Why Is It Called A Cold?

A few days ago, I’m getting my son into bed. “Hang on,” I say, “you need to put these Lego blocks away.”

“Can’t we play?” he asks, hoping I won’t put him to bed just yet.

“No,” I say. Then I spot something by my foot and pick it up. “But I’ve got time to… give you a cold!” And I throw his plush rhinovirus at him.

He laughs and shrieks and dives away, then grabs it and throws it back. We spend the next couple of minutes pelting each other with the cold, before I tell him it’s time to climb into bed. As he settles down, he asks “Why is it called a cold?”

Beats me.

What is “a cold”?

I mean, I know that the common cold is a rhinovirus, whatever that is. Or, at least, I think I know that. Honestly, that knowledge is predicated on the assumption that the people at Giant Microbes know what they’re talking about. Which – no offense to that company – is probably not the best primary source for information about disease and the organisms that cause it. Just for adorable plush representations for those organisms.

So, what is a cold? According to the Mayo Clinic,

The common cold is a viral infection of your nose and throat (upper respiratory tract). It’s usually harmless, although it might not feel that way. Many types of viruses can cause a common cold.

Let’s be honest here. You’ve probably had a cold at least once. You know what it’s like. But he’re the Mayo Clinic list of symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sore throat
  • Cough
  • Congestion
  • Slight body aches or a mild headache
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever
  • Generally feeling unwell (malaise)

The discharge from your nose may become thicker and yellow or green in color as a common cold runs its course. This isn’t an indication of a bacterial infection.[/quote]

They also recommend that you see a doctor if you run a temperature greater than 101.3 degrees F (38.5 degrees C) or if you have a lower fever that lasts for five or more days, if you experience shortness of breath or wheezing, or if you have severe sore throat, headache, or sinus pain.

What causes a cold?

According to the CDC, there are more than 200 different viruses that can cause the common cold. Rhinoviruses are the most common, but it can also be brought on by respiratory syncytial virus, human parainfluenza viruses, and human metapneumovirus. Regardless of which organism causes your cold, antibiotics won’t work – antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. In fact, there’s currently no real cure for the common cold except time and suffering, and vaccinations are difficult as there are around 100 different rhinoviruses and each functions differently. So, you’d have to get around a hundred different vaccines to try and prevent the cold, and then you’d probably get it from one of the hundred or so non-rhinovirus causes anyway. So trying not to get sick in the first place is your best bet. Be sure to wash your hands, and try to avoid close contact with people who already have the cold. If you can.

Generally speaking, cold weather does not cause you to catch a cold.  Colds are caused by viruses, not by temperatures.  During cold weather, you’re more likely to be indoors which increases the odds that you’ll be around individuals who are carrying viruses that can make you sick.  However, there is some evidence that cold weather can be a contributing factor – rhinoviruses thrive in temperatures below the normal human body temperature, and it appears that cooler human cells generate fewer interferons – the proteins that help fight viruses and similar pathogens.  Still, you’ll have more luck not getting sick by washing your hands than by avoiding cold air.

What is a rhinovirus?

Adeno-Associated virus (AAV) capsid (3D data 2qa0 from http://www.rcsb.org). The single stranded DNA genome inside the capsid is not visible here. The virus is a small, replication-defective, nonenveloped virus. AAV infects humans and some other primates.AAV is not currently known to cause any disease and this lack of pathogenicity has attracted considerable interest from gene therapy researchers together with a other features: AAV can infect non-dividing cells and can stably integrate into human chromosome 19 at a specific site which makes this virus more predictable and a better choice than retroviruses for gene therapy since retroviruses present the threat of random insertion and mutagenesis, which can be followed by cancer. However, removal of the "rep" and "cap" portions of the AAV genome helped create AAV vectors for gene therapy that lack integrative capacity. Selected genes for gene therapy can be inserted in to the AAV vector between the inverted terminal repeats (ITR). AAV DNA is lost through cell division, since the episomal DNA is not replicated along with the host cell DNA. Clinical trials: AAV vectors have been used for treatment of cystic fibrosis and hemophilia B, Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy, Arthritis and Alzheimer's disease. The capsid contains 60 proteins. View is along the 2-fold icosahedral symmetry axis. Individual, small spheres are atoms making up the proteins. Hydrogen atoms are not shown.

