mean waterproof. “I always tell patients to reapply every couple of hours while you’re active outdoors," Leffell says, "and always reapply when you come out of the water or if you’ve been sweating a lot, regardless of whether the label says water resistant."

Determining whether or not you’ve succeeded in properly applying your sunscreen is easy: “You know you’re applying your sunscreen properly if, after the first time you’ve used it, you haven’t gotten a burn,” Leffell says.

Agin has a caveat, though: "It’s not a good idea to think of sunscreens only as a way to extend your time in the sun," she says. "One must also understand that even before becoming sunburned, your skin is receiving UV exposure that causes other damage to the skin. At the end of the 600 minutes, you will have accrued enough UV to cause a sunburn—one Minimal Erythema Dose or MED—but there is pre-MED damage done to skin cells’ DNA and to the skin’s supporting structure of collagen and elastin that is not visible and happens even before you sunburn. These types of damage can occur without sunburning. So you can’t measure all the damage done to your skin by only being concerned about sunburn."

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

An earlier version of this post ran in 2014.

What's the Difference Between Ice Cream and Gelato?

iStock/Getty Images/zoff-photo
iStock/Getty Images/zoff-photo

'Tis the season for beach reads, tan lines, and ice-cold desserts. You know it's summer when going to the local ice cream or gelato shop becomes part of your daily routine. But, what exactly is the difference between these two frozen treats?

One of the key differences between the two is butterfat. While ice cream's main ingredients include milk, cream, sugar, and egg yolks, the secret to making gelato is to use much less cream and sometimes little to no egg yolk. This leads to a much smaller percentage of butterfat in gelato. The FDA rules say that ice cream cannot contain less than 10 percent milkfat (though it can go as high as 25 percent) while gelato, much like soft serve, stays in the 4- to 9-percent range.

The churning method for both also differs, which affects the treat's density. Ice cream is churned at a much faster pace, leading to more air being whipped into the mixture. Ice cream's higher butterfat content comes into play here—due to all of that milkfat, the mix absorbs the air more readily. Gelato, on the other hand, is churned at a slower pace and absorbs far less air, creating a much denser dessert.

You also might have noticed that the serving style for the two treats aren't the same, either. In order to get those perfectly stacked ice cream scoops on a cone, buckets of ice cream must be stored at around 0°F to maintain its consistency, while the softer gelato is stored at a warmer 10°F to 22°F. Ice cream is then scooped into fairly uniform balls with the round ice cream scooper, whereas a spade or paddle is best for molding gelato into mound in a cup or a cone.

You can't really go wrong with either gelato or ice cream on a sweltering summer day, but there is one more difference to keep in mind while you debate which to get: taste. If you want a bolder flavor, you'll want to go with gelato. Because of the density of the cream and because there's less butterfat to coat your taste buds, gelato can seem to have more intensity to its flavors.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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