Weird Science Weekly: Fist bumps can help save lives

Weird science happens every day, all around us. This week, we have four of the weirdest examples, including the health benefits of fist bumps, the strange science of simulated snow, the electrical wonders of thin tin and how to cook a comet...

Fist bumps spread less bacteria than handshakes

Looking for a good way to cut down on the number of germs you pick up from other people? Try switching from shaking hands to bumping fists.

That's what researchers from West Virginia University are suggesting, after a study of how infections spread in a hospital setting. Many hospitals have already replaced door knobs and handles with push plates, since they were found to accumulate fewer bacteria, which is very important, given concerns about methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and even as we get into flu season. Washing hands helps, but they found that 80 per cent of people still had disease-causing bacteria on their hands after washing.

When it comes to the spread of these bacteria, the two key factors are how much contact you have and for how long. Fist bumping, compared to hand-shaking, results in only around a third as much skin surface contact, and around a third as much time in contact. Besides, as infectious disease specialist Dr. Tim Lahey told The Atlantic, "it has the advantage of also being kind of cool. Perhaps our patients will appreciate our attention not only to their health but also to hipness."

[ Related: WSW: Comet ISON looking ‘downright weird’ as it approaches the sun ]

The weird science of Disney snow

Vacations and cute kids movies, rather than science, likely come to mind when Disney is mentioned, but Disney movies contain a lot of science. For their latest movie, Frozen, they had to work out how to make snow look realistic in a computer simulation — not just how it looks when it's covering everything in the scene, but how it reacts when you walk through it, throw it around and dig through it. UCLA and the Walt Disney Animation Studios put together this video to demonstrate how they did it and to show their amazingly realistic results:

Sitting through the credits of a movie these days sometimes yields great little added footage and scenes, but watching the credits themselves you get a sense of the incredible amount of work that goes into making them.

[ Related: WSW: Freaky new asteroid looks like a spinning lawn sprinkler ]

2-D tin could be the next electrical super-material

If you're looking for a good electrical conductor, you're probably going to go for silver, gold or copper, maybe even aluminum in a pinch. In any case, tin would probably be pretty far down on the list, but based on some recent theoretical work, it actually might be the best one of all!

Although we have some pretty good materials for conducting electricity, we haven't yet found the perfect conductor — the one that delivers electricity with no loss along the way. However, a team of theorists, led by Shoucheng Zhang of Stanford University, believes that atom-thin layers of tin, a material called stanene, may be the very first perfect room temperature conductor. The inside of this 'topological insulator' doesn't conduct electricity well at all, but electricity flows very well along its outside surface.

"The magic of topological insulators is that by their very nature, they force electrons to move in defined lanes without any speed limit, like the German autobahn," Zhang said in a Stanford press release. "As long as they’re on the freeway — the edges or surfaces — the electrons will travel without resistance."

The work is all theoretical at this point, if it all pans out, the "tin chip" could replace "silicon chip" in computers, increasing performance and lowering the amount of heat produced. The downside? If Silicon Valley decided to change its name, they might have a fight on their hands.

[ Related: Weird Science Weekly: Special Video Edition ]

NASA gives us a cooking lesson on comets

Comets are weird, wonderful remnants from the formation of our solar system. With Comet ISON giving astronomers around the world spectacular images, and with it less than a week from its close encounter with the sun, the folks at NASA put together a great little video that talks about how comets 'cook' as they approach the sun:

Canadian astronomer David H. Levy once said: "Comets are like cats; they have tails, and they do precisely what they want." ISON has definitely been living up to that, giving us a strange and wonderful show so far. Since this will be ISON's first and only trip through the inner solar system, hopefully it emerges intact next week to keep the show going even longer.

[ More Geekquinox: Newly-discovered dinosaur kept T-rex down for millions of years ]

Keep your eyes on the wonders of science, and if you spot anything particularly strange you'd like me to check out for next week, comment below or drop me a line on Twitter!

(Images courtesy: Reuters, Yong Xu/Tsinghua University/Greg Stewart/SLAC)

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