Apr 132017

Dear Readers,

We have reached our baker’s dozen. It is a delight to bring to you the 13th issue of JUnQ – the baking was a tad too long. We take an in-depth look into Science and Art – the central theme of this issue. More so, on how one complements the other, even though from afar they may look like nothing alike. We have had engrossing discussions with Artists, who mix their craft with scientific foundations, and Scientists, who dabble in the creative outlets that Arts provides. Did you know that dancing could win us the battle against dementia or that dead inanimate objects can be breathed new life into through science….all this and more you can find between the covers. And we (the editorial team at JUnQ) have also harnessed our creativity in coming out with the JUnQ Photo Contest, where you can showcase your talent to identify the aesthetic appeal of science. Even though an issue like this doesn’t have the negative or null result-oriented articles we so wish to highlight, still it serves as an important vehicle to appreciate the other mediums of seeking knowledge, than the analytical. To whet your appetite, we have titivating essays about the wonderful history of Art and Science and not to forget, for the ever curious, Questions of the Week pages.

We understand and appreciate your patience. We hope you feel excited about our newest issue of JUnQ!

— Soham Roy on behalf of the editorial board

Download JUnQ Volume 7 Issue 1

Jul 252016


Dear Readers,

We are delighted to bring to you the 12th issue of JUnQ. This time round, the central theme deals with Statistics in Science and what it entails and how can it be misused. We held insightful interviews with few of the best experts in Statistics and we present their views about the current era where mis-interpretations of data abound. It is heartening to see that the publication of negative or null results still is important for many in science. We have an article on Pretreatment of Steel and Zinc surfaces that highlights such details. Also in the days ahead, open access will be the norm and we present an excellent commentary on it.

We hope you feel excited about our newest issue of JUnQ!

— Soham Roy on behalf of the editorial board

Download JUnQ Volume 6 Issue 2

Mar 162015

Have you ever wondered why most people can tell which color they see but they most likely cannot label a note they hear without having a reference note? The second ability is known as absolute pitch (AP) or perfect pitch and is rather rare in Europe and North America. Only one of 10000 people possess this ability, e.g. some popular musicians such as Mozart. [1]

There already has been considerable interest and research about where AP stems from but it still is an unanswered question. By searching the internet you will find several websites telling you that they can teach you to get AP. But from a scientific perspective it is not proven that this is possible: Only one study has shown that a learning process of about 60 hours led to some kind of success. [2] This seems much of an effort compared to the essentially unconscious learning of AP in childhood.

There are basically three different explanations for the genesis of AP:

  • training makes it possible (this is what the websites mentioned above will tell you)
  • genes are responsible
  • learning is feasible but only if you start at a young age

The genetic origin of AP is supported by the fact that young children already possess it and that it is more likely to have AP if there are other family members with AP. Of course in the latter case it is possible that young children get “trained” by these family members and do not just have it in their genes. But in fact there is some scientific evidence that a specific part of the genome could – at least partly – be the reason. [3]

There are also reports about the benefit of an early start of musical training. Another distinctive feature is the linkage to the acquisition of speech in infancy. There are differences between speakers of nontone languages like English and tone languages, e.g. Mandarin or Vietnamese. Tone language speakers seem to have an advantage, which is possible due to some kind of training effect in tone languages: The meaning of some words changes if you use another pitch. So children that are speakers of a nontone language have to learn more about pitches when they start musical training.

Up to now we can only speculate that the right composition of these requirements could be the clue to gain AP.

If you want to test yourself, you should have a look at http://www.absolutepitchstudy.com/index.html.


Nicola Reusch


[1] Deutsch, D. Absolute pitch. In D. Deutsch (Ed.). The psychology of music, 3rd Edition, 2013, 141-182, San Diego: Elsevier.

[2] Brady, P. T. Fixed scale mechanism of absolute pitch. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 1970, 48, 883-887.

