Saturday, 18th November 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. How amazing can some coincidences seem when they hit the news? This one is from an AP report of May 2, 1983.

A. Consider that Patricia Kern of Colorado and Patricia DiBiasi of Oregon were both born March 13, 1941 and both named Patricia Ann Campbell. Additionally, “both had fathers named Robert, worked as bookkeepers, and at the time of this comparison had children ages 21 and 19. Both studied cosmetology, enjoyed oil painting as a hobby, and married military men, within 11 days of each other,” say David G. Myers and C. Nathan Dewall in “Exploring Psychology”.

What was behind this unusual twinning? Nothing at all. The two are not genetically related, let alone twins!

Q. You’ve got 10 coins on the table and 3 empty wide-rimmed tapered glasses A, B and C. You bet your friend you can place the 10 coins into the 3 glasses and wind up with an odd number of coins in each of them. Can you decipher such odd thinking?

A. With your one powerful brain, you can do it - and here’s how: Put 3 coins into glass A and 3 into B and the remaining 4 into glass C, suggests Richard Wiseman in his book “101 Bets You Will Always Win.” Then insert glass B down into glass C as far as possible. Now glass A has 3 coins and glass B with 3 + glass C with 4 = 7 coins! “Technically, each glass now holds an odd number of coins.”

Q. Picture the scene: A quiet city street suddenly erupts in gunfire, two armed men facing off - one aiming north, the other south. Then a big bang followed by another bang. But who fired first?

A. Enter Robert Maher, music lover and skilled in math and science, who studies humans’ contribution to noise, including the relatively new forensic field of gunshot acoustics, says Meghan Rosen in “Science News” magazine. Regarding the scene in question, surveillance cameras missed the action but did record a distinctive echo following the first gunshot but not the second. Maher concluded that “the first gunshot’s sound probably bounced off a big building to the north,” meaning the person facing north was the first to shoot.

Now Maher and colleagues at Montana State University in Bozeman are working to build a database of sounds made by 20 different guns, seemingly alike to the untrained ear but with distinct sound waves. Eventually, it’s hoped, “investigators might be able to use the information to figure out what kinds of guns were fired at a crime scene.”

Q. Empathy and social reciprocity are at the root of the golden rule of "Do unto others" in religions and cultures worldwide. Guess where else these "pillars of human morality" show up.

A. In monkeys and apes, says primatologist Frans de Waal in "Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved." For example, after one chimpanzee has attacked another it is not uncommon for a bystander to go over and embrace the victim; now the screaming, yelping and other signs of distress stop. In fact, so strong is this tendency that Russian scientist Nadia Ladygina-Kohts, who raised a juvenile chimp, said that if her charge escaped to the roof, holding out food would not entice him down. "The only way was to sit and sob as if she were in pain, whereupon the young ape would rush down to put an arm around her, a wounded expression on his face."

Among groups in captivity, reciprocity too is evident. Studies show that when a chimp shares food with others, the sharer is more likely to be generous toward other chimps that have previously groomed it-an obvious keeping track of incoming and outgoing services.

A remarkable example of empathy comes from a study where rhesus monkeys learned to pull a chain to receive food yet refused to pull it when doing so would shock a companion. "One monkey stopped pulling for five days, and another on for twelve days after witnessing the shock delivery. These monkeys were literally starving themselves to avoid inflicting pain upon another."

Q. From head to toe, how many different varieties of hair do you grow and at what rates?

A. Two basic types, terminal hair for the scalp, eyebrows and eyelashes, and the usually softer vellus hair everywhere else, says primatologist Adrian Barnett in "New Scientist" magazine. Complex mechanisms of hormonal control spin these two types off into the nine or 10 varieties adults have, from leg hair to underarm to beards.

Whether it's flowing shoulder-length locks or the tiniest toe fuzz, all grow at about 1-1.5 centimeters per month, with a short dormant spell before dropping out. Hair lifetimes determine maximum length, such as leg hairs lasting around two months, armpit hairs making it to six months and head hair growing nonstop for six years and up.

Curiously, we hirsute humans are about the only mammals with continuously growing hair. As physiologist Arthur Neufeld and anthropologist Glenn Conroy point out, while the fur of other mammals just grows to a set length and then stops, our head hair could stick around for years getting longer and longer. "When have you ever seen a chimpanzee getting a haircut?"

Q. The professor readies a pan of molten lead, measuring 740 F. on the industrial thermometer, then prepares to plunge in a finger. What's he trying to prove?

A. It's Jearl Walker of Cleveland State University doing another wacky physics demo, described in "Fundamentals of Physics Extended, 5th Ed." He had read of 19th century carnival showmen dipping wet fingers into molten lead, and figured he was on to their secret: "As soon as the performer's wet flesh touched the hot liquid metal, part of the water vaporized, coating the fingers with a vapor layer. If the dip was brief, the flesh would not be heated significantly."

So Walker wetted a finger and took the plunge. "Amazingly, I felt no heat." The water had indeed vaporized to form a protective sheath. Growing bolder, he wetted and dipped in all the fingers of one hand, deep enough to touch the pan bottom.

"Still I questioned my explanation. Could I possibly touch the lead with a dry finger without suffering a burn? Leaving aside all rational thought, I tried it, immediately realizing my folly when pain raced through the finger." Then he dipped in a dry wiener, which blackened within seconds, lacking also the vapor protection. NEVER, NEVER try this, warns Walker. A slight mistake can cause lead to solidify around the fingers, or send searing splashes onto the body. "I have been scarred on my arms and face from explosive vaporizations."

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