Monday, 16th July 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. What was probably the biggest animal ever to undergo capital punishment? A truly shocking event!

A. In 1903 an elephant named Topsy killed her trainer after he fed her a lit cigarette. Most circus elephants at the time were forgiven a killing or two, so long as it wasn't a customer, but this was Topsy's third, says Sara Gruenin her book "Water for Elephants." Her owners at Coney Island's Luna Park decided to turn the execution into a public spectacle but the announcement that they were going to hang her met with an uproar. They instead contacted Thomas Edison, who for years had been "proving" the dangers of rival George Westinghouse's alternating current by publicly electrocuting stray dogs and cats, along with the occasional horse or cow. Edison accepted the challenge. "Because the electric chair had replaced the gallows as New York's official method of execution, the protests stopped."

Edison brought in "a movie camera, had Topsy strapped into copper-lined sandals and shot 6600 volts through her in front of 1500 spectators, killing her in about 10 seconds." Convinced that his feat discredited alternating current, he went on to show the film to audiences across the country.

Q. Who originally put the barb in barbed wire?

A. Credit Mother Nature. Keeping livestock pinned within hedgerows of thorny plants is an old practice, especially where wood or stone for fencing is in short supply, says Steven Vogel in "Cats' Paws & Catapults."

Commonly used last century was the Osage orange, shrubby tree native to Texas and nearby areas, and a small industry grew up to supply seedlings for use farther north. But the hedges took years to grow, were expensive to maintain, and their grapefruit-size fruits inedible.

Enter Michael Kelly and his 1868 invention of a "thorny wire fence" mimicking the Osage. As historian George Basalla noted, "Barbed wire was not created by men who happened to twist and cut wire in a peculiar fashion. It originated in a deliberate attempt to copy an organic form."

Q. The world-famous newspaper editorially attacked the professor for proposing that a rocket could propel itself by pushing against empty space - a vacuum - and still receive a push back in return. "That is absurd," said the paper sarcastically. "Of course, Professor Goddard with his 'chair' in Clark College and with the support of the Smithsonian Institution ... only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools." Where in fact was the "vacuum" here, and what was the significance of it all?

A. The real vacuum was in the knowledge of the editorialist attacking the good professor for proposing that liquid- fueled rockets could be used to travel in space, says Louis Bloomfield in "How Things Work: Physics of Everyday Life." This was January 13, 1920, and "The New York Times" writer was only mouthing a common misconception that rocket needs something external to "push against" in order to be able to accelerate and gain speed.

"Of course, a rocket can't really push itself forward, any more than you can lift yourself up by your boots," says Bloomfield. Rather, it obtains a forward force, a thrust force, by pushing against its own limited store of fuel.

The pair of equal but opposite forces are action and reaction-- the rocket pushes its exhaust backward and the exhaust pushes the rocket forward Professor Goddard knew all this but it took the large cultur a good while to catch up with him.

Q. Why would anyone be interested in quantifying traffic flows in drunken crowds?

A. To help minimize the congestion and fights that often break out, speeding revellers home faster and safer, says Linda Geddes in "New Scientist" magazine. When University of Cardiff, United Kingdom, researchers monitored Friday and Saturday late night crowds, they discovered high numbers to be staggeringly drunk. This broke down "lamina flow"--where people in a crowd line up behind others going in the same direction--and thus slowed movement by about 9% when a fifth of people were drunk and 38% when the whole crowd was, exacerbating impatience, petulance, problems.

The research team is now examining how moving street furniture or increasing pedestrianization in other ways might ease congestion around nightspots. Its crowd model can help pre-test how opening a new bar or fastfood outlet might affect a crowded city center.

Q. Imagine knights of old gathering for a roundtable discussion with modern baseball players. What "material strength" tips could they share?

A. White ash was celebrated in medieval times as the only proper wood from which to construct the lances of knights errant, says Robert K. Adair in "The Physics of Baseball." "An ash lance was light enough to carry and wield and strong enough to impale the opposition."

Pounding the opposition is the aim of today's baseball sluggers, whose white ash bats swung at 70 mph will endure the 8,000-pound force imparted to a well-hit ball.

A bat made instead of green ash or black walnut will come close to the same "feel" and hitting characteristics but lack in hardness and strength.

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