Eyeball Rubbing, Space Junk


I can’t figure this out. Maybe you can. When I’m at work, mostly, I seem to always be rubbing my face and eyes. I rub them pretty hard, which really messes up my makeup. What’s with this eye rubbing? I’d really like to stop it, but at the time it really feels good.

— Toby, via email

Oh, Grandma knows just how you feel. After a big day of pie baking, she rubs her face to cool down and her makeup always comes off on her apron. Big mascara blobs, lipstick smears, two whooshes of blusher. For the rest of the day she has a pattern on her front that looks like an Andy Warhol painting. So why do you and Grandma grab your mugs when the going gets tough? It’s your body’s built-in calming mechanism. All kinds of things happen when you rub your eyes. If they’re feeling dry and sore, gentle eye rubbing stimulates tear production to wet things up. If your eyes are feeling tired, rubbing them massages the overworked muscles attached to your eyeballs that make your eyes move. It’s like rubbing a sore arm muscle to make it feel better. But most of all, eye and face rubbing sets in motion the oculocardiac reflex.

Hard to believe that poking yourself in the eye could slow your body down, but it does. This is because ocular nerves are connected to the all-important supernerve, the vagus. This hard worker runs down the middle of your body, from your brainstem to your gut, and pokes its nose into just about everything you do. In the eye department, stimulating that area eventually stimulates the vagus nerve, which signals your heart to slow down. This reflex is used in all sorts of practices, including massage and therapeutic hypnosis. There’s some indication that nerves in your jaw might also create this response. So, face and eye rubbing actually serve a useful purpose.

You sound like a wound-up chick if you do this a lot. First of all, don’t rub your eyes hard. Not good for the eyeball. Or the eye shadow. Instead of rubbing your eyes, you might try closing them, then concentrating on slowing your breathing until you calm down. Or maybe just find a more pleasant job.


I’m pretty interested in the International Space Station, and I pretty much worry about it being hit by a meteor. What are the chances that this will happen, and what has NASA done, if anything, to prevent it?

— Spaceball, via email

NASA’s not about to fling billions of dollars’ worth of space gear into the universe without a few backup plans. NASA tracks both the ISS’s orbit and the paths of surrounding objects in real time, so given a little heads-up warning, the ISS can be moved out of the way. Rockets on the station can change the orbit of the ISS by as much as 6 miles. These are also necessary to keep the ISS in orbit. It’s in space a little more than 200 miles up, which is still within a thin layer of earth’s atmosphere. This creates drag, which eventually would make the thing fall out of orbit if they couldn’t correct it.

ISS dwellers do hear pings caused by tiny bits of space debris hitting the station, but nothing big has hit it so far. But if something big does hit it, statistically it’s more likely to be a hunk of the space trash that’s collecting up there. Old dead satellites and rockets and pieces of them. A while ago, a Chinese weather satellite collided with something and was smashed to smithereens. NASA (actually, the Air Force) now has to add weather-satellite bits to the junk they already track to avoid a smashup.

Here’s another infobite to soothe your brain. The ISS is built in modules, so if one module is hit by something, the others won’t be affected. I hope you’re less worried about an ISS collision now. There are so many things right here on planet Earth to fill in that freed-up brain space. Please find one soon.

Lamp Eats Chair!

Last week we contemplated the usefulness of switching ordinary office neon light for tanning-bed UV lights so you’d get a tan while working. We were appropriately hysterical, with serious warnings about the folly of such a plan. But apparently we weren’t hysterical enough for one anonymous emailer who seems to work in the ultimate hazardous environment.

Heymatt: You did mention that UV light is not good for the eyes, but you should have been explicit. Any extra UV light to the eyes is a permanently bad idea. I have to change UV lamps on biotech equipment, and it says not to be in the same room when the lamps are on. When I have to be around UV lamps when they are on, I wear goggles that completely cover the eyes and block 99.9 percent of the UV. I still limit any skin exposure to minimum time. I have also seen the UV lamps destroy a vinyl-covered laboratory chair. Also, anyone in a tanning booth has their eyes covered.

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