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This refers to a bit old archive from Financial Times Magazine titled “The ten things everyone should know about science”.

The article provides explanations of the 10 key scientific concepts starting from 1. Evolution, 2.Gens and DNA, 3. Big bang, 4. Relativity to 8. Molecules and Chemical reactions, 9. Digital Data, 10. Statistic Significance, with comments on “Why does it matter?” “What’s next (stage)?” and “Fear factor.”

It cites:

  • Sticky palms to Evolution

  • Mild tremors to Genes and DNA

  • Queasiness to Big ban

  • Palpitations to Relativity

  • Sweet and tears to Quantum mechanics

  • Knocking knees to Radiation

  • Dry mouth to Atom and nuclear reactions

  • Chattering teeth to Molecules and chemical reactions

  • Dilated pupils to Digital data

  • Nervous twitching to Statistical significance as “the Fear factors.”

I cannot relate “Sticky palms” to “Evolution,” “Mild tremors” to Genes and DNA, and none of the rest of Fear Factor description to individual scientific theory, even by revving up all my brains to the top gear. Only I could find was that all "Fear factors" are related with bodily symptoms.

What on earth does “Fear Factor” mean? Fear of “what” is it? Can you give me a hint to link “Sticky palms” to Evolution theory, “Dry mouth” to atom fusion and fission, and so on?

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I can't access the FT article from your link without a subscription, so here's a link for anyone else with the same problem. – FumbleFingers Nov 2 '12 at 1:56
@FumbleFinger. I could access even though I don't subscribe FT online. Actually, I picked up this question from a print copy of the FT article my friend handed me a few days ago. So I checked Google to make sure that the archive is still available before posting this question. I was able to see the full article on my PC (that I was impressed), and copied the link I indicated in my question from it. – Yoichi Oishi Nov 2 '12 at 2:12
Strange. I can't get into it myself from my link now either. Apparently I can only get in by Googling "Sticky palms" "fear factor" Evolution, and following the www.ft.com/... link that comes up (after your actual question here - Google knows enough about me to know I'll want to see results from ELU near the top! :) – FumbleFingers Nov 2 '12 at 2:24
"What does "Fear Factor" mean on the earth?" Were you trying to say, "What on earth does "Fear Factor" mean?" (what on earth. . . is the idiomatic phrasing) – Zairja Nov 2 '12 at 4:00
If reading the article does not help to understand and appreciate these 'teasers,' then the whole point of them is in question. That would only mean there are 10 other things the authors need to tell first. – Kris Nov 2 '12 at 4:21
up vote 4 down vote accepted

These are the "Fear factor" ratings. When faced with something slightly intimidating or scary you might first get "sweaty/sticky palms". As the fear factor increases the human body reacts in different ways, some stereotypical. Thus the progression of bodily symptoms of fear.

The author is saying that the amount of trepidation warranted when thinking about "Evolution" is fairly low- only "sticky palms." Whereas for Radiation, he's "suggesting that your knees ought to start knocking."

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+1 for the interpretation. You might have thrown in a reference to Fear Factor the TV show, which bumps the reference up a few notches in pop culture. – Robusto Nov 2 '12 at 2:04
I don't think there's any real difference between one "fear factor" rating and another in that piece. You the reader might perceive a ranking scale according with your own preconceptions, but the writer certainly didn't intend to impose any particular weighting factors to the relative risks of the technologies he lists. – FumbleFingers Nov 2 '12 at 2:30
Thanks. This is the very area that demands understanding of today’s pop culture behind the language. I tried hard (over days) to find out a logical and rhetorical link of individual scientific concept and described bodily symptoms without success. It was impossible to connect both without knowing “Fear Factor” in TV show, which is commonsense to USAers. – Yoichi Oishi Nov 2 '12 at 2:35
@Yoichi Oishi: I've never heard of the American "fear factor" context, so it's not true you need to know it to understand the FT usage. You just have to recognise the "whimsical list" format, and know that words like factor, score, rating, stars, ranking are commonly used in such contexts. – FumbleFingers Nov 2 '12 at 2:54
Note that "_______ factor" is a common construction used to imply a gauge or measurement system, especially informally and especially for dramatic effect. – horatio Nov 2 '12 at 14:05

The whole tone of the article is somewhat whimsical. Fear Factor is just the writer's "catchy" turn of phrase for extent to which we should be worried about what's happening in this area of science. Alternatively, it could be a rating for how daunting the layman might find it to learn the details.

I'm not sure it really matters - the different ratings are also just whimsical choices. It's a bit pointless debating whether any particular term indicates more or less fear than any other.

I've no doubt most would agree that sticky palms and mild tremors are less evocative of abject terror than chattering teeth, palpitations, nervous twitching, but the writer isn't seriously interested in creating a meaningful "ranking scale" anyway.

Such use of xxxx factor is common in downmarket magazines. A "Teenage Girls' Weekly", say, might present a list of 10 "boy band" singers, assigning each a "Snog factor" (kissability rating).

Sometimes the factor "value" will actually be, say, a number on a scale 1-10. But the problem there is everyone can see the difference between snog factor 7 and 8, so half of them will probably disagree with what they read. Assigning metaphorical pseudo-values like "scrumptious" and "dreamy" gets the list writer out of having to specify "winners and losers".

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