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How Effective is the Eye Black that Athletes Wear?

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Sometimes it’s literally a glob of grease, other times it’s a synthetic sticker. We’ve all seen baseball and football players with the black rectangles under their eyes on sunny days, which is thought to help reduce the sun’s glare and allow athletes to better pick up the ball. But does it actually work?  

The underlying concept behind eye black is that it reduces the amount of glare that reaches your eyes thanks to the fact that the color black absorbs most light frequencies. In theory, excessive light from sources in our peripheral vision will be absorbed by the black color, increasing the contrast of the objects we're are looking at and focusing on directly.  

There have been a handful of studies done in the past decade, including one by the University of New Hampshire and one by Yale University. Although these two and others began with skepticism and have all yielded slightly different results—while accounting for the effect of variables such as eye color and gender—they have agreed that traditional eye grease made of beeswax, paraffin, and carbon does in fact reduce glare and improve contrast sensitivity. They also all concluded that anti-glare stickers and petroleum jelly have no impact.

“I thought we would find it to be like war paint and a psychological advantage more than anything else,” Dr. Brian M. DeBroff, the lead author of the Yale study, told The New York Times. “We were surprised to find a benefit from the grease.”

Even though the effect was found to be somewhat minimal, DeBroff has adopted somewhat of an “it can’t hurt” stance regarding its application to high-intensity sport situations.

“Certainly in football and baseball, where tracking a ball at high speed is an important aspect, any competitive advantage could be beneficial,” DeBroff said.

Despite this, researchers are still unsure how much impact the glare reduction and contrast improvement translates into an “on-the-field” advantage for athletes. Dr. Kenneth Fuld, chairman of the University of New Hampshire’s psychology department and the sponsor of the aforementioned study conducted by the university, points out that tennis players regularly perform at a high level despite the fact that they do not wear eye black.

“I would be highly doubtful that it would have much of an effect, if any,” Fuld said.

Although it is extremely reasonable to conclude that it is a coincidence, it is interesting to note that last year’s two top NFL receivers in terms of receiving yards, Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions and Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, both regularly wear eye black during games.

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What's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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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