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Why Do We Tan?

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Sit out in the sun too long and ultraviolet radiation from sunlight penetrates your skin and cells, damaging their RNA and DNA. This is bad news, as DNA provides our bodies with all the genetic instructions they need to develop, survive and go about their business, and this kind of DNA damage can lead to skin cancer. To protect you from this, your body helpfully tans, darkening the the skin with a pigment called melanin that reduces UV penetration into cells.

UV radiation stimulates the darkening of existing melanin and spurs increased melanogenesis, the production of new melanin. Cells called melanocytes generate the pigment and push it out of the cell, where it darkens the skin and absorbs and transforms absorbed UV energy into heat.

Melanogenesis results in a delayed tan that only becomes visible several hours after UV exposure and lasts longer than the tanning caused by darkening of existing melanin. Over time, a tan fades as darkened skin layers are pushed upward by new cells with less melanin, and are eventually scaled off.

Why do we get sunburn?

While we might say someone with sunburn was out “baking” too long or got “fried,” sunburns are different from the burn one might get from, say, touching a hot stove. That’s a thermal burn caused by the heat of the stove. While the sun does give off heat, a sunburn is caused by ultraviolet-B radiation.

When someone’s exposure to UV radiation exceeds their body’s ability to protect the skin with tanning, the radiation  causes damage to DNA, like we talked about above. This prompts the body to try and fix things. Bloodflow to the capillary bed of the dermis (the second outermost layer of skin) increases so cells can repair the damage, which results in warmth and redness of the skin. Inflammatory immune cells also flock to the damaged tissue, causing us to perceive pain and, hopefully, consider staying out of the sun for a while. Eventually, the damaged skin cells die, and the burned skin starts to peel.

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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Love Scratching Furniture?
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Allergy suffering aside, cat ownership has proven health benefits. A feline friend can aid in the grieving process, reduce anxiety, and offer companionship.

The con in the cat column? They have no reservations about turning your furniture into shredded pleather. No matter how expensive your living room set, these furry troublemakers will treat it with the respect accorded to a college futon. Do cats do this out of some kind of spite? Are they conspiring with Raymour & Flanigan to get you to keep updating home decor?

Neither. According to cat behaviorists, cats gravitate toward scratching furniture mostly because that love seat is in a really conspicuous area [PDF]. As a result, cats want to send a message to any other animal that may happen by: namely, that this plush seating belongs to the cat who marked it. Scratching provides both visual evidence (claw marks) as well as a scent marker. Cat paws have scent glands that can leave smells that are detectable to other cats and animals.

But it’s not just territorial: Cats also scratch to remove sloughed-off nail tips, allowing fresh nail growth to occur. And they can work out their knotted back muscles—cramped from sleeping 16 hours a day, no doubt—by kneading the soft foam of a sectional.

If you want to dissuade your cat from such behavior, purchasing a scratching post is a good start. Make sure it’s non-carpeted—their nails can get caught on the fibers—and tall enough to allow for a good stretch. Most importantly, put it near furniture so cats can mark their hangout in high-traffic areas. A good post might be a little more expensive, but will likely result in fewer trips to Ethan Allen.

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