[3] Elizabeth Theusch, Analabha Basu, Jane Gitschier, Genome-wide Study of Families with Absolute Pitch Reveals Linkage to 8q24.21 and Locus Heterogeneity, The American Journal of Human Genetics 85, 112–119, 2009.

Jun 052014

Peeing or, more delicately, urination or, medically and even more delicately, micturation, is, contrary to popular opinion, a rather complex behaviour. In human infants and animals it seems spontaneous. In humans and some domestic animals it can be brought under conscious or voluntary control. In humans this is called, somewhat ambivalently, ‘potty training’. In domestic animals it is called, rather confusingly, ‘housebreaking’ in American English or, slightly more logically, ‘house-training’ in British English. In many other animals, who use urine as scent or territory markers, it must also, at least partly, be under voluntary control. However, even if brought under voluntary control, it still sometimes happens that in healthy individuals some external stimuli may provoke the urge to urinate as if by reflex.

One urban legend says that urination can be induced in a sleeping person by holding one of his hands in water. There is considerable disagreement about this putative phenomenon.[1]

Other much reported provoking stimuli of micturation are (1) the sound of running water, for example in taps, fountains, and waterfalls, (2) hand-washing in cold water, and (3) being in a loo / toilet / bathroom / washroom / restroom, as if by a conditioned reflex.[2]

He stared at a big bleary bald-headed sixty-year-old man in the mirror. He turned on the cold water at one of the bassins and cupped his hands and rubbed water over his face The water really made him want to urinate, and so he went over to the toilet, which was some streamlined, low-slung beige thing, and he urinated. Was this a bad sign, the urge he had always to urinate in the middle of the night?[3]

In this literary passage it is unclear – apparently also for the novelist – whether the urge to urinate is caused by the washing of hands in cold water, by the splashing of cold water on the face, or by the sound of running water, or – prosaically – because of an age-effect on the bladder and its sphincters.

There are probably at least two more local stimuli of the micturation reflex. The first stimulus is invasive and is used as an experimental and diagnostic tool. In the ice-water test (IWT) cooled water is

injected through a catheter into the bladder.[4] The second stimulus is non-invasive and is used as a means to induce urination in women who have recently given birth and are experienceing difficulty or pain urinating. The author of a popular self-help book advises:

You can encourage the urine to start flowing again by […] placing hot or cold packs on your perineum (whichever triggers your urge to urinate).[5]

Interestingly, the author writes also:

If it’s good old-fashioned fear that’s holding you back, you might want to try drinking plenty of liquids to dilute the acidity of your urine, straddling the toilet saddle-style when you urinate, urinating while you pour water across your perineum (you can use either a peri-bottle or a bowl), or — if you really get desperate — urinating when you’re standing in the shower.[6]

This advice comes closest to the idea conveyed in a passage that originally triggered my curiosity. In 1964 the Dutch writer and painter Jan Cremer published his first novel which became a best-seller and a cause célèbre. In this supposedly autobiographical picaresque Cremer described his childhood friendship with a young mother around 1950:

If I happened to be in the street in the afternoon when Betty came home with the baby carriage, she’d say to me, “Come in and watch Bartje piss,” and I’d go in with her. She would change his diaper and sprinkle a little cold water on his ass, and he’d react immediately by pissing until his little bladder was empty.[7]

Apparently ‘Betty’ used this trick to ensure that her baby boy ‘Bartje’ would have an empty bladder when getting a dry and fresh diaper. This was before the days of disposable diapers and Bartje’s diapers were most likely made of cotton. It was in his mother’s interest that Bartje would have a dry diaper as long as possible. Ensuring that Bartje’s bladder was empty when his diaper was getting changed was one way to do this.

Maybe it is the same reflex that is responsible for the often observed peeing while undoing a used and wet diaper. In such cases, especially boys can cause hilarity when they spray with urine the unexpecting adult who undresses the diaper.

Maybe the putative reflex was painted by Rembrandt. Ganymede’s bottom region must have become relatively cold when being airlifted. An alternative explanation for the airborne micturation could be that Ganymede urinated because of ‘real stress’ incontinence: the distress or hightened negative stress that was caused by the situation in which he suddenly and unwillingly had found himself.

