Student Questions: Mosquito Repellent and Einstein's Gestation

Skeptoid answers more questions sent in by students all around the world.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Feedback & Questions

Skeptoid #195
March 2, 2010
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe

Today we have some really cool questions sent in by students. First we're going to look at electronic mosquito repellents, then at the validity of the Petition Project signed by over 30,000 scientists who say anthropogenic climate change — meaning caused by humans — isn't happening. Next, what are the real facts about whether or not you can get sick from someone sitting near you in class? Finally we're going to look at a couple of really interesting biological questions. One is the explosive issue of athletes of different races: Is it true that some races are good at some sports? — because it sure seems like it. And last, the urban legend that Einstein spent an extra month in his mother's womb, which is what made him so smart. Let's get started with an important question on health that affects people all over the world:

Hi Brian this is Rohan from the University of Cambridge. I'd like to know what your thoughts are on these new contraptions that claim to repel mosquitoes by using ultrasound. Has anyone tested them?

Yes, they've been tested, and no, they don't work. Field trials of electronic mosquito repellents conducted in ten different parts of the world where mosquito-borne malaria is a problem found no evidence that they repel mosquitos at all, and this includes those that are said to simulate the sound of a dragonfly's wingbeat. If you want to repel mosquitos, you've got to turn to chemical repellents. Since malaria is such a major cause of death in some parts of the world, a lot of money has been thrown at trying to solve this. According to the Centers for Disease Control, you can't do much better than DEET. Generally, synthetic repellents work better than natural repellents, although some plant-based compounds do work just as well. The old folk remedy of taking Vitamin B has been conclusively shown to have no effect whatsoever as a mosquito repellent. Citronella oil does work almost as well as DEET, but its shortcoming is that it must be reapplied every 30-60 minutes.

The best repellent of all, of course, is a properly closed mosquito net.

Hi I'm Eric From the University of Oklahoma and I was wondering what your take is on the claim that 32000 scientists supposedly refute Anthropogenic Climate Change.

You're referring to The Petition Project, which has collected over 30,000 signatures of people worldwide who, supposedly, reject anthropogenic climate change. (In a moment I'll explain why I say "supposedly" reject it.) Understand two things about this petition. First, 30,000 is only about 0.3% of degree holders in the relevant fields, so we can be pretty certain that the vast overwhelming majority of scientists have rejected this petition. Second, the actual petition is fundamentally flawed in that it requires the signer to agree to three unrelated points, any one of which is debatable:

    1. The Kyoto Protocol is deeply flawed;
    2. Humans are not causing a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide; and
    3. A rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide has beneficial consequences.

The Kyoto Protocol is a political question that has nothing to do with climate science itself, placing strangling restrictions on wealthy nations while allowing the largest producers of greenhouse gases, China and India, to continue to do so unchecked. Plenty of people disagree with this strategy, regardless of their feelings about the science. The second point, that humans are not causing an increase in global warming, does contradict the best science that we have, which shows that human activity is a factor. But there are natural factors as well. There are some global warming activists who are deeply concerned about climate change but who dispute the degree to which human activity contributes. The third point, that a rise in carbon dioxide is beneficial, is quite true in some cases. It's great for plants, for one thing. But the science shows that it will have other negative consequences that more than make up for the few benefits.

So how is the average person to respond when presented with such a schizophrenic petition? Many climate scientists may well feel conflicted about any one or two of these three points. There's no doubt in my mind that the petition was consciously designed to be ambiguous, and to give as many people as possible some reason to agree with one of its points. The best example is showcased on the Petition Project's home page, which shows the petition signed by the late Manhattan Project nuclear physicist Dr. Edward Teller. Teller was profoundly concerned about global warming, and proposed sprinkling aluminum dust into the atmosphere as a much cheaper way to address the problem than the disastrous Kyoto Protocol. He was pretty much the opposite of a global warming denier. His being showcased on their home page proves, to me, that their Petition Project lacks integrity.

Hi, my name is Erika. My question is: Kids at school worry every time someone sitting near them gets sick. Could they get sick, and what are the chances?

