Your earwax contains multitudes—of secrets about your health

Plus other fun facts from The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week.
a person putting a finger in their ear
Most of us would rather not think about our ear wax. But as it turns out, it probably holds a lot of health secrets. Deposit Photos

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcastThe Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits AppleAnchor, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

FACT: You can (sort of) blame pirates for your inability to understand temperatures in Celsius 

By Rachel Feltman

As someone who married into a European family, I deal with the persistent absurdity of America’s stubborn use of English measurement more than most. I often wonder how we got to be pretty much the only country that eschews the metric system—the only other nations that haven’t officially adopted it are Liberia and Myanmar—and it turns out that pirates can take at least part of the blame.  

When the US was new and it was time to decide what its official way of doing business was, the idea of standardized measurements, even within a single country, was relatively novel. This is not to say people didn’t measure things before then; the concept of units of measurement has existed since ancient Mesopotamia, if not longer. But for most of human history, those measurements were relatively relative. You needed something to reference when weighing or measuring, and those had to be common objects, like seeds or parts of the human body, which all have variations in size. 

Fast forward to the 1790s, when the founding fathers are trying to figure out how the US will measure things. Luckily for us, France—which had amassed hundreds of confusing and inexact regional units of measurement over the years—was on the cusp of something huge in the wake of its own revolution. 

Tasked with developing a more enlightened system by the National Assembly, the French Academy of Sciences decided to base the system on a natural physical unit: the length of 1/10,000,000 of a quadrant of a great circle of Earth, measured around the poles of the meridian passing through Paris. Figuring that out took a six-year survey led by some of the greatest minds of the day, but they were finally able to ascertain the length of the arc of the meridian from Barcelona to Dunkirk. The new unit was dubbed the metre, from Greek metron, meaning “measure.”

You might think that after all that hard work, the US would have jumped at using such a sensible system—especially given that it came from the French, our revolutionary allies, and was created as a sort of symbol of reason and democracy. But of course we know that didn’t happen.

That’s where pirates came in. Thomas Jefferson did indeed express interest in the new metric system, and France sent a scientist named Joseph Dombey to the US with a standardized copper kilogram weight for reference. Unfortunately, the ship blew off course to the Caribbean, where a bunch of British privateers tasked with causing trouble for enemy merchant ships took him prisoner and tried to ransom him, after he failed to convince them he was actually just a Spanish sailor. He died in captivity, and they auctioned off the contents of his ship. 

The weight didn’t turn up until the 1950s, when someone donated it to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. 

The US ended up sticking with British units, which had evolved out of Anglo-Saxon and Roman systems. Britain would implement the British Imperial system a few decades later, while the US formalized its own version. It’s quite a stretch to say the pirate misadventure was the reason we went with British imperial measurements instead of the flashy new French system, but it certainly didn’t help

Loads of countries had adopted the metric system for themselves by the mid-19th century, and international governments were starting to talk about how absurd it was not to have standardized measurements for science and industry. In 1875, 17 different countries, including the US, signed the “treaty of the meter” in Paris and agreed to define all units based on the standard metric bases. In 1893, the US officially adopted metric standards as our own fundamental definitions for measurement units. 

The reason we didn’t switch entirely is that our machines and factories and official documents all revolved around English units, and business entities lobbied against having to make the overhaul. But these days, a lot of companies voluntarily use metric measurements in creating their products to make them easier to sell and use internationally. 

FACT: Your earwax says a lot about you

By Lauren Young

In many Asian cultures, ear cleaning is an act of care and affection that’s been around for centuries. The gentle practice of removing the sticky or flaky stuff in your ear holes is seen as a soothing, loving household ritual depicted in Japan Edo-era woodcut prints and manga of wives who would clean their husbands ears or of mothers who would clean their children’s ears with these thin ear rakes. And these very special soothing moments call for special bamboo ear picks or rakes, called mimikaki in Japanese. There are many different types of ear picks in Asian culture: some had a little down puff or decorative Daruma doll on the opposite end of the curved scoop; others were made of precious metals like gold and silver. Today, a number of Asian countries have ear cleaning salons. But the obsession with removing earwax spans across time and cultures—from the ancient Romans, Europeans in the 16th and early 17th century, and the Vikings. Now we’ve got a variety of modern-day earwax removal kits made of plastic and stainless steel, and sport  little lights and even cameras.

Even though we’re super obsessed with getting rid of it, many ear, nose, and throat doctors say that earwax is best left alone. In fact, your earwax can tell quite a bit about you. For instance, most of us fall into two main groups of earwax types: wet or dry. What type you have links back to your genetics. In 2006 a Nature Genetics study identified a specific gene that was responsible for earwax type, and found that wet earwax was the more dominant trait than dry. The study also explained that wet earwax is more commonly found in populations of European and African descent, while dry earwax is typically prevalent in East Asians (of course, there are exceptions). The scent of your earwax can occasionally tell you about the health of your ear. A change in odor can tip off a otolaryngologist of a potential fungal or bacterial infection, like swimmer’s ear. While earwax generally doesn’t change, an infection can cause the ear to leak a liquidy, smelly discharge. 

Earwax is a defensive lubricant, filled with antibacterial and antifungal proteins that helps keep the ear healthy. As a rule of thumb, ear, nose, and throat doctors recommend not trying to clear out your earwax if it’s bothering you (please, put down those cotton swabs). But too much earwax can be a bad thing. There are instances where earwax should be checked and removed by medical professionals. If you’re experiencing any pain in the inner ear, doctors sometimes need to clear out earwax to take a look at your eardrums to ensure there isn’t any damage. It’s particularly important for people who wear hearing aids or hearing assistive devices to get their ears regularly cleaned to prevent severe impactions. Earwax pushes out of the ear canal on its own. However, the ear molds of hearing devices block this natural movement and can also increase earwax production. As the substance builds up, it can worsen hearing loss or cause conditions like tinnitus. People with hearing aids need to vigilant about cleaning their devices and going in for regular cleaning appointments with their doctors

If your ears aren’t already full of earwax facts, you can learn more in an article on PopSci.

FACT: Gender norms in STEM aren’t universal

By Angela Saini

During the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of women studying computer science in the computer science department of Yerevan State University in the former Soviet republic of Armenia never fell below 75%. When they were writing a paper about this is 2006, the authors even felt they had to point out that “this is not a typo”. Because the Soviet Union encouraged women to work and go to technical colleges, gender norms in STEM are still different in former socialist states.