Sunday, 19th November 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. It was 1960, and Goodyear had designed prototypes of translucent illuminated tires that actually changed colors. Pretty neat. What colors were they?

A. Whatever color you wanted them to be, as they had the singular capability of matching the color the passengers happened to be wearing, reports Evan Ackerman in “IEEE Spectrum” magazine. Unfortunately, the tires never went into production because they “didn’t perform well in the rain and melted under heavy braking. Today, Goodyear does make tires that match the color of your outfit, so long as you always wear black.”

Q. Being playful sounds like a lot of fun, so why wouldn’t non-human animals want to get in on it? Actually, they do. Can you cite any examples?

A. Growing evidence suggests that “it’s not just kittens and baby chimps that play, but also birds, reptiles, fish and even invertebrates including spiders and wasps. We have reports of octopuses fooling around with Lego blocks and Komodo dragons waging tug of war with their keepers,” says Marta Zaraska in “Discover” magazine. Though far from uniform and involving a mix of different behaviors in different contexts, three basic types of animal play are object, social, and locomotion. For example, ravens given a small stuffed mouse and a plastic spider manipulated the toys with their beaks or feet (object play), joined in the activity when others did (social) and sometimes hung upside from a branch in apparent enjoyment (locomotion).

The benefits of play might simply be exercising muscles, or dealing with boredom (octopuses), or preparing for adult activity (the almost-sex of spiders). An experiment done on rats showed that play enhances “the young rats’ neural plasticity, which helped them to be more flexible in their behavior later in life.”

To behavioral ecologist Marc Berkoff, play seems to be “a very basic behavior and a very needed one in the repertoire of very diverse species.” Adds psychologist Jennifer Mather, “I think we have to get rid of some of our anthropocentrism… The history of science is littered with ‘Gee, we humans are special.’ And we’re not special. You have to realize this when you see octopuses play.”

Q. If there’s a condition you’ve suffered from without being aware of its name, it may be “Sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia.” That’s a mouthful! Do you need to get yourself to the ER?

A. Not to worry. According to a study in the “British Medical Journal,” a third of the population has been afflicted by “brain freeze” or “ice cream headache,” “the stinging sensation one feels at the top/front of the head after eating too much ice cream too quickly,” says Dan Lewis in his book “Now I Know.”

Your face has a trigeminal nerve that carries sensory information from your forehead to your brain or from the roof of your mouth to your brain. Here’s what happens: When you eat ice cream too quickly, the blood vessels in your face contract, then expand rapidly when the ice cream leaves your mouth. The trigeminal nerve in the roof of your mouth signals your brain that something’s wrong but the brain “mistakes” the source of the sensation and thinks the signal is coming from your forehead. (Called “referred pain,” it also occurs during a heart attack, when the brain incorrectly places the pain in the shoulder rather than in the chest.) In the case of brain freeze, “the brain reacts by turning that signal into a migraine-like headache, although a short-lived one, thankfully.”

Q. Do your shoelaces tend to come undone at the most inopportune moments? Scientists have set out to discover why, with implications beyond personal inconvenience.

A. According to Oliver O’Reilly at the University of California, Berkeley, the culprit is a combination of stomping and whipping, reports “New Scientist” magazine. He and his team took slow motion film of a jogger’s shoes to capture the details of the unravelling.

From a physics viewpoint, a knot is held together by the friction at its center, with each turn adding to the friction and making the knot stronger. “But the repetitive downward stomp of each foot while running exerts an acceleration at the base of the knot, while the laces whip back and forth with each stride, tugging at the ends like an invisible hand.” Over time, acceleration trumps internal friction, and then the knot comes undone all at once (“Proceedings of the Royal Society A…”).

Eventually, “this work could shed light on other knotty structures, such as knots used in surgery….”

Q. When entomologists talk about the “windshield phenomenon,” what are we to make of this?

A. Older people in many countries remember the multitude of insect carcasses accumulating on car windshields during summer. Today, going by anecdotal evidence, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing, reports Gretchen Vogel in “Science” magazine. Now, the Krefeld Entomological Society has tracked insect abundance at more than 100 nature reserves in western Europe since the 1980s, noting dramatic declines of up to 80% at about a dozen of these sites. And a study of stratified bird droppings in Canadian chimneys revealed a striking reduction in the fraction of beetle remains starting in the 1940s, around the time the pesticide DDT was introduced. After DDT was banned in the 1970s, the beetle fraction increased slightly but never returned to the original levels, and across North America and Europe, birds that eat flying insects are in steep decline.

Overall research suggests that declines in insect abundance and diversity are likely due to insecticides and habitat changes. As entomologist Martin Sorg says, “We won’t exterminate all insects…. That’s nonsense. Vertebrates would die out first. But we can cause massive damage to biodiversity--damage that harms us.”

Q. For a quick wise-up on the subject of epistemology, the science of knowledge, what are some fascinating facts about what animals know?

A. Though difficult to assess, the ability to know what others are aware of has been observed in non-human animals such as elephants, chimps, parrots, dolphins and ravens, says Michael Brooks in “New Scientist” magazine. For example, elephants that have never been at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya, but know others who have, often turn up with injuries that need attention, report workers at the rescue center. It’s almost as if the elephants know they will be looked after there, suggesting not only abstract knowledge but relatively sophisticated communication of the knowledge.

Dolphins are even aware of lacking knowledge. When trained to answer a question such as “Was that a high or low-frequency tone you just heard?” they offer sensible answers, even giving a “don’t know” when the right response isn’t clear. And great apes instinctively know that, of two identical cups on a seesaw, the lower one is more likely to contain food.

Then there was Santino, a chimpanzee at Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo, who “knew” he’d want to throw objects at visitors and began breaking up the concrete in his enclosure into pieces suitable for hurling and then putting them in a pile. Chimps in the wild are also planners, having been observed “sorting out in advance what they’ll eat for breakfast, where they’ll get it and when they’ll have it.”

So now you know: Don’t diss animal abilities.

Q. Of the 6200 languages currently spoken as a mother tongue, the 16 with the most speakers account for fully half of the world population. To what extent are languages with few speakers being abandoned in favor of dominant ones?

A. Economist David Clingingsmith collected and analyzed data from 15 countries covering 334 languages and found that only languages with fewer than 35,000 speakers are in decline (“The Economist Journal”). Some 4300 languages (69% of the total) fall below this size, and Clingingsmith’s analysis suggests that about 1700 will be extinct in 100 years—-actually a smaller number than many scholars expected.

Q. Train wheels have flanges on the inside to prevent them from slipping off the tracks. But this is a measure of last resort, not the primary mechanism which keeps trains from derailing. Explain.

A. You probably picture the wheels of a train as flat with a flange on the inner edge, but they are actually slightly tapered (about a 3-degree angle), so that their diameters are largest towards the center of the track. If a train moving due north starts to drift slightly to the west, the effective diameter of the west-side wheels increases while the effective diameter of the east-side wheels decreases, tilting the train slightly and pushing the train back towards the center of the track. It is this simple tapered wheel design which provides stability.

The tapering also allows a train to turn. As a train moving north enters a turn toward the east, the west-side wheels have farther to go than the east-side wheels. But both the west- and east-side wheels rotate at the same rate (they are coupled by axles), so the train slides slightly toward the west, making the effective diameter of the west-side wheels larger. This allows the west-side wheels to cover more distance despite having the same rotational speed as the east-side wheels.

No one knows who invented the tapered wheel, but thank him or her. It’s what makes trains work!

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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