Wednesday, 15th August 2012
Reasured memories of our Dad, JBy Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD
Q. You know about the "black box," or flight data recorder, on airplanes, for reconstructing details of accidents. But what about the black box in your car?
A. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 85% of new vehicles are equipped with an event data recorder (EDR), says Willie D. Jones in "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. This nondescript box, about the size of a deck of cards, can provide a rich record for police, courts, insurance on how fast you were driving, when you hit the brakes, and whether you were wearing a seat belt.
Case in point: In 2006, after a vehicle struck and killed a 15-year-old pedestrian in a crosswalk, it was estimated that the driver was traveling at roughly 90 kilometers per hour (56 mph) in a 72 km/h zone (45 mph), allowing him to plead guilty to the lesser offense of hit and run rather than vehicular manslaughter. Later, though, authorities discovered that his GMC Yukon had an EDR showing that it had actually been going 122 km/h (76 mph). The box further revealed that the driver applied the brakes only from 2.1 to 1.3 seconds before he hit the pedestrian. With that evidence, the prosecutor withdrew the plea agreement and proceeded to trial on the more serious charge. The driver was convicted.
Q. Hamburger lover that you are, you've been eating roughly four quarter-pounders every week for lunch for all of ten years. Don't be cowed by the question, but how many cows' worth of hamburger have you consumed over that time?
A. At a pound of hamburger every week, that's 52 pounds a year, 520 pounds for the decade--roughly the weight of a small cow, half of which gets turned into edible meat. So make that two small cows to satisfy your hamburger hunger. An especially big cow at 2,200 pounds would provide more than half a ton of meat-eating "fun" (from "ScienceIllustrated.Com" magazine).
Q. When you reach into the cupboard to fetch your dog a cookie, what's she got in mind? a) devouring the treat b) licking your face in gratitude c) running outside to work off the calories d) no way of knowing?
A. If you answered a), you've got common sense and the latest dog science on your side, says "Science" magazine. A research team at Emory University did functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of two nonsedated dogs to scientifically "read" their minds. The first step was to train a 3-year-old border collie and a 2-year-old mutt to remain still within an fMRI scanner. Then the team studied the dogs' neural responses to different hand gestures indicating a treat was coming and noted that the brain area associated with reward pathways was activated. Now, brain-scanning scientists can "begin to explore how dogs process human language, how they distinguish between different people, and how they represent human facial cues and gestures."
Q. How many jokes do you know with the word "hippopotamus" in the punch line? If you know any, you probably know some mathematics as well.
A. You can construct your own setup for the following punch line to "one of the worst jokes in the history of science," says Steve Mirsky in "Scientific American" magazine, drawing on mathematician Ian Stewart's "In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World":
"The squaw on the hippopotamus is equal to the sum of the squaws on the other two hides."
"Never mind how Native Americans were in possession of a hippopotamus," Mirsky quips, "the important thing is that the Pythagorean theorem is so well known that comedy writers consider it fair game even if that game couldn't possibly be found on the correct continent."
(For you mathematical neophytes, the Pythagorean theorem says that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two sides.)
Q. What do the smartes - or really the savvies - elite athletes do with their brains before stepping into the arena of play?
A. Like chess masters and top musicians, superstar athletes know how to turn on just those parts of the brain relevant to the task at hand, though there's much mystery in how this is done, says Nick Bascom in "Brainy Ballplayers" in "Science News" magazine. "That's why athletes usually thank God or their Moms," adds cognitive psychologist Sian Beilock. "They don't know what they just did so they don't know what else to say."
Baseball catcher Yogi Berra once quipped that "he couldn't think and hit at the same time," and neuroscientist John Milton believes there's a lot of insight in that since devoting too much conscious attention to swing mechanics can activate unfamiliar parts of the brain and throw off performance. "This is because the expert's brain has already figured out the optimal movement solution, and any conscious change will disrupt that." So once the brain's conscious regions are lulled and quieted, the well-practiced motor centers get free reign to guide the athlete to victory. Beilock concurs that "paralysis by analysis" can make a baseball bat, golf club, or tennis racket feel like a foreign and unwieldy object. As golfer Bubba Watson once advised a slumping Tiger Woods, he was being too mental with his swing and needed to fire his swing coach and "just go out there and play golf."
Q. What's gotten into dogs that many of them are watching more TV these days?
A. We should really be asking, "What's gotten into today's TVs?" Movement on a TV screen is basically a changing pattern of light hitting the retinas of the eyes, with typical TV images flickering at about 60 cycles per second, or 60 HZ, says University of British Columbia behaviorist Stanley Coren in "Discover" magazine. Since the average person is unable to detect any flickering above 55 HZ, the TV images blend smoothly into a continuous flow. But dogs such as beagles can see flicker rates up to 75 Hz, suggesting that they perceive motion better than people and can resolve higher flicker rates - meaning what they see appears more fragmented and less real to them. Thus, they haven't been terribly drawn to TV.
Enter high-definition television (HDTV). As Coren explains, "Since high-resolution digital screens are refreshed at a much higher rate, reports are increasingly surfacing of pooches who become very interested in new technology HDTVs when a nature show contains images of animals moving."
Q. Where do cinematic stunt performers go to learn how NOT to die?
A. For many, it's the International Stunt School (ISS), where they practice crashing through glass, catching on fire, falling from great heights and many others, that in real life would leave most of us in pieces, says Shane Snow in "Wired" magazine. Yet these specialists out of ISS skillfully wind up taking barely a few bumps and bruises.
"Everything is based on safety and calculation," affirmed school president Ian Boushey.
The standard three-week program begins with instructing trainees how to fall without injury, fake a fight or roll down stairs. Then it's "ratchet pulls" where they're yanked on a wire to make it look like a shock wave has just blown them backward. Finally come precision driving, high falls onto air bags and fire burns. "You just can't beat being lit on fire," said one ISS graduate who revealed that besides wearing a fireproof suit, one trick is choosing natural fibers like cotton that don't melt like nylon.
Concludes Snow, perhaps the most important lesson is, "Don't try this at home, kids."
Letters to the Editor
- A Government Successread more »
Once in a blue moon. As rare as hen's teeth. A Government success. Each of those three sentences are as unusual and as rare as each other. But the last one seems to be about to take place. The Government has announced that it plans to give each child in the State a second year of free pre-school. It might not sound like earth shattering news but if it does happen then it could be one of the most significant things that this Government has done since it took office. Any money that is given over to education is a …
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