New Internationalist

Curiosities

Issue 241

new internationalist
issue 241 - March 1993

Questions
...that have always intrigued you about the world will appear in this,
your section, and be answered by other readers. Please address
your answers and questions to ‘Curiosities’.

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Is it true that the menstrual cycles of women living together in women-only
communities (convents, for example) synchronize? And if so, why?

[image, unknown] Yes, it is true – and a houseful of simultaneously pre-menstrual women is no joke! Blame the doorknobs, according to the explanation I have been given. A menstruating woman secretes certain chemicals in her sweat which can set off the cycle in other women who live in close proximity – for example, when they touch the same doorknobs.

Linnea Renton
Sandbach, UK

[image, unknown] Women-only communities do display synchronism of menstrual cycles – but this is not dependent on there being no men present. The key factor is the amount of time that women spend in close contact – close enough for the pheromones responsible for the effect to waft from person to person. More than about eight to ten hours a day is usually sufficient.

The degree of synchronism obtained can be very striking. Women whose usual cycle is one of 24 days lengthen their cycle to 28. Those whose usual cycle is 32 shorten it to 28. Women with very long cycles of over 35 days usually lengthen their cycles further to twice 28 days (56 days) and menstruate with half the frequency of the rest.

The usefulness of the phenomenon is another question. It is common among animals who come into season only once a year, like sheep. And it serves sheep very well. They all have lambs in the spring when the grass is plentiful and all their lambs are exactly the same age so that if they have to run as a flock from predators no lamb is younger and gets left behind.

It does not, however, seem to serve humans at all because women come into season at the ridiculously frequent rate of once every month and their very long pregnancies make synchronism of conception irrelevant. But because it does no great harm it has not been weeded out by evolution. The main problem synchronism causes is to plumbing in places like convents or nurses’ homes which have to deal with a hell of lot of sanitary towels and tampons all at once.

Dr JS Barrett
London, UK

Who first used the expression ‘charity begins at home’, to whom and why?

[image, unknown] This may have spilled over from Paul’s advice to widows with children in Timothy 1 5.4: ‘Let them learn first to show piety at home’.

By 1670, when Sir Thomas Browne wrote in Religio Medico: ‘“Charity begins at home” is the voice of the world’, it was being used as an excuse. A century later the saying was being used to satirical effect in Sheridan’s School for Scandal:

Rowley: I believe there is no sentiment he has such faith in as that ‘charity begins at home’.

Sir Oliver Surface: And his, I presume, is of the domestic sort which never stirs abroad at all.

Bishop Donald Arden
Pinner, UK

[image, unknown] The expression first appears in modern English in Francis Beaumont’s Wit Without Money (1614): ‘Charity and beating begin at home’.

However, it probably originates with the English religious reformer John Wycliffe who wrote (c. 1380): ‘Charite schuld bigyne at hem-self’. Wycliffe believed that the church would be better off without priests, prelates and monks and that everyone had the right to read the Bible for themselves. He attempted to produce the first complete English translation of the Bible and envisaged an order of Poor Preachers who would take the teaching to the people. This may give an indication of how he intended the expression to be understood.

Curran A de Bruler
St Austell, UK

Awaiting your answers...

Mosquitoes and other insects insert the equivalent of a micro needle into many
human bloodstreams. So why are they not in the list of transmitters of HIV?

RG Sargent
Looe, UK

Why is the depletion of the ozone layer greatest in the southern hemisphere when
the use of ozone-destroying chemicals is greatest in the northern hemisphere?

G Roberts
Llandona, Cymru, UK

I’ve heard that part of the ceremony of Pope-making involves touching of the testicles.
If this is true, how and why did this curious custom come about?

Guy Lambert
Oxford, UK

If you have any questions or answers please send them to Curiosities,
New Internationalist, 55 Rectory Road, Oxford OX4 1BW, UK,
or to your local NI office (click here for addresses).

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