Thursday, 23rd November 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. For a quick wise-up on the subject of epistemology, the science of knowledge, what are some fascinating facts about what animals know?

A. Though difficult to assess, the ability to know what others are aware of has been observed in non-human animals such as elephants, chimps, parrots, dolphins and ravens, says Michael Brooks in “New Scientist” magazine. For example, elephants that have never been at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi, Kenya, but know others who have, often turn up with injuries that need attention, report workers at the rescue center. It’s almost as if the elephants know they will be looked after there, suggesting not only abstract knowledge but relatively sophisticated communication of the knowledge.

Dolphins are even aware of lacking knowledge. When trained to answer a question such as “Was that a high or low-frequency tone you just heard?” they offer sensible answers, even giving a “don’t know” when the right response isn’t clear. And great apes instinctively know that, of two identical cups on a seesaw, the lower one is more likely to contain food.

Then there was Santino, a chimpanzee at Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo, who “knew” he’d want to throw objects at visitors and began breaking up the concrete in his enclosure into pieces suitable for hurling and then putting them in a pile. Chimps in the wild are also planners, having been observed “sorting out in advance what they’ll eat for breakfast, where they’ll get it and when they’ll have it.”

So now you know: Don’t diss animal abilities.

Q. Of the 6200 languages currently spoken as a mother tongue, the 16 with the most speakers account for fully half of the world population. To what extent are languages with few speakers being abandoned in favor of dominant ones?

A. Economist David Clingingsmith collected and analyzed data from 15 countries covering 334 languages and found that only languages with fewer than 35,000 speakers are in decline (“The Economist Journal”). Some 4300 languages (69% of the total) fall below this size, and Clingingsmith’s analysis suggests that about 1700 will be extinct in 100 years - actually a smaller number than many scholars expected.

Q. Train wheels have flanges on the inside to prevent them from slipping off the tracks. But this is a measure of last resort, not the primary mechanism which keeps trains from derailing. Explain.

A. You probably picture the wheels of a train as flat with a flange on the inner edge, but they are actually slightly tapered (about a 3-degree angle), so that their diameters are largest towards the center of the track. If a train moving due north starts to drift slightly to the west, the effective diameter of the west-side wheels increases while the effective diameter of the east-side wheels decreases, tilting the train slightly and pushing the train back towards the center of the track. It is this simple tapered wheel design which provides stability.

The tapering also allows a train to turn. As a train moving north enters a turn toward the east, the west-side wheels have farther to go than the east-side wheels. But both the west- and east-side wheels rotate at the same rate (they are coupled by axles), so the train slides slightly toward the west, making the effective diameter of the west-side wheels larger. This allows the west-side wheels to cover more distance despite having the same rotational speed as the east-side wheels.

No one knows who invented the tapered wheel, but thank him or her. It’s what makes trains work!

Q. A hockey puck

a) can cost up to $50,000

b) was once fashioned out of a lacrosse ball

c) is refrigerated for National Hockey League games

d) is made of vulcanized rubber, the same stuff as auto

tires, shoe soles, etc.

A. All are true, as hockey was originally played with a lacrosse ball until exasperated rink owners got tired of all the broken windows from errant orbs, says Alain Hache in "The Physics of Hockey." So they cut the ball into three pieces and kept the puckish middle section. "Ever since 1885, the game has been played with just such a rubber slice."

Rubber of course is one of the most elastic materials on Earth and even vulcanization, a process discovered by American inventor Charles Goodyear in 1839, doesn't stop pucks from bouncing. In fact, they bounce too much, the reason for the refrigeration; a cold puck will bounce to only about half the height of a warm one.

"Unfortunately, this creates a new problem: a hard frozen puck traveling at 90 mph is a dangerous projectile!" As to the $50,000 puck, the Fox TV network once engineered a high-tech NHL version with a superimposed blue cometlike TV trailer that turned red on screen at speeds beyond 70 mph. But hard-core fans were not thrilled nor were the players, who claimed the puck's screws skewed its sliding. The idea was dropped.

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