The name “rhinovirus” derives from the Greek rhino- (meaning “nose”) and the Latin virus (meaning “poison, sap of plants, slimy liquid, a potent juice”). They are Group IV RNA viruses of order Picornavirales, family Picornaviridae and genus Enterovirus. The rhinovirus primarily infects humans through the mouth and nose, mostly because they thrive in a 33 degree C to 35 degree C (91.4 degrees F to 95 degrees F) environment – which is the temperature range found in the human nose, thanks to the constant passage of external air. Once in, they bind to receptors on the cells in your nose and throat, hijack the cellular mechanisms that replicate DNA and manufacture proteins, and churn out more copies.

Why is it called “a cold”?

That’s a really good question, and I couldn’t find any primary sources for an answer. Wikipedia states that the name “came into use in the 16th century, due to the similarity between its symptoms and those of exposure to cold weather”, and links to the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for “cold”. This states that the usage began in the “1530s, from symptoms resembling those of exposure to cold”. Which makes sense, I guess. I know my nose runs in cold air, regardless of whether I’m sick or not. And I usually feel cold when I have a cold.


What? Why Would They Do That? (Daylight Savings Time)

Two weeks ago was the end of daylight savings time here in the United States, and I was talking to my wife about it.  Specifically, I was saying that I’d considered reminding my team at work to set their clocks back on Sunday, but I’d decided against it.  They’re all young, so I was the only person on the team that owned a clock that didn’t automatically reset (my microwave, if you’re curious).

“Why do you need to change the clock?” my son asked.

“Daylight savings time is coming to an end,” I told him.  “So, at two in the morning on Sunday, we set the clock back to 1 AM.”

He looked at me like I’d grown a second head.  “What?” he says, laughing.  “Why would they do that?”

Why do we do this thing?

At its core, daylight savings time exists because of an idea of “saving daylight” – pushing time around to give more light in the evening.  In theory, at least, this reduces energy consumption because people would be less likely to be at home in the longer, well-lit summer evenings.  Recent studies have been ambiguous about whether or not this works, with results ranging from a 0.5% decrease in energy use to a 1% increase in energy use.

Despite the myths, we daylight savings time was never intended to benefit farmers.  The changing time disrupts farm schedules and makes caring for animals (especially cattle) more difficult.

A history of Daylight Savings Time

The first act that created daylight savings time was the Standard Time Act of 1918, which was “[a]n Act To save daylight and to provide standard time, for the United States”.  Section 3 of the Act stipulated the following”

That at two o’clock antemeridian of the last Sunday. in March of each year the standard time of each. zone shall be advanced one hour, and at two o’clock antemeridian of the last Sunday in October in each year the standard time of each zone shall, by the retarding of one hour, be returned to the mean astronomical time of the degree of longitude governing said zone, so that between the last Sunday in March at two o’clock antemeridian and the last Sunday in October at two o’clock antemeridian in each year, the standard time in each zone shall be one how’ in advance of the mean astronomical time of the degree of longitude governing each zone, respectively.

This provision of the Act was repealed on March 19, 1919, although the bulk of the Act – which created the four time zones of the continental United States, were left in force.

A form of Daylight Savings Time returned during the Second World War, when the clocks were permanently set forward one hour for the duration of the war as a fuel rationing move.  Here’s what that Act had to say:

AN ACT To promote the national security and defense by establishing daylight saving time.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That beginning at 2 o’clock antemeridian of the twentieth day after the date of enactment of this Act, the standard time of each zone established pursuant to the Act entitled “An Act to save daylight and to provide standard time for the United States”, approved March 19, 1918, as amended, shall be advanced one hour.

Sxc. 2. This Act shall cease to be in effect six months after the termination of the present war or at such earlier date as the Congress shall by concurrent resolution designate, and at 2 o’clock antemeridian of the last Sunday in the calendar month following the calendar month during which this Act ceases to be in effect the standard time of each zone shall be returned to the mean astronomical time of the degree of longitude governing the standard time for such zone as provided in such Act of March 19, 1918, as amended.

This was something of an exceptional version of Daylight Savings Time, lasting from February 9, 1942 to September 30, 1945.

