Monday, 24th July 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Where is it that you might aptly say, “When it rains, it pours?” This is not the same as “Raining cats and dogs.”

A. Since 1861, the town of Cherrapunji, India, has held the world record for the most rainfall in a 48-hour period (over 98 inches, set in 2014), says Gemma Tarlach in “Discover” magazine. “Cherrapunji also holds a long-standing record for highest rainfall in a 12-month period: 86 feet, 10 inches, set back in 1860-1861.” The holiday resort there brags about it being the rainiest place on planet Earth.

Following a rainfall, people the world over might detect the earthy notes of petrichor, most likely due to a byproduct of soil bacteria called geosmin. Only recently, however, has the likely mechanism of petrichor been discovered: “The average raindrop hits a porous surface with enough force to trap air bubbles at the point of impact. The bubbles then rise and pop, releasing aerosols, including geosmin” (“Nature Communications”).

But not even in the rainiest Cherrapunji has it ever rained cats and dogs. Though the saying was first recorded in the mid-17th century, its origin remains unknown. “Some etymologists think it refers to dead animals washed into the streets after a downpour. But others see a possible corruption of the old English word for waterfall, ‘catadupe,’ which makes more sense than falling Fidos and Fluffys.”

Q. This is the ultimate in getting the job done fast and in time, in time meaning less than 24 hours of lapse. Any thoughts on this one? Clue: You can bank on it.

A. It’s the ultimate “hurry up and wait,” since the brain from a deceased donor must arrive at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center within 24 hours, says Sean O’Neill in “New Scientist” magazine. Average time is more like 17 hours, “incredibly fast given the brain has to be removed intact and transported from anywhere in the U.S.”

Then Jorge Tejada and his team weigh it (average 1.4 kilograms, or 3 pounds), slice it in half and rinse the hemispheres in sterile saline. One half is cut into slices from front to back, key structures are removed with a scalpel and the slices are placed between two plates of Teflon-coated aluminum and frozen in seconds with dry ice and liquid nitrogen, minimizing damage to tissue. The other half is soaked in formalin for several weeks to fix it before being examined and dissected by a pathologist and stored at room temperature until needed for research.

Asked if the brain bank holds any famous brains, Tejada said: “Every brain here is famous. Everyone here is somebody, so we take our hats off and say thank you.”

Q. Life on Earth is wonderfully diverse in all its forms and processes. There are walkers, runners, flyers, swimmers, crawlers and on and on. But why aren’t wheels included in the locomotion mix?

A. First, consider the daunting biomechanical problems of evolving rotating muscles and veins, says Charles Cockell in “Physics Today” magazine. Then, too, “wheels have an inherent problem in that they are limited in the landscapes they can navigate. They cannot overcome obstacles with a height greater than their radius unless they are lifted up.” At the human scale, legs are far more efficient for getting from here to there despite barriers and for traversing terrains such as sand or wet soil that are extremely difficult for wheel movement.

However, in regions of the world with flat dry plains, dung beetles push balls of dung and tumbleweed balls roll across the landscape. “Biology does explore spheres and wheel-like architecture in places that offer the potential for their success for rapid transport.”

Q. You don’t want to shake hands with this crab, advises “Science News” magazine. Why not?

A. Because this large coconut crab can snap its left claw as hard as a lion can bite, says the magazine’s Susan Milius. According to Okinawan researcher Shin-ichiro Oka, the shy crab doesn’t attack people unprovoked, but when he was getting one to grip a measurement probe, his hand was pinched twice, thankfully without breaking any bones. But, said Oka, “although it was just a few minutes, it felt like eternal hell.” The strongest claw grip measured a force of about 1,765 newtons, “worse than crushing a toe under the force of the full weight of a fridge.” By way of comparison, a lion’s canines bite with about 1,315 newtons, with some of its molars topping 2,000 newtons.

Coconut crabs begin their lives in seawater in the western Pacific and Indian Oceans. Eventually they move to dry land where they live for 50 years, maybe even double that number, yet they’d drown if forced back into water for too long. Adult males and females use their powerful left claw “for dismembering whatever the omnivorous scavengers find: roadkill and other dead stuff, innards of palm trees and nuts” - and also coconuts.

Q. HELP WANTED: Required skills include advanced rope climbing, rope rigging, fiberglass repair, plus ability to work at heights of several hundred feet, sometimes in high winds. Seasonal work mostly between spring and fall, with travel to various locations for four to six weeks at a time. Do you have what it takes?

A. Rope-access technician Jessica Kilroy does, one of only two women in the field who repair wind turbine blades all over the globe, reported “Sierra” magazine from an interview by Kristine Wong. Combining her climbing interest with a strong conservationist bent, Kilroy works for Rope Partners, where she ascends 300-foot turbine towers wearing a heavy harness with her tools and gear.

As she describes it, “First we climb a ladder in the inside of the tower and anchor our ropes (a main rope and a backup). Then we rappel off the nose cone and secure ourselves to the blunt side of the wind turbine blade.” Special care must be taken with the other side, since it is so sharp it could cut her rope. And each turbine’s blades are different, so she’ll often be on the phone with the engineers while up in the air. Moreover, some jobs require her being on the tower for 6-8 hours, often in high winds.

The job has definitely changed her, Kilroy says. “Whenever I’m not working, all the other things in life - like people bickering - don’t bother me. I have peace and patience for all the other moments in my life.”

Q. This musical maestro of the insect world uses its various body parts to create unique sounds. Can you name this tunemaker?

A. It’s the tiny masked birch caterpillar (Drepana arcuata) that shakes its body, drums and scrapes its mouthparts, and drags specialized anal “oars” against the leaf surface to create bizarre signals, says biologist Jayne Yack, as reported in “New Scientist” magazine. It may be that these signals serve to invite other caterpillars to food-rich areas for group shelter-building (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology). After more than 30 years of studying insect sounds, Yack declares, “I’ve never seen one insect species produce such a diversity of signal types.”

Q. Outer space is near absolute zero temperature (-460F, -273C), really cold. So why not use this vast coldness to air condition our homes?

A. When you stand outside on a calm clear night, you can feel your body heat being radiated into space. This heat radiation also cools our homes, so we actually do use outer space for “air conditioning.” But during the day, the intense sunlight falling on our roofs overwhelms this radiative cooling, and our homes heat up. It would help if you could make your roof into a mirror so that no sunlight is absorbed. But, unfortunately, any ordinary mirror capable of reflecting sunlight also blocks thermal radiation from escaping into outer space, negating the desired cooling effect.

Enter so-called “metamaterials,” human-designed materials not found in nature. Reporting in “Science” magazine, Xiang Zhai et al. describe the fabrication of an extraordinary mirror that reflects sunlight yet is transparent to thermal radiation; the material consists of glass microspheres embedded in a transparent plastic film, backed by a mirror-like silver coating. More critically, they’ve developed an economical manufacturing process for the metamaterials, “vital for promoting radiative cooling as a viable energy technology.” These remarkable materials might help cool our buildings and, by reducing the energy we expend on air conditioning, also help cool our planet.

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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