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Why Does My Shower Curtain Liner Attack Me?

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For most of us, showers are a time to block out external stimuli and enjoy a moment to ourselves. The blissful monotony can often lead to creative inspiration or new ideas. Celebrated screenwriter Aaron Sorkin once said he takes up to six showers a day to help unblock his mind and resolve story problems.

But not all showers can make us part of the wealthy Hollywood elite. Some showers can become exercises in dread and frustration. We’re referring to the persistent attack of the shower curtain liner.

Liners have a tendency to billow inward during showers, enveloping themselves around our calves and forcing us to swat them away. As problems, go, it’s fairly innocuous. But that doesn’t mean science hasn’t tried to understand the physics behind the phenomenon.

Back in 1938, Popular Science theorized that liners were behaving badly as a result of air currents. When hot air from the warm water rises, cold air around the tub seeks to replace it, causing the liner—which is in between—to grow agitated. This explanation seemed to satisfy people for a while, until someone pointed out that the liners tend to move even during a cold shower.

Others believed the liner was acting as a result of Bernoulli's principle, which states that air pressure around fluid decreases when the fluid is moving quickly. With a difference in air pressure inside and outside the tub, the liner will move.

In 2001, someone finally had the means and motivation to examine this theory more closely. David Schmidt, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, used computer software developed to examine fluid spray to assist in diesel and aircraft engines to put Bernoulli's theory to the test. This being 2001, it took his home PC two weeks to run the simulation, which Schmidt programmed to replicate a typical shower (rod, curtain, liner, shower head).

Schmidt found that the shower spray created a vortex with a low-pressure region—a little like the center of a cyclone. That region is what “sucks” the liner inward. Despite the relative calm of a shower, the simulation indicated that you’re basically in the eye of a very low-level storm.

For more answers, Schmidt would probably have to consider overseeing a real-world model, but he said he doesn’t have the time or inclination to take the whole shower cyclone science thing to the next level.

That’s not quite the end of the story, though. In 2007, physics author Peter Eastwell tinkered with a shower set-up and noted that the cyclone effect was more pronounced in hotter than cooler water, and that factors like the distance of the liner from the spray affected the liner’s movement.

Clearly, more work needs to be done on this important issue. Until then, using a heavier liner or attaching weights to the bottom can prevent billowing. Alternately, you could just install a shower door. Aaron Sorkin probably has one.

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
Are There Number 1 Pencils?
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Almost every syllabus, teacher, and standardized test points to the ubiquitous No. 2 pencil, but are there other choices out there?

Of course! Pencil makers manufacture No. 1, 2, 2.5, 3, and 4 pencils—and sometimes other intermediate numbers. The higher the number, the harder the core and lighter the markings. (No. 1 pencils produce darker markings, which are sometimes preferred by people working in publishing.)

The current style of production is profiled after pencils developed in 1794 by Nicolas-Jacques Conté. Before Conté, pencil hardness varied from location to location and maker to maker. The earliest pencils were made by filling a wood shaft with raw graphite, leading to the need for a trade-wide recognized method of production.

Conté’s method involved mixing powdered graphite with finely ground clay; that mixture was shaped into a long cylinder and then baked in an oven. The proportion of clay versus graphite added to a mixture determines the hardness of the lead. Although the method may be agreed upon, the way various companies categorize and label pencils isn't.

Today, many U.S.  companies use a numbering system for general-purpose, writing pencils that specifies how hard the lead is. For graphic and artist pencils and for companies outside the U.S., systems get a little complicated, using a combination of numbers and letters known as the HB Graphite Scale.

"H" indicates hardness and "B" indicates blackness. Lowest on the scale is 9H, indicating a pencil with extremely hard lead that produces a light mark. On the opposite end of the scale, 9B represents a pencil with extremely soft lead that produces a dark mark. ("F" also indicates a pencil that sharpens to a fine point.) The middle of the scale shows the letters and numbers that correspond to everyday writing utensils: B = No. 1 pencils, HB = No. 2, F = No. 2½, H = No. 3, and 2H = No. 4 (although exact conversions depend on the brand).

So why are testing centers such sticklers about using only No. 2 pencils? They cooperate better with technology because early machines used the electrical conductivity of the lead to read the pencil marks. Early scanning-and-scoring machines couldn't detect marks made by harder pencils, so No. 3 and No. 4 pencils usually resulted in erroneous results. Softer pencils like No. 1s smudge, so they're just impractical to use. So No. 2 pencils became the industry standard.

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Big Questions
What Are Curlers Yelling About?
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Curling is a sport that prides itself on civility—in fact, one of its key tenets is known as the “Spirit of Curling,” a term that illustrates the respect that the athletes have for both their own teammates and their opponents. But if you’re one of the millions of people who get absorbed by the sport once every four years, you probably noticed one quirk that is decidedly uncivilized: the yelling.

Watch any curling match and you’ll hear skips—or captains—on both sides barking and shouting as the 42-pound stone rumbles down the ice. This isn’t trash talk; it’s strategy. And, of course, curlers have their own jargon, so while their screams won’t make a whole lot of sense to the uninitiated, they could decide whether or not a team will have a spot on the podium once these Olympics are over.

For instance, when you hear a skip shouting “Whoa!” it means he or she needs their teammates to stop sweeping. Shouting “Hard!” means the others need to start sweeping faster. If that’s still not getting the job done, yelling “Hurry hard!” will likely drive the point home: pick up the intensity and sweep with downward pressure. A "Clean!" yell means put a brush on the ice but apply no pressure. This will clear the ice so the stone can glide more easily.

There's no regulation for the shouts, though—curler Erika Brown says she shouts “Right off!” and “Whoa!” to get her teammates to stop sweeping. And when it's time for the team to start sweeping, you might hear "Yes!" or "Sweep!" or "Get on it!" The actual terminology isn't as important as how the phrase is shouted. Curling is a sport predicated on feel, and it’s often the volume and urgency in the skip’s voice (and what shade of red they’re turning) that’s the most important aspect of the shouting.

If you need any more reason to make curling your favorite winter sport, once all that yelling is over and a winner is declared, it's not uncommon for both teams to go out for a round of drinks afterwards (with the winners picking up the tab, obviously). Find out how you can pick up a brush and learn the ins and outs of curling with our beginner's guide.

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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