Once when i was in a taxi, the driver was attempting to make conversation and asked what I did. I usually try to avoid the subject with some people, because when i say “I study the inner ear” a lot of people feel the need to unload their medical problems regarding earwax upon me. Only half-way through their offering a sample (ugh) can I correct them. Anyway, this cabbie did just that–asking me this and that about earwax. After I said I had no idea, he seemed rather like “Well then what DO you know!” Its even worse when i try to reply that I study hair cells in the ears—invariably this results in ear-hair queries. Its usually pretty amusing, but I’ve found that trying to explain the inner workings of the cochlea to a Detroit cabbie at 2am is an exercise in futility.
There’s a great description of the genetics of earwax over at Discovering Biology today. Did you know that Asians have “hard ear wax” and Europeans have “wet ear wax”? Well there is a genetic reason for this which is quite fascinating (go check it out). This actually confirms an observation I made while in China last year: most of the spas there offer an “ear candle” therapy which involves, well, a waxy candle in the ear which removes built up ear wax. I always thought, ‘Ew, who needs that?’ but obviously, there’s a good scientific reason why some people might.
I’m still not going to try to explain it to cabbies though.