Thursday, 17th August 2017
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Q. When the neurobiology professor encountered a student who had plagiarized her entire paper from one of his class lectures, what punishment did he mete out? An F? Expulsion from the class?

A. A lesser teacher might have but not this one, says Oliver Sacks in "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain." When the prof called the student into his office something didn't add up: She didn't seem the type to cheat or lie so he played a hunch, asking her if she happened to have a photographic memory. "Why, yes, sort of like that," she replied. "I can remember anything if I put it to music." She then sang back to him whole sections of his lecture. And quite prettily, he added. "I was flabbergasted."

This got Sacks thinking about the countless cultural songs and rhymes to help kids learn the alphabet, numbers and other lists. Even as adults we may have to sing the "ABC song" internally to recall the entire alphabet. Especially in preliterate cultures, music has held power in oral traditions of storytelling, liturgy, prayer. Whole books can be held in memory - "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" - with their music-like rhythm and rhyme. All of this may have much to do with why we humans took to music to the extent we have.

Q. "To be on cloud 9" is to be sky high with happiness, yet probably more of us have been UNDER cloud 9. But how about cloud 10? What apparel might be appropriate in that case?

A. Likely umbrellas, raincoats and galoshes, sinc cloud 10 replaced the designation of cloud 9 in the 2nd edition of "The International Cloud Atlas" of 1896, to signify cumulonimbus clouds, or thunderclouds, the tallest of the cloud types, says Andrew Robinson in "The Story of Measurement." The 10 of course never caught on in popular lingo. Scientific cloud typing itself got started in 1802 when Luke Howard, drawing on an even older system, coined the names cumulus, stratus, cirrus and nimbus (the last no longer still in use).

Q. What are the odds on a few scientific breakthroughs for humanity within the next 10 years or so, such as establishing a permanent Mars colony and cloning humans?

A. Consultant Michael Brooks, writing in “New Scientist” magazine, asked the experts and bookmaker PaddyPower for their input.

For a permanent Mars colony by 2027, the bookie’s odds were 33/1. Recently, billionaire venture capitalist Elon Musk announced plans to establish a Mars colony in the 2020s, but astrobiologist Lewis Darnell is skeptical: It’s an 18-month trip from Earth, and “Mars is a brutal and unforgiving environment,” a daunting place indeed to establish a self-governing human colony that’s food and energy independent. He hopes for a colony within 50 years but thinks even that is overly optimistic.

Now consider human cloning, with bookie’s odds at 10/1 against a viable human clone by 2027. Cows, mice, chickens and, most famously, sheep have been successfully cloned, but with humans, many technical hurdles remain. “Cloning is hard to perfect and live births are elusive.” For example, it took 277 attempts to clone Dolly, the first sheep, that lived to adulthood, mated and gave birth to lambs normally. However, she developed osteoarthritis and died from a lung disease at the relatively young age of 6.

Moreover, in primates, structures vital for cell division sit very close to the cell nucleus and tend to get damaged during extraction, leading to potentially “catastrophic errors.” As UK researcher Alison Murdoch sees it, the bookie’s assessment seems rather optimistic. “As a scientist, I can’t ever say never but I estimate the odds being close to zero.”

Q. Goop or no goop, what’s the marvel inside a pig’s ear that you might like to hear about?

A. “The self-cleaning marvel known as earwax may turn the dust particles it traps into agents of their own disposal,” says Susan Milius in “Science News” magazine. Researcher Zac Zachow believes that the ear canal secretion protects ears from accumulating too much debris from airborne particles as it coats hairs and pastes them into a loose net. Though the process is not yet fully understood, it’s believed that bits of particle-dirtied wax leave the ear, having trapped more and more dust and in the process turned the earwax from gooey to crumbly. A rough demonstration by Zachow and Georgia Tech’s Alexis Noel involved mixing flour into a gob of pig’s earwax, eventually turning the lump from stickier to drier, with crumbs fraying away at the edges. Perhaps jaw motions help to loosen these crumbs.

And perhaps, Noel suggests, further earwax testing “might someday inspire new ways of reducing dust building in machinery such as home air-filtration systems.”

Q. Dinner at home with fresh lobster as the centerpiece -what a treat. Yet this delicacy, priced at about $15 a pound, was once reserved for the poor. What’s the story here?

A. According to essayist David Foster Wallace, before it was possible to ship live lobster around the world, “the crustaceans were killed before they were cooked… and precooked lobster meat hermetically sealed doesn’t taste very good,” reports Dan Lewis in his book “Now I Know.” But this cheap, protein-rich meat was perfect for feeding prison inmates and indentured servants. In fact, some states had rules that inmates couldn’t be fed canned lobster meat more than once a week, and contracts covering indentured servants often limited the lobster meals to no more than twice weekly.

All of that changed, of course, once lobsters could be transported live over long distances. In the 1880s, they became much sought after in Boston and New York, and over the next few decades the custom spread until lobsters now have the status of a high-priced delicacy.

(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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