Tuesday, 18th September 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Is there medical evidence of "faith healing"?

A. Try a placebo, the most potent drug known and with the fewest side effects, says Peter Smith, pharmacologist and neuroscientist at the University of Alberta. "But you have to believe in it."

Placebos are inert substances, often used in "doubleblind" studies - neither researcher nor subjects know who's taking the real medicine - to rule out imagined effects.

And powerful these effects are: the pill-taker hopes the pill will work and so, mysteriously, it does - even though pharmacologically, it shouldn't! "I don't know of any studies that have fully explained this," says Dr. Smith. Possibly anxiety and despair suppress the immune system, then the hope-giving placebo bolsters the body's natural defenses to help fight off injury, infection, cancer, says Reg Morgan, physiologist at the University of Western Australia. The same mechanism may assist doctors with "a good bed-side manner."

Q. You know what you get when you milk a cow but what about a horse? Which product is closer to Mom's own milk?

A. Mare's milk is lighter and sweeter than cow's milk, with notes of watermelon and wild grass and a nutty undertone, says "New Scientist" magazine. Fact is, it was popular in Europe early last century, so much so that in Germany it was delivered door to door and is making a comeback today in Belgium, France, Norway.

While mostly sold as a freeze-dried powder, mare's milk can be found fresh in various Parisian outlets but it's not cheap - 12 euros ($16.50) for a quarter liter. It has been touted as a health elixir of sorts, and for one group this certainly seems true: Infants with severe food allergies will often tolerate mare's milk better than other types. In central Asia, mare's milk is a staple - especially with a kick. In Mongolia and elsewhere, the tradition is to ferment it in a horsehide sack until it turns into a frothy alcoholic drink.

Q. "Hey sweetie, look into my true blue eyes and tell me something about them I don't already know. If you've only got eyes for me, are you up to the challenge?"

A. "Up and more, my love, for I see by your dilated pupils and rapid blinking that you're emotionally supercharged, which I trust is in my favour. Our eyes evolved as billboards to communicate emotion, and yours are doing so in bold letters. As to your fetching blues, what appears to be a uniform iris is actually a kaleidoscope of hues, iridescent and intricately patterned.

"The human eye works in mysterious ways, as I know from Simon Ings's book 'The Eye: A Natural History.' We spend much of our waking hours functionally 'blind' in that our eyes move about three times per second, forcing the brain to ignore visual signals to save us from perpetual seasickness. That's about 10% of seeing time eclipsed; for the rest, we focus on only 1% of what is around us. Moreover, whatever we do see is already in the past, since there's roughly half-second delay from an image registering on the retina to our becoming aware of it. In truth, eye-weirdness begins even before birth, when the not-pitch-blackness of the wom aids our development of nocturnal vision. Then at birth, we can barely see in daylight.

"I see now by your shining orbs that I have met your challenge and hope for more such shining moments to come.

"Q. You might think boiling an egg would be pretty much standard around the world. Think again.

A. The science of high-altitude cooking is well known to residents of more mountainous regions like Colorado where atmospheric pressure affects water-boiling temperature, say Goran Grimvall in "Brainteaser Physics." Try to boil eggs atop Mount Everest (29,000ft.), where water boils at about 72 degrees C (162 F) instead of 100 C (212 F) at sea level, and you better keep a book handy. Egg proteins change thei structure at about 63-66 C, first in the whites, then in the yolk. Even at 85 C (185 F), it takes half an hour to get a 3-minute egg. That's a plenty big factor, based on about 160 millibars atmospheric pressure difference from, say, New York to Denver. By comparison, the difference between a low-pressure stormy day and a high-pressure day is less than about 50 millibars, so you don't need to check the weather before setting the egg-timer.

Q. From the early space program, can you name some of the "wrong" species that had the "right stuff"?

A. Wrong in that many of these "guinea pigs" died or were sacrificed by scientists to study the effects o weightlessness on living organisms, says "New Scientist magazine. In June 1957, Laika was the most famous dog in the world when the Soviet Union launched her into space aboard Sputnik 2, but she faced an equally rapid demise a few hours later when her spacecraft malfunctioned.

Before Laika, note Colin Burgess and Chris Dubbs in "Animals in Space," were monkeys carried high into the atmosphere atop obsolete German V-2 flying bombs in 1948; rabbits, rats and mice aboard highaltitude balloons in the early 1950's; and the Russian dogs Tsygan and Dezik that survived a sub-orbital flight in 1951. NASA's spacefaring chimpanzees Ham and Enos flew on Mercury to help pave the way for humankind.

The first fish, on a 1970's space lab flight, were two mummichog minnows that swam erratically in orbit before becoming oriented but minnows newly hatched on the same flight adapted immediately to the new conditions. Space spiders initially spun toosmall webs, finally ones that looked normal except for thinner strands--"either the spiders detected that the same strength of silk was not necessary or they couldn't spin it."

So brave volunteers, no, but certainly heroes of a sort, says "New Scientist," whose stories "deserve a place alongside the human stories of space flight."

Q. When you pinch yourself to be sure you're not just dreaming, how do you know you're not just feeling a dream pinch?

A. To test this, dream researcher Stephen LaBerge had lucid dreamers - who become aware they're only dreaming - experiment with three different sensations: pressing themselves on the thumb, caressing their own forearm and pinching themselves. They did these in both the waking and dreaming states.

Upshot: The thumb press felt just like a thumb press in either state, says LaBerge in "Conversations on Consciousness," edited by Susan Blackmore. With the caress, the pleasantness was higher in the dream than while awake, perhaps because in the dream it becomes more a curious mixture of things. The biggest difference was with the pinch, which was much less likely to produce pain in the dream state.

"I did this myself and was surprised when I pinched, my skin felt like rubber but there was no pain. Then

I took a pencil and stabbed my hand and owwww.

Yes I can feel pain in dreams but it's not a reliable sensation...

This may be because REM sleep (dreaming sleep) is more likely to activate the reward areas of the brain than the punishment areas."

Q. Guys, why is the shower stall the perfect place for you to do your Placido Domingo imitation?

A. A main reason an amateur singer may sound better is that in a small stall the wavelengths of the voice can bounce back and forth between the parallel walls or the ceiling and floor and set up resonances, "constructivem interference" where sound waves reinforce one another, say Jearl Walker in "The Flying Circus of Physics." This may make your voice seem loud and bold. Also, the tiled surroundings reflect sound well; if you tried singing in a small absorbing closet, your old sour-note self might re-emerge. Finally, the nearby shower walls return the sound quickly, so you seem immersed in it. "You can hear a reflection of a note while still singing that note, allowing you to adjust your voice if it is somewhat off key." If all else fails, the downsplashing water can simply drown out any aural infelicities.

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill


Letters to the Editor

  • A Wonderful Harvest

    Even though the weather Gods didn’t exactly play ball over the weekend it doesn’t take away from the fact that this years Waterford Harvest Festival was yet again another wonderful success. It was great to see the streets of the centre of the city so beautifully and thoughtfully decked out. The various food stalls offering tastes from all over were great to wander around. The information and background that each of the stall holders were able to give on the provenance of their food was really interesting an …

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