Friday, 17th August 2018
Social media Waterford Today on Twitter Waterford Today on Facebook

By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

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.

Q. "Dashing through the snow/ In a one-horse open sleigh/ O’er the fields we go/ Laughing all the way." You no doubt know the opening stanza of the iconic "Jingle Bells," but can you say whether the song was originally written A. for Christmas B. for Thanksgiving C. as a drinking song D. for sleigh races?

A. We know that the song was written by James Lord Pierpont, most likely in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1850, and most likely inspired by the town’s sleigh races, writes Dan Lewis on his web site "Now I Know." However, Pierpont didn’t publish the song until seven years later in Savannah, Georgia.

As to its purpose, all four of the above choices have been bandied about, but the largely unfamiliar subsequent verses "have references to a sleigh crash, a drag race-style rivalry with another sleigh driver, and … a note about galavanting with various women:

Now the ground is white, Go it while you’re young

Take the girls tonight, and sing this sleighing song."

So, despite its Christmas connection, "Jingle Bells" most likely was a drinking song of the 19th century, "where guests at parties would 'jingle’ the ice cubes in their glasses while they sang along" ("Atlantic" magazine).

Q. You know about full moons, half moons, quarter moons and new moons, but what in heaven’s name are supermoons and puny moons?

A. The moon’s orbit around Earth is not a perfect circle but rather a slightly stretched oval shape - an ellipse - which means periodically the moon changes its distance from the Earth, says Dean Regas in "100 Things to See in the Night Sky." The closer to Earth, the slightly larger the moon appears.

The closest Full Moon in a calendar year is known as a supermoon and the one farthest away is a so-called puny moon. Though the naked eye can’t distinguish the moon’s apparent size from one night to the other, comparing these two moons shows "the variance is dramatic. The supermoon is more than 31,000 miles closer to Earth, and consequently it appears 14% larger in diameter with a 30% larger surface area than the puny moon. That is like comparing a 16-inch pizza to a 14-inch pizza, or the size of a quarter to a nickel."

Q. Can you recount a few of the historic numbers from the story of "Sputnik at 60"?

A. Sixty years ago, on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, "a sphere 58 centimeters in diameter weighing almost 84 kilograms and sprouting four rodlike aerials," says Vaclav Smil in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. "Although its three silver-zinc batteries made up some 60% of the total mass, they rated only 1 watt, good enough to broadcast rapid shrill beeps at 20.007 and 40.002 megahertz for three weeks. The satellite circled the planet 1,440 times before plunging to a fiery death on January 4, 1958."

Deeply embarrassed, the U.S. hastily launched its own Vanguard TV3 rocket in December, only to have it blow up just two seconds after liftoff. Yet it soon became clear that there was no real scientific or engineering gap, as the U.S. went on to launch satellites for communications, weather forecasting and espionage. And, adds Smil, "Less than a dozen years after the surprise of Sputnik, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stood on the moon—-a place no Soviet cosmonaut ever reached."

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


Letters to the Editor

  • Our View

    Rush to CriticismThere are not many people who at this stage have not heard about the Cash family and what happened to them. The mother and six of her children had to seek accommodation in the Tallaght Garda Station last week as they had absolutely nowhere to turn to. It led to an outcry as pictures of the young children sleeping on seats were posted to social media by the mother.Understandably there were a lot of people who were saddened to see that in this day and age that a family had to resor …

    read more »

Weekly Poll