Friday, 20th July 2018
Social media Waterford Today on Twitter Waterford Today on Facebook

By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Can you make a grammatically correct eight-word English sentence using only the word "buffalo"?

A. Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo. Got it? Maybe this will help: Bison from Buffalo, whom other bison from Buffalo bully, themselves bully bison from Buffalo. Three distinct meanings of "buffalo" are used here: the proper noun "Buffalo" for the city of Buffalo, New York; the noun "buffalo" for "bison"; and the verb "buffalo" meaning "to bully." The creation of sentences from just the word "buffalo" has been known since at least the 1960s. Dizzying to contemplate is the claim that a "buffalo" sentence of any length is grammatically correct, assuming appropriate capitalization.

Other words with multiple meanings, such as "police," can also give rise to such bizarre multiple-same-word sentences.

Q. When we think of domesticated animals, we generally think of mammals, such as dogs and cats. But can one domesticate insects?

A. A species is domesticated when it has been selectively bred - usually for hundreds of generations - to live closely with humans. Honeybees and silkmoths are domesticated insects and have been for a very long time. Based on archeological evidence from ancient Egypt, the transition from collecting honey from wild bees to beekeeping happened at least 4500 years ago.

And genetic evidence suggests that the domestication of silk moths began as early as 7500 years ago in China. "People bred the [caterpillars] to produce more silk and to tolerate human handling and extreme crowding," says Erika Engelhaupt in "Science News." "For more than 2000 years, the Chinese kept their silk-making methods top secret, and smuggling silkworms out of the country was punishable by death." Silkmoths have now been domesticated to the point that they cannot survive without humans: they are flightless, require help mating, and the feeding of their caterpillars must be supervised.

Q. How many golf balls laid edge to edge would it take to circle the Earth at the equator?

A. That's a 25,000 mile (40,000 km) necklace done with 2-inch diameter balls, which computes to 25,000 miles times 5280 feet/mile times 6 balls/foot, say Lawrence Weinstein and John A. Adam in "Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin." This comes to roughly a billion golf balls (1,000,000,000).

Now if you picture just one of these balls, it represents "one part per billion (ppb)," a common ratio in environmental science. This means that if the air, water or soil contains so many ppb of some potentially toxic substance, that is about the number of, say, red golf balls among the otherwise white ones surrounding the Earth. "You could walk along the equator for months before finding your first red golf ball."

If you don't feel like walking, try waiting a while--a long while. One part per billion is equivalent to one minute in 1,901 years!

Q. What's the spoon test for demonstrating the awfulness of a cup of long-brewed coffee served in a second-rate restaurant?

A. Before you stick in the spoon, the coffee surface lacks any luster, which is unappealing enough, says Jearl Walker in "The Flying Circus of Physics." Now stick it in and the surface suddenly displays small shining circles, which is even worse! Usually bad coffee is bad because of an oily layer on top, dulling the appearance. The spoon can carry material on it that spreads out on the liquid surface, squeezing the oil into drops whose curved surfaces act as small reflectors of any overhead lamps. "When you pull the spoon out, the oil layer reforms and most of the circular reflections disappear."

Q. Don't laugh. It was hard work developing the flush toilet. For instance, careful thought had to go into what test materials to use in simulated flushings, for certainly the real stuff was inadvisable. What did the developer use?

A. As recounted in the book "Flushed with Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper," one of his early "super-flushes" successfully cleared away 10 apples averaging 1 3/4 inch in diameter, 3 air vessels, a pan coated with Plumber's "Smudge" and 4 pieces of paper adhering to the soiled surface.

Q. Why does Hollywood tend to depict scientists as nerds, villains, or occasionally heroes instead of the more realistic types they obviously are?

A. Few people actually know real scientists, says Sidney Perkowitz in "Hollywood Science." For example, in recent years the U.S. has turned out about 26,000 scientists and engineers annually, plus thousands of physicians, but among the general population, this computes to only about 1 in 300 Americans being a scientist. "Unless you are one, chances are you've never encountered a laboratory scientist, and so it matters whether movies get it right, which they do - but only partly."

Often movie scientists are introduced on screen as "Doctor" or "Professor," dressed in the traditional white lab coat, as worn by the original Dr. Henry Frankenstein. Wild hair, a beard and thick, stodgy eyeglasses, as with Dr. Brackish Okun in "Independence Day," are also part of the code, adding an air of implied intelligence. In truth, white coats are optional and "Doctor" is used sparingly among real scientists. More on target, "I've observed at science conferences about a third of the men have facial hair, and male or female, half wear glasses, though few in clunky black."

Regarding scientists' deeper qualities, here too there's some basis for film depictions. Many real scientists do tend to put their work above other things in life and high I.Q.'s are typical. Some evidence also suggests they score lower in so-called social or emotional intelligence. Maybe it's the too-long hours and years in grad school, or scientists just may be serious because they tend to think science is seriously important. Yet few of them have a desire to rule the world. "Many simply want to be left alone to do what they adore. But that's hardly the stuff of blockbuster filmmaking.

Q. We humans have many a way of dealing with our aches and pains, ranging from going to a doctor to cursing. But there's a hipper modality that needs no prescription, has no unwanted side effects and offends no one's ears. Hospitals are aware of this computer connection, helpful for coping with stress, improving memory and sleep, even speeding recovery after surgery. So, best not to write this one off...

A. Right, it's blogging, the newest thing in the healing earts.

Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings, says Jessica Wapner in "Scientific American." A modern electronic version of ancient journal writing, blogging is basically a way of complaining to potentially like-minded people, and as such is selfadministered therapy, a sort of personal placebo.

This self-expression has even been found to help cancer patients, who feel markedly better both mentally and physically afterward, compared with those not writing.

Hospitals have started hosting patient-authored blogs on their Web sites, encouraging a community of connected recoverers.

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., co-authors of "Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So- Everyday) Questions," from Pi Press)


Letters to the Editor

  • Our View

    Time for a breakJust as the height of Summer begins it seems that it is also the time when our politicians begin their yearly departure from Dail Eireann. While not many professions get as much holiday time as politicians do you have to ask the question whether they merit such long breaks?There are many who would immediately answer that they don't really deserve such long holidays, that they barely seem to spend any time in the Dail at all and after all they are well remunerated for the long hours …

    read more »

Weekly Poll