Let’s Brush Up on What’s
Out There About Our Hair
There are probably as many ways for people to comb their hairs as there are strands of it on anyone’s body. And so are the tales about it. Since we’re not crazy to try to calculate, say, how many strays there are within a single city block, let’s review a couple of stories about the hair that grows on top of our heads. And boy, are they weird.
To illustrate two recent researches, about the physics of ponytails and the presence of dandruff in the Pakistani army, we chose pictures of exquisite animal-shaped sculptures created by a Japanese art director, and some Medieval castles made entirely of hair by a Miami-based artist and writer. It’s Saturday, so let your hair down and enjoy it.
Among the first, most immediate impressions that anyone can project onto people they meet, is the one caused by the shape of his or her hair, how it’s arranged or its lack thereof. We can instantly inform our friends, casual acquaintances and even passers-by, a vast array of data about ourselves, willingly or not.
We’re also mostly unaware of the things that we notice about everybody else, just by looking at their dos. We may go as far as to form judgements solely based on the how they seem to regard theirs. No wonder entertainers are so keen in presenting hairstyles in original ways. Or that Samson was simply not the same guy after having his radically changed.
One last word about shaving one’s head: it was probably something that happened throughout history, for the same usual reasons elaborated designs and dazzling coloring were ritualistic created and applied to tribes, cults and religions. But somehow it was never as common, and mainly for completely different reasons, as they are now.
Perhaps it all had to do with the evolution of shavers, ever more precise and smoother than the open blades just a few decades ago were still the norm. The fact is that today we see many shiny heads shaved and proud, which is probably the best thing that has ever happened to natural baldies and to those who lost theirs for one reason or another.
THE PONYTAIL DROP
At one point, everyone has figured this one out (and the Brothers Grimm’s Rapunzel tale has indeed immortalized it): gravity is what makes our hair fall. Duh. But have you ever thought whether the shape of your ponytail can be deduced from the properties of one single hair? Aha. So it happens that research was indeed developed to figure that out too.
At 100,000 strands, which is the average people carry on top of their heads, hair is a complex physical system, so it took complex physical systems professor Raymond E. Goldstein, at the University of Cambridge, to come up with a formula to find out whether the analysis of a single one can in fact show how the ponytail will hang.
The formula considers elasticity, density and curliness, plus the length of the ponytail, and it’s called, you guessed, the Rapunzel number. A low number, say, a short ponytail of springy hair, and a high number, a long ponytail, hang down differently: the first fans outward, while the latter is heavier and gravity overwhelms its springiness.
Research on hair is as old and copious as its subject. Leonardo da Vinci once noted that the waviness of hair resembles eddies in the flow of rivers. Much more recently, mathematician Joseph B. Keller determined that the reason that joggers’ ponytails sway from side to side, instead of up and down, was because the jogger’s head was in the way. Since the up and down turned out to be unstable, any slight jostling caused it to become side-to-side swaying instead.
Now, go ahead and tell that to your hairstylist the next time you see her. Just keep an eye on what she’s doing with the scissors while you’re speaking.
THE OTHER WHITE STUFF
Of all possible researches that can be conducted with an army of soldiers, living in close quarters and in a state of permanent alertness to the possibility of death and dismemberment, a study about the status of their scalp may not be too high on any list. Specially if such army has been in non-stop duty for at least 70 years, fighting countless wars.
But someone had to do it. Fittingly, Improbable Research’s Marc Abrahams wrote recently about a survey of 800 male Pakistani soldiers, ascertaining what they knew and experienced with dandruff. The survey was conducted in 2007 by Naeem Raza, Amer Ejaz and Muhammad Khurram Ahmed.
The sampling of soldiers showed that approximately 65% of Pakistani soldiers have, or have had, dandruff “either permanently or periodically”. The findings are in line with another study published on the Indian Journal of Dermatology attesting that the scalp condition is very common in the whole region, not just Pakistan.
SCALP AND PREJUDICE
Both studies consider too the psychological aspect of having dandruff, a name of Anglo-Saxon origin that carries the word ‘dirt’ in its etymology. Few other hair conditions generate so much business for the cosmetics industry worldwide such as dandruff, as the title of the Indian study explicitly attests: The Most Commercially Exploited Skin Disease.
Abrahams’s article also gives credit to Raymond Jacques Adrien Sabouraud, a French dermatologist, painter and sculptor who died in 1938, who’s considered one of the first to research dandruff. But even way before his time, the Greeks were already arguing about its possible causes and cures. Such discussion remains open and very much active.
For despite what has been said of Sabouraud, that he could ‘tell your moral character, the amount of your yearly income and what you have eaten for breakfast by looking at the root of one of your hairs,’ the many factors that ignite the outbreak of dandruff have little to do with character or personal habits of hygiene, and a lot with what we still don’t know about our own curls.
CASTLES IN THE HAIR
Finally, about the artists. Curiously, neither of them is a hair stylist per se, but used the medium at one time or another to make a visual statement of great beauty and enduring quality.
Nagi Noda, the Japanese art director, may have got some of the ideas for her striking hair sculptures from the time she live in New York City, in the early 1980s. Her video and visual work remain highly demanded all over the world.
Agustina Woodgate crafted 3,000 miniature bricks made out of human hair to build a Medieval castle, for her I Wanted to Be a Princess gallery show in Miami, last year.
Black, brown, blonde and even gray hair is employed for the arresting effect. Also part of the show was a seemingly decaying-looking old castle, that looks both evocative and slightly disturbing mostly for its main building material.