Friday, 25th May 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. In the late 1600s, French King Louis XIV complained that he was losing more territory to his astronomers than to his enemies. What, by Jove, did he mean?

A. In 1610, using a primitive telescope, Galileo discovered several of Jupiter’s moons. Io, the closest, orbits the planet very regularly, about once every 1.8 days. Anyone observing Io from anywhere on Earth sees it eclipsed by Jupiter at the same time. So observations of Io allow accurate synchronization of time measurements between distant places. For example, if one had the expected eclipse times for Paris, then these could be compared to local eclipse times to estimate longitudinal distance from Paris. In fact, this was the most accurate way of estimating longitudinal distance in the 1600s.

King Louis XIV, seeking to make his country the world leader in science, commissioned astronomers to use measurements of Io’s eclipses to improve the map of France, says Tyler Nordgren in “Sun, Moon, Earth: The history of solar eclipses from omens of doom to Einstein and exoplanets.” “It was the most accurate map ever produced up to that time, and it revealed that many roads and distances were actually shorter than had been believed.” Ergo: France was smaller than had been believed.

Q. One writer called him “The Man with the Golden Arm,” so you might guess he’s a pro athlete or perhaps an accomplished musician. Well, guess again and make it “out of the box.”

A. First, some medical background: Blood can be “Rh+” (with the Rhesus protein, named after that found in the blood of Rhesus monkeys) or “Rh-” (without the protein), explains Dan Lewis in his book “Now I Know.” If a pregnant woman is Rh- but the fetus inherits Rh+ from the father, her immune system may actually attack the fetus’s bloodstream - known as Rhesus disease - causing the fetus to be mildly anemic at birth or even to be stillborn.

Enter Australian James Harrison, who as a teen had a lung removed in a procedure requiring major blood transfusions. Afterward he vowed to “repay the favor” and became a blood donor himself. Early on, his blood plasma was shown to contain a rare antibody that could be used for a vaccine against Rhesus disease.

Since 1954, the “man with the golden arm” has donated plasma about 18 times a year, and in 2011, he set a record with his 1,000th donation. Hundreds of thousands of women - including his own daughter - have received the vaccine, and “Harrison’s antibody has been used to treat more than 2 million babies who would otherwise have Rhesus disease.”

Q. If every penny counts, how many of them could you drop into a wine glass filled to the brim with water before spillage occurs?

A. Most people will say a coin or two, but amazingly you can drop in at least 10 pennies without spilling a drop, points out Richard Wiseman in his book “101 Bets You Will Always Win.” The secret here is that the water molecules cling firmly together - known as surface tension. The dropped-in pennies merely stretch out the surface of the water as it rises and forms a dome along the rim. But add too many pennies and the surface tension won’t be strong enough to hold, so the water overflows.

But notice that if you add detergent to the water, the surface tension will be much lower and far fewer pennies can be put in the glass before spillage takes place.

Q. Some apparently difficult math problems have wonderfully simple solutions if you just look at them from the right perspective. Try this one:

Two trains, each traveling at 10 miles per hour, are 20 miles apart on a single track heading towards each other. A bee leaves the front of the first train and flies toward the second train at 20 mph. When it reaches the second train, it immediately reverses direction and flies back towards the first train, still at 20 mph. And when it gets back to the first train, it turns around again and keeps going back and forth until the trains eventually collide, squashing the bee. Now how far does the bee fly before its demise? (You can do this in your head, we promise!)

A. The trains will collide at the midpoint of the 20-mile track, each having travelled 10 miles. Since the trains’ speeds are 10 mph, the collision will happen after 1 hour. Since the bee is always travelling at 20 mph, independent of its direction, the bee must travel a total of 20 miles.

When presented with this problem, most of us try a brute force approach, summing the distances the bee travels during its (infinitely numerous) back-and-forth trips. Though that approach works, it requires knowledge of some advanced techniques. When doing mathematics, it’s sometimes “smart” to be lazy!

Q. It took 2,600 workers toiling in round-the-clock shifts for 17 years to complete the project - at a cost of $12 billion dollars. What is this engineering wonder?

A. It’s the 35.4-mile Gotthard Base Tunnel, the longest tunnel on earth, carved a mile and a half under the Swiss Alps to speed travel between the North Sea and the Mediterranean, says Rachel Nuwer in “Smithsonian” magazine. Four boring machines, each the length of four football fields and fitted with rock-chomping steel roller-cutters, advanced about 130 feet per day. When the final 18 miles were bored, the north and south tunnels met in the middle and “were off by only a few centimeters”! Reportedly, the 28 million tons of excavated rock were reused, much to form the concrete lining.

With the tunnel, some 15,000 passengers per day will have their trip from Zurich to Milan cut from four hours to three. Even more important, the tunnel will accommodate four times as many cargo trains per day as the nearest working tunnel - resulting in cleaner air as 40 million tons of freight annually shift away from trucks and onto rails.

Q. How amazing can some coincidences seem when they hit the news? This one is from an AP report of May 2, 1983.

A. Consider that Patricia Kern of Colorado and Patricia DiBiasi of Oregon were both born March 13, 1941 and both named Patricia Ann Campbell. Additionally, “both had fathers named Robert, worked as bookkeepers, and at the time of this comparison had children ages 21 and 19. Both studied cosmetology, enjoyed oil painting as a hobby, and married military men, within 11 days of each other,” say David G. Myers and C. Nathan Dewall in “Exploring Psychology”.

What was behind this unusual twinning? Nothing at all. The two are not genetically related, let alone twins!

Q. You’ve got 10 coins on the table and 3 empty wide-rimmed tapered glasses A, B and C. You bet your friend you can place the 10 coins into the 3 glasses and wind up with an odd number of coins in each of them. Can you decipher such odd thinking?

A. With your one powerful brain, you can do it-—and here’s how: Put 3 coins into glass A and 3 into B and the remaining 4 into glass C, suggests Richard Wiseman in his book “101 Bets You Will Always Win.” Then insert glass B down into glass C as far as possible. Now glass A has 3 coins and glass B with 3 + glass C with 4 = 7 coins! “Technically, each glass now holds an odd number of coins.”

Q. Picture the scene: A quiet city street suddenly erupts in gunfire, two armed men facing off—-one aiming north, the other south. Then a big bang followed by another bang. But who fired first?

A. Enter Robert Maher, music lover and skilled in math and science, who studies humans’ contribution to noise, including the relatively new forensic field of gunshot acoustics, says Meghan Rosen in “Science News” magazine. Regarding the scene in question, surveillance cameras missed the action but did record a distinctive echo following the first gunshot but not the second. Maher concluded that “the first gunshot’s sound probably bounced off a big building to the north,” meaning the person facing north was the first to shoot.

Now Maher and colleagues at Montana State University in Bozeman are working to build a database of sounds made by 20 different guns, seemingly alike to the untrained ear but with distinct sound waves. Eventually, it’s hoped, “investigators might be able to use the information to figure out what kinds of guns were fired at a crime scene.”


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