That's a great question, and an important one. Yes, you can potentially catch a cold from being near someone who has an active cold. The most likely way you'll catch it is through contact. We often don't realize how many things we touch: The doorknob to the classroom, the button on a drinking fountain, books and papers that might be passed around the room, the backs of chairs, etc. But guarding against this is the easiest thing to do. Wash your hands frequently. If you wash your hands throughout the day when you're near someone with an active cold, using soap and water or an alcohol-based cleanser, you have a very good chance of not catching it. Also be sure not to touch your face. The virus usually enters your body through your eyes, nose or mouth from your hand.

But there's one thing you can't control quite so easily: If that person is coughing or sneezing into the air, they put the virus into the classroom's air; and if that happens, then people nearby are indeed at much higher risk. Students with a cold who are actively sneezing or coughing should stay home. If they do come to school, they should cough or sneeze into a handkerchief or tissue. If they're just blasting away, then you may indeed have a problem, and not even a facemask will protect you from particles that fine.

Hey Brian, my name is Tate and I'm a high school student in Oregon. I've heard that all human DNA is practically identical. Is it true that certain racial groups are significantly more athletic than others?

Yes and no: Certain populations throughout the world do indeed tend toward certain sizes and shapes, but this doesn't have as much to do with their race so much as with other factors. A great place to study this is Africa, where we see immense diversity of body proportions among different populations, ranging all the way from the Bambuti Pygmies of the Congo whose men average only 137cm (4'6"), all the way to the Watusi Tutsi whose men average 193cm (6'4") with many over seven feet. Populations of the same race also differ geographically: Caucasian men in the Netherlands average 185cm (6'1") but only 174cm (5'9") in Romania; Asian men in Taiwan average 172cm (5'8") but 163cm (5'4") in Cambodia. Worldwide, women average slightly shorter than men. Since athletic ability is dependent on size more than any other physical characteristic, it's never going to be accurate to correlate race with athleticism.

There are two main factors that determine a given population's physical characteristics. The first is their haplotype, a group broadly defined by a certain mtDNA mutation that identifies them as a group. There are several dozen main haplogroups in the world's human population, each subdivided into more specific groups. They can be mapped, showing the oldest haplogroups originating in Africa, and then newer haplogroups appearing over thousands of years as populations migrated through Europe, Asia, and the Americas. mtDNA is passed on by the mother only, so each of us can be traced back to a genetic land of origin based on our haplotype. We share many common physical characteristics with other members of our haplogroup, wherever they live; including other traits that affect athleticism like relative lung capacity, tendencity toward obesity, and so on.

The second factor is often more dramatic, and that's selection pressure from marriage. Although the Watusi are probably the world's tallest population, they are not genetically different from the rest of the Tutsi who average only 170cm, a full 23cm (9 inches) shorter. The Watusis' height is solely the result of selective marriage. The true story of human genetic diversity is much richer and far more interesting than simple racial stereotypes, which are (a) wrong and (b) obscure the actual science. It's a fascinating area of study.

Hello Brian this is Zachary Nixon from Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. I am in grade 9 at Westwood Community High School, and I was wondering. My friend told me about Einstein and the reason he was so smart is because he had an extra month in his mothers womb, is this true or fiction?

You're really asking two questions here: First, was Einstein born a month late; and second, are babies born late more likely to be smarter?

The first question is not easy to answer. Einstein was born in his parents' home in 1879, when prenatal care was both rare and unscientific. It's unlikely that anyone made records of the date of conception or his mother's menstrual cycles, however gestation time was generally understood as 40 weeks. None of the Einstein biographies I looked at said anything about any prenatal records having been preserved, so it appears this claim about Einstein is an invented urban legend and is not based on any actual history. There have been fictionalized accounts in which Einstein gestated longer, but those are dramatic inventions and also not based on historical record.

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

The second question is easier. The relationship between gestation and intelligence has been extensively studied, and we've learned that there is none. The healthiest babies are born on schedule, as both premature birth and prolonged gestation can result in troubled births.

And so, despite what your friend may have heard, the claim that Einstein spent an extra month in the womb, and was smarter because of it, is fiction.

Got a student question you'd like Skeptoid to answer? Students of all ages from anywhere are welcome. Come to and click on Student Questions for the easy instructions. I hope to hear from you soon.