The reflex may thus be provoked by sudden cooling of the natal region and it might therefore be called the cold bottom reflex.

To my surprise, I found no references in the scientific literature of this putative reflex. Also in recent handbooks of practical baby care I did not come across this parental trick. Therefore the following questions must be addressed: (1) is this a genuine phenomenon and reflex or was it an instance of poetic licence by Jan Cremer? and (2) if this is a genuine reflex, was it and its practical applicability forgotten? or (3) was it a private observation and lucky discovery by ‘Betty’ that was recorded accidentally by Jan Cremer?

Wolter Seuntjens

Dutch Academy of ’Pataphysics, Amsterdam


Notes and References:

[1] http://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/mythbusters/mythbusters-database/hand-water-asleep-urinate.htm

[2] Radley, S., J. Derek and C. Chapple, ‘Ambulatory Urodynamic Monitoring’, in The Urinary Sphincter (eds. J. Corcos and E. Schick), New York: Marcel Dekker, Inc., 2001, pp. 335-55 (p. 352).

[3] Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full. New York: Macmillan, 2010 [1998], p. 138.

[4] Al-Hayek, S. and P. Abrams, The 50-year history of the ice water test in urology. Journal of Urology 183, 2010:1686–92.

[5] Ann Douglas, The Mother of All Pregnancy Books: An All-Canadian Guide to Conception, Birth and Everything in Between. Hoboken (NJ): John Wiley and Sons, 2009.

[6] Ibid. The‘peri-bottle’ is a squeeze bottle named after and used specifically to cleanse the perineum.

[7] Jan Cremer, I, Jan Cremer. (English Version by R. E. Wyngaard and Alexander Trocchi), London: Calder & Boyars, 1965 [1964], p. 48.


Feb 242014

Life on earth is a tremendously complex process and, independent of whether one believes in one god or the other or not, evidence accumulates that this complexity originates from an evolutionary process. [1-3] According to the dogma of molecular biology DNA is to be transcribed into messenger RNA, a rather transient active copy, which is translated into proteins by using transfer RNAs (tRNA) as adaptors. [4] This dogma states that proteins are the only class of macromolecules that carry out catalytic functions. But how could such a complex system have evolved from a ‘primordial soup’? A significant modification of the central dogma of molecular biology was caused by the Nobel prize winning discovery of RNAs that are capable to catalyze biochemical reactions without the need of a protein component [5, 6] , giving rise to a theory of molecular evolution based on an RNA world. [7, 8] But even if you go for the RNA world hypothesis the initial question is only transferred from proteins to RNA: How could large, complex RNAs evolve from the vast ocean? This question leads to

The concentration problem:

Any kind of (bio) chemical reaction can only proceed to high yield if the concentration of starting material is high and best yields are achieved when the products either catalyze further reactions or when product and starting material get separated, resulting in a constant pull due to the continuing disruption of any equilibrium. Alas the concentration of organic molecules in the primordial ocean is thought to be similar to the one in the cotemporary ocean, which means too low to support life. [9]

The Contemporary solution to the concentration problem:

In contemporary life forms the concentration problem is solved by compartmentalization: Bacteria and
Archaea are equipped with a cell membrane that forms there outer hull, while Eukarya possess even additional sub compartments. Consequently the first life forms, so-called protocells, would consist of an outer membrane and an informational and functional biopolymer, i. e. RNA. [10] It could be shown that fatty acids (the ‘ancestors’ of present phospholipids) can self-assemble into lipid membranes and thereby form compartments that are capable to internalize new nucleic acid building blocks (nucleotides), while retaining the copied biopolymer. [11]

Thermophoresis as a possible primordial solution of the concentration problem:

