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March 16, 2009
Volume 87, Number 11
p. 72

Scientists Can Laugh, Too

A lint trap: Navel fluff is most likely to gather on bellies with hair.

Science isn't typically very funny. Chemists in particular, with all of their jargon and structures, can't ever hope to be funny in the way that, say, animal psychologists studying self-medicating lizards can be. But Georg Steinhauser, a chemist at Vienna University of Technology, has built some BELLY LAUGHS directly into his research.

Steinhauser, who describes himself as "both easily fascinated and amused," recently published "The Nature of Navel Fluff" in Elsevier's journal Medical Hypotheses (DOI:10.1016/j.mehy.2009.01.015), the title of which suggests the papers might be a bit heavy on speculation. In this paper Steinhauser attempts to solve one of the more unsettling and unanswered questions about humanity: Why do some belly buttons collect more lint than others?

He came up with the idea for the piece after a conversation with his wife, who read in the 2005 book "Why Do Men Have Nipples?" by Mark Leyner and Billy Goldberg that no one knew why some navels trap more lint than others. "I thought it was obvious," Steinhauser says. "It must be due to the abdominal hair."

Even though that makes the problem sound more like a physics question, Steinhauser didn't entirely ignore the chemistry. The first thing he did was scour the scientific literature for any seminal or even minor works on the topic, but he came up empty-handed. So he decided to take matters into his own navel.

The squeamish should probably stop reading here.

Beginning in March 2005, Steinhauser began collecting his own belly-button lint, squirreling away 503 pieces total. He spent last New Year's Eve weighing the collected lint. Compositional analysis of the stuff revealed that the lint wasn't just fabric fibers; it also contained dead skin, fat, sweat, and dust.

Further proving his commitment to the study, Steinhauser went so far as to shave his own belly in order to compare and contrast fluff accumulation. He also solicited friends and family for otherwise very private information about their own lint. The harvest from that information-gathering effort "supported the hypothesis that the existence of abdominal hair is a major prerequisite for the accumulation of navel fluff," Steinhauser wrote in his paper.

The paper does have some news-you-can-use value. To minimize lint production, Steinhauser suggests shaving belly hair and wearing old clothes or dress shirts that are more likely to be lint-free.

Although his paper may seem like fluff science to many, Steinhauser says the responses to his paper have been "overwhelmingly positive."

"I received an invitation for collaboration by a U.S. laparoscopic surgeon specializing in belly-button surgery," he says.

There have been some extreme naysayers too, Steinhauser admits. "Some suggested my parents should sue me for wasting my education they have paid for," he says.

Steinhauser does not find himself to be exceptionally unconventional or eccentric. Rather, he believes that he has a natural curiosity like many scientists do. Steinhauser quotes Medical Hypotheses Editor-in-Chief Bruce G. Charlton when explaining his view.

In an editorial in the journal last year, he says, Charlton wrote: "Serious science must have space for the fun of discovery, the play of skill, and the joy of insight."

"I truly regret that technical sciences do not have a forum for radical and cutting-edge ideas on a comparable level as Medical Hypotheses," Steinhauser says. "If we fail to investigate something, our best ideas often remain unpublished."

Faith Hayden wrote this week's column. Please send comments and suggestions to

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2009 American Chemical Society


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