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ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Do Men and Women Feel Temperature Differently?

ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy
ThinkStock/Erin McCarthy

Men are from Mars and insist on turning up the air conditioning; women are from Venus and always complain of being cold. In a world striving for gender equality, is there something holding us back from liberty and comfortable temperatures for all, or is it possible for everyone to compromise on where to set the thermostat?

When 19th-century physician Carl Wunderlich first compiled temperature readings from a sample size of 25,000 participants, he found that core temperature between men and women averaged out to be roughly equal around the 98.6-degree mark. Though women’s temperatures skewed the slightest bit higher than men’s, a few tenths of a degree’s worth of difference doesn’t seem to account for all those arguments couples purportedly have over whether to keep the window open or shut at night. Even accounting for fluctuations due to time of day, pregnancy, and hormone variations, differing core temperatures doesn’t seem to be the answer.

The truth that yes, women generally feel colder than men do, primarily arises from a difference skin temperature. Women, on average, are physiologically different from men in terms of their size, weight, and bodily proportions. Being smaller, a typical woman possesses a higher ratio of surface area to volume, which causes her to experience a more rapid rate of heat loss. In a one-two punch of injustice, women suffering from measurably cooler skin are also more sensitive to incremental changes in the air temperature, so that they begin to feel the cold faster than someone experiencing an equivalent drop with a higher starting skin temperature.

In a technical sense, it would be correct to say that women don’t feel temperature any differently from anyone else as a function of their sex. Controlling for physical size differences, people of all genders should experience temperature in similar ways. Women are, however, more likely to be smaller, and smaller people are more likely to be colder. So the next time you’re in an argument over the cost of heating, remember that not all temperature-sensing bodies are created equal, and adjust accordingly.

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

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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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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