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Could You Really Cry Someone a River?

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“Don't burn any bridges.” “Put a sock in it.” So many figures of speech evoke actions that, while physically possible, are not always good ideas. Others are harder to pin down. We may unsympathetically tell someone to cry us a river, but could they really do it? That’s what students at the University of Leicester decided to find out. They published their results this month in their school’s Journal of Interdisciplinary Science Topics.

These days, the words “cry me a river” are common parlance. But unlike many idioms, this one has a clear origin: a songwriter named Arthur Hamilton. Hamilton was working on a new tune in the early 1950s and wanted to evoke a certain vibe (bitter), but he needed the right words.

“I had never heard the phrase,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2010. "I just liked the combination of words … Instead of 'Eat your heart out' or 'I'll get even with you,' it sounded like a good, smart retort to somebody who had hurt your feelings or broken your heart."

At first, the song seemed destined for failure; no fewer than 38 artists refused to record it. But in 1955, jazz-pop singer Julie London took it on, and it took over the charts. Since then, it’s been covered hundreds of times, and the phrase entered the American vocabulary. "Its general use as a put-down phrase has continued to delight and amaze me," Hamilton said. "Whenever my wife and I are watching a film or TV show, and the phrase is used, we laugh and gently punch each other." 

It must have crossed the pond, too, because two students at UL’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Science decided to put it to the test.

Leah Ashley and Robbie Roe started by identifying the shortest river in the world, in order to give their theoretical weepers the best chance of meeting the minimum tear production requirement. That title belongs to Montana’s Roe River, which is just 201 feet long and discharges between 156 and 193 million gallons of water per day. 

By comparison, the average human tear has a volume of 0.0062 milliliters. Ashley and Roe quickly realized that there is no way a single person could cry even the tiniest river. The entire of population of Earth couldn’t even do it, even if we were all really, really upset at the same time.

What about something a little smaller, like an Olympic-size swimming pool? That’s something we might be able to manage. A regulation pool, the authors write, is 50 x 25 x 2 meters, with a capacity of 2,500,000 liters. If each of the roughly 7.4 billion people on this planet cried 55 tears apiece, we could fill up that pool together, in a weird, sad triumph of international cooperation. 

Cheryl Hurkett, the authors’ instructor, was delighted with their paper. “I am always pleased to see my students engaging so enthusiastically with the subject,” she said in a press statement. “I encourage them to be as creative as possible with their subject choices as long as they can back it up with hard scientific facts, theories, and calculations!"

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Big Questions
What Do Morticians Do With the Blood They Take Out of Dead Bodies?
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Zoe-Anne Barcellos:

The blood goes down the sink drain, into the sewer system.

I am not a mortician, but I work for a medical examiner/coroner. During an autopsy, most blood is drained from the decedent. This is not on purpose, but a result of gravity. Later a mortician may or may not embalm, depending on the wishes of the family.

Autopsies are done on a table that has a drain at one end; this drain is placed over a sink—a regular sink, with a garbage disposal in it. The blood and bodily fluids just drain down the table, into the sink, and down the drain. This goes into the sewer, like every other sink and toilet, and (usually) goes to a water treatment plant.

You may be thinking that this is biohazardous waste and needs to be treated differently. [If] we can’t put oil, or chemicals (like formalin) down the drains due to regulations, why is blood not treated similarly? I would assume because it is effectively handled by the water treatment plants. If it wasn’t, I am sure the regulations would be changed.

Now any items that are soiled with blood—those cannot be thrown away in the regular trash. Most clothing worn by the decedent is either retained for evidence or released with the decedent to the funeral home—even if they were bloody.

But any gauze, medical tubing, papers, etc. that have blood or bodily fluids on them must be thrown away into a biohazardous trash. These are lined with bright red trash liners, and these are placed in a specially marked box and taped closed. These boxes are stacked up in the garage until they are picked up by a specialty garbage company. I am not sure, but I am pretty sure they are incinerated.

Additionally anything sharp or pointy—like needles, scalpels, etc.—must go into a rigid “sharps” container. When they are 2/3 full we just toss these into one of the biotrash containers.

The biotrash is treated differently, as, if it went to a landfill, then the blood (and therefore the bloodborne pathogens like Hepatitis and HIV) could be exposed to people or animals. Rain could wash it into untreated water systems.

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

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

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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