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

Q. True or False: “Classic film villains display a statistically significant higher incidence of dermatologic findings than heroes.”

A. True. Simply put, lots of bad guys do indeed have bad skin, says Steve Mirsky in “Scientific American” magazine. Drawing from the American Film Institute's list of the 50 top heroes and 50 top villains, dermatologists Julie Amthor Croley and Richard Wagner analyzed the top 10 members from each list and found that “six of the all-time top ten American film villains (60%) have dermatologic findings, all… located on the face and scalp.” The heroes were free of conspicuous facial flaws.

For example, when villain #3 Darth Vader is finally unmasked, his face displays “'scars on left cheek and scalp vertex, deep rhytides on face, periorbital hyperpigmentation, alopecia.' In plain English, that's scars, creases, dark circles around the eyes, hair loss.” On the other hand, hero #3 James Bond (played by Sean Connery) has “virtually perfect skin,” despite a lifestyle marked by alcoholic consumption and exposure to sexually transmitted diseases.

Noting Hollywood's general depiction of skin disease in an evil context, researchers are concerned that “unfairly targeting dermatologic minorities may contribute to a tendency toward prejudice in our culture and facilitate misunderstanding of particular disease entities among the general public.”

Q. How fast did Tyrannosaurus run? How could we possibly know?

A. Typically, big animals run (swim, fly) faster than small ones. Plotting the measured top speeds of land animals versus their weights yields a smooth curve, with speeds systematically increasing from teeny mites all the way up through rabbits and goats. But larger animals buck this simple upward trend: the speed curve peaks with cheetahs and then starts back down for larger animals. Elephants end up on a par with rabbits.

But why this reversal? Based on data for 474 species of land, water and air animals ranging in mass from 30 micrograms to 100 metric tons, Miriam Hirt et al. show that the entire speed-weight curve can be modeled with a simple equation. Their key insight: the top speed of large animals is limited not by muscle mass but by endurance. The animal simply tires out before its big lumbering body gets up to “full” speed (“Nature Ecology & Evolution”).

Applying Hirt's equation to extinct animals, it's estimated that a 6000 kg Tyrannosaurus would top out at a brisk 17 mph!

Q. These words are gung ho in a literal manner, holding hands and working together, writes Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website. You no doubt know the meaning of “ho-hum” (an expression of boredom) and “humbug” (an impostor or fraud). But can you define and explain the origins of “gung ho,” “bear leader” and “bugbear”?

A. “Ho-hum” and “humbug” are of unknown origin, explains Garg. “Gung ho,” meaning extremely eager and enthusiastic, originated from “Chinese 'gonghe', an acronym from the Gongye Hezuoshi (Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society).” Introduced in 1942 as a training slogan by U.S. Marine Corps officer Evans Carlson, it was interpreted to mean “work together.”

“Bear leader,” a tutor who travels with a young man, is “an allusion to a literal bear leader, a man who led a muzzled bear from place to place to perform in the streets.” Finally, “bugbear” suggests a source of fear, anxiety or a problem. It derives from an imaginary creature used to frighten children, from “bug” (hobgoblin) and Old English “bera” (bright, brown). Earliest documented use is 1552.

Q. If the centerpiece of your Christmas dinner is turkey, you might take a moment to ponder how the bird ended up with the same name as the country Turkey. So, how did it?

A. “Turkeys are indigenous to the U.S. and Mexico; in fact, Europeans only first came into contact with turkeys roughly 500 years ago,” likely during Cortes's 1519 expedition to Mexico, says Dan Lewis in his book “Now I Know.” Five years later, the birds had reached England from the eastern Mediterranean Sea aboard merchant ships manned by so-called Turkey merchants, since much of the area then was part of the Turkish Empire. Back in England, buyers called the fowl “Turkey birds” or just “turkeys.”

Within 10 years, they had been domesticated, and by the turn of the century the word “turkey” had been in the English language long enough that Shakespeare used it in his play “Twelfth Night” (1601).

As Lewis says, “To this day, we're simply carrying on the mistake of a few confused English-speaking Europeans.”

Q. It's not exactly an urgent question nor one for polite conversation. But how long does it take an elephant to defecate? A cat? And how about you?

A. Based on zoo videos of 23 defecating mammals ranging in weight from just a few pounds to thousands (cats to elephants), Georgia Institute of Technology Ph.D. student Patricia Yang and her colleagues found that the act of defecation takes between 5 and 19 seconds-–a remarkably small range considering the diverse species sampled (“Soft Matter” journal). The researchers also studied the mechanical properties of feces and intestinal mucous and discovered that “the diameter of feces is comparable to that of the rectum, but the length is double that of the rectum.” Their conclusion? Stools are not squeezed out like toothpaste but “slide along the large intestine by a layer of mucous, similar to a sled sliding down a chute.” Larger animals not only have larger stools but also a thicker layer of mucous which speeds expulsion, resulting in a relatively universal duration.

But this research is not frivolous, Yang explains: “Our model accounts for the shorter and longer defecation times associated with diarrhea and constipation, respectively. This study may support clinicians' use of non-invasive procedures such as defecation time in the diagnoses of ailments of the digestive system.”

Q. When it comes to food sizing, when might more be less than it seems?

A. “It's harder to evaluate increases in the size of food servings than to judge decreases,” reports University of California Berkeley “Wellness Letter.” According to several studies in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology,” subjects who took part in a downsizing test were fairly accurate but when supersizing was involved, they “greatly underestimated” the numbers. Even professional chefs and servers who should have had a sense of food quantities were equally error prone.

Researchers hypothesize that “it's easier to gauge a decrease in portion sizes because there is a 'natural lower bound'” of zero, below which nothing goes, whereas when portions increase, there's no upper bound to help determine how big something has become. Overall, “this may be why people are likely to notice when their favorite brands reduce the size of their packages, while being less aware when quantities increase.” Yet it's not just a matter of feeling cheated or preferring to avoid losses but, the research suggests, it's also a matter of perception.

So not perceiving the supersizing of food and beverages, eaters may unwittingly consume more than they intended.

(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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