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LuxeSci Show Notes: S3E10 - Polka Dots

Hi Fancy Folks!  Welcome to another fashionably fabulous episode of LuxeSci.  I’m your host, Dr. Lex, global health enthusiast, former parasitologist and lover of a good print.  This week we’ll exploring the staple print that can evoke anything from amusement to fear, I’m talking about polka dots (and some people’s reasonable fear of clowns).

Much like stripes, polka dots are a classic print, especially in black and white.  Though they are still going strong among the more trendy set.  They were featured in the spring ready-to-wear collections for Michael Kors and Caroline Herrara, to name a few.  

But what to dots have to do with science?  And why do we love them so much.  Nix the labcoat and grab a polka dot dress because we’re diving into the science of dots.


  • I guess i should have known but did not expect a formal definition for a polka dot. According to the omniscient Wikipedia, polka dots are a pattern featuring an array of large filled circles of the same size

  • The history of the polka dot was not always as fun as the pattern feels now

  • Polka dots have been symbols of the supernatural and uncleanliness for tribes around the world

  • In medieval Europe, they were associated with disease and poor health, likely because of their resemblance to the sores and pox from the plague or small pox (but then again, it seems many things were associated with disease in medieval Europe)

  • The name comes from the polka dance (which I love!).  They became popular around the same time in the 1840s and so were associated with one another.  

  • This was also around the time that automated fabric making and sewing was taking off, allowing for the construction of a pattern with regular shapes on it

  • It continued to be popular and was further buoyed by the first indigenous Miss America, Norma SMallwood wearing a polka dot bathing suit and of course by Minnie Mouse’s polka dot dress

  • As an aside - they have been used on the ruffled flamenco dresses since 1847

  • They have been worn by stars such as Marilyn Monroe (with 1950s casual dresses often featuring polka dots) to the mod idols of Twiggie and Goldie Hawn and even Princess Di and Julia Roberts (thinking iconic Pretty Woman outfit here)

  • Today they are more likely to be featured in the Spring/Summer months, with Kendall Jenner being a huge polka dot fan


  • So why do we like polka dots so much? There may be a few reasons why

  • Since the polka dot pattern is made up of circles, it could be signally safety and positivity.  The author of a book on surprising power of ordinary things, Ingrid Fetell Lee says that circles are approachable since they have no sharp edges that would signal danger

  • Additionally, the amount of dots in the print also signals abundance, which combined with safety makes for a very pleasing print to look at.

  • Another, maybe slightly less overall positive association, is with childhood and innocence

  • A researcher measuring the impact of patterns over the years has noted that polka dots remain popular because of the commodification of childhood and “irresponsible cuteness” in the world.  

  • He goes on to hypothesize that polka dots are a way to “make sexuality safe with babytalk”

  • While i can see the association with innocence and youth, I also see polka dots as a bold graphic print, so maybe it is a way for a woman to be assertive with her dressing without seeming to go too far (because we always get comments on what we’re wearing regardless) sigh.

  • Are we the only species that responds to polka dots - definitely not!

  • African penguins have black dots on their white chest feathers

  • It turns out that these polka dot patterns are distinctive to the individual penguin and are used to identify mates amongst the throngs of penguins

  • Dr. Luigi Baciadonna used a group of African penguins at the Zoomarine Italia to determine this unique form of individual identification

  • The researchers brought a penguin into an enclosure with a picture of their mate and a picture of another penguin

  • They measured how much time the penguin looked at either photograph and how much time they stood near either photograph

  • They also replaced the photographs with ones that were of their mate with the spots removed and other variations

  • The penguins spent on average 23 seconds longer looking at the picture of their mate and 2x longer standing next to it

  • When their mate’s polka dots were removed, there was no longer a difference in how much a penguin would look at a picture or stand next to it

  • This suggests that penguins can recognize individuals by their looks, which is considered cognitively advanced

  • So polka dots are a great print, one that may be compelling to our psyche, one that allows penguins to recognize each other, but are dots involved with us more intimately? 

  • Potentially - there is a lot of new and exciting material science coming out about carbon dots

  • Carbon dots - carbon-based nanostructures (very small structures made primarily of carbon) here very small is less than 10 nanometers

  • They can have different chemistries and one common one is a graphite core surrounded by amorphous (shapeless) carbon shell so it’s hard in the middle and kind of soft and squishy on the outside

  • They can have functional groups on the outside that allow for many different applications groups

  • Functional groups - atom or group of atoms in a molecule that has similar chemical properties whenever it appears

  • Some carbon dots can be made from plant extracts and are useful in the cosmetics industry

  • They are currently being used since their chemical properties include luminescence, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and UV absorption

  • They are used in fluorescent pigments, highlighters and illuminators, color-changing cosmetics and nail polish.

  • A new carmine cochineal (red) c dot was developed by one lab and added to moisturizing lipstick.  The c dots significantly improved the moisture retention of the lipstick

  • The authors did advocate more research to improve performance (retention, etc) and to ensure there is no toxicity.

  • I’d say that’s a pretty directly impactful way for science to influence and improve some every day items.  So cool!

  • Lastly, I couldn’t let this episode go by without briefly discussing a type of dot that features prominently in my own scientific career.  That’s the dried blood spot.  This is when a small amount of an individual’s blood is pipetted onto Whatman filter paper and dried.  This is crucial for doing research out in the field where blood samples cannot be processed and tested right away and where conditions would quickly render them useless.  The filter papers can be rehydrated, spun and tested for a variety of infectious diseases.

  • This method is key to many disease surveillance systems around the world. 

  • One example is for malaria

  • A paper published in 2023 by Minu Nain et al in the Journal of Vectorborne Disease the authors present a review of the current uses of dried blood spots to measure everything from genetic epidemiology in malaria, to parastite and vector surveillance

  • Since it’s very cost effective and has been shown to be robust, the authors indicate that this tool may help countries conduct the surveillance needed to eliminate malaria.

  • Very exciting work for a pretty humble laboratory tool, and one that I have found memories of, sitting in labs all over the place, carefully pipetting blood onto filter paper. 

Thank you for going on this journey into polka dots with me.  I am not feeling a bit nostalgic for my field sampling days, but perhaps without the killer mosquitos.  I hope that you heard something that sparked your curiosity and you already have Google open looking to learn a little bit more. 

If you learned something new, please pass it on to a friend by sharing the podcast.  And don’t forget to click that subscribe button, nothing is more satisfying than a good click.

LuxeSci podcast is an Erevna Media production.  Produced by me, Dr. Lex.  Audio engineer is Dr. Dimos and our theme music is Harlequin Mood by Burdy.

You can find us all over social media at LuxeSci pod.  Feel free to jump us a line.  We always love to hear from you.



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