Every Friday we open up the digital gates to reader’s questions – both weird and wonderful. We endeavour to find the best answers and feature them on our website. Here’s a selection of some of the best from the last two months.
Ever had one of those questions that really bugs you? Us too! Well here’s some most excellent news: every Friday our team of Gurus will be accepting your questions about (pretty much) anything – health, nutrition, psychology, space… or life!
To ask a question, simply post it on our Facebook
wall or tweet it to @GuruMag with the hashtag #AskAGuru on any Friday. We also accept questions viaemail. Our diverse team of writers and Gurus will research and find you the answer. If we can’t, then we’ll hunt down an expert who can. It might take us a few days to find the answer, but we will do our best!
See the full list of questions answered so far on our website. Here’s a selection of some of the best:
If a man has gender reassignment surgery will he suffer ‘phantom limb’ type feelings? Sent via twitter
Phantom limb syndrome is the sensation of a body part being present even after it has been amputated. A most peculiar condition, the amputee can find the absent limb feeling very real and even as if it can be moved and manipulated. It’s a surprisingly common syndrome and can be extremely painful for many: an amputated hand may feel as if it is clenched and the fingernails are digging into the palm. The reasons for phantom limb sensations are unclear but they are thought to be due to the way the brain is ‘hard-wired’ for all its body parts: a region within the
parietal brain lobe (the top of the head) has a ‘map’ for receiving sensations from different body regions. When a body part is removed, this – now redundant – brain segment ‘creates’ an image of the missing body part from other bodily sensations. It isn’t imagined – the feelings are just as real as when the body was whole. Gender reassignment involves (obviously) the removal of body parts. For men, the penis (although not a ‘limb’) seems to be vulnerable to the same problem as for arms, hands, legs and feet. 60% of transsexual men experience phantom ‘limb’ feelings for the absent genitalia after surgery. And not just men are affected: women commonly feel ‘phantom’ breasts after a mastectomy.
Why does my atheist brother-in-law complain when his son refuses to believe in Father Christmas? Asked by @Christomill via twitter
I have given this much thought because there are three ways of approaching the issue of challenging personal beliefs: by tip-toeing daintily through the tulips, bashing through the obstruction with a frontend loader, or – my personal favourite – obliterating the tulips with the front-end loader. I’m going to have to take the first route, because ideally as a science journalist I’d need to interview all parties before throwing any light on the matter; and besides, there are some sensitive issues at stake here. Firstly, I have to assume that your atheist brotherin-law doesn’t believe in Father Christmas either. That makes sense because the character doesn’t exist outside of folklore, and even then, in such apparently diverse forms as to render reports of him untenable as proof. Besides, in order to deliver as many presents as needed in a single night (even to only the good children), would require Father Christmas (and his reindeer) to do some interesting things with the laws of physics (see The Physics of Santa) Secondly, I also have to assume that because the son has been brought up in a home where at least one the parents is an atheist, he has been encouraged to employ critical reasoning. He has therefore come to the logical conclusion that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. This means that – unlike his peers who have been encouraged to believe in nonsense – he won’t grow up to believe in horoscopes and homeopathy. The logical answer to your question is therefore simple… it’s love (altogether now, 1…2…3…”aaaah!”) I can imagine that your brother-in-law doesn’t want to risk his son being prejudiced by his peers (and their judgemental parents) by running around and telling everyone that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.
What is Sausage Skin Made of? Asked by Heather Young
Oh boy. Those of you who are squeamish and want to ensure you continue to enjoy sausages better look away now as there are two answers – and one of them isn’t pretty. Sausage skins are also known as ‘casings’. It used to be the case that all sausage skins were made from the intestines of animals – cows, pigs, sheep, and so on. Yep, the stuff that digests food and makes faeces – the intestines – are used to encase the ground meat you so thoroughly enjoy. However, it’s not that simple. Your intestines, and those of the mammals you most likely eat, are made of four layers. Sausage casings are made from the second layer from the inside, called the submucosa. Somewhat reassuringly, this tough layer has never been in contact with the animal’s poo. During processing, the other layers are stripped off and the submucosa is then cleaned and used for the sausage casings. Now, for those of you about to vomit at the thought of all of this, don’t despair. New technological developments have allowed the development of artificial casings. These artificial casings can either be made from natural substances, like the hide of a cow, or from cotton. Finally, truly artificial casings can be made from plastic. Only one question remains: how long will this ‘tasty’ information keep you from eating your next juicy submucosal sausage?
I have noticed that some products (such as Soy Milk) state a warning that it should be consumed within 4 days after being opened. How accurate is this?
Asked by Julio Vazquez via Facebook
‘Best before’ and ‘use by’ dates are used on different types of food. ‘Use by’ dates relate to perishable foods, which can ‘go off’ easily (like dairy products and meat). The ‘use by’ date indicates the latest date on which the food is definitely safe to eat (if stored correctly, that is: don’t expect milk to be any good on its use by date if it’s been left out of the fridge all day). ‘Best before’ dates are used for foods with a longer life than perishable goods – things like cookies and cakes. This date indicates how long you can expect the food to remain at its best quality. Such foods are typically still safe to eat after their best before date, but may just not be quite so pleasing on the palate. Not good unless you like stale-tasting muffins. Turning to things like soya milk, it’s generally best to heed the advice given on the packaging. Some things – like milk – may look and smell fine, even well after their use-by date, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t become contaminated with some lurking bug or other since you opened it. As a UK Food Safety expert explains “It’s tempting just to give your food a sniff to see if you think it’s gone off, but food bugs like E.
coli and salmonella don’t cause food to smell ‘off’ even when they may have grown to dangerous levels.” So food could look and smell fine but still be harmful. In short, ‘use by’ dates aren’t just produced as a result of guesswork, but rather as the result of careful testing. You can read more about the science behind ‘use by’ dates here. Incidentally, US soya milk manufacturers state that their products remain fresh for between 7 and 10 days, as reported here.