Tuesday, 18th September 2018
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Q. Avocados, dates, kale, mangoes, Meyer lemons, nectarines, peaches, pomegranates, quinoa, seedless grapes, watermelon-—what do these foods have in common? A. They were not part of the American diet until globe-trotting botanist and "food spy" David Fairchild (1869-1954) introduced them around the turn of the 20th century, says Anna Diamond in "Smithsonian" magazine, reviewing David Stone's book "The Food Explorer." Before that time, American meals were about subsistence, relying on wheat and potatoes. Fairchild's mission, "sanctioned by the president and the secretary of agriculture, was to find exotic crops and bring them back," and that he and his team did: avocadoes from Chile, dates from Iraq, kale from Croatia, peaches and citrus from China, pomegranates from Malta, quinoa from Peru and much more. Under the auspices of the new Office of Seed and Plant Introduction, Fairchild and the Department of Agriculture created a system to distribute seeds, cuttings and growing tips that changed the face of American agriculture.

Beer lovers can also credit Fairchild for traveling to Bavaria, where he befriended German growers that had the world's best hops. Because of his covert work, he eventually brought them back to the U.S, "helping balloon America's hops-growing industry." Likewise, visitors to Washington, D.C., in the spring to see the flowering cherry trees can thank Fairchild, who on a trip to Japan first saw them and arranged to have them shipped to his Maryland home, attracting many sightseers. In 1912, the trees were planted on the National Mall. Q. The English language is rich in words that describe things, ideas or persons in a direct, targeted form. Can you define the following four: "andocracy," "arctophile," "pinetum" and "sillage"?

A. You probably know that the root "cracy" means "rule of," so combining it with "andro" for "male" gives us "a system ruled by men," says Anu Garg on his web site "A.Word.A.Day." The root "phile" in "arctophile" signifies "love" but less familiar is "arctos," from the Greek meaning "bear." Thus, an "arctophile" is "someone who is very fond of teddy bears or collects them." "Pinetum" (py-NEE-tum), derived from the Latin "pinus" or "pine," means "an arboretum of coniferous trees such as pines." Finally, let's linger a bit on "sillage," from French "sillage," meaning a "wake" or "trail." First used in the early 1800s, it describes "the trail of scent that lingers behind from a perfume," or "the degree to which it lingers."

Q. What do the following natural elements have in common: flower petals, seed heads, a snail's shell, butterfly wings, a starfish, a snowflake and the Milky Way? A. They're all examples of "hidden maths," reports "How It Works: Book of Amazing Science." Seed heads and many flower petals, for instance, are structured according to the Fibonacci Sequence, where each number is the sum of the previous two: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 and so on. Seed heads are often arranged in intricate Fibonacci spirals. The complex pattern of the spiral of a snail's shell, on the other hand, expresses the ratio between subsequent numbers in the Fibonacci Sequence (close to 1.618), known as the "golden ratio."

Finally, from the arrangement of a snowflake to the vast structure of the Milky Way, symmetry reigns. Notice that butterfly's wings are bilaterally symmetrical, while a starfish is radially symmetrical.

Q. Dice aficionados, how much do you know about your favorite game? For example, how far back do dice date? How did their shape and configuration change over time?

A. The earliest Roman-era dice, some 2000 years old, are largely asymmetrical and wouldn't roll randomly, says Colin Barras in "New Scientist" magazine. Archaeologists Jelmer Eerkens and Alex de Voogt, in examining 110 dice from the Netherlands, discovered that "only from about AD 1450 were most dice more or less symmetrical," perhaps reflecting an increasing awareness of the importance of chance.

Also, the number configurations on dice changed from "primes" (1 opposite 2, 3 opposite 4, 5 opposite 6) to the modern arrangement of "sevens" (1 opposite 6, 2 opposite 5, and 3 opposite 4). It may be that primes were viewed as "unbalanced" (1 + 2 = 3, 5 + 6 = 11), while sevens always add up to the number 7, making them seem more likely to roll fairly. Says Barras, "This hints that medieval Europeans—-particularly gamblers-—were thinking about factors governing the outcome of rolls long before mathematicians like Blaise Pascal grasped how probability works."

Q. They can take the shape of a tiny marble, a hamburger, even a parachute, though the formation is in constant flux. What is being described here? Clue: They are not teardrop-shaped, as is often depicted.

A. Did you guess raindrops? High in the atmosphere, raindrops form when water clings to tiny particles of dust, taking on the shape of a sphere since it has the smallest surface area, reports "Amazing Science." Surface tension causes water molecules to cling together, and as the drops fall, they encounter air pressure that flattens out the bottom edge, creating the hamburger shape. The largest raindrops, unable to hold themselves together, start to distort into the shape of a parachute. Raindrops larger than 4 millimeters (0.16 inch) break up as they fall, with the smallest droplets remaining spherical in the final descent.

Q. "Earthworms, dogs, monkeys and humans. We are all cousins in the great journey of evolution," writes Anu Garg on his "A.Word.A.Day" website. And the English language reflects this close relationship, with words like "black dog," "gobemouche," "mooncalf" and "railbird." Do you know their meanings?

A. Metaphorically, "black dog" referred to a counterfeit coin, perhaps because it was made with base metals that turn black over time, Garg explains. It eventually came to mean "depression," and both 18th-century lexicographer Samuel Johnson and 20th-century statesman Winston Churchill used the term to describe their own depression. "Gobemouche" (GOB-moosh), comes from the French for "flycatcher" or "sucker", from "gober" (to suck or swallow) + "mouche" (fly) and describes a gullible or credulous person. Then consider "mooncalf," based on an early belief that a misshapen birth stemmed from the effects of the moon. Hence, the word can mean "a daydreamer," "a fool" or "a congenitally deformed person." Finally, "railbird" has its origin in a bird being slang for "a person with a specific character" or "a peculiar person" and refers to "someone who watches horse-racing from the railing along the track." More generally, it can mean "a horse-racing enthusiast," "a spectator at a contest" or "an observer who offers unwanted advice or criticism."

(Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)


Letters to the Editor

  • A Wonderful Harvest

    Even though the weather Gods didn’t exactly play ball over the weekend it doesn’t take away from the fact that this years Waterford Harvest Festival was yet again another wonderful success. It was great to see the streets of the centre of the city so beautifully and thoughtfully decked out. The various food stalls offering tastes from all over were great to wander around. The information and background that each of the stall holders were able to give on the provenance of their food was really interesting an …

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