Saturday, 21st October 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. "What in the thunder was that?" she marvels, not remembering ever hearing thunder in a snowstorm before.

A. Thundersnow, though rare, can happen with sufficient instability and electrical buildup in the storm, bringing on flashes of lightning, says Randy Cerveny in "Freaks of the Storm." Often this will portend as much as 10 inches of the white stuff, report University of Missouri atmospheric scientists, who analyzed 30 years of data from the U.S. Midwest. Wind and hail are often part of the mix.

Another weather oddity is St. Elmo's fire, a small static electricity discharge that can occur with storms, Cerveny adds. A nineteenth-century British surgeon once commented that during a snowshower his horse's ears became luminous and the brim of his hat appeared on fire. Minute sparks darted toward the horse's ears and "the margin of my hat looked beautiful, and I was sorry to be so soon deprived of it."

More recently, Arizona meteorologists observed an odd electrical discharge during a rare snowstorm in Tucson. From atop an 80-foot tower, they could see short flashes of light originating at or near the ground all across the city. "These were less flickering and intense than normal bolts.

There was neither thunder nor radio static. One of the meteorologists speculated that the unusually large wet snowflakes were able to pull electric charges down from the clouds in the fashion raindrops usually do."

Q. Ticklish question #1: Why is it virtually impossible to tickle yourself? And #2: Is tickling ever a torture?

A. For you to become "ticklee," there needs to be a "tickler," a "safe" person and not a stranger, say Tom Stafford and Matt Webb in "Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain." The problem with your self-tickling is that your brain makes an "efference copy" of any motor command, like a carbon copy, so you know it's your movement.

That's a "no go" for tickling. So here's the trick: You set up a robotic system where the robot responds and tickles you in one of your ticklish zones. But you'll need to build in a TIME DELAY that fools your brain into thinking the tickle was externally generated! "This just might do it," say the authors.

Yet while the pleasure of tickling is well known, the act can generate pain as well, with the ticklee simultaneously laughing hysterically and writhing in agony. "Indeed, in Roman times continuous tickling of the feet was used as a method of torture."

Q. From an editor: "Why is the letter 'W' called a double-U instead of a double-V? It sure looks like a double- V. Who mixed up these two letters in the first place?"

A. Norman scribes in the 11th century introduced the "w" to replace the runic symbol "wynn" from Old English, says David Crystal in "The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language." It got the name "double-U" because in Middle English "v" and "u" were interchangeable forms, with scribes writing "uu" for the /w/ sound. This old double-identity is still evident in cognate pairs such as flour/ flower and suede/Swede (from askoxford.com).

Oddly, the "w" is the only English letter name with more than one syllable, says Wikipedia.org, giving the Web's ubiquitous nine-syllable initialism "www" the irony of being an abbreviation with three times as many syllables as the unabbreviated form World Wide Web.

Q. Over the centuries, prisoners condemned to be hanged by the neck have had plenty to worry about. Have the hangmen/executioners had anything to worry about?

A. Old-fashioned "short drop" executions caused death by strangulation as the rope pressed on the windpipe and arteries to the brain, a 10-second demise, says "New Scientist" magazine. Alas, that was only if the noose was correctly applied.

Witnesses of public hangings often reported victims "dancing" in pain at the end of the rope, struggling violently for many minutes as they asphyxiated to death. In some cases strugglers were cut down and resuscitated, even after 15 minutes!

When public hangings were outlawed in Britain in 1868, the "long-drop" method took over with a lengthy rope to build up greater speed to assure a more "merciful" breaking of the neck. Here the length had to be tailored to the victim's weight, as too great a force "could rip the head clean off, a professionally embarrassing outcome for the hangman."

Yet an analysis as late as 1992 of the remains of 34 prisoners found that only in about half of cases was the cause of death at least partially spinal trauma, with a fifth showing the classic "hangman's fracture." The rest died in part from asphyxiation. But, adds Canadian anthropologist Michael Spence, who studied U.S. victims, the trauma of the drop would have rapidly rendered all of them unconscious anyway. "What the hangmen were looking for was quick cessation of activity, and they knew enough about their craft to ensure that happened. The thing they feared most was decapitation."

Q. Don't even think about trying to top this one, but what's the record for skid marks on a public road?

A. Set in 1960 by a Jaguar driver on England's M1 motorway, the marks were 290 meters (950 ft) long, says Jearl Walker in "The Flying Circus of Physics." In court, the speed at wheellock was alleged to be 160 kilometers per hour (100 mph), though later calculations put it at more like 225 kph (140 mph).

Yet these skid marks pale next to those left by Craig Breedlove in October 1964 at Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats, who drove his rocket-powered "Spirit of America" through a measured mile at about 540 mph. To slow, he released a parachute but its cord snapped; his second chute also failed. His brakes did little more than leave 6- mile-long skid marks before burning out. Still traveling at 500 mph, the vehicle rode up and over an embankment and plummeted nose down at 160 mph into a pool of brine five meters deep. Firmly strapped into his seat, Breedlove nearly drowned.

Yet he had broken the 500-mile-per-hour barrier with a average speed of 526 mph, inadvertently setting the skid-mark record as well.

Q. A hockey puck

a) can cost up to $50,000

b) was once fashioned out of a lacrosse ball

c) is refrigerated for National Hockey League games

d) is made of vulcanized rubber, the same stuff as auto tires, shoe soles, etc.

A. All are true, as hockey was originally played with a lacrosse ball until exasperated rink owners got tired of all the broken windows from errant orbs, says Alain Hache in "The Physics of Hockey." So they cut the ball into three pieces and kept the puckish middle section. "Ever since 1885, the game has been played with just such a rubber slice."

Rubber of course is one of the most elastic materials on Earth and even vulcanization, a process discovered by American inventor Charles Goodyear in 1839, doesn't stop pucks from bouncing. In fact, they bounce too much, the reason for the refrigeration; a cold puck will bounce to only about half the height of a warm one.

"Unfortunately, this creates a new problem: a hard frozen puck traveling at 90 mph is a dangerous projectile!"

As to the $50,000 puck, the Fox TV network once engineered a high-tech NHL version with a superimposed blue cometlike TV trailer that turned red on screen at speeds beyond 70 mph. But hard-core fans were not thrilled nor were the players, who claimed the puck's screws skewed its sliding. The idea was dropped

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