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The Science Behind the Nearly Escape-Proof Rooms in 'Race to Escape'

Science Channel
Science Channel

Inspiration can strike at the oddest times. For producer and psychologist Riaz Patel, that time was during the blackout in New York City in 2003. “It was this bizarre situation where you were with people you didn’t know trying to accomplish certain things and figure out solutions to everyday problems,” he tells mental_floss. “That’s where I thought, ‘There’s something about working with people you don’t know, in situations you’ve never been in, that could be a really interesting basis of some sort of a show.’” A couple of years of rumination later, and the idea developed into his latest series, Race to Escape. The game show, which premieres tomorrow on the Science Channel and is hosted by Jimmy Pardo, pits two teams of strangers against each other—and a clock—in an attempt to escape a room by working together to find clues and solve puzzles. Each week, there are two new teams, locked in two new rooms, with five bolts separating them from a grand prize of $25,000. The game, Patel says, had to be challenging, but winnable—“because if it hadn’t been winnable, then the audience would feel it and they would just turn the channel.”

The designs of the rooms run the gauntlet from a study to an auto mechanic’s shop. Picking the environments happened during a “very long brainstorming day,” Patel says, and each one had to fit very specific criteria. They couldn’t be places that were “so foreign that someone wouldn’t know where to start,” Patel says. “Putting them in sort of a weird crypt that’s set in Mesopotamia would be very, very hard, because they’d go on like, ‘We don’t even know where we are.’” So they stuck with places that would be familiar to people, among them a barber shop, a neighborhood bar, a study, and a Chinese restaurant. The rooms also had to be tactile and big enough to fit multiple people and give them space to move around. (One idea that didn’t make the cut for this very reason? An elevator.)

Next up: creating the challenges. Like the environments, the challenges had to meet certain guidelines. First, Patel and the show’s team wanted them to be in line with the theme of the room. “They’re all very, very organically connected to the environment,” he says. “A challenge that you find in the neighborhood bar would be different than a challenge you would find in the auto garage.” The challenges needed to be big enough so the audience could see what was happening, and doable in the amount of time allotted. They also needed to be equal parts brainy and physical. “We’d call them MacGyver challenges,” Patel says. “They’d have to physically do things as opposed to just sitting and figuring things out just in their head. That’s not good TV.”

The hardest part of designing the challenges, Patel says, was “keeping the contestants on a course so they couldn’t jump from clue one to clue four.” A tough thing when some clues were hidden in plain sight: “We would be so nervous: What if they happened to look under this rug? Then they’d see something that they’re not supposed to see yet. So it really has to be very well designed—they’re only given as much information as they need to solve that challenge.”

When the challenges were done, the art department created another layer that producers called the “red herring path”: Things that made sense for the environment but weren’t necessarily connected to the puzzles. “That’s something that we really went back and forth on,” Patel says. “How to streamline those rooms so that they feel like real environments, but still don’t have too much that it would be distracting and hard to move forward—that was a balance we had to find.” 

Once the teams are locked inside, there’s no communication between the producers and the contestants, so each room, and the puzzles it contained, didn’t just have to be carefully designed—they also had to be thoroughly tested. Individual challenges were tested eight to 10 times, then assigned to certain rooms, at which point, the room “was tested five times from start to finish just to make sure that we didn’t have any issues,” Patel says. “We’d have a target, and then we would see if the testers would veer off course and make adjustments,” which included details as small as the size and type of font used for the clues. They never had to throw out a challenge, Patel says, just adjust the amount of information given: “We had to troubleshoot a million things before we could actually lock that door.” 

All told, Patel says, “hundreds and hundreds of hours went into every room.” Each room was built in four days, tested, and then filmed in for 60 minutes. That night, the crew would strip the room and start over. “I’ve never done a show where I had to throw everything out after an episode and start from scratch,” Patel says. “That was a challenge.” 

The show isn’t just a game: There’s a heavy dose of science, too. As the contestants are trying to solve the puzzles, Pardo is offering scientific explanations for their behavior. “I didn’t want people to look at it and just assume that human behavior is random,” Patel says. “There are certain stresses and factors that are going into their behavior—in certain rooms, the heat would even go up. In retrospect, we could certainly look at the influences on the contestants and explain to the audience this is what’s happening—this is what they’re feeling physiologically, this is what’s preventing them from seeing the solution to a problem.”

