Friday, 20th July 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Youngster's cat Dweezil acts very strange, meowing and pacing about before vomiting on the floor. And what's this? A whole upchucked frog sits in the mess, and moments later starts blinking! The nonplussed youngster rinses it off, and away it hops. A miracle?

A. An un-croaking at least, as frogs and toads have the trick of secreting from their skin some foul-tasting chemicals to ward off predators, such as cats, says John Rawls, of the "Mad Scientist Network" (madsci.org).

Probably Dweezil gulped froggy down before chewing much, then vomited before gastric acid dissolution or suffocation occurred.

Q. From a reader: "Water is composed of hydrogen and oxygen, the first highly combustible and the second supporting combustion. So why won't good old H2O go up in flames?"

A. Because H2O is already a product of combustion, formed when highly combustible H2 and O2 gases mix, often explosively so, says Brandeis chemist Anatol Zhabotinsky. This has been the cause of many disastrous accidents. But once the stuff has burned, it is done, and resultant water molecules are highly stable.

If you really want to make water burn, adds New York University chemist Henry Brenner, you could decompose it via electrolysis into its hydrogen and oxygen gas constituents, then fire these up (react them) again. Of course you still wouldn't actually be burning the water, you'd be burning the hydrogen.

Q. Most of us reach half our adult height by around what age? a) 10 years b) 8 c) 6 d) 4 e) 2

A. Age 8 or 6 are common guesses, but you'll need to drop all the way to 2 to score a height-hit. Average infant is about 20 inches long at birth, 30 inches by Birthday #1, 35 inches by Birthday #2, say V. Gregory Payne and Larry D. Isaacs in "Human Motor Development: A Lifespan Approach."

Fascinating how a human body comes on line: First the head reaches close to its adult length, then the trunk, then the limbs, says San Francisco State University psychologist Ronald Mayer in his online "Human Development: The Beginnings of Behavior." At birth, a baby's head is already huge (reason for those fetching eyes), 25% of total body length and 60% of its eventual size, then "shrinks" to less than 15% of body length by adulthood. Sizewise, our bodies slowly catch up with our head-start heads.

"Not understanding these subtle proportional shifts, medieval artists painted infants - as with the young Christ done at this time - to look strangely like miniature adults."

Q. Stands to reason that a plane flying into the wind will be slowed compared to one flying with a tailwind. By how much? Might a plane in a stiff wind wind up flying backward?

A. Airspeed = Ground Speed - Wind Speed, plain and simple. Think of aircraft as traveling on a treadmill of air, says Elizabeth Wood in "Science from Your Airplane Window." Going by a posted United schedule, says Purdue aerospace engineering professor Steven Collicott, "I see it takes six hours to fly nonstop from New York to Los Angeles, but only five hours to return. At this latitude, the prevailing winds and jet streams are on average west to east. One hour out of six may not be much to someone working a notebook computer, but for someone traveling with four kids, it is."

Sure, it's possible for a small craft to fly into a strong wind and wind up going backwards, "but it has never happened when I'm around," says Collicott. Yet you see birds doing this all the time, flying stationary if not drifting backwards.

On a historic note, one NASA Web site reports that the Wright brothers' plane flew at 35 mph airspeed into a 25 mph Kitty Hawk headwind, making for a groundspeed of 10 mph. "That's likely why Wilbur was able to run alongside the airplane." To reduce initial necessary groundspeed, adds Collicott, planes (as well as birds) generally take off INTO the wind, with Navy aircraft often aided by the carrier steaming rapidly upwind.

Q. Dreams themselves can be plenty strange. What else is going on in the body during these "paradoxical" night dramas?

A. After passing deeper and deeper through sleep Stages 1-4, suddenly without warning the sleeper "comes up for air," says A. Alvarez in "Night." Now blood pressure varies, heart rhythm and breathing quicken, brain oxygen consumption increases, neurons firing rapidly.

Oddity #1, though the body is "almost still as death, the eyes behind the closed lids are moving wildly" - the reason this dream state is called Rapid-Eye Movement (REM).

Oddity #2, the electromyogram (EMG), measuring muscle activity, goes from mountain-peaked during waking to totally flat during REM - showing that "the skeletal muscles are paralyzed and movement is nearly impossible."

For these reasons, the REM period of dreaming has been called "paradoxical sleep" -the brain is as if it's awake but the body is asleep, says Alvarez. Each of us typically goes through 4-5 REM cycles a night, totalling 1 1/2-2 hours - for a 70-year-old, that's 5-6 years of vivid dreaming, however little of it ever gets noted or remembered.

Q. Odds are overwhelming you spent the better part of your waking day doing this, without giving it a thought. Chairmen and chairwomen do it plenty, as do others in seats of power, from county seats to embassy seats to seats on the stock exchange. But prestige and social status aren't the story. Even the lowliest among us do this in dozens of places daily, at work, at home, with family and friends, or alone. Yet the "we" here is NOT the world we but the Western or Westernized we. So what ARE we doing?

A. Sitting on chairs, says University of California-Berkeley sociologist and professor of architecture Galen Cranz, author of "The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body and Design." As inevitable as this sedentary posture might seem, it is far from natural and not even done in half the world. "A Chinese man might squat to wait for the bus; a Japanese woman might kneel to eat; and an Arab might sit cross-legged to write a letter." And not because they can't afford chairs: Many throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Polynesia just prefer not to buy one.

Chairs are cultural, invented long ago by anonymous would-be-off-the-ground sitters. If the king's throne has come to symbolize "really high sitting" in the West, the bathroom "throne" is a joke, signifying low-status sitting.

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