Semi-successful hair day leads to further scalp scrutiny

I hadn’t had a good hair day in 23 years, four months and nine days. I didn’t think it had been quite that long, but my wife assures me that it had. The reason it even came up was that, apparently, I had a good hair day here recently. Well, it was actually only half a day, but I always round up. 

It must have been the weather. We were in Washington, D.C., and it was rainy. The rain made climbing the barriers to the closed memorials especially tricky. There was some satisfaction in watching the armed Homeland Security guards at the Lincoln Memorial have to stand out in it. I hope they caught the terrorists that were threatening to blow the place up. If not, I hope they caught colds. 

I guess the guards were there to protect it from terrorists, although I don’t know what the point of blowing up the Lincoln Memorial would be unless they let a bunch of us people into it first. It kind of frightened my 13-year-old granddaughter, though. She doesn’t understand mature, adult behavior yet. 

Anyway, hair, in humans, seems to serve no function other than ornamentation. It isn’t even very successful at ornamentation since almost everyone I know tries to change whatever hair they have into something else. Personally, I take a lot of pride in letting my hair just be natural. I comb it once a day, whether it needs it or not. My wife suggests that “pride” might not be the best term to use here. 

The reason weather might have something to do with my good hair day is that two different weather conditions can have a great effect on hair: wind and rain. (I guess that is kind of obvious. But my editor insists I say something true in every column so we can retain the name “science.” I thought I’d work it in early this week.) The wind is the obvious part, but the humidity is a little more interesting. 

Like the government shutdown wasn’t the government’s fault, my bad hair isn’t my fault, either. The fault lies with Grandpa Hammar, my grandfather on my mother’s side, which is the side we inherit our hair genes from. In our case, Grandpa’s and mine, it’s the back side gene that stops growing hair first. 

The center of a hair is called the medulla. On most people it is hollow, or at least very loosely organized. That’s what my wife says about my hair: it’s “loosely organized.” So who knows what the medullas of Grandpa’s and my hair look like? The second, thicker part of a hair is called the cortex. It is made of long, thin, parallel, protein fibers called keratin. 

Between these fibers is mostly air, and the thicker the cortex the more air. That’s why girls with poofy hair are called airheads. (I just made that part up.) However, when hair gets wet, the long, thin fibers sort of act like wicks and suck the water into the air space between the keratin. 

Another thing I inherited from Grandpa Hammar was round hair. Not everyone is so lucky. Some people inherit hair that is oval in cross section. This is critical since round hair tends to be straight. Presumably it absorbs moisture evenly and stays elongated on all edges, even on rainy days in Washington, D.C. 

Oval hair may absorb moisture unevenly because of its shape. If one side of the oval absorbs more water, it changes the thickness of the hair on that side and causes the hair to curl. This is what I call the “Theory of Convolution,” and it may not be true at all. Further research is needed. 

Anyway, it has now been only 14 days since my last good hair half-day. This time I recorded it in my journal right along with the Homeland Security guards. I’m not sure I trust my wife’s accounting.

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor of biology at Colorado Mesa University.


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