How Loud Can You Burp?: More Extremely Important Questions (and Answers)by Glenn Murphy
How loud can your average middle-grader burp? Parents, librarians, and innocent bystanders are about to find out. This follow-up to the equally alluring WHY IS SNOT GREEN? tackles more of life's burning questions, many submitted by real-life ten-year-olds Could we use animal poop to make electricity? What's the world's deadliest disease? Why is your mother turning
How loud can your average middle-grader burp? Parents, librarians, and innocent bystanders are about to find out. This follow-up to the equally alluring WHY IS SNOT GREEN? tackles more of life's burning questions, many submitted by real-life ten-year-olds Could we use animal poop to make electricity? What's the world's deadliest disease? Why is your mother turning green? Part silly, part serious, and a big part scatological, HOW LOUD CAN YOU BURP? is destined for greatness and grossness.
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How Loud Can You Burp?
More Extremely Important Questions (and Answers!)
By Glenn Murphy
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2007 Glenn Murphy
All rights reserved.
Science of Me
From sunburn to snot, from breathing to burping, few of us ever stop wondering about how our bodies work and what makes us tick. Sure, we study parts of the body at school, and learn all about where our kidneys are, what our lungs do, and stuff like that. But what about goose bumps, hiccups, and hay fever? Why do we have eyelids but not earlids or noselids?
And what is that thing that dangles down the back of your throat called?
This chapter is, literally, all about you. And you guys had a lot of questions about yourselves, let me tell ya. Some, of course, were easier to answer than others.
You got a question from:
Question: What would happen if you ate poop?
You'd almost certainly throw up, James. Unless you actually like eating poop, that is.
And now, on to the rest ...
Louder than a motorcycle?! No way!
Yup. The world-record burp measured 104.9 decibels (decibels, or dB for short, are the units used to measure volume). And that was from over 8 feet away! Close up, the world champion burper claims to be able to reach 118 dB or more. The average motorcycle roars away at around 90 dB — a full 28 units lower!
So who did it?
A British guy named Paul Hunn. He smashed the previous burping record in July 2004, and no one has topped it yet.
How could he burp so loud?
Well, like all sounds, burps are just waves of air pressure, and, if you make these waves big enough, any sound can become loud. To create a sound, an object — like a bell or guitar string — is made to vibrate back and forth very fast by striking it, plucking it, or rubbing something against it. In turn, the object compresses the air molecules around it, making waves or vibrations that are carried through the air. When they reach your ears, these pressure waves vibrate your eardrums. From there, the vibrations are amplified by a set of little bones, picked up by a set of tiny hairs in your cochlea (which is a long, thin tube filled with fluid and lined with hairs — all coiled up like a snail shell in your inner ear). Here the vibrations are finally translated into nerve signals that your brain interprets as sounds, such as "bell," "guitar string," or whatever.
But what about burps?
In the case of burps, the vibrating object is a fleshy flap called the cardia, which closes off the stomach from the food tube, or esophagus. When air is swallowed (either by accident while you're eating, or on purpose if you're trying to force a burp), it gets trapped in the stomach. As the stomach fills with food, liquid, and gas, the pressure builds up and the air bursts through the flap, vibrating it on the way out and creating that deep, satisfying BRRRRRRRRRRRRRRPPPPP sound as it goes. Of course, if you want to force the burp out, you can squeeze your stomach by contracting your stomach muscles and diaphragm (which is the flat sheet of muscle underneath your stomach and lungs). This is how Mr. Hunn made his burp so loud. Millions of kids around the world use the same method to force loud burps. He's just much better at it than anyone else. Oh, and he also swallowed lots of soda first.
Yeah — why does soda make you burp like that?
Soda is made bubbly and fizzy by adding carbon dioxide gas under pressure. So when you drink it, you swallow the gas. The gas builds up in your stomach, annnnd ... you can figure out the rest.
Is it dangerous to make yourself burp like that?
Well, drinking lots of soda isn't very good for you, and swallowing air on purpose won't do your stomach any good, but that's not really what makes burping as loud as Mr. Hunn does dangerous. It's after the burp leaves the body that it becomes a danger to you and others.
But if a burp is just air and sound, how could it be dangerous to anyone?
If they're loud enough and at the right frequency, sounds can be very powerful and dangerous. Ever hear of opera singers who can shatter glass with just their voices? Well, that's true. All they have to do is hit the right pitch, and sing the note loud enough, and the glass will vibrate and shake itself to pieces. And the U.S. military has even developed a "sound weapon" that fires waves of air pressure and sound instead of bullets. The Vortex Ring Gun shoots a ring of vibrating air that can knock down a grown man over 30 feet away.
So if you burped loud enough, could you crack a person's glasses? Or knock a bunch of people over? That'd be sweet!
Err ... no. Not quite. Even the most accomplished burper, like Mr. Hunn, couldn't produce enough air pressure to knock someone down. And his burps are too low-pitched to crack glass. But he could burp loud enough to hurt your ears, or even damage them permanently.
