Thursday, 20th September 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. They can take the shape of a tiny marble, a hamburger, even a parachute, though the formation is in constant flux. What is being described here? Clue: They are not teardrop-shaped, as is often depicted.

A. Did you guess raindrops? High in the atmosphere, raindrops form when water clings to tiny particles of dust, taking on the shape of a sphere since it has the smallest surface area, reports "Amazing Science." Surface tension causes water molecules to cling together, and as the drops fall, they encounter air pressure that flattens out the bottom edge, creating the hamburger shape. The largest raindrops, unable to hold themselves together, start to distort into the shape of a parachute. Raindrops larger than 4 millimeters (0.16 inch) break up as they fall, with the smallest droplets remaining spherical in the final descent.

Q. "Earthworms, dogs, monkeys and humans. We are all cousins in the great journey of evolution," writes Anu Garg on his "A.Word.A.Day" website. And the English language reflects this close relationship, with words like "black dog," "gobemouche," "mooncalf" and "railbird." Do you know their meanings?

A. Metaphorically, "black dog" referred to a counterfeit coin, perhaps because it was made with base metals that turn black over time, Garg explains. It eventually came to mean "depression," and both 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson and 20th-century statesman Winston Churchill used the term to describe their own depression. "Gobemouche" (GOB-moosh), comes from the French for "flycatcher" or "sucker", from "gober" (to suck or swallow) + "mouche" (fly) and describes a gullible or credulous person.

Then consider "mooncalf," based on an early belief that a misshapen birth stemmed from the effects of the moon. Hence, the word can mean "a daydreamer," "a fool" or "a congenitally deformed person." Finally, "railbird" has its origin in a bird being slang for "a person with a specific character" or "a peculiar person" and refers to "someone who watches horse-racing from the railing along the track." More generally, it can mean "a horse-racing enthusiast," "a spectator at a contest" or "an observer who offers unwanted advice or criticism."

Q. History buffs, have you ever wanted to visit some of the camps that Merriweather Lewis and William Clark set up during their two-year round trip from Illinois to the Pacific coast? What unlikely source might help you ascertain that these locations are accurate?

A. Although the explorers produced a well-developed series of maps, they are not the answer, since mapmaking of the time lacked today's tools

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