For Patel, whose first job was at a mental institution and who graduated with a triple major from the University of Pennsylvania (where he also won a medal from The National Psychology Honor Society), the most fascinating part of the game show was, perhaps, the behavior of the contestants once they were locked in the rooms. “You cannot predict human behavior. You cannot,” he says. “I think there’s a real difference between who you project you are and who you really are. You have no history with these people, and no history with this room. What comes out of you organically is a bit different than your normal day-to-day. People who say ‘I'm a diehard leader,’ they get into the room, and suddenly they are terrified and they are a follower. Or someone who says ‘I'm amazing at puzzles,’ and in that moment they cannot figure out the simplest things. I feel like this game really shows you authentically because you have no time to prep. All you can do is react—and I love that.”

Race to Escape premieres July 25 at 10/9c on the Science Channel.

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Today's Wine Glasses Are Almost Seven Times Larger Than They Were in 1700
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Holiday party season (a.k.a. hangover season) is in full swing. While you likely have no one to blame but yourself for drinking that second (or third) pour at the office soiree, your glassware isn't doing you any favors—especially if you live in the UK. Vino vessels in England are nearly seven times larger today than they were in 1700, according to a new study spotted by Live Science. These findings were recently published in the English medical journal The BMJ.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge measured more than 400 wineglasses from the past three centuries to gauge whether glass size affects how much we drink. They dug deep into the history of parties past, perusing both the collections of the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford and the Royal Household's assemblage of glassware (a new set is commissioned for each monarch). They also scoured a vintage catalog, a modern department store, and eBay for examples.

After measuring these cups, researchers concluded that the average wineglass in 1700 held just 2.2 fluid ounces. For comparison's sake, that's the size of a double shot at a bar. Glasses today hold an average of 15.2 fluid ounces, even though a standard single serving size of wine is just 5 ounces.

BMJ infographic detailing increases in wine glass size from 1700 to 2017
BMJ Publishing group Ltd.

Advances in technology and manufacturing are partly to blame for this increase, as is the wine industry. Marketing campaigns promoted the beverage as it increasingly became more affordable and available for purchase, which in turn prompted aficionados to opt for larger pours. Perhaps not surprisingly, this bigger-is-better mindset was also compounded by American drinking habits: Extra-large wineglasses became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, prompting overseas manufacturers to follow suit.

Wine consumption in both England and America has risen dramatically since the 1960s [PDF]. Cambridge researchers noted that their study doesn't necessarily prove that the rise of super-sized glassware has led to this increase. But their findings do fit a larger trend: previous studies have found that larger plate size can increase food consumption. This might be because they skew our sense of perception, making us think we're consuming less than we actually are. And in the case of wine, in particular, oversized glasses could also heighten our sensory enjoyment, as they might release more of the drink's aroma.

“We cannot infer that the increase in glass size and the rise in wine consumption in England are causally linked,” the study's authors wrote. “Nor can we infer that reducing glass size would cut drinking. Our observation of increasing size does, however, draw attention to wine glass size as an area to investigate further in the context of population health.”

[h/t Live Science]

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Researchers Pore Over the Physics Behind the Layered Latte
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The layered latte isn't the most widely known espresso drink on coffee-shop menus, but it is a scientific curiosity. Instead of a traditional latte, where steamed milk is poured into a shot (or several) of espresso, the layered latte is made by pouring the espresso into a glass of hot milk. The result is an Instagram-friendly drink that features a gradient of milky coffee colors from pure white on the bottom to dark brown on the top. The effect is odd enough that Princeton University researchers decided to explore the fluid dynamics that make it happen, as The New York Times reports.

In a new study in Nature Communications, Princeton engineering professor Howard Stone and his team explore just what creates the distinct horizontal layers pattern of layered latte. To find out, they injected warm, dyed water into a tank filled with warm salt water, mimicking the process of pouring low-density espresso into higher-density steamed milk.

Four different images of a latte forming layers over time
Xue et al., Nature Communications (2017)

According to the study, the layered look of the latte forms over the course of minutes, and can last for "tens of minutes, or even several hours" if the drink isn't stirred. When the espresso-like dyed water was injected into the salt brine, the downward jet of the dyed water floated up to the top of the tank, because the buoyant force of the low-density liquid encountering the higher-density brine forced it upward. The layers become more visible when the hot drink cools down.

The New York Times explains it succinctly:

When the liquids try to mix, layered patterns form as gradients in temperature cause a portion of the liquid to heat up, become lighter and rise, while another, denser portion sinks. This gives rise to convection cells that trap mixtures of similar densities within layers.

This structure can withstand gentle movement, such as a light stirring or sipping, and can stay stable for as long as a day or more. The layers don't disappear until the liquids cool down to room temperature.

But before you go trying to experiment with layering your own lattes, know that it can be trickier than the study—which refers to the process as "haphazardly pouring espresso into a glass of warm milk"—makes it sound. You may need to experiment several times with the speed and height of your pour and the ratio of espresso to milk before you get the look just right.

[h/t The New York Times]

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