Home Commentary State of Mind: Making a Splash (or Not)

State of Mind: Making a Splash (or Not)

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It is not often a columnist gets an opportunity to speak to an important issue that affects approximately half the world’s population. I am, of course, talking about public restroom urinals.

Just the other day I was happy to see in my favorite science news magazine that scientists have turned their attention to improving these necessary fixtures. Now I know what you’re thinking, “But Lare, do they really need improving? Gosh. They used to have these things called ‘pissoirs’ in cities all across Europe and around the world in which male persons could take care of business in public places. They worked just fine!” That’s true, and I fondly remember once using a pissoir on the banks of the Rhône River in Lyons, France after consuming a large number of bières with an acquaintance from Wales, . . . but I digress. 

Pissoirs, more commonly known as ‘vespasiennes’ in France (after the Roman emperor Vespasian, who tried to tax the collection of urine destined to be used in tanning leather), never caught on here in the U.S. We Americans prefer our restrooms indoors, and we prefer our leather tanned by other means.

The modern form of the urinal was patented in 1866 by one Andrew Rankin. The urinal has even played a major role in the world of art: witness the famous ‘sculpture’ called “Fountain” (1917), which was simply a white porcelain urinal placed on its back. “Fountain” was attributed to the Dada artist Marcel Duchamp, but quite possibly was the idea of a friend of Duchamp’s named Louise Norton, who had probably never used one. In 2004, 500 British artworld professionals voted Duchamp’s “Fountain” the most influential artwork of the 20th century, besting Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” (1907) and Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Diptych” (1962). 

Apparently the fixtures that are on the market today have shortcomings. They are unsanitary, and it’s not just because the users are slobs. The problem, it seems, is splash. According to those who are experts in such things, splash is a normal occurrence with most public urinals, the design of which hasn’t changed for decades. 

In efforts that fall under the heading of ‘Stand Back! I’m Going to Try Science,’ a group of researchers from, in this case, the aptly named University of Waterloo in Canada, reported at last November’s meeting of the (again) aptly named Division of Fluid Dynamics of the American Physical Society that they were working on improving the design of urinals.  

Why worry about urinals, you may wonder.  “We are physicists,” said one of the members of the group. “We use urinals. We all got splashback on our tan pants . . . and were embarrassed.” 

The scientific approach by the Waterloo group was to test urinals by spraying dyed fluids into them and then checking for splash, which can end up on a user’s pant legs and shoes and, surely to the annoyance of the janitorial staff, the floor.

The Waterloo team began looking for alternative designs to reduce splash by reducing what is called the impinging angle, that is, the angle at which the stream of liquid impacts the fixture. If that angle can be reduced to less than 30 degrees, there is no splash. 

Ultimately the Waterloo group turned to Mother Nature for help. As it turns out, the spiral shape of the shell of the mollusk called the chambered nautilus, which is considered mathematically “perfect” and is a visual representation of the Fibonacci number sequence (we all remember what that is, right?), forms a curve that always intersects the trajectory at this low angle. Using that geometric formula, the group designed a tall, slender fixture that completely eliminates splash. According to one science website, they have dubbed this fixture the ‘Nauti-loo.’

So there you have it — science to the rescue. At some point in the future, half the world’s population may find themselves in public restrooms walking up to fixtures designed after the geometry of nautilus shells and walking away with their trousers, and therefore their enthusiasm for life, undampened. Our world will be a cleaner place. But, guys, it is important to remember that even if scientists are able to control splash, good marksmanship is absolutely essential.

And I would be remiss if I did not offer hope to the other half of the world’s population that use public restrooms, regardless of what issues may be of concern. Patience, my friends. My half of the population has been waiting for over 150 years for improvements to public urinals even though most of us didn’t realize they needed improvement. Science is like rust, and rust never sleeps.