Yup — really. Mr. Hunn burps at between 105 and 118 dB; 85 dB is enough to temporarily damage your hearing. Builders using jackhammers (which thump away at around 120 dB) wear earplugs or ear muffs to avoid damaging their hearing. If you burped at 165 dB, that would be the same as a gunshot going off right next to your head. So burp this loud and you could deafen yourself and other people!
Yeah, and what a letdown too.
Just think, you can burp as loud as a gunshot, but after the first time no one can hear it. Not even you.
Err ... yeah ... that'd be a real tragedy.
Just one more thing ...
Do brussels sprouts make you burp?
I don't ... think so, no. Why do you ask?
They should. 'Cause they come from Belch'um.
Oh man, that was bad.
Heh, heh. BUUUURRRRRRRRRRRRRPPPPPPPPPP!!!!
What is a hiccup, anyway?
A hiccup — or singultus, as medical scientists call it — is a kind of forced intake of breath, caused by muscle spasms in your chest and throat. There are over a hundred causes of hiccups, but the most common is irritation of the stomach or the esophagus — the food tube that leads to the stomach. The "hic" noise comes when the breath is cut off by the snapping shut of your glottis, which is like a fleshy lid or trapdoor that separates the food and air tubes in your throat.
So why are they called hiccups rather than singultuses or something?
Good question. That's because the word hiccup is an example of onomatopoeia — a word that sounds like the thing it describes. So hiccups were named after the noise they make.
They weren't always called hiccups. In sixteenth-century English, they were called hickops. By the seventeenth century, they'd become hiccoughs, and by the eighteenth they were known as hickets or hyckocks. The hic part seems pretty universal, as foreign words for hiccup sound similar. The French get hoquets and the Japanese get hyakkari. The Germans suffer with the much wetter-sounding schluckaufs. Still, it's nice to know that everyone gets them, whatever they're called.
So if everyone gets them, what are they for, exactly?
The truth is, we're not really sure what they're for. According to some scientists, hiccups don't really do anything — they have no function in the body at all (other than to make us look silly). Instead, they think hiccups might be a kind of malfunction in the nerves that control the breathing muscles and glottis, which happens when the nerves get irritated or damaged.
Then hiccups are useless?
Maybe, but then again maybe not. It could be that they're useless to us now, but they once served a purpose in the animals we evolved from. Another idea is that the hiccup evolved to help our four- legged ancestors to swallow food that got stuck in their throats. Where we humans have the luxury of gravity helping food down, quadrupeds (animals that walk on all fours) have to shift their food horizontally to get it from their mouths to their stomachs. This means it's easier for lumps of food to get stuck in their throats. Some scientists think that lumps lodged like this might press down on a nerve in the throat that triggers the hiccup. The sharp breath in then creates a vacuum behind the food, and helps the animal suck down the lump. This might explain why dogs (not known for eating their food slowly) seem so prone to hiccups; they "wolf" their food down in big lumps that they have to clear by hiccupping.
OK, but then why don't hiccups stop once you stop eating?
Well, sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. Most cases of the hiccups are cured (or go away by themselves) within a few minutes. Others can go on for weeks, or even years. In fact, doctors give names to different classes of hiccups, depending on how long they go on. Common hiccups are gone within an hour. Persistent hiccups can go on for up to forty-eight hours but are usually harmless (although very annoying!). Acute hiccups go on for more than forty-eight hours and are usually caused by drugs, but they can also occur naturally. For example, in January 2007, a teenager from Florida named Jennifer Mee hiccupped for five weeks straight, for no known reason! If hiccups go on for longer than two months, they're classed as intractable or diabolic hiccups, and they're usually the sign of a serious illness.
Two months? That sounds like a nightmare! Is that the longest they can go on for?
Well, the world record stands at 68 years, with a guy named Charles Osbourne (from the United States) who hiccupped continuously from 1922 to 1990. The poor guy basically had hiccups for life.
OK — I have to know. How do you get rid of hiccups? I heard that if you stand on your head and drink a glass of water ... no, wait — you have to eat a raw chili pepper, right?
For common hiccups, there are literally hundreds of recommended "cures" out there. Some involve eating or drinking things, others tell you to hold your breath. Some tell you to drink a glass of water in a certain way, others to get a friend to distract you. In reality, the ones that actually work (and many don't) do so by helping you get c your breathing. So it doesn't really matter what you eat, or how you drink the water; it's just the interruption of your breathing pattern that does the trick. Holding your breath usually works best, since it's the most direct way of controlling your breathing muscles.
What about getting a friend to scare you?
That usually only works if the hiccups are psychosomatic — when you're setting off the jerky contraction in the breathing muscles yourself, but you're not aware that you're doing it — kind of like imagining each hiccup into existence. It's not always easy to tell when this is happening, but getting someone to distract you can snap you out of it long enough for them to stop. Of course, none of these remedies is likely to work on acute or intractable hiccups. Since they're usually started by drugs or nerve damage, they're often only treatable with more drugs. That said, some researchers have claimed success treating hiccups with needles, massage, and radiation.
Needles and radiation? Yikes! I think I'd rather have hiccups!
Me, too! Or perhaps I'd give one of those crazy cures a try instead. ...
So let me get this straight — we breathe so that our cells can eat food?