Daylight Savings Time didn’t return in any official capacity until US Code Title 15, Chapter 6, Subchapter IX – Standard Time was passed in 1966, stating that “It is the policy of the United States to promote the adoption and observance of uniform time within the standard time zones prescribed by sections 261 to 264 of this title, as modified by section 265 of this title. To this end the Secretary of Transportation is authorized and directed to foster and promote widespread and uniform adoption and observance of the same standard of time within and throughout each such standard time zone.”  The original legislation stated that Daylight Savings Time would last from “the period commencing at 2 o’clock antemeridian on the last Sunday of April of each year and ending at 2 o’clock antemeridian on the last Sunday of October of each year”.  This was later amended by the Energy Savings Act of 2005 by

  1. by striking “first Sunday of April” and inserting “second Sunday of March”; and
  2. by striking “last Sunday of October” and inserting “first Sunday of November”.

Was the candy industry behind the most recent change?

That’s a thing that gets trotted out as a fact, yes.  Heck, I’ve been known to do it myself.  But, it seems, the truth is a little murkier.  The candy industry did participate in lobbying for the change, but the actual change was driven by a belief that it would change industry – not that it would increase candy sales (see the Energy Savings Act, above).  Various retail and sports industry lobby groups also supported the bill, so laying it all at the feet of Big Candy is a little… sour.

We Don’t Have To Listen To Him, Do We?

I generally tend to avoid politics as much as possible on this blog, if for no other reason than the fact that my son generally asks questions that fall into the realm of science. The “why does that glow?” and “do porcupines eat poop?” type of questions. He is, after all, six. Six year olds aren’t generally the most politically active demographic in the United States. But, they do pay attention to what is going on around them, and my family was not precisely what you would call “Trump supporters”. Far from it, in fact.

Relax. This isn’t going to be some sort of political rant. Like always, I’ll be answering a question or two that he asked. But, as always, I try to provide some context for the question.

we were not a happy husband and wife the day after the election. Near the end of the day, while we’re going through the family nighttime ritual of reading stories and talking about what we’re grateful for, my son looks at my wife. “We don’t have to listen to him, do we?”

The President of the United States

Contrary to popular belief, the United States is not a democracy. It is a democratic republic. And there is a difference of sorts. A democracy is any form of government in which the people exercise direct authority over the government. A republic is a subset of a democracy, in which the people elect officials to represent them and exercise power for them. The President of the United States is one of those elected officials.

The powers and the responsibilities of the President of the United States are spelled out in Article II, Sections 2 and 3 of the Constitution of the United States:

Section Two

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

Section Three

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.

As the head of the executive branch of the US government, the President can also issue executive orders, which “help officers and agencies of the executive branch manage the operations within the federal government itself. Executive orders have the full force of law when they take authority from a legislative power which grants its power directly to the Executive by the Constitution, or are made pursuant to Acts of Congress that explicitly delegate to the President some degree of discretionary power”. These orders, like laws, are subject to judicial review and can be struck down if they are not supported by the law or the Constitution.

So, in brief, the president’s not a dictator and we don’t have to listen to him. But whoever the president is, he’s a powerful man who can issue orders that have the force of law. He should be listened to, whether you agree with him or not, but he should also listen. Because, for all his power, he still answers to the people.

The conversation with my son continued.  “It’s… complicated,” I tell him.

He gives me that baffled look he’s perfected. After all, he’s six. The world is pretty black and white to him. So, I try to explain. “You know how we’ve talked about how boring it would be if everyone liked exactly the same thing?”

He nods.

“Well,” I continue, “you know mommy and daddy didn’t vote for Mr. Trump. We didn’t think he’d be a good president. But, a lot of people did. Because not everyone likes the same thing, and they don’t always agree on what the best thing for our country is.”

“But why does he have to be president?” my son asks.

Electing a President

Electing the President of the United States is not quite as simple a process as “everyone casts a vote, and the candidate with the most votes wins”. After all, as of this election it appears that there have been five presidents elected to office without winning a majority of the popular vote: John Quincy Adams, Reutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush, and (based on preliminary reports) Donald Trump.

How does that work?

Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution describes the procedure for electing the president:

The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves. And they shall make a List of all the Persons voted for, and of the Number of Votes for each; which List they shall sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of the Government of the United States, directed to the President of the Senate. The President of the Senate shall, in the Presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the Certificates, and the Votes shall then be counted. The Person having the greatest Number of Votes shall be the President, if such Number be a Majority of the whole Number of Electors appointed; and if there be more than one who have such Majority, and have an equal Number of Votes, then the House of Representatives shall immediately chuse by Ballot one of them for President; and if no Person have a Majority, then from the five highest on the List the said House shall in like Manner chuse the President. But in chusing the President, the Votes shall be taken by States, the Representation from each State having one Vote; A quorum for this Purpose shall consist of a Member or Members from two thirds of the States, and a Majority of all the States shall be necessary to a Choice. In every Case, after the Choice of the President, the Person having the greatest Number of Votes of the Electors shall be the Vice President. But if there should remain two or more who have equal Votes, the Senate shall chuse from them by Ballot the Vice President.

In other words, it is the Electoral College that chooses the president. Unless they deadlock, and then the House of Representatives chooses them. The next obvious question is, I think, what on earth is the popular vote for? And that answer is a little complicated.

First, on a state level, each political party chooses their Electors based on whatever rules that party has in place. This is not a contradiction of the Constitutional rule requiring “each State” to appoint the Electors, because at this point the election hasn’t even been held. This is just the different political parties stating who they want the Electors to be.

Next, the election happens. After the popular vote is counted, the majority of states simply inform the victorious party that their Electors have the job. The only exception is Nebraska and Maine. As the National Archives and Records Administration explains, “[i]n Nebraska and Maine, the state winner receives two Electors and the winner of each congressional district (who may be the same as the overall winner or a different candidate) receives one Elector. This system permits the Electors from Nebraska and Maine to be awarded to more than one candidate.”

Personally, I like the method used by Nebraska and Maine.

There is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires the Electors to vote for the popular winner from their state (or at a national level). In theory, when the Electors cast their votes for the 2016, they could vote me into office as the next President of the United States. However, 24 states and the District of Colombia have laws requiring Electors to cast their votes for a specific candidate. Michigan, North Carolina and South Carolina state law automatically cancels the Elector’s vote and replaces them if they try this, though. New Mexico, Oklahoma, and South Carolina also consider it a criminal offence to do this. Also, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Washington state will fine the Elector for pulling this. So, I’m not likely to be getting sworn in as the 45th President on January 20.

The conversation continued. “Because he was elected,” I say, casting about for an explanation. “It’s like when you play a game. Everybody plays, but some people win and some people lose. Mr. Trump won the election, so he’ll be president.”

“Oh,” my son says.

“And now,” I continue, “although mommy and I didn’t vote for him, we both wish him the best. Because a lot of people think he’ll be a good president, and we hope he will be too.”

“That’s nice,” my son decides.

“You know what’s cool, though?” I tell him.


“See, we’re Americans. That means we don’t have to agree with him, just because he’s the president. We hope he’ll be a great president, and I’m sure that he’ll do what he thinks is right. But…” I grin. “We should still do what we think is right. And if we don’t agree with him, we can work to change his mind.  And if he doesn’t, we can work to choose a new president in the next election.”

“Yeah!” my son says. Then he looks around. “Can we play Star Wars now?”

Can They Hear Me In China?

“BOO!” my son yells, leaping out from a shrub.  And then he dissolves into a fit of laughter.

This is a game he likes to play, whenever he gets the chance.  As soon as we’d parked and he got out of the car, he ran up the sidewalk towards the front door of our condo.  And then he ducked back behind the hedge, lurking.  The game, now, is for me to walk towards the door.  Then he’ll jump out and shout “boo” and try to make me jump.

“Did you know I was there, daddy?” he asks.

Of course I did, I think.  You hide in the same place every time.  “Kind of,” I tell him.  “I guessed where you were.”

He blows that off.  “I was loud, wasn’t I?”

“Yes, you were,” I answer, unlocking the door.

“Was I loud enough for them to hear me in China?”

How Do We Hear?

Obviously, we hear with our ears.


Sound waves, which are really just pressure waves in the atmosphere, strike the outer ear and are channeled into the ear canal.  These pressure waves vibrate the eardrum, which in turn vibrates the bones of the inner ear (the malleus, the incus, and the stapes), amplifying the vibrations and transmitting them into the inner ear (or cochlea).  Hairs in the cochlea are stimulated by these vibrations, creating an electrical signal that transmits along the auditory nerve to the brain.

Yes, this is terribly simplified.

How Loud Are You?

Strictly speaking, “loud” is a matter of perception – the same pressure wave can result in different experiences of “loudness”.  However, this perception is tied to the intensity of the pressure wave, just as the perceived pitch of a sound is tied to the frequency of the wave.


A wave

Using the above image of a wave, the intensity is how high the peaks and how low the valley is – the higher the peak, the more intense the wave.  Another way to think of intensity is how much energy the wave carries – the taller the wave, the more energy (just like how bigger ocean waves hit harder than small ones).  Frequency, on the other hand, is how fast the wave moves – the closer together the peaks, the faster the wave moves and the higher the frequency.  Generally speaking, we perceive intensity as loudness (because the pressure wave hits the ear harder) and we perceive frequency as pitch (because the pressure wave stimulates the bones in the ear faster).

“Loudness” is measured in decibels (dB), because one decibel is the “just noticeable difference” in sound intensity for the human ear – assuming the pressure wave generated is in the 1,000 Hertz (Hz) to 5,000 Hz range we are best at hearing.  Every 10 dB represents multiplying the intensity of the pressure wave by 10 – that is, a 10 dB sound is 10 times more intense than a 0 dB sound, a 40 dB sound is 10,000 times more intense than a 0 dB sound, and a 100 dB sound is 10,000,000,000 times more intense than a 0 dB sound.

We generally can’t hear anything below 0 dB, and normally speak in the 60 to 65 dB range.  A jackhammer 50 feet away is about 95 dB, a power mower 3 feet away is around 107 dB, and loudness causes pain starting around 125 dB.  Sounds at 140 dB and greater can cause permanent damage with even short exposure.

How Far Away Can We Hear?

This gets tricky, because the answer is “no further than when the perceived volume falls to 0 dB”.  Tricky, because sound obeys the inverse square law which states that for any source power P generated at the center of a sphere, the intensity of at the surface of that sphere is P/4πr2 (although a good approximation is P/r2, since the math gets easier).  According to Hyperphysics, r is pretty much always measured in meters for these purposes (because sound intensity is actually measured in watts per meter squared, so it keeps the units the same).

Since sound intensity can be transformed into decibels, it’s really not a stretch to directly apply the inverse square law to decibel measurements.  So, a 60 decibel conversation would be perceived as 60 decibels at 1 meter away, 60/(2*2) = 15 decibels at 2 meters, 60/(3*3) = 6.6 decibels at 3 meters, 60/(4-4) = 3.75 decibels at 4 meters, less than 1 decibel at 8 meters, and so on.  Realistically, at this point, it’s probably safe to call it “inaudible” (even though you could technically detect it).

How Loud Would You Have To Be For Someone To Hear You In China?

All right, here’s where the math gets… entertaining.  I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is (according to Google) 10,969 kilometers from Beijing.  Measuring along the curved surface of the Earth, that is.  But, to keep things simple, we’ll ignore that.  So, 10,909 kilometers is 10,909,000 meters.  To be heard in Beijing, we’d have to generate enough decibels to result in a greater than 0 dB sound 10,909,000 meters away.

For laughs, let’s aim for a 60 dB sound.  That way, our sound can be clearly understood.  The radius is 10,969,000.  So, the equation looks like this:  x/10,969,0002 = 60.  Solving for x gives us x = 60(10,969,0002), or x = 7,219,137,660,000,000 dB.  This is a nonsensical level of perceived volume, and would render you deaf in ludicrously tiny fractions of a second.

What could generate that?  Well, we’d have to reverse engineer the decibels into watts of power, which converts to 721913765999988 watts per meter, or about 721.9 terawatts of power.  Now, you can roughly convert watts to Joules per second, so that’s roughly the explosion of a 200 kiloton nuclear weapon.

Assuming I did my math correctly, which I’m not guaranteeing.  What I can guarantee is that there is no way you’d want to be standing anywhere near something loud enough in Cincinnati that you can hear it in China.