Thursday, 20th September 2018
Social media Waterford Today on Twitter Waterford Today on Facebook

By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. There may be more to "nose-witness identification" than meets the eye. How so?

A. Researchers from Portugal and Sweden had male university students watch a video of a man assaulting a woman while sniffing a scent they were told was that of the suspect, reports "Discover" magazine. Later, when given a "lineup" of five odor samples and asked to identify the person they had smelled, the "witnesses" pinpointed the would-be suspect an impressive 75% of the time.

As Swedish neuroscientist Johan Lundstrom explains: Every person has a unique scent, like a fingerprint, with a large genetic component. "Even trained sniffer dogs have a hard time distinguishing between identical twins, unless the twins are on different diets."

How human body odor can act like a scented fingerprint is still unclear, but PET scans indicate that human scent affects the brain differently than other scents, lighting up areas responsible for social processing. Much more information can be extracted from body odor than from normal odors, says Lundstrom.

Q. It may not take much to get you interested in a daytime excursion in the sun. Long ago, what was it that started mammals doing this?

A. Though mammals date back at least 160 million years, most were small and spent their first 100 million years in the dark, possibly only foraging at night, says Claire Asher in "New Scientist" magazine. The dinosaur extinction 66 million years ago may have "opened up new niches for mammals, particularly daytime foraging."

Today, many mammals are active during the day (diurnal) but have eyes adapted to darkness. Interested in determining the advent of diurnality, Tel Aviv University Roi Maor and colleagues compared the lifestyles of 2415 living mammals with their related but extinct ancestors and found that diurnality appeared 65.8 million years ago - a few hundred thousand years after the dinosaur extinction ("Nature Ecology & Evolution").

According to the research, monkeys and apes and other simian primates - our direct ancestors - were the first solely diurnal group with visual systems specially adapted to daytime. As nocturnals it would have been hard to communicate, explains Maor, so their sunny lifestyles might have affected their sociability.

Q. How did WCopyfind, software typically used to detect plagiarism, help illuminate inspiration for some of William Shakespeare’s plays?

A. Of course, researcher Dennis McCarthy and English professor June Schlueter are not suggesting that William Shakespeare plagiarized, writes Michael Blanding in the "New York Times,"but rather that the Bard read and was inspired by an unpublished manuscript ("A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels") written in the late 1500s by George North, a minor figure in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Combining WCopyfind and literary analysis, McCarthy and Schlueter conclude that Shakespeare likely consulted North’s manuscript to write eleven plays, including "King Lear," "Macbeth," "Richard III" and "Henry V." Their focus was common words and phrases: For example, in the manuscript’s dedication, North urged those who see themselves as ugly to strive to be inwardly beautiful, using words like "proportion," "glass," "feature," "fair," deformed" and others. And in the opening soliloquy of Richard III, "the hunchback tyrant uses the same words in virtually the same order to come to the opposite conclusion: that since he is outwardly ugly, he will act the villain he appears to be." Says McCarthy, "People don’t realize how rare these words really are."

Further, Shakespeare uses the same words as North in scenes about similar themes: North uses six terms for dogs, including "trundle-tail," to argue that "just as dogs exist in a natural hierarchy, so do humans. Shakespeare uses essentially the same list of dogs to make similar points in ‘King Lear’ and ‘Macbeth.’" Searching the database Early English Books Online (1473-1700), McCarthy found that "trundle-tail" appears in only one other work before 1623.

Q. What animal, like humans, mates for life and may overindulge in alcohol?

A. elephants B. parrots C. prairie voles D. wolves

A. Surprisingly, it’s prairie voles (C), since they’re one of the few mammals that form long-term monogamous pairs and willingly drinks alcohol, reports "New Scientist" magazine. Andrey Ryabinin and Andre Walcott of Oregon Health and Science University knew that divorce rates increase among couples who are "discordant drinkers" (one a heavy drinker, the other not) and wondered whether studying prairie voles might offer a reason why. Starting with pair-bonded voles, the researchers gave them either water, or alcohol and water, then offered the voles a choice between their own partner or a new mate. Their findings: "Males tended to stick by their partners if both had drunk similar amounts of alcohol. But if only the male had been drinking, he was more likely to mate with a stranger."

But more research is needed since factors other than discordant drinking may be at work here. Stay tuned.

Q. The following may be familiar to you, but did you know they’re all nautical lingo: "leeway," "flotsam," "jetsam," "copper-bottomed" and "groggy." Can you explain their origins and their current metaphorical meanings?

A. Let’s get underway, shall we? "Leeway" means "freedom to do something" and stems from the sideways drift of a ship to leeward, away from the wind, says Anu Garg on his A.Word.A.Day web site. "Flotsam" and "jetsam" are often paired together, the first meaning "people or things considered useless or unimportant," the second "discarded material." In nautical terminology, "flotsam" was "goods found floating after a shipwreck," while "jetsam," an alteration of "jettison," referred to "goods thrown overboard to lighten a ship in distress." Next, "copper-bottomed," suggesting "reliable, genuine or trustworthy," stems from the practice of covering a ship’s hull with copper to protect it from wear.

Not becoming "groggy" yet, are you--that is, "weak or dazed, as from tiredness, sickness, intoxication"? The word owes its name to Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), nicknamed Old Grog because he wore a grogram cloak made of silk, wool and mohair. The Admiral ordered his sailors be served diluted rum, thus helping coin the term "grog."

(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

  • Waiting can be bad for your He...

    When the latest statistic that waiting times for patients had risen to their highest level yet, there can't have been too many people that were surprised.There are now over 700.000 people on waiting lists with over 50.000 of them children. That so many people are waiting for treatment in one of the most developed economies in the world is truly frightening. Of course you can take into account the underfunding of the health sector during the economic downturn but it still wouldn't fully explain why so ma …

    read more »

Weekly Poll