Not exactly, but close. It's more like "we breathe so that our cells can breathe, and eat so that our cells can eat."
What? They breathe too? Now I'm really confused. ...
OK, let's back up. If you think about it, cells are like little units of life. The smallest living things, bacteria, are just individual cells swimming around eating stuff. They absorb sugars or other nutrients from the air or liquid around them and turn this "food" into energy, which they can use to grow, multiply, and squidge around looking for more food.
OK. Now some of these bacteria eventually evolved into bigger creatures like fish, frogs, lizards, monkeys, and human beings. Those particular types of bacteria are called aerobic bacteria, which means ...
... that they wear tracksuits and exercise a lot?
Err ... no. It means they have to "breathe" (or take in) oxygen in order to turn their food into energy.
Oh, yeah, of course. I knew that. I mean, nobody makes tracksuits that small, for starters.
Err ... right. Anyway, these bacteria and the animal cells they evolved into all need to take in oxygen for that same reason — to fuel their food processors and produce usable energy.
But why do they need oxygen to do that? Couldn't they do it without oxygen?
Well, they can for a while. But the main power source for aerobic bacteria and cells comes from a chain reaction that uses oxygen, so they can't survive without it for long. Oxygen and nutrients go into this reaction, then energy and carbon dioxide come out. The energy is stored and moved around in special molecules, while the carbon dioxide has to be removed from the cell, since it forms an acid if too much of it builds up. So, in a way, aerobic bacteria "breathe in" oxygen and "breathe out" carbon dioxide. These bacteria evolved into complex animals by clustering together and eventually developing into the cells, tissues, organs, and systems that make whole animal bodies. But, since each cell still needs nutrients and oxygen for energy, the whole animal has to keep eating and breathing just to supply them.
OK, that kind of makes sense. But why do bigger animals need lungs to breathe?
Well, if you think about it, the bigger an animal gets, the more cells it has, and the further away from the air its insides are. Up to a certain size, animals can absorb oxygen through their skin and let it spread through their tissues. But most things bigger than flatworms need air tubes of some kind to get air to the inner parts of the body (that works for insects and spiders, at least). For larger, more complex or more active animals, you need some kind of gas-exchanging air pump. That's where lungs come in.
But not all animals have lungs, right? I mean, fish don't, do they?
Right — they don't. Fish have gills instead. They swallow water and use their gills to absorb the oxygen dissolved in it. Then the gills dump carbon dioxide back into the water before pushing it out. That's what's happening when you see the gills "flapping" on a fish.
So why can't we just swallow oxygen and burp out the carbon dioxide?
Well, then you'd be swallowing continuously, every few seconds, all day long. Like a big, walking air-fish. Not much fun, and kind of tricky to hold conversations. Plus it wouldn't work anyway, since swallowed air goes to your stomach, which is already specialized for digesting food and is too small for exchanging breathing gases.
Why does size matter?
You need a large surface area for the gas exchange to happen quickly enough between the air you take in and your bloodstream, which carries it to cells throughout the body. That's where lungs come in handy. They're more than just air sacks; they're like giant air sponges that soak up and exchange gases very quickly through thousands of tiny pompoms, called alveoli.
You're telling me I have pasta in my lungs?
No. That's ravioli.
Oh. I knew that.
Alveoli are the clustered, berrylike pompoms found at the end of the branching air tubes deep in your lungs. They help increase the surface area of your lungs so much that if you flattened them all out into one sheet, it'd cover about 250 square feet — roughly the size of a tennis court. When you breathe in, muscles around and beneath the lungs help them suck air into the alveoli. These are covered in tiny blood vessels so that oxygen can move into the bloodstream and be carried around the body. Carbon dioxide gas moves the other way: The bloodstream carries it out of organs and tissues and back to the air inside the alveoli, ready to be pumped out again as you breathe out. And there you have it. You and all your cells have all the oxygen they need, provided you keep breathing air and avoid damaging all your delicate breathing equipment with dangerous fumes or cigarette smoke.
Got it. Don't breathe cigarette smoke — or pasta — and your cells can keep doing aerobics.
Something like that.
How could eyelids help us survive? I mean, what makes them so important?
Well, what makes any part of your body important? What about your hands? What good are they?
That's easy. We can use them to pick things up and make things. Use tools and stuff.
OK, and how would that have helped our early human ancestors survive?
They could build shelters. And catch food. And make fires for cooking it.
Exactly. But how many of those things could they have done easily without being able to see?
Err ... I dunno. I guess they could have just about done them. But it would've been much harder. But we're talking about eyelids, not eyes. You can still see without eyelids, can't you?
Excerpted from How Loud Can You Burp? by Glenn Murphy. Copyright © 2007 Glenn Murphy. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
After the publication of his first book, WHY IS SNOT GREEN?, GLENN MURPHY started a Web site for kids and adults from around the world to submit their own questions. HOW LOUD CAN YOU BURP? comprises the best of those questions. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
GLENN MURPHY gathered many of the questions he includes in his books Stuff That Scares Your Pants Off!, Why Is Snot Green?, and How Loud Can You Burp? from his years in the Explainer team at the Science Museum in London. He now lives in Raleigh, NC.
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