Brian Dunning

© 2010 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Bogin, B. Patterns of Human Growth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Enayati A, Hemingway J, Garner P. "Electronic mosquito repellents for preventing mosquito bites and malaria infection." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 18 Apr. 2007, Issue 2, 2007.

Eveleth, P., Tanner, J. Worldwide Variation in Human Growth. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 63-89.

Fradin, M. S., Day, J.F. "Comparative Efficacy of Insect Repellents against Mosquito Bites." The New England Journal of Medicine. 4 Jun. 2002, Volume 347: 13-18.

McKeown, T. "Prenatal and Early Postnatal Influences on Measured Intelligence." British Medical Journal. 11 Jul. 1970, 3: 63-67.

PHA. "Staying healthy is in your hands." Public Health Agency of Canada. Public Health Agency of Canada, 18 Apr. 2008. Web. 18 Apr. 2008. <>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Student Questions: Mosquito Repellent and Einstein's Gestation." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 2 Mar 2010. Web. 13 Oct 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 52 comments

I don't have the poll data to back it up, but I think it's fair to say that the vast majority of NBA players didn't come from rich families. There are far too many variables to pinpoint the reasons for any observations in any sort of meaningful way. However, it is also silly to pretend that black athletes don't dominate sports in the US.

One potential reason is that years of selective breeding by slaveowners would likely weed out any weaker traits in their slaves. Chances are, if you were genetically prone to injury or could not work long hours, you died out. However, there is so much myth and legend revolving around slavery that hard data would be difficult to come by.

Black athletes are still vastly underrepresented in professional hockey, despite US players making a significant inroads into the NHL. There are a few very notable exceptions- Jarome Iginla and Dustin Byfuglien, to name two great ones. I suspect that this is more due to hockey not being embraced by many black men.

Our country is far too touchy about taboo subjects to have any real data on the subject.

Daniel K, Garland, TX
August 28, 2010 9:25pm

Sorry, didn't see your reply till now Sheldon.

" provide any good evidence for a strong correlation between economic background and athletic ability/prowess."

That wasn't the claim. The claim was about being employed in professional sports, not athletic ability itself.

"Your opinions are clearly based upon a post-Civil-Rights belief system that has impressed upon you the mistaken notion that people have to be equal in every way to be valued."

Don't you tell me what my beliefs are based on. I get enough of that when I challenge black victimization claims. My opinion is based on observation and a discussion I had with a professor of sociology a few years back. Should I make assumptions about what your opinions are based on? I'm sure that would be fine speculation. See

"The truth is, genetics play a significant role in many of the clusters of human interest and ability that we blame on racism, sexism, etc."

The truth is that genetics play a significant role across the board, but not to the exception of cultural, environmental, and other biological factors. This is especially true on something as loose and scientifically meaningless as modern 'race' definitions. If you want to talk about sub-populations, go for it. Race is simply a stupid way to divide up humanity, even for sports. See

Brandon, Falconer
September 30, 2010 1:01pm

Your argument that the environmental petition is invalid because it asserts three unrelated claims is a bit odd. If I was offered a petition with three points, two of which I agreed with and one that I didn't, I would NOT sign it. The idea that an educated scientist would ot down his or her name, especially when it related to such hotly controversial topics, is a bit silly. Surely the way its presented would mean that less people have signed it than otherwise might have if it contained only a single assertion.

Which is not to say that the petition is worth the paper it's printed on (if it is printed on paper). As you said, it represents only a tiny minority of degree holders in the relevant fields and I'm sure I remember hearing that a number of scientists had actually sued to have their names removed from it (though I might be thinking of something else).

E.B. Joseph, Bangkok
November 7, 2010 9:03am

Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide may in fact be detrimental to plants - especially crops. There is a line in the original article that suggests the reverse is the case - that increased CO2 is universally beneficial to plants. This may be because the lead article is a little out of date. Science ever moves on, producing new data that requires analysis and amendment of earlier hypotheses. Climate Science is a very responsible area in this manner. Errors are quickly revealed and adjustments made.

Latest research is disturbing in that is suggests that it is only beneficial so long as temperatures are not coincidently raised and even then the question remains open. Many items that do react favourably are weeds.

