Thursday, 14th December 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. We humans have many a way of dealing with our aches and pains, ranging from going to a doctor to cursing. But there's a hipper modality that needs no prescription, has no unwanted side effects and offends no one's ears. Hospitals are aware of this computer connection, helpful for coping with stress, improving memory and sleep, even speeding recovery after surgery. So, best not to write this one off...

A. Right, it's blogging, the newest thing in the healing hearts. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings, says Jessica Wapner in "Scientific American." A modern electronic version of ancient journal writing, blogging is basically a way of complaining to potentially like-minded people, and as such is selfadministered therapy, a sort of personal placebo.

This self-expression has even been found to help cancer patients, who feel markedly better both mentally and physically afterward, compared with those not writing. Hospitals have started hosting patient-authored blogs on their Web sites, encouraging a community of connected recoverers.

Q. Ever heard of the world-renowned "dead body farm" at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville? It's the sort of place that piques the curiosity, both morbid and scientific.

A. In secluded parts of the campus, bodies of human donors are left to decompose naturally - some in the sun, some in the shade, some buried or wrapped in coverings, says Cornelia Reichert in "New Scientist" magazine. The aim is to gain information to help police and pathologists solve potential homicide cases, where cadavers turn up in various places and under suspicious circumstances. One common place is along a coast, possibly a suicide or an accident victim.

Often there is little that forensic medicine can offer, leaving bereaved relatives with tragic uncertainty. Hence forensic entomologist Gail Anderson has set up an underwater version of the body farm, using pigs (humanely slaughtered) to study the decomposition process. Contrary to what happens to bodies on land, where the head usually goes first, marine fauna will leave the head and face until last.

So when a body with facial wounds but otherwise unharmed is washed up, Anderson is confident that foul play was involved. "It's a macabre project but one of potentially immense value to the families of those lost at sea."

Q. From a reader: "I heard somewhere that 1,300 Earth-sized planets could fit into the volume of Jupiter. I don't believe it!"

A. Astronomers tell us that Jupiter has an average equatorial radius of 71,492 kilometers (km), which is just over 11 times the radius of Earth (6,378 km). Since the volume of a sphere is proportional to the radius CUBED, Jupiter's volume is more than 11 x 11 x 11 = 1,331 times that of Earth. As Bob Berman put it in "Secrets of the Night Sky," Jupiter is so large that 1,300 planet Earths dropped inside wouldn't quite fill it. It has more mass than all other planets combined - and doubled. "Our solar system is made up essentially of the sun and Jupiter. All the rest is a afterthought."

Q. When a smoker's life goes up in smoke, at what rate does this occur? Can you estimate the longevity price of a single pack or even a single cigarette?

A. What follows are average figures, since some smokers get lucky enough to beat the odds. Smoking kills primarily through cancer and heart disease, both late-onset diseases starting at age 50 or so, say Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam in "Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin."

Since life expectancy is less than 80, the average unlucky smoker will lose less than 30 years of life but more than 1 year (otherwise there wouldn't be such a fuss made about smoking). Taking the geometric mean of 1 and 30, smokers die an estimated 5 years earlier than nonsmokers.

If a person starts smoking at age 18 and dies at age 70, averaging a pack per day, that's about 400,000 cigarettes. Making the totally unverifiable but instructive assumption that each cigarette contributes equally to mortality, then each one will cost the smoker 5 years/400,000 = .00001 year = 5 minutes, or about the time it takes to smoke it. This rough calculation is borne out by a study in the "British Medical Journal" that found a 6.5 year life-expectancy loss (for less than one pack a day) and concluded each cigarette costs an average 11 minutes of life.

Q. From a reader: "I came to this country when I was 10 years old, speaking only Croatian. Now, 30 years later, I find I still dream in Croatian and don't 'get' jokes in English. People have to forewarn me that a joke is coming. Why this lingo-lag for me?"

A. Bilinguals report a number of interesting linguistic effects in their dreams. Some seem to stay with their native language for quite a while whereas others switch quickly, even before becoming completely fluent, says Harvard psychologist Deidre Barrett. Most common is for these dreamers to switch from language to language, often using their later language when dreaming of present issues and their earlier language when dreaming about people from the past, childhood emotional issues, etc.

As to a bilingual's response to jokes, some jokes that are very physical or rely on tone of voice may translat well. However, some forms of humour such as puns rely on such a subtle sense of a language that an adult learner may never get them.

Q. Researcher Robert Provine had already written about the difficulty of tickling oneself when, soaping his foot in the shower one day, he was startled to find that his sole tickled more than it should have. Then what happened?

A. Psychology professor Provine, author of "Laughter:

A Scientific Investigation," decided to experiment: He discovered greater ticklishness when he tickled his left foot with his right hand or his right foot with his left hand ("contralateral" or opposite-side tickling) than when he tried same-side ("ipsilateral") tickling.

Later, he had a number of his college students test this out on themselves, and they too rated their contra experience as stronger (4.2 vs. only 2.9).

Tickling is basically a form of communication with a lover, partner, child, explains Province, and your nervous system generally cancels out touch stimuli that you yourself produce. He theorized that with contralateral stimulation, our brain is less likely to recognize it as self-produced because information from the tickling hand and the tickled foot ascend on different sides of the spinal cord and arrive at relatively different times. "Apparently, this greater arrival-time disparity is interpreted as 'more otherness' and generates a more intense sensation of tickle."

Q. Laughter can be a funny thing, especially when its'

chimpanzees doing the laughing. What's so funny to them?

A. Charles Darwin noted that if a young chimp is tickled in its sensitive armpits, a decided chuckling or laughing sound may follow, though it is sometimes noiseless reports Jim Holt in "Discover" magazine.

Primatologists often term this a breathy pant that can be elicited as well by rough-and-tumble play, games of chasing and mock attack - just like children before the emergence of verbal joking at age five or six.

And after researcher Roger Fouts taught a chimp named Washoe sign language, Washoe once urinated on the professor while riding on his shoulders, then snorted and signed the word "funny." Washoe also playfully wielded a toothbrush as if it were a hairbrush.

Another of Fouts's signing chimps called a purse a "shoe," wearing it on her foot, and a third took delight in offering people rocks as "food." Such deliberate misnamings or misuses of things are akin to the jokes of pre-school children. Thus they fit the classic "incongruity theory" of humour, which holds that mirth comes from a sudden surprising yoking together of two things normally kept mentally separate.

Q. A bicycle is of course a bike and a tricycle a trike.

When does a trike become a "tadpole"?

A. "Tricycle" comes from the Greek "treia" for 3 and "kyklos" for a circle or wheel. The word has been in use since the early 19th century, originally signifying a "three-wheeled horse-drawn carriage." The most common type today is the child's three-wheeled pedal toy but early tricycles were mostly for adults.

Adult pedal tricycles are known to have existed from 1868.

Most tricycles have two wheels at the back and one at the front, known as "deltas." Trikes with two front wheels and a wheel at the back are "tadpoles," socalled because the big end is at the front, like a tadpole.

The tadpole trike, which is rapidly becoming the most popular design, is often used by middle-aged former bicyclists who are tired of the associated pains from normal upright bikes. With its extremely low center of gravity, aerodynamic layout and lighter weight, tadpoles are considered the highest performance trikes.

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