Wednesday, 21st February 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. Among the people living in Mongolia, a group known as the burkitshi have taken on the role of eagle-hunters - with a twist. Do you know what it is?

A. For the traditional nomadic clan of the Khazakh minority, the eagles aren’t the prey but rather "the hunting rifles," says Dan Lewis on his "Now I Know" web site, drawing on the "New Yorker" magazine. The burkitshi capture the eagles when the birds are only about four years old, old enough to know how to hunt but young enough to adapt to human company. Only females are used, since they are larger, with eight-foot wingspans, and are fierce hunters. The eagle-hunters then domesticate and train the birds to hunt foxes and other small animals for the clan. Many of the hunters, in fact, spoke of loving the eagles almost like their own children. Adds Lewis, "The birds, which often live to about the age of 30, are released back into the wild after ten or so years of service."

Q. Practitioners of meditation sing its praises, citing its origins around 1500 B.C.E. in ancient India and its benefits for both body and mind. What does modern science have to say about it?

A. It seems that different types of meditation have distinct effects on the brain, reports "New Scientist" magazine. Researcher Tania Singer and colleagues at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences looked at the effects of three meditation techniques on more than 300 volunteers over nine months: mindfulness meditation, a second focusing on compassion and emotional connection with a partner, and a third asking people to think about issues from different points of view. MRI scans taken after each three-month course showed that parts of the cortex involved in the specific skills that were trained grew thicker in comparison with scans of a control group. For example, mindfulness increased the thickness of the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, which are linked to attention control. Tests of the relevant skills showed definite improvement ("Science Advances").

Perhaps, suggests the magazine, meditation courses like exercise regimes might be designed to focus on particular weaknesses.

Q. Economic inequality has long been documented, but how long is that? When researchers examined 62 archeological sites dating from 10,000 to 250 years ago, what did they unearth? How did the Old World and New World differ?

A. Using house size as a proxy for wealth and a measure called the Gini coefficient, archeologist Tim Kohler and his colleagues ("Nature") found that inequality gradually increased as societies moved from hunting and gathering to farming. Gini coefficients range from zero, if wealth is uniformly distributed, to one, if all wealth is concentrated in a single person. About 2500 years after the start of agriculture, both the Old World and New World had average Gini coefficients of 0.35. New World inequality didn’t change much after that, but that of the Old World climbed to about 0.6 by the time of the destruction of Pompeii in ancient Rome. Perhaps this was because the Old World had draft animals (oxen, horses) and the economic capital associated with owning these animals accrued from generation to generation.

Describing the work in "Science" magazine, reporter Lizzie Wade notes, "Those numbers are far below the wealth inequality seen today in the United States and China, which have Gini coefficients of 0.8 and 0.73, respectively."

Q. If you asked a pack of wild dogs what they thought about democracy, you might get a surprising answer.

A. When deciding whether or not to move to a new location, a pack of African wild dogs will gather in a "social rally," a high-energy greeting ceremony where individuals "vote" to move by emitting audible rapid nasal exhalations ("sneezing"). Writing in "Proceedings of the Royal Society B," Brown University researcher Reena Walker and her colleagues report that more sneezes mean a higher probability that a pack will move. Wild dog packs have a strong dominance hierarchy, and rallies initiated by dominant individuals require only a few sneezes to elect relocation. But even without leader support, the rank-and-file can force relocation with enough sneezes. Conclude the authors, "We found that sneezes, a previously undocumented unvoiced sound in the species…, may function as a voting mechanism to establish group consensus in an otherwise despotically driven social system."

Q. What remarkable feat did scientists achieve by taking strontium atoms, putting them in grid-like patterns and then stacking them?

A. They created the most precise atomic clock ever, reports "New Scientist" magazine. With most atomic clocks, time is measured using microwaves emitted by the electrons around atoms of the isotope caesium-133, which jump between lower and higher orbits as they absorb and then lose energy from a laser. But the transition frequency of these electrons is limited to 9 billion times per second.

Enter University of Colorado’s Jun Ye and his team that used strontium atoms instead, whose electrons can transition nearly 1 million billion times per second. They put the atoms into a 3D lattice structure, then cooled it to near absolute zero temperature, "which turned the atoms into what’s called a quantum gas. Instead of colliding, the particles 'move like waves—-they start to avoid each other,’ Ye says."

The result? A clock that would lose or gain only about one second in 90 billion years, more than six times the age of the universe!

Q. Have you heard about the "eggsplosive" danger of microwaves?

A. A customer in a San Francisco restaurant learned about it the hard way when a hard-boiled egg exploded in his mouth after being reheated in a microwave, says Leah Crane in "New Scientist" magazine. He allegedly suffered hearing damage and burns. Expert witness Anthony Nash and his colleague Lauren von Blohn microwaved almost 100 eggs in a water bath just as the restaurant had done and found that a shell-less hard-boiled egg exploded up to a third of the time, either after being bit into or pricked with a fork. Said Nash: "It was like playing Russian roulette with an egg--egg roulette."

As to why the explosion occurred, Nash speculated that "tiny pockets of water within the yolk became superheated and then started boiling, violently releasing steam, when punctured by a fork—-or your teeth." Amazingly, the resulting explosion measured 133 decibels from 30 centimeters away, louder than a chainsaw running one meter from you. While such a noise would unlikely damage your hearing, biting into the egg and having it explode in your mouth could, and the resultant heat could also hurt your face.

The case was eventually settled out of court.

Q. Rather than some potentially painful swordplay, let’s opt instead for some wordplay from sword fighting. Can you explain how the following are used in the English language: "contretemps," "ensiform," "feint" and "hilt"?

A. "Contretemps" was originally a fencing term meaning a thrust made at the wrong time, says Anu Garg on his "A.Word.A.Day" web site. So metaphorically the word can mean an unforeseen and unfortunate occurrence, or a disagreement or dispute. Next, from Latin "ensis" (sword) comes "ensiform," shaped like a sword or sword blade.

Two older, more commonly known words are "feint," a deceptive move, especially in fencing or boxing, first documented in 1330; and "hilt," a handle of a sword or dagger, used in the phrase "to the hilt," that is, to the maximum extent (earliest documented use around 1000).

As Garg says, "Sometimes just the right word, the right remark, the right joke can disarm an adversary. Remember, you may be swordless but you are never wordless."

Q. Compared to rats, pigs, mice and dogs, how does the human sense of smell stack up? And how would such a thing even be measured?

A. The measurements aren’t easy. "People can tell you when a certain scent is no longer detectable. But each animal has to learn to associate a particular odor with a reward and then do something, like press a button, to let researchers know when they smell it," says Ashley Braun in "Discover" magazine. Humans have sniffed over 3000 different scents for science out of the trillions possible, but the highest number recorded for any animal species (spider monkeys) is only 81.

When odor sensitivity researcher Matthias Laska of Sweden’s Linköping University compared humans and 17 other mammals, he found that the more data he collected, "the more interesting the picture became." Humans are more sensitive than rats for 31 of the 41 odorants tested for both species (76%), more sensitive than pigs for 3 of 5 (60%), more sensitive than mice for 35 of 65 (54%), and even more sensitive than dogs for 5 of 15 (33%). Dogs-–carnivorous hunters-–excel in detecting "meaty" smells, while humans-–omnivorous fruit and plant eaters-–have sensitive noses for vegetation. As Laska put it, humans "are not as hopeless as the classical wisdom will tell us, and dogs are not the super nose of the universe for everything."

(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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