Why Is It So Hard to Sleep in a New Place?

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iStock

Maybe you’re away on a business trip and you’ve got a big presentation in the morning. Maybe it’s your first night in a new home after a long day hauling boxes. Whatever the circumstances, you could really use a good night’s rest—but, given that you're sleeping in a new place, that may be easier said than done. Now, a team of scientists at Brown University say they’ve found a cause for this first-night effect: constant, animal-like vigilance. They published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

Sleep is something of a puzzle for scientists. Most animals do it, but it’s not entirely clear why it’s necessary. In survival terms, it’s pretty inconvenient for an animal to be off its guard for several hours every day. But rather than evolving to live without rest, some animals have developed the ability to literally sleep with one eye open. Bottlenose dolphins, southern sea lions, domesticated chickens, and beluga whales are among species that practice unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS), in which just one half of the brain sleeps at a time.

You can see this yourself in a line of snoozing ducks: the duck at the end of the line will have its outward-facing eye open. That eye is linked to the brain hemisphere that’s still awake. That way, even in sleep, the sight of a predator could trigger alarms in the brain, cueing the duck to take action.

This may look like an angry pirate, but it’s actually a young house sparrow in USWS. Image credit: Hussain Kaouri via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

As you can imagine, this vigilant half-sleep is a real asset in dangerous and unpredictable environments. Unfortunately, your brain might count hotel rooms and new apartments as dangerous. That’s right: Scientists have found USWS in people. Or, rather, they’ve found what amounts to USWS Lite.

Sleep researchers are well aware of the first-night effect (FNE), and frequently throw out the results from a sleep study subject’s first night in the lab. Rather than working around the FNE, a team of researchers decided to identify its cause. They recruited 35 healthy volunteers and brought them into a sleep lab for two nights of sleep with a one-week break in between. The volunteers were hooked up to machines that measured their heart rates, blood oxygen levels, breathing, eye and leg movements, as well as activity in both sides of the brain.

The scientists focused on slow-wave activity (SWA), a type of brain behavior that can indicate how deeply someone is sleeping. They looked at SWA in four different brain pathways in both sleep sessions, tracking how sleep depth was affected by disturbances in the room.

They weren’t looking for differences between the brain hemispheres, but they found them. On the first night of sleep, subjects consistently showed more wakefulness in the left half of their brains. The left hemisphere was also more sensitive to strange (and thus potentially threatening) sounds. One week later, when the subjects returned to the sleep lab, there was more symmetry in the subjects’ brain activity, suggesting they had become accustomed to the now familiar environment. Their SWA showed equal levels of wakefulness, or lack thereof, in both brain hemispheres.

While the study results suggest we are participating in USWS, co-author Yuka Sasaki says in a press statement that "our brains may have a miniature system of what whales and dolphins have."

Sasaki noted that frequent travelers may subconsciously train their brains to bypass the FNE. Our brains are “very flexible,” she said. “Thus, people who often are in new places may not necessarily have poor sleep on a regular basis."

The team’s future experiments will include trying to shut off the FNE so people can get a better (first) night’s sleep. 

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.

Why Do So Many Airports Have Chapels?

Inside Our Lady of the Airways Chapel at Boston Logan International Airport
Inside Our Lady of the Airways Chapel at Boston Logan International Airport

There are only so many ways to kill time during a long layover. You might browse the magazines at a Hudson News or take the time to test out a travel pillow or two. If it's a particularly trying travel day, you may want to while away a few hours at an airport bar. But if you’ve killed enough time in enough U.S. airports, you've probably noticed that most of them have chapels tucked into a corner of the terminal. Some of them are simple, some of them are ornate. Some cater specifically to members of one religion while others are interfaith. So where did they come from, and why are they there?

The biggest surprise in answering the latter part of that question might be that airport chapels weren't originally built for airport passengers at all. According to Smithsonian.com, the first U.S. airport chapel opened in 1951 at Boston's Logan International Airport and was specifically created for the airport’s Catholic staff, largely to offer mass services for workers on longer shifts.

Dubbed “Our Lady of the Airways,” Boston's airport chapel concept was quickly embraced by Catholic leaders around the country. In 1955, Our Lady of the Skies Chapel opened at New York City's Idlewild Airport (which was renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport in 1963). Other Catholic chapels followed.

In the 1960s, JFK added both a Protestant chapel and a Jewish synagogue to its terminals. By the 1980s, Protestant chapels had opened in the Atlanta and Dallas airports as well.

Single-faith chapels dissipated for the most part during the 1990s and into the new millennium. In 2008, The Christian Index ran a story about the changing face of on-the-go religious spaces and declared "Single-faith chapels a dying breed at U.S. airports." As interfaith chapels became the new normal, this inclusiveness extended to the chapels' patrons as well. Instead of remaining gathering places for airport employees, the chapels opened their doors to the millions of passengers traveling in and out of their cities each year.

Today, more than half of America's busiest airports feature chapels, the majority of which are interfaith. Most existing chapels are welcoming to people of all faiths and often include multiple religious symbols in the same room. They have become important spaces for meditation and reflection. Many of them still offer worship services for each of their represented practices, including places like the interfaith chapel at Washington Dulles International Airport, which hosts a Catholic mass on Saturday evenings as well as daily Jewish prayer services. Though each airport chapel is unique in design and services, they all endeavor to offer a much-needed spiritual refuge from the hassle of air travel.

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