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The Man Who Has Been Counting His Sneezes for 8.5 Years

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We live in a time of lists—and are unabashedly, unashamedly addicted to them. At the end of the year, we make lists of the best (and worst) movies, books, and food we had the previous 365 days; we might even make hopeful lists of our resolutions for the coming year. We make to-do lists, grocery lists, lists of pros and cons, lists of things to pack into a carry-on. There are list apps and lists of lists of lists.

But Peter Fletcher is perhaps the most unique listmaker in the world. He is the force behind Sneezecount, which chronicles—yes, you guessed it—his sneezes.

Fletcher hasn’t always been a listmaker, at least not “beyond the administrative-procrastinatory,” he says. But on July 12, 2007—an otherwise unremarkable day—Fletcher began to wonder how many times people sneezed in 24 hours. Then he wondered how many times people sneezed in a year. And what about a whole life?

“The idea of keeping a detailed count then occurred to me, and struck me as innately ridiculous, and the ridiculousness appealed to me,” Fletcher tells mental_floss via email.

Peter Fletcher, presumably in the room where he sneezes most. Photo credit: Peter Fletcher.

But why sneezes? After all, people cough, fart, pick their nose—in other words, there are a variety of other bodily functions that Fletcher could have chronicled instead of the everyday spray. “Sneezes work perfectly because they are discrete events,” he says. “They are countable in a way that so many body functions or everyday events are not, and broadly speaking, they cannot be manipulated or faked.”

And so, the lowly sneeze became Fletcher’s chief daily interest. He noticed a curious, perhaps obvious fact: that sneezing occurs only when one is awake (or at least, Fletcher was only aware of sneezing when he was awake). He also noticed that his sneezes occurred more in the morning, tapering off by afternoon. But Fletcher hasn’t been able to track any other meaningful conclusions about the frequency of his sneezing.

Fletcher’s early attempts to record his sneezes were far less detailed than his current records. “I started off keeping a note on post-its if I was at my desk (I usually was) or writing it on my hand or any scrap of paper,” he says. “It didn’t take me long to realize I needed to be more disciplined and systematic, and so kept a notebook with me at all times, writing down the details, starting from the back of the book.”

He moved on to blogging, reporting the sneeze number, the location, “strength” of the sneeze, and “comments” describing his state of mind, environment, and observations about the sneeze. But this past October, Fletcher stopped his online blog; it had become too cumbersome, and Fletcher resorted back to a private journal.

Fletcher’s blog describes his growing awareness about the mundane act of sneezing. He’s noticed where he sneezes most—in his office/spare bedroom. Because he wants to record every sneeze, he often “deters” sneezes if they occur when he’s not able to record them or it’s the middle of the night. Fletcher’s accuracy in this realm extends to even the source of the sneeze: a pepper-induced one, for example, is considered a cheat and not quite an honest sneeze. And he’s oddly self-competitive with his sneeze count, congratulating himself at the end of a particularly sneezy day.

His recording devices have evolved, moving from Post-It notes to various Moleskins to emails while out and about and unable to reach his journal. Today, he’s let the journal habit go (he’s filled three notebooks worth), instead emailing himself when he sneezes. “It’s the one ritual that I’ve neglected and I regret that I stopped,” he tells mental_floss. “The notebooks and the writing down were an important part of the process in their own right.”

Fletcher is definitely on to something there. Journaling and recording thoughts has sometimes been viewed as a gratifying experience, a mindfulness exercise, and a way to cultivate appreciation for the little things. For some, jotting down the details of the day is a habit; for others, it’s a path toward happiness.

The thought of perhaps stopping his sneezing record has crossed Fletcher’s mind, and he’s entertained it. “There have been times when I’ve thought I might stop at a certain milestone, so x thousand sneezes, or five years or 1000 days, but each milestone comes and goes and I’m still doing it,” he says. Fletcher said that if he ever did stop tracking his sneezes, it would probably be when he died. “I might stop voluntarily one day though,” he says, with a never-say-never mentality. But it’s unlikely he’ll cease.

He’s blunt: The project is a solo, personal exercise, one that he finds rewarding for himself, though people have expressed their opinions, which Fletcher describes as “moderate to strong, occasionally warm.” He’s achieved some minor celebrity with the project—he’s been a featured speaker at the Boring Conference, spoken at Ignite London, and been the subject of a BBC mini documentary.

“When I finally sent out some messages to say that I was doing it, a self-assured acquaintance advised me to ‘Get yourself some kids’—I assume for the purpose of more fruitfully occupying my spare time," he says. "Of course, since then, that is exactly what I have done, and it was sound advice.”

Perhaps most surprisingly to the average outsider, Fletcher shrugs off how the project has affected him. In fact, he doesn’t recommend anyone follow his footsteps in keeping a record of their sneezes, “as it can be a bit of a burden.” He emphasizes he started the project as a joke but that, eight and a half years in, it’s become a habit and that he really doesn’t remember a time without recording his sneezes. As he says, “I’m interested in sneezes, but not overly interested in them.”

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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