Monday, 27th February 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. In a contest between a Brazilian free-tailed bat and a common swift, which comes out ahead?

A. Previous studies suggested the birds fly faster than bats, with the common swift being the fastest bird on record for level flight at 111 kilometers per hour (km/h), says Gary McCracken of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, as reported in “New Scientist” magazine. Now the Brazilian free-tailed bat has been clocked at more than 140 km/h in flight, “the fastest powered flight speeds documented yet in any vertebrate - that is, in bats or birds.”

Why this exceptionally fast flight? Credit the bats with exceptional aerial lifestyle adaptation: “Long, narrow wings with pointed tips help them fly fast and horizontally, and long toe hairs may help judge speed and turbulence (Royal Society Open Science).”

Q. Are you Web-wise enough to know about

"typosquatters"? Doubtless you've had occasion to visit their handiwork, however inadvertent.

A. Typosquatting means registering web addresses that differ from popular sites by just single-letter errors or transpositions - "typos" in editors' jargon, says "New Scientist" magazine. One example is, obviously designed to snare surfers The popular search engine even anticipated this blunder and tried to buy up the address but was too late, though they did get,, and "But in a veritable domain-name bunfight, typosquatters somehow got the four, nine and 20- 'o' versions. Where does it all end?"

Certainly not at the White House, because if you type in, you won't get the official site - it's at http://www..whitehouse.go - but rather a political spoofing instead. So, why bother? Dough-re-mi naturally, since many sites pay a small fee to sites that send surfers their way. "Click on one of those ads and you're putting money in the typosquatter's pocket."

Q. The biggest example anywhere stands at about 65 feet, though the average is comfortably household-sized with some 20 billion made annually, over half in China. Use one of these hand-held "tools" and it'll still be doing its thing 35 miles or 45,000 words later. It can perform in zero gravity and has been called upon to do so. Many Civil War soldiers made its acquaintance, as do millions of schoolkids today who often as not use one for poking, prodding, even pricking instead of for its preferred pontifical purpose. Can you pinpoint this p-word object?

A. It's a pencil, as detailed by Dean Christopher in"Discover" magazine. The 65-footer is on display near Kuala Lampur, made of Malaysian wood and polymer. Pencil lead actually contains no lead but rather a mixture of clay and graphite, so a prick won't cause lead poisoning though the person could become infected. On the other end, erasers are a fixture in the U.S. but usually not in Europe.

Q. Why don't woodpeckers get headaches? Their large brain case and shock-absorbing bone structure at the base of the skull to prevent concussions are certainly a start.

A. The bird's muscle and bone structure beneath a chisel-like bill also helps cushion blows, as its stiff- strong tail enables it to lean back for a powerful rat-a-tat-a-tat, says Mike O'Connor in his book, "Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches?" Even its feet are different: two toes in the front and two in the back (not three and one), for a better grip on the tree trunk. Special nostrils help keep out flying woodchips. Yet just maybe its most unusual feature is its tongue, extra-long and wrapped around inside at the base of the head. So to reach an insect deep inside the tree, the bird just shoots out this barbed and sticky-tipped food-fetcher, cutting down on the need for further chiseling.

Q. Here's a tricky ONE: Which is bigger, the whole number 1.0 or the repeating decimal fraction 0.9999... The 1 in the first number is certainly bigger than the 0 in the second number, but what about all those 9's, indeed a endless number of them as signified by the ...?

A. The magic of this infinite series is that as you add 9's to .99, then .999, then .9999 etc, the value obviously gets closer and closer to the number 1.0 until finally it EQUALS 1.0! To prove this to yourself, suggest Edward Burger and Michael Starbird in "The Heart of Mathematics," note that 1/3 = 0.3333... and that 2/3 = 0.6666..., which when added together yield 0.9999... And since 1/3 + 2/3 = 1, then 0.9999... must also equal 1.

Q. In looking for that mysterious "sixth" sense in humans, where might be a good place to swing into action?

A. Try bar gymnastics, says Vincent Mallette in "The Science of the Summer Games." Consider a female athlete on the uneven bars, doing swings, handstands, pirouettes. By going from a fully extended giant swing to a fully tucked somersault, she can increase her spin rate 20 times - more than a diver or figure skater - becoming almost a human rotational "bomb." Like fancy diving and tumbling, bar gymnastics relies on a sixth sense that humans share (weakly) with animals, the proprioceptive or kinesthetic sense of knowing where we are in space - our orientation. It is vital that a gymnast or diver know when she has completed a rotation and is ready for the next maneuver; for a trapeze aerialist, it can be a matter of life and death.

No one organ or sense completely accounts for this but rather a combination of balance-monitoring by the three semicircular canals of the middle ear - the "roll, pitch and yaw" of pilots - plus a refined internal clock.

The eyes and muscles also play a role. So delicately attuned is all this that world-class gymnasts taken into outer space would be much more susceptible to zero-g sickness than an average person.

"They've learned to make precise use of gravity, and when gravity goes screwy, they're more afflicted than stumblebums like the rest of us."


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