This ‘membrane first’ approach would introduce an additional quite unlikely event in the schedule that would ultimately result in the evolution of life. As with basically any unlikely event there of course exists a competing theory, which in this case relies on inorganic compartmentalization as the cradle of life. [12] Several years ago Baaske et al. proposed an especially elegant approach to inorganic compartmentalization in the RNA world: The authors applied their recently developed theory of thermophoresis in aqueous solutions [13] in simulations on nucleotide diffusion in pore systems of hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea. [14] Thermophoresis describes movement of molecules in a temperature gradient: Heat of a specific source (here a hydrothermal vent) dissipates in solution and the resulting temperature gradient facilitates molecule accumulation or depletion in the heat source, depending on the nature of the molecule investigated. [15] The pore system of the vent would not only supply compartmentalization is this scenario but a whole network of compartments that are connected by thermophoresis.
The result of the simulations of Basske et al. was: By an interplay of solvent transport by convection and thermophoresis single nucleotides could be accumulated more than 10 8 -fold, while polynucleotides were concentrated even more, depending on their length and the pore geometry. [14] The authors note that their model already supplies a setting of temperature oscillation like it is used in exponential DNA amplification by the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Herewith a possible mechanism of mono- and polymer concentration was developed but an important question remained: It was unclear whether any self-replication of nucleic acids would be possible in the hydrothermal pore system. Obermayer et al. could address this question by a theoretical approach [15] , while Mast et al. succeeded recently in addressing this system experimentally in a DNA system. [16]
It seems like the thermophoresis model is indeed capable to compete with other model of evolution and we can be looking forward to the studies to come.

Felix Spenkuch

[1] J. E. Barrick et al., Nature 2009, 461, 1243-1247.
[2] D. Brawand et al., Nature 2011, 478, 343-348.
[3] F. C. Jones et al., Nature 2012 484, 55-61.
[4] F. Crick, Nature 1970, 227, 561-563.
[5] C. Guerrier-Takada, K. Gardiner, T. Marsh, N. Pace, S. Altman, Cell 35, 3, 1983, 849–857.
[6] K. K. Kruger et al., Cell 1982, 31, 1, 147-157.
[7] W. Gilbert, Nature 1986, 319, 618.
[8] G. F. Joyce, Nature 1989, 338, 217-224.
[9]E. V. Koonin Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2007, 104, 9105-9106.
[10]J. P. Schrum et al. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol 2010, 2, a002212.
[11]Mansy et al. Nature 2008, 454, 122-5.
[12]S. E. McGlynn et al., Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 2012, 37, 1969, 3007-3022.
[13] S. Duhr, and D. Braun, Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2006, 104, 22, 9346-51.
[14] P. Baaske, F. M. Weinert, S. Duhr, K. H. Lemke, M. J. Rusell and D. Braun,s Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2007, 104, 22, 9346-51.
[15] B. Obermayer, H. Krammer, D. Braun and U. Gerland PRL 2011, 107, 018101-1-4.
[16]C. B. Mast et al. , Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2013, 110, 20, 8030-5.

Sep 032013

Currently the gray days of autumn seem to be right around the corner and the water pouring from the sky is much too cold to be enjoyable. So most people just want to get through the rain to some dry place. Our instinct tells us to run as fast as we can to avoid getting wet. But is this intuition correct? Do you really get less wet if you run at your maximum speed?

The short answer is no. But as always the long answer is more complicated and while this might not be cutting edge research in physics it presents a useful training problem for undergraduates and has thus been discussed in the literature. So naturally different answers can be found depending on the assumptions the authors made.

The first assumption one has to make is the shape of the body that is moving in the rain. While it is usually assumed that this does not influence the general answer a recent paper showed that it actually does [1]. Borrowing methods from electrodynamics more complex body shapes could be addressed in this paper and the value of the optimal velocity was compared. That is if an optimal velocity even exists, i.e. it is not the best strategy to run as fast as you can.

Not surprisingly the answer does not only depend on the shape of the body but also on the direction from which the rain is coming. If the rain is coming straight from the back, for example, an optimal velocity always exists and its value does not even dependent on the body shape. For other direction the answers vary and no general rules seem to exist.

