What's the Difference Between A Dead and Live Virus?

iStock/Rost-9D
iStock/Rost-9D

Franklin Veaux:

There is none, because viruses aren't alive.

A virus straddles the fuzzy boundary between living and dead. That's why biologists and doctors talk about "inactivated" or "attenuated" viruses, not "dead" viruses.

It's helpful to think of a virus as a machine. In fact, in a lot of ways, it's a machine that's simpler than your car. What's the difference between a living and a dead car? None, because cars aren't alive.

Cars can be working or not working. You can, for example, pull the spark plug wires, or drain the gas tank, or fill the intake manifold with Silly Putty, and a working car will become a not-working car, even though they look pretty much the same.

Inactivated viruses are a bit like not-working cars: some part of the machinery has been changed or damaged to make it not work.

You can inactivate viruses by heating them so the protein coat is damaged, or the genetic material is destroyed. You can hit them with radiation to destroy the genetic material. You can break the virus into pieces.

Your body's immune system does not recognize the entire virus. It looks for and recognizes certain parts of the virus, called "antigens" or "antigen subunits." As long as just that part is intact, it doesn't matter how badly damaged the rest of the virus is.

By way of comparison, if you open the hood of a car, melt the engine into slag, and then close the hood, people walking down the street will still recognize it as a car. They'll see it and say "yep, that's a car," even though the engine is totally destroyed. You can take the wheels off and people will still say "yep, that thing I'm looking at is a car."

Your body will look at the outer shell of a virus and say "yep, that's a virus," even if the genetic material is completely destroyed (or entirely removed altogether). You can take parts of the virus off and your body will still say "yep, that thing I'm looking at is a virus."

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

11 Masks That Will Keep You Safe and Stylish

Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods
Design Safe/Designer Face Covers/Its All Goods

Face masks are going to be the norm for the foreseeable future, and with that in mind, designers and manufacturers have answered the call by providing options that are tailored for different lifestyles and fashion tastes. Almost every mask below is on sale, so you can find one that fits your needs without overspending.

1. Multicolor 5-pack of Polyester Face Masks; $22 (56 percent off)

Home Essentials

This set of five polyester masks offers the protection you need in a range of colors, so you can coordinate with whatever outfit you're wearing.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

2. 3D Comfort Masks 5-Pack; $20 (25 percent off)

Brio

The breathable, stretchy fabric in these 3D masks makes them a comfortable option for daily use.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

3. Reusable Face Masks 2-pack; $15 (50 percent off)

Triple Grade

This cotton mask pack is washable and comfortable. Use the two as a matching set with your best friend or significant other, or keep the spare for laundry day.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

4. Active Masks 3-pack; $23 (14 percent off)

RipleyRader

Don’t let masks get in the way of staying active. These double-layer cotton masks are breathable but still protect against those airborne particles.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

5. Washable Protective Cotton Face Masks 2-pack; $13 (35 percent off)

Its All Good

Avoid the accidental nose-out look with this cotton mask that stays snug to your face.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

6. Washable 3D Masks 12-pack; $24 (44 percent off)

Elicto

With this 12-pack of protective masks, you can keep a few back-ups in your car and hand the rest out to friends and family who need them.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

7. Reusable Dust-Proof Mask with 5 Filters; $22 (45 percent off)

Triple Grade

This dust-proof mask can filter out 95 percent of germs and other particles, making it a great option for anyone working around smoke and debris all day, or even if you're just outside mowing the lawn.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

8. Reusable Fun Face Cover / Neck Gaiter (Flamingo); $20

Designer Face Covers

Channel some tropical energy with this flamingo fabric neck gaiter. The style of this covering resembles a bandana, which could save your ears and head from soreness from elastic loops. Other designs include a Bauhaus-inspired mask and this retro look.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

9. Seamless Bandana Mask; $8 (52 percent off)

Eargasm Earplugs

This seamless gaiter-style mask can be worn properly for protection and fashioned up into a headband once you're in the car or a safe space. Plus, having your hair out of your face will help you avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth before washing your hands.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

10. Two-Ply "Love" Face Masks 2-Pack; $18 (40 percent off)

Design Safe

These statement masks allow you to have a voice, even if your mouth is covered.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

11. Neoprene/Fleece Neck and Face Mask (Purple); $10 (66 percent off)

Its All Good

This mask will definitely come in handy once winter rolls around. It features a fleece neck, face, and ear covering to keep your mask secure and your face warm.

Buy it: The Mental Floss Shop

Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

Does Putting a Penny in the Microwave Really Make It Shrink?

J E Theriot, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
J E Theriot, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It's a lesson even the worst home cooks (hopefully) know: Putting metal in the microwave is a recipe for disaster. Thanks to a viral image circulating on the web, some people may be tempted to ignore this piece of common sense in the name of experimentation. The picture shows one normal-sized penny next to three smaller pennies with the caption: "This is what happens when you put a penny in a microwave for 2 minutes." But according to Snopes, microwaving a penny won't cause it to shrink—if anything, it will just leave you with a broken microwave.

Microwave ovens heat food by bouncing microwaves around a metal box. Certain molecules, like the molecules in your leftovers, absorb these waves via dielectric loss and convert them into heat. Not all substances are compatible with microwaves, however. Metal contains high concentrations of electrons, and when microwaves hit a metallic surface, these electrons become very active and block the wave's path. Instead of absorbing into the metal, the microwaves bounce off, which can cause electrical sparks. Sometimes these sparks are strong enough to burn a hole in the oven's walls and damage the electronic equipment.

Even if you could somehow shrink coins in a microwave, the science explained above should be reason enough to resist the urge to try it at home. Anyone who tries the experiment against their better instincts will be disappointed. The photo that's been shared on social media is a hoax, with Snopes explaining that the smaller pennies likely originated in a magician's trick kit.

The post inspired some people to share false claims of their own. One response to the image showed a melted microwave that had allegedly fallen victim to the penny trick. In reality, the years-old picture came from a blogger who set their microwave on fire accidentally while heating a pot of oil. So while microwaving a penny may cause some sparks and potentially damage your appliance, a dramatic explosion isn't likely. (Please just take our word on that, too.)

[h/t Snopes]