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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
How Are Speed Limits Set?
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When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

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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Do Bacteria Have Bacteria?
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Drew Smith:

Do bacteria have bacteria? Yes.

We know that bacteria range in size from 0.2 micrometers to nearly one millimeter. That’s more than a thousand-fold difference, easily enough to accommodate a small bacterium inside a larger one.

Nothing forbids bacteria from invading other bacteria, and in biology, that which is not forbidden is inevitable.

We have at least one example: Like many mealybugs, Planococcus citri has a bacterial endosymbiont, in this case the β-proteobacterium Tremblaya princeps. And this endosymbiont in turn has the γ-proteobacterium Moranella endobia living inside it. See for yourself:

Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)
Fluorescent In-Situ Hybridization confirming that intrabacterial symbionts reside inside Tremblaya cells in (A) M. hirsutus and (B) P. marginatus mealybugs. Tremblaya cells are in green, and γ-proteobacterial symbionts are in red. (Scale bar: 10 μm.)

I don’t know of examples of free-living bacteria hosting other bacteria within them, but that reflects either my ignorance or the likelihood that we haven’t looked hard enough for them. I’m sure they are out there.

Most (not all) scientists studying the origin of eukaryotic cells believe that they are descended from Archaea.

All scientists accept that the mitochondria which live inside eukaryotic cells are descendants of invasive alpha-proteobacteria. What’s not clear is whether archeal cells became eukaryotic in nature—that is, acquired internal membranes and transport systems—before or after acquiring mitochondria. The two scenarios can be sketched out like this:


The two hypotheses on the origin of eukaryotes:

(A) Archaezoan hypothesis.

(B) Symbiotic hypothesis.

The shapes within the eukaryotic cell denote the nucleus, the endomembrane system, and the cytoskeleton. The irregular gray shape denotes a putative wall-less archaeon that could have been the host of the alpha-proteobacterial endosymbiont, whereas the oblong red shape denotes a typical archaeon with a cell wall. A: archaea; B: bacteria; E: eukaryote; LUCA: last universal common ancestor of cellular life forms; LECA: last eukaryotic common ancestor; E-arch: putative archaezoan (primitive amitochondrial eukaryote); E-mit: primitive mitochondrial eukaryote; alpha:alpha-proteobacterium, ancestor of the mitochondrion.

The Archaezoan hypothesis has been given a bit of a boost by the discovery of Lokiarcheota. This complex Archaean has genes for phagocytosis, intracellular membrane formation and intracellular transport and signaling—hallmark activities of eukaryotic cells. The Lokiarcheotan genes are clearly related to eukaryotic genes, indicating a common origin.

Bacteria-within-bacteria is not only not a crazy idea, it probably accounts for the origin of Eucarya, and thus our own species.

We don’t know how common this arrangement is—we mostly study bacteria these days by sequencing their DNA. This is great for detecting uncultivatable species (which are 99 percent of them), but doesn’t tell us whether they are free-living or are some kind of symbiont. For that, someone would have to spend a lot of time prepping environmental samples for close examination by microscopic methods, a tedious project indeed. But one well worth doing, as it may shed more light on the history of life—which is often a history of conflict turned to cooperation. That’s a story which never gets old or stale.

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

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