A Modern Version of the “Swedish Tight Pants Theory”

Long ago, as a graduate student in anthropology, I took a class in demographic statistics from the anthropological perspective. One case study that I remember (but for which I cannot find a Web citation) was about a study that found Swedish men to have reduced fertility compared to similar men in geographic areas not too far away. A number of reasons for the Swedish men's reduced sperm counts were postulated but--as the instructor informed us with delight--it turned out that Swedish men of that time wore very, very tight pants and it was the restriction and subsequent overheating in their crotches that caused the infertility.

What has this got to do with IT? Well, the latest iteration of the Swedish Tight Pants Theory, coming this time not from demographic studies but from laboratory research, finds that men who are now using laptop computers more and more actually in their laps--partly due to expanding wireless networks--may run a similar risk of temporary or long-term infertility.

The mechanics are simple. The male scrotum adapts to conditions by loosening or tightening up in order to keep the sperm-producing testicles at the appropriate temperature for lots and lots of healthy sperm. It turns out that sperm are delicate little things when it comes to ambient temperature. If you restrict that functionality--either with too-tight pants or with excessive amounts of heat from a laptop computer--potential damage can occur.

It's a fun news story: "Careful, lads, that laptop might burn your genes" [Times Online, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1395183,00.html]. Here are just a few more headlines from various news media:

  • Laptop in your lap might mess with male prowess
  • Hot laptops could cook men's fertility
  • Report: Portable computers on laps can 'fry' sperm
  • Want to be a dad? Stop bouncing a laptop on your knee
  • Seeds of doubt planted in study of laptop heat
  • Chestnuts roasting on an open FireWire
  • Laptops go on sperm killing rampage
  • Sperm d'es not computer
  • Those dad-burned laptops
  • A low blow from the laptop
  • Attention all men: Using a laptop may, ahem, heat your testicles
  • Great balls of fire--The Lapinator(TM) takes the heat to protect
  • Laptop users in danger of deleting their sperm

In hindsight it appears obvious: Put a source of heat in your lap and fry your testicles. Would good design and planning have anticipated this? Who knows? The actual research was done at SUNY Stony Brook with 29 healthy young males who were asked to balance laptops on their laps with their knees pressed together. Their scrotal temperature, measured by attached devices on the left and the right, went up on average something like 3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Earlier medical studies have confirmed that increases in testicular temperatures in the range of 1.8°F and 4°F are associated with dysfunction. Since in this study, scrotal temperature on average increased by 1.8°F during the first 15 minutes of laptop use, testicular function could indeed be affected. So, even though this makes for amusing headlines it is in fact a serious study, the next step of which is to actually demonstrate decreases in functionality from laptop-induced heating.

For me, having just recently written about some of the unintended consequences of computer production, this story was just one more example of unintended consequences-like the study that recently found that 100 percent of tested computers contained brominated flame retardants, bioaccumulative neurotoxins.

Will laptops now get redesigned so that less heat g'es down? Maybe. It's always, to me, been a design flaw to vent heat downwards anyway, because you can burn up a laptop by using it on upholstered surface. (I know. I've done it!)

Maybe we need to make our own protective devices for long airline flights: "May I have some extra ice, please?" Actually, I bet that by April there will be advertisements in the airlines' in-flight shopping catalogues for some kind of "male lap protective device."

I wonder if anyone's patented that, yet?

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