Autumn rain: being damp is inferred rather than truly felt. Photo: Getty
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On our nerves: what makes us itch or feel wet?

Michael Brooks’s science column. 

We’re all going to feel some unwanted damp on the skin over the next few weeks – welcome to autumn. But for those who feel wet due to a medical condition rather than the weather, researchers at Loughborough University have made what might just prove to be a welcome breakthrough.

It starts with a seemingly innocuous question: what makes wet stuff feel wet? By the end of this exploration, we will have encountered Joni Mitchell, patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) and a host of people suffering in ways that evoke Dante’s Inferno.

To some animal species, wetness is so critical to survival that evolution has equipped them to determine their state of external hydration: insects have humidity sensors. Human beings, however, don’t have wetness sensors on their skin, so understanding how we differentiate the sense of wetness from other sensations is a puzzle.

We have found clues in some of the tricks one can play on our species. The Loughborough researchers have shown that if you reduce the skin’s temperature using a dry cooling method, people feel as though their skin is wet. If you put something wet in contact with the skin, but at a temperature warmer than it, people don’t perceive it as wet.

So, clearly, we don’t feel wetness, we infer it. Our skin has an array of sensors for temperature and pressure, and it is a combination of these senses which tells us that something we are touching is wet. To find out what that combination might be, the Loughborough team experimented on 13 students, blocking and releasing their nerve sensitivities.

It turns out that crucial to wetness perception are nerves known as A-nerve fibres. Block the blood supply to these – using something like a blood-pressure cuff – and you become far worse at sensing wetness. Unsurprisingly, it is easier to sense cold wetness than warm wetness. The interplay of these different sensitivities enabled the researchers to create a model for the brain’s interpretation of wetness; in essence, it applies a weighting to each set of inputs in order to come to a probability-based conclusion on the body’s state.

This is more than an academic discovery because skin sensitivity is a serious medical issue. People suffering with MS frequently report an unpleasant feeling of cold wetness on their skin. It is a couple of short steps from feeling cold wetness to pain. One side effect of diabetes, for instance, can be dysaesthesia, when diabetics experience a burning or stabbing sensation on their skin, or feel the slightest touch from clothing or bedlinen as excruciating pain. In other cases, some diabetics can’t feel heat or touch sensitively enough to avoid injuring themselves.

It’s not just about the side effects of recognised diseases, though. There are various medical conditions associated with nerves sending pain signals in response to (apparently) nothing. Sufferers of central pain syndrome can report sensations such as being torn apart with hot knives, or being burned alive. No wonder it gets referred to as a Dante-type condition. Another oddity is Morgellons Disease. Joni Mitchell is perhaps the best-known sufferer of this unstoppable itching, which feels as if something is crawling under the skin. The medical orthodoxy is that the condition is indicative of a psychiatric disorder. However, if we knew more precisely what our skin’s nerve endings transmit to the brain, we might be able to help sufferers, delusional or not. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

Photo: Getty
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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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