More research is needed on this and I understand closed environments are being used in large scale experiments

The jury is definitely still out on this one. But if the conclusion should be that the increased CO2 is indeed detrimental, there should be no further argument as to whether in human terms it might be considered a potential pollutant - above certain close levels

Phi, Sydney
March 24, 2011 8:46pm

The problem with most input on the debate is not who has more bikkie points than the other.

Its clear that nearly everyone who comments either has at least the odd climate or related paper in but doesnt comment much on the other and the over all analysts and finally, but 99.999 % of comment you will ever hear, that from the rank and file folks who just have a view.

yep, we have a problem. Fundamentally, we are going to need a better cleaner source of energy real soon.

the plants maybe dying off because of rampant salination or desertification. But I doubt very much that most plants wouldnt consider 1% CO2 just as much home as the current levels. They may however complain (if they could) of all the other effects such an atmospheric concentration of CO2 and other green house gases would produce.

Please be a bit more specific when stating arguments.

Henk v, sin city NSW, Oz
August 18, 2011 3:46am

As an avid listener of NPR, a former employee of a Univ. in the Boston area I can assure you that global warming is high on the politically correct scale. I advise all my male freinds looking for dates to show there concerns about this issue. Correlate any weather effect to proof of global warming and you’ll get the girl. Warming deniers are left out in the cold. It’s easier than being a football hero.

The PC effect has contaminated all thought. I never refer to any thing w/o questioning its effect on green issues. I am considering marketing a kit (bumper stickers, lapel pins, LED bulbs) to show deep concern for every thing green.

I would be interested in a link to your statements about victimization of minorities.

wm, nh
January 31, 2012 9:38pm

can someone explain why the 100 metre final in London will have all blacks in it. The 100 metre swimming final will have all whites in it (some Aussies hopefully). There has to be physiologicsl differences

dezza, sydney
April 20, 2012 3:53am

@ dezza,

lol yeah, i know years ago racists would say that blacks have heavier bones are thus are bad swimmers. I swim and sued to swim a lot, and my observation is that black folks do not seem to be as interested in swimming as the whites do, so with a smaller number of black swimmers you would expect less 'competitive' black swimmers.

I think in places like the US, where IQ studies seem to show that white folks are 15 points up on blacks, maybe sport is the only outlet for many blacks to get a 'career', whereas white folks may have the choice of sport or academia, law etc If you had the choice would you choose the life-long career potential of academia, law etc or a short <perhaps a decade> career in sport, with all the health risks that may entail.

Maybe Africa doesn't have enough chlorine fuming, Olympic-sized pools to encourage enough blacks to swim competitively, water is a precious resource in much of Africa. Whereas, the transport system in much of Africa means a lot of leg work, and the weather - mostly - isn't too wet or snowy to force people into covered transport - although auto use is low there.

I think a lot of it stems from the westerners being lazier and fatter than Africans. The west have lots of people who will never undertake manual work because it is beneath them, even cleaning the house or auto; all calorie busting exercise for an active human.

Compare a country where folks are more physically active with one where they are not, is it surprising?

Gavin Thomas, Cardiff, Wales
September 1, 2012 6:42am

Gavin, if that is the case how do you explain the Olympic medal tables? The UK, US and China each had more medals than all African countries combined. If Africa was full of athletic superhumans I cannot see how a nation of 60 million people, the UK, could obtained more medals than a continent of one billion people.

I dare say that training and coaching is more advanced in the UK than most of Africa but does that explain the near 17 to 1 population advantage?

Perhaps that Olympics are everything from swimming to cycling is part of the answer, maybe Africans are only 'good' at 'natural' land based events like running? Throwing, cycling and swimming events hardly seem to have black competitors at all.
As for the podcast, lol @ the electronic mosquito repellents, I just use good old lotion and have never had an issue. I have been to places like India and the hotels had these gimmicks. I just laughed, I was talking to a hotel employee one day with my door open and the guy said "Close the door, the mosquitoes will get in your room" - which I kind of thought was an admission that the thing don't work !!!

As for climate change, the Earth is not a stable place, never will be, the geologic record shows this. Who's to say that knee-jerk reactions now may have unintended consequences in the future? Sure humans must be having some affect but we should see how much of it is nature.

Aldona, Radom, Poland
September 9, 2012 11:10am

Yep, after Setember 2012, it got a bit fallacious..

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
July 2, 2013 10:48pm

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