Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze?

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Anyone who has ever claimed that science is boring has never spent any time talking with a scientist. However, some people have done so, and in the process, they ask lots of interesting questions such as; Why don't birds fall off their perches when they are asleep? How do you make transparent ice cubes like those in Scotch advertisements? What time is it at the North Pole? Why are traffic signals arranged red over amber over green whereas railroad signals are arranged green over amber over red? If you have wondered about things like this, then you will enjoy Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? And 114 Other Questions, a collection of questions posed by readers of NewScientist Magazine that are answered by fellow readers in their "Last Word" column (NYC: Free Press; 2007). Incidentally, those of you who roam the blogosphere will discover that some of the answers were provided by people whose names are familiar to you.

NewScientist's popular "Last Word" column is similar to an online discussion forum where readers ask and answer each other's questions, and the best of those columns were gathered together and published in this book. I found it interesting to read the different writing styles when multiple answers to a particular question were published. Also interesting were those answers where readers disagreed each other, especially those who are experts in the field, because this gives the reader (you) a rare glimpse into some of the reasons that science is a dynamic and often rapidly changing discipline. I was amused by the witty responses provided by some clever but nonetheless clueless readers who still wanted to add their own two-cents' worth to the discussion. [But see Bob O'Hara's response below].

Unfortunately, it was sometimes difficult to identify which response is correct when more than one plausible explanation was provided, thereby implying that we still don't really know all the answers to even some everyday phenomena. One especially interesting example of this were the responses from two professors from the same university who contradicted each other as to whether hot or cold water take longer to freeze, and why.

In addition to being educational and interesting, this book also has one illustration: a cute little drawing of an emperor penguin in the top right-hand corner of each page. This penguin is holding a fishing pole that has hooked a fish, which is at the bottom right-hand corner of the page. Each subsequent drawing has been changed just a little so that if you flip through the pages rapidly, you can watch this penguin reel in the fish, toss it into the air while tilting his head back, open his mouth to catch the fish in mid air and swallow it -- just like watching a cartoon.

This book is trade paperback sized and consists of 212 pages that are divided into nine chapters with titles like Plants and Animals, Domestic Science, Weird Weather, and Troublesome Transport. It also has a user-friendly index of topics in the back. Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze? will appeal to almost anyone, and it certainly makes for a fun and entertaining read while commuting by public transit or while stuck in traffic jams. And who knows, perhaps you will enjoy learning why fish don't fart while you read this book in the bathroom, or why snot is often green while waiting for your doctor's appointment?

So, to answer the question posed by the book's title, Why don't penguins' feet freeze? The answer is counter-current exchange. If you want to know the full details, you'll just have to buy the book!

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I read your blog and didn't answer the question in the title.
I feel cheated.

By natural cynic (not verified) on 12 Jan 2008 #permalink

Actually, counter-current exchange as a concept isn't tricky at all. It's how most heat exchangers work. Just pump two liquids through adjacent tubes either in the same direction or the opposite direction, and heat would flow from the hotter fluid to the colder one, and warm it.

Of course the details of how it works in the feet of penguin would be interesting to read. Thanks for the heads up on the book, Dr Scientist.

I was amused by the witty responses provided by some clever but nonetheless clueless readers who still wanted to add their own two-cents' worth to the discussion.

As the sort of person who tries to supply short, witty responses, I object to you calling my fellows "cluesless". Invariably we do have a clue, however it might not be the right one for this universe.


I know, I know! we had this in iirc 3rd year physiology 22 years ago*. The arteries and veins in the legs of penguins, at least the ice living species, corkscrew around each other making them longer than in other birds and so making heat exchange much more efficient.

Since my university was in a place with penguins (not ice living ones) and there were people who studied things like why fish under the ice don't freeze solid this was actually relevant. My one big regret is that my own research didn't enable me to wangle a trip to 'The Ice'. No mice down there and penguins in reality are pretty smelly anyway.

*So I am not cribbing from the book. I sent my oldest nephew a copy of the latest one: How to Fossilize Your Hamster, 50 Experiments for the Armchair Scientist for xmas.

By Peter Ashby (not verified) on 14 Jan 2008 #permalink

yes, the title of the book was one of the many physiological wonders i learned about in my ornithology class as an undergrad. that class, incidentally, was pure and simple joy to attend. i loved every second that i spent there.

and heyyy, i had How to Fossilize Your Hamster, 50 Experiments for the Armchair Scientist on my Amazon wishlist a month ago and it mysteriously disappeared, without the book ever showing up in the mail. i am going to have to add it to the list again, methinks.