Another restriction that may apply is the assumption of a rigid body motion. While it is convenient to calculate a rigid cylinder floating effortlessly through the rain humans are not rigid, especially while running. No attempt has so far been made to include this into the models.

So if the rain is not coming straight from the back you might need to do some further calculations to figure out what the best speed is for your body shape and running style. But as a final tip make sure that you do the calculation in a nice and dry place and only then venture out into the rain. If the weather catches you off guard, just take your chances and run to the next cover.


Stephan Koehler


Read more:

[1] F. Bocci, Whether or not to run in the rain , Eur. J. Phys. 33 (2012) 1321–1332

Dec 312012

“Science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.”
— Percy W. Bridgman

To the public, ‘science’ is primarily an abstract authority in questions of knowledge. Mostly, contact with this authority is limited to the products of scientific work, while the inner workings of science usually remain hidden behind the walls of research institutions, laboratories, and offices. What do people actually do when they ‘do science’? The actual day-to-day work behind the scenes is most often not nearly as organized and systematic as the finished products in academic journals and by far not as glamorous as contemporary scientific mega-conferences may suggest. Doing science is first and foremost a mere form of labor, a mundane but complex practice, a way of going about things and getting things done which depends on the right time, place, people or mood to produce scientific knowledge. For this issue of JUnQ, we asked scholars from various disciplines to share their experiences and views upon the labor of science and invited them to reflect upon and give us an insight in their daily work as a scientist or scientific writer. What does ‘good’ scientific labor mean to those who do it? What, in their eyes, makes for ‘good’ (enough?) scientific work?

Read more: Scientific Labor

May 092012

Every morning it’s the same: A few drops of coffee end up on your table. And once they dry, they form ring-shaped stains. But why? This problem is related to the question how to build tomorrow’s communication systems.

Some of you might remember your grandma’s coffee pot, which had a sponge attached to the spout. This was done to avoid coffee stains. These stains – black on the outside, white on the inside and always round in shape – are also interesting for science, especially for nanotechnology.

Physicists might use the coffee stains as a model to design better communication systems in the future. This is why the question of the month reads:

“Why does coffee always form ring-shaped stains and not a chaotic splash?”

Detektor.fm asked Leonie Anna Mueck, Editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions.

Listen to the podcast here.

Read more about self-assembly in colloidal dispersions here: A. Marin et al. “Order-to-disorder transition in ring-shaped colloidal stains”, Phys. Rev. Lett. 107, 085502 (2011)

Feb 092012

This is not an unusual situation: You just took a painkiller against the first indications of an evolving cold and before dozing away you bothered to read the patient information sheet – and a few hours later your head is about to explode, you feel dizzy and dumb, exactly as was mentioned among the possible side effects.

In most cases this is not just coincidence but the so-called nocebo effect, which can be considered the “evil twin” of the placebo effect.

The nocebo effect makes us sick instead of miraculously healing our illness. Because just as a patient can feel better after taking a placebo, the awareness of possible side effects alone can have a negative effect on a patient’s health. What is this nocebo effect all about?

This is the question of the month and will be answered by Tobias Boll, editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions.

Listen to the podcast on detektor.fm here

Dec 082011

Is Green Chemistry more than a marketing term? Probably so. Green Chemistry may lead to a renunciation of the traditional production processes in chemical industry. But what is behind this concept?

Christmas time is cookie time. Of course, cookies should taste of vanilla. There are two possibilities for this purpose: The use of natural vanilla, which is very expensive, or the use of artificial vanilla, which is manufactured from crude oil by chemical industry. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a method to produce vanilla in an eco-friendly, but simple way?

This is an example for what green chemistry is supposed to accomplish. It deals with the question how modern chemical production processes can be designed sustainably.

The unsolved question of the month is: How can this be achieved? What has already been attempted?

Detektor.fm asked Thomas Jagau, editor of the Journal of Unsolved Questions, for an answer.

You can listen to the podcast here.