Saturday, 23rd September 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Are you one of the millions who met their romantic

partner on an online dating site? If so, you’ve helped

generate billions of pieces of data, ripe for analysis,

including one broad category of “deal breakers.” Can you identify any of them?

A. As reported by John Bohannon on “sciencemag.org,” sociologist Elizabeth Bruch and team randomly selected 1855 people registered on an “established, marriage-oriented dating site” that produced some 1.1 million interactions (“Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”). Their initial finding? “When it comes to the early state of dating, it seems to be all about the deal breakers.” Without a photo, both men and women were 20 times less likely to look further. Also, smoking could drop interest some 10-fold. And the biggest deal-breaker was age, for women at least, who were “400 times less likely to browse the profile of a man significantly older than herself.” However, women in their 40s were 10% more likely to show interest in a man 55-years-old than in one her own age. Not surprisingly, men in their 40s showed more interest in younger women.

Other findings? Women were 10 times more likely to browse the profile of a guy six inches taller, whereas men were about three times more likely to browse hers. Plus, men were less likely to show interest in a heavy-set woman, “whereas women showed little aversion to-- with some showing even more interest in - heavier-set men.”

Overall, these deal-breakers were less pronounced in the second (messaging) stage of online dating.

Q. Is it true that elephants, because of their enormous size and weight, need a lot of restorative sleep?

A. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. A recent study shows that wild elephants may set the new sleep record of needing only two hours per day, beating out horses at two hours, 53 minutes, says Susan Milius in “Science News” magazine. Much of that sleep occurs standing up, with their lying down only once every three or four days; in fact, elephants can even skip a night’s sleep without needing extra naps later, report neuroethologist Paul Manger and colleagues in “PLOS ONE.” On the other hand, those in zoos and enclosures have been shown to snooze from three to seven hours in a 24-hour period.

Generally, it appears that larger species need less sleep and smaller species need more, with some bats, for example, routinely sleeping up to 18 hours a day. Perhaps, says Manger, “building and maintaining an elephant body may take more feeding time than maintaining a little bat body.”

Q. Lightning is better understood than people think. When was the electrical nature of lightning first understood and by whom?

A. As early as the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin and French physicist Thomas-Francois Dalibard (1709-1778) were drawn to the subject, says lightning specialist Brian Burrows of Oxfordshire, UK, writing in “New Scientist” magazine. Franklin is also credited with suggesting use of an elevated, earthed metal rod to protect buildings, an idea “quickly taken up by the Royal Navy, which had lost many wooden ships from fires caused by lightning strikes.”

Further adding to our knowledge was the invention of the Boys camera (1926), which allowed sequential photographs of lightning flashes. In South Africa, Basil Schonland took numerous photos at a rate equivalent to 26,000 frames a second to reveal some of lightning’s previously unknown aspects, including that a typical thundercloud has both positive and negative charges.

As for Franklin lightning conductors, they don’t do anything much to prevent lightning or to discharge the cloud; instead they provide a preferred attachment point to a building for a downwards leader, so the lightning current can be conducted safely to the ground.

Q. Nature is filled with superlatives - the oldest, the tallest, the stoutest. How is Thimmamma Marrimanu one of the crown jewels of sorts?

A. This banyan tree with its numerous trunks and complex root system has the biggest tree canopy on the planet, spreading out nearly five acres, reports Ben Crair in “Smithsonian” magazine. The banyan tree is the national tree of India. Legend has it that this particular one grew from the spot where Thimmamma Marrimanu threw herself on her husband’s funeral pyre in 1433 and “because of her sacrifice, one of the poles supporting the pyre grew into a tree with mystical powers.” The local forest department supports the tree’s continued growth, making it still remarkably healthy at more than 550 years old.

Other superlatives of the leafy variety include Hyperion in Redwood National Park in California, the tallest tree at 3,791 feet; Methuselah in California’s White Mountains, “a 4,765-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine germinated during the Bronze Age”; El Arbol del Tule in Oaxaca, Mexico, a Montezuma cypress whose trunk measures 148 feet around; and Echo Caves Fig in Ohrigstad, South Africa, a wild fig whose roots reach 400 feet underground.

And in California’s Sequoia National Park stands General Sherman, a giant sequoia declared the world’s largest tree in 1931, with a wood volume of 52,500 cubic feet.

Q. It’s been said that plants can hear music and grow better in a musical setting. Is this true?

A. No, but scientists have confirmed that plants do respond to certain sounds, such as the gurgle of water through a pipe or the buzzing of insects, says Marta Zaraska in “Scientific American” magazine. In a recent study, evolutionary biologist Monica Gagliano and her team placed pea seedlings in pots shaped like an upside-down Y, with one arm placed in dry soil, the other connected to a water source. Invariably, the roots grew toward the fluid. Another study showed that the rock cress could distinguish between wind vibrations and caterpillar chewing sounds; the plant produced more chemical toxins after “hearing” a recording of feeding insects. Finally, there’s “buzz pollination,” in which a bee buzzing at a particular frequency was shown to stimulate pollen release.

As to whether acoustic pollution affects plants, Zaraska comments, “The next time you turn on a leaf blower or a hedge trimmer in your garden, consider the lilies.”

Q. Is the “non-equilibrium system of interacting particles” getting to you? You’re not alone. How so?

A. That’s physicists’ talk for vehicular traffic, says Gemma Tarlach in “Discover” magazine. “Traffic jams develop spontaneously when vehicle density exceeds a critical level, beyond which minor fluctuations in the flow of individual vehicles destabilize the whole thing” (“New Journal of Physics”). It appears that neither construction nor accidents are directly responsible for congestion.

According to the World Health Organization, some 1.25 million people die every year in traffic accidents, half of whom are defined “as vulnerable road users on foot, bicycle or motorcycle.” And traffic pollution was linked to asthma, pulmonary disease, eczema and even food allergies.

Even more vulnerable in sheer numbers are other species, including birds, which worldwide die at a rate of about a quarter of a billion annually. Yet some birds such as roadkill-eating crows are particularly adaptive, interrupting their meal to fly straight up or walk to a different lane as traffic approaches. As to how many land animals are killed annually, no single entity keeps track. But “over a 17-month period, one study documented more than 8,000 fatalities along a 1.1-mile stretch of road in Indiana.”

(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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