Wednesday, 19th September 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

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.”

Q. Calling all you word aficionados, can you say what the following have in common: "addubitation” (questioning oneself), "circumplicate” (to wrap around), exsufflation (blowing out) and "impotionate” (poisoned)?

A. They’re all inkhorn terms (after portable ink containers that scholars hung from their belts), born out of a time in the 15th and 16th centuries when the English language experienced a vocabulary innovation, says Arika Okrent in "Mental Floss” magazine. These terms and many others eventually fell into disuse, as they were often "deliberately difficult, crafted to reflect well on the author rather than make things clear for the reader.” But a good number more entered the language with real staying power, including "absurd,” "adult,” "ambiguous,” "articulate,” "catastrophe,” "confide,” "deduce,” dilemma,” "education,” "enigma,” "exact,” "expert,” "explain,” "frequent,” "gradual,” "hero,” "illustrate,” "imitate,” "irony,” "lament,” "map, "myriad.”

From its origin as a "barbarian tongue,” unfit for philosophy, art, and spiritual matters (Latin and French were used), English came into its own once the printing press made it possible to spread ideas using everyday language, and the need for more English words became apparent. "In the end, English remained English,” Okrent says, discarding some words with Old English roots and absorbing other new words. "This ability to try on words and accept or reject them, whether they are Latin or not, is a sign of a language being robustly alive (unlike, say, Latin).”

Q. Do you know why horseshoe crab blood is blue?

A. Unlike humans whose blood has hemoglobin to carry oxygen through their bodies, horseshoe crabs depend on hemocyanin, explains Dan Lewis on his "Now I Know” web site. Hemocyanin uses copper to deliver this oxygen, and while deoxygenated copper molecules are colorless, oxygenated ones are blue. And no, deoxygenated human blood is not blue until it hits the air.

Q. Let’s think globally on this one: Currently, are farmlands worldwide expanding or shrinking?

A. For the first time on record, they’re actually shrinking, as "every two years, an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom is abandoned,” says Joseph Poore in "New Scientist” magazine. Yet for most of the 20th century, the opposite was true, so that by the 1990s, farms occupied 38% of land worldwide, with 27% of tropical forests and 45% of temperature forests having been cleared.

So what accounts for this dramatic reversal? For Poore, the answer lies in the choices we make every day as consumers, such as preferring cotton or synthetic to wool. During the 1990s, demand for polyester increased fourfold while that for wool fell 40%. "Wool prices collapsed. Sheep farmers around the world, particularly those who were on degraded pasture or couldn’t diversify, abandoned their farms.” The numbers tell the story: "One hectare of land can produce 300 kilograms (kg) of wool or 2000 kg of cotton, while synthetic fabrics require essentially no land.” Thus, in Australia and New Zealand, two major wool-producing countries, over 60 million hectares of pasture have been abandoned since 1990.” This trend continues in other areas, from the hilly regions of China to parts of Iran and Kazakhstan to Portugal, Chile and Argentina.

Concludes Poore: "The beginning of this century could mark the point when we began sharing more, not less of our planet with the other species that inhabit it.”

Q. How is it that folks can devour, say, a bag of potato chips without noticing the calories they’re eating, but the same can’t be said for an apple?

A. It’s all too familiar. You sit down with a can of Pringles potato chips and the next thing you know, you’ve eaten all five servings worth, at 750 calories, which is to say, "about one and a half times the calories of a Big Mac,” writes Dan Lewis on his web site "” (A medium-sized apple, by the way, has about 85 calories.) Welcome to the magic of something called "vanishing caloric density.” When food scientist Steve Witherly studied why we like salty snacks and other junk food so much, he eventually focused on the one reason among many that stood out to him: these foods dissolve easily when they enter our mouths. With vanishing caloric density, "If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there are no calories in it… you can just keep eating it forever.”

And it’s not just potato chips; biggest offender, per Witherly, is Cheetos, and also making the list are ice cream, popcorn, and cotton candy. To make matters worse, Lewis adds, "these foods often are high in sugar, fat, and salt- three elements which make our taste buds tingle, leading us to want more. And this happens while the calorie-counting area of our subconscious doesn’t see a reason to say otherwise.”

Pass the potato chips, please!

Q. According to philosopher and scuba enthusiast Peter Godfrey-Smith, a three-foot-long giant cuttlefish has "a skin that can appear just about any color at all and can change in seconds, sometimes much faster than a second … the entire body is a screen on which patterns are played. The patterns are not just a series of snapshots, but moving shapes, like stripes and clouds. These seem to be immensely expressive animals, animals with a lot to say.” But what is being said, and to whom?

A. No one knows. And there is an even deeper mystery: cuttlefish are color blind! "This is baffling,” writes Godfrey-Smith in "Other Minds: The octopus, the sea, and the deep origins of consciousness.” "These animals are doing so much with color. They are also superb at matching the color of their surroundings, for camouflage. How can you match colors you cannot see?” It seems we have a lot to learn about cuttlefish.

Q. What does "calculus” have to do with teeth? Don’t ask a mathematician but rather a molecular anthropologist such as Christina Warinner. What might she have to say?

A. "Calculus,” or fossilized dental plaque, contains ancient DNA and proteins belonging to microbes that could unlock the secrets of what those ancient humans ate, what ailed them, perhaps even what they did for a living, reports Helen Thompson in "Science News” magazine. According to Warinner, "It’s the only part of your body that fossilizes while you’re still alive and also is the last thing to decay.”

In their study, Warinner and colleagues found "a slew of proteins and DNA snippets from bacteria, viruses and fungi, including dozens of oral pathogens,” one of which still infects gums today. They also later discovered the first direct DNA-based evidence of milk consumption in the plaque of Bronze Age skeletons from 3000 B.C. Even odds and ends from poppy seeds to paint pigments lurked on archaic chompers.

Concludes Thompson: "By examining the microbes that lived in the plaque of past humans and their relatives, Warinner hopes to characterize how our microbial communities have changed through time, and how they’ve changed us.”

(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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