Today, aspirin looks for your headache. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
How Does Aspirin Find
a Headache? That's the title of yet another
book by David Feldman. He's done many books filled
with questions like that, along with their answers.
Feldman's questions serve as a kind of smelling
salts for my mind.
Try that aspirin question: I always thought aspirin
just entered the blood and reduced pain wherever
the blood went. Aspirin does enter the blood, but
then it acts selectively on pain and inflammation.
Not 'til the 1970s did pharmacologists figure out
how it did that. Aspirin attacks a certain fatty
acid that serves as an early warning system by
increasing the sensitivity of pain receptors.
Aspirin turns those painful warning bells off.
Feldman's "How" and "Why" books remind us to keep
raising questions we'd otherwise forget to ask. The
world is neither simple nor obvious, and its
secrets will be kept from us as long as we fail to
ask. So let's try four more questions:
First, should I drain that water off top of my
yogurt? Well now: That isn't water at all. It's
whey, as in "Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet
eating her curds and whey." Whey contains sugar,
minerals, protein, and nutrients. It's part of what
you pay for when you buy yogurt. So you definitely
want to mix it back in.
Next, why are the Muppets all left-handed? (I
hadn't realized they were. But they are!)
Puppeteers, it seems, reach upward to carry a
puppet, like a glove, on their right hand. They use
their left hand to operate wires that control the
arms. It's a lot easier to give the dominant action
to the puppet's left hand.
Why did a rabbit once have to die to indicate
pregnancy? The old test involved injecting a rabbit
with the woman's urine. Then, after a day or so,
the rabbit was killed so its ovaries could be
inspected. It turns out the rabbit died either way.
The test was later improved to give results without
killing the rabbit at all.
Finally, where did the dollar sign come from? We've
been told it's the combined initials for United
States -- a U on top of an S with the bottom of the
U dropped off. The problem with that is, dollar
signs were used long before there was a United
The first European coins on this continent were
Spanish pesos. They circulated and were widely used
in the Colonies during the 18th century. The
abbreviation for pesos was an S superposed on a P
and that devolved into the dollar sign. Our dollar
sign turns out to be a borrowed sign for pesos.
Things are seldom what they seem. Ask a question --
I mean really ask in the hope of being surprised --
and you will be surprised. So many of our questions
really aim only to confirm what we already believe.
But the real fun is the down-and-dirty business of
rooting out our own ignorance.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds