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Eyebrow Growth Poses Questions, More of Millikan, Googol Stirs up Readers

by K. M. Reese
March 15, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 11

K.M. Reese

Eyebrow growth poses questions

A question-and-answer column in the Feb. 17 New York Times includes the following: "When eyebrows are shaved off or plucked, they always grow back to their original length." How come?

The Times's C. Claiborne Ray has fielded that one. He writes that scientists don't know why eyebrows (and eyelashes), when pruned, grow back to their original length. Researchers are, however, looking into the matter, in part because along the way they might learn more about the causes of baldness.

The follicle that produces a strand of human hair doesn't seem to rely on external signals, such as changes of the seasons. Eyebrows, similarly, don't appear to depend on internal signals, such as hormones. Both eyebrows and eyelashes, Ray writes, "have been found to be insensitive to levels of both male and female hormones."

Hair follicles traverse a three-phase cycle: growth; regression; and a rest period, when the hair shaft is lost. Then the cycle starts over again. The longer the growth phase, Ray writes, the longer the hair. Growth usually lasts two to six years for scalp hair but only a few months for eyebrows. The rest period is also much longer for eyebrows.

A prevailing theory, Ray reports, is that each follicle has an inherent, independent cycle clock. These clocks are established while the embryo is developing and remain through life. Ray writes, "Abnormalities in the cycle do not destroy the follicle and appear to be reversible, giving hope of cures for both unwanted hair loss and unwanted growth."

Take care when plucking eyebrows, Ray cautions. "These follicles are particularly susceptible to damage, which might mean no regrowth at all."


More of Millikan

A story about Nobel Laureate Robert A. Millikan (C&EN, Feb. 9, page 64) prompted Bernard Hofreiter of Peoria, Ill., to send in a story he found in a Reader's Digest book titled "Fun Fare," published in 1949. Hofreiter quotes from page 127, as follows: "One evening, hearing the telephone ring, Mrs. Robert A. Millikan, wife of the world-famous physicist, went into the hall and found that her maid had already answered the telephone. 'Yes, this is where Dr. Millikan lives,' she heard her say. 'But he's not the kind of doctor that does anybody any good.' "


Googol stirs up readers

A report on the googol--the number 1 followed by 100 zeros (C&EN, Feb. 23, page 56)--stirred up unexpected activity among readers. The fellow who started it was correspondent Wolf Karo, who reported that the word googol had been invented by the nephew, then age nine, of Edward Kasner, one of the authors of a 1940 book. Kasner did not give the nephew's name, and Karo wondered about that.

It turns out that the nephew was Milton Sirotta, identified by Thomas J. Murphy of College Park, Md., and Dean E. Stinn of Kingwood, Texas. Both say he's mentioned in Webster's dictionary, which also defines googol.

Webster further defines googolplex, Sirotta's name for 1 followed by as many zeros as you could write before growing tired. Newscripts said googolplex "apparently has not caught on." Stinn isn't so sure. Says he:

"My eight-year-old son Caspar came home from school one day and asked me what the biggest number was, and I said infinity. He asked how it was written. He then proceeded to tell me that I was wrong and that the biggest number was googolplex. Googolplex is now the word of choice when it comes to my children making statements like mine is googolplex times better, bigger, tastier, funnier, etcetera. You get the picture. I would say the word has caught on in our household."

Furthermore, writes Dan Post of Ridgewood, N.J., the late Carl Sagan in his book "Cosmos" (1980) refers to the googolplex as 1010100. "He wasn't the first," says Post. Sagan wrote: "We could try to write out a googolplex, but it is a forlorn ambition. A piece of paper large enough to have all the zeros in a googolplex written out explicitly could not be stuffed into the known universe."


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