What’s Really Happening When You "Smell" Snow

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iStock

Does snow have a scent? The logical side of your brain may say no: Snow is just frozen water, and therefore odorless. But if you’ve ever predicted a big snowstorm based on a familiar tickle in your nose, you know the answer isn’t so straightforward. So what exactly is happening when you “smell” a meteorological event? The answer has less to do with specific odor molecules as it does with the climate in which you smell them.

For an episode of the podcast Physics Central, olfactory scientist Pamela Dalton laid out the perfect storm of physical conditions you interpret as the smell of snow. When temperatures approach freezing right before it snows, it’s actually harder to detect scents in the air than it is during milder weather. Cold weather slows down molecules in the air, and with less molecular activity, certain smells become less pungent. That means “smelling snow” is, in part, just smelling fewer odors outdoors than what you’re used to.

But if there was nothing else to it, a snowstorm would smell no different than a cold, dry day. The factor that determines the difference is humidity. Right before a snowstorm, the air is more humid than usual. This is what causes the flakes to fall: When the atmosphere hits the maximum amount of moisture it can hold, it reacts by dumping some of the moisture—whether in the form of rain, sleet, or in this case, snow—back onto the ground. That humidity has the added effect of giving your olfactory system a quick boost. To many people, the sensation of being able to smell with a warm, moist nose in freezing weather is linked with the promise of snow.

As all of that’s happening to the world around you, there are mechanisms at work inside your body that also help to explain the unmistakable scent of snow. You sense the cold air you breath with your trigeminal nerve, the same nerve that interprets sensations caused by tingly hot peppers or cool mint toothpaste (it also interprets other facial sensations and is why you might sneeze in sunlight). This is separate from your olfactory system, but you still lump the information it gives you with conventional scents like coffee or pine.

These elements—cold weather, humidity, and a stimulated trigeminal nerve—combine to create something that isn’t an odor, but a sensory experience you’ve come to associate with snow. That’s why when asked to describe the scent, people often use words like “clean,” “fresh,” and “cold"— a.k.a. things that don’t have much of a scent at all.

[h/t Physics Central]

Yes, You Have Too Many Tabs Open on Your Computer—and Your Brain is Probably to Blame

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iStock.com/baona

If you’re anything like me, you likely have dozens of tabs open at this very moment. Whether it’s news stories you mean to read later, podcast episodes you want to listen to when you have a chance, or just various email and social media accounts, your browser is probably cluttered with numerous, often unnecessary tabs—and your computer is working slower as a result. So, why do we leave so many tabs open? Metro recently provided some answers to this question, which we spotted via Travel + Leisure.

The key phrase to know, according to the Metro's Ellen Scott, is “task switching,” which is what our brains are really doing when we think we're multitasking. Research has found that humans can't really efficiently multitask at all—instead, our brains hop rapidly from one task to another, losing concentration every time we shift our attention. Opening a million tabs, it turns out, is often just a digital form of task switching.

It isn't just about feeling like we're getting things done. Keeping various tabs open also works as a protection against boredom, according to Metro. Having dozens of tabs open allows us to pretend we’re always doing something, or at least that we always have something available to do.

A screenshot of many tabs in a browser screen
This is too many tabs.
Screenshot, Shaunacy Ferro

It may also be driven by a fear of missing information—a kind of “Internet FOMO,” as Travel + Leisure explains it. We fear that we might miss an important update if we close out of our social media feed or email account or that news article, so we just never close anything.

But this can lead to information overload. Even when you think you're only focused on whatever you're doing in a single window, seeing all those open tabs in the corner of your eye takes up mental energy, distracting you from the task at hand. Based on studies of multitasking, this tendency to keep an overwhelming number of tabs open may actually be altering your brain. Some studies have found that "heavy media multitaskers"—like tab power users—may perform worse on various cognitive tests than people who don't try to consume media at such a frenzied pace.

More simply, it just might not be worth the bandwidth. Just like your brain, your browser and your computer can only handle so much information at a time. To optimize your browser's performance, Lifehacker suggests keeping only nine tabs open—at most—at one time. With nine or fewer tabs, you're able to see everything that's open at a glance, and you can use keyboard shortcuts to navigate between them. (On a Mac, you can press Command + No. 1 through No. 9 to switch between tabs; on a PC, it's Control + the number.)

Nine open tabs on a desktop browser
With nine or fewer tabs open, you can actually tell what each page is.
Screenshot, Shaunacy Ferro

That said, there are, obviously, situations in which one might need many tabs open at one time. Daria Kuss, a senior lecturer specializing in cyberpsychology at Nottingham Trent University, tells Metro that “there are two opposing reasons we keep loads of tabs open: to be efficient and ‘create a multi-source and multi-topic context for the task at hand.’” Right now, for example, I have six tabs open to refer to for the purposes of writing this story. Sometimes, there's just no avoiding tabs.

In the end, it's all about accepting our (and our computers') limitations. When in doubt, there’s no shame in shutting down those windows. If you really want to get back to them, they're all saved in your browser history. If you're a relentless tab-opener, there are also browser extensions like OneTab, which collapses all of your open tabs into a single window of links for you to return to later.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

Will the Sun Ever Stop Shining?

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iStock.com/VR_Studio

Viktor T. Toth:

The Sun will not stop shining for a very, very long time.

The Sun, along with the solar system, is approximately 4.5 billion years old. That is about one-third the age of the entire universe. For the next several billion years, the Sun is going to get brighter. Perhaps paradoxically, this will eventually result in a loss of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere, which is not good news; It will eventually lead to the death of plant life.

Within 2.5 to 3 billion years from now, the surface temperature of the Earth will exceed the boiling point of water everywhere. Within about about 4 to 5 billion years, the Earth will be in worse shape than Venus today, with most of the water gone, and the planet’s surface partially molten.

Eventually, the Sun will evolve into a red giant star, large enough to engulf the Earth. Its luminosity will be several thousand times its luminosity at present. Finally, with all its usable nuclear fuel exhausted and its outer layers ejected into space, the Sun’s core will settle down into the final stage of its evolution as a white dwarf. Such a star no longer produces energy through nuclear fusion, but it contains tremendous amounts of stored heat, in a very small volume (most of the mass of the Sun will be confined to a volume not much larger than the Earth). As such, it will cool very, very slowly.

It will take many more billions of years for the Sun to cool from an initial temperature of hundreds of thousands of degrees to its present-day temperature and below. But in the end, the remnant of the Sun will slowly fade from sight, becoming a brown dwarf: a cooling, dead remnant of a star.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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