Tuesday, 30th May 2017
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. What are all those pets doing taking Prozac-like medications? If they're depressed, they certainly can't tell anybody about it.

A. Psychiatric drugs have been used to help with dogs that obsessively lick their paws, cats that spray walls with urine, pet parrots that might self-mutilate when bored, zoo animals suffering outside their natural habitat, reports the "Atlanta Journal Constitution." The overall aims are to do what is humanly possible to protect animals from self-injury and to improve quality of life ("Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine").

Dog owners try to stave off problem behaviors such as howling or destructiveness that can lead to veterinary euthanasia, says John Bonner in "New Scientist" magazine. A reported 25% of dogs euthanized fit the behavioral category.

Dogs have long been given tranquilizers to calm them during holiday fireworks and the like. An antidepressant called "Reconcile" has been licensed for use with dogs, containing the same serotonin re-uptake inhibitor used in the human drug Prozac. There are critics of the approach, but United Kingdom veterinary behaviorist Daniel Mills says human psychiatric drugs have been used successfully for many years in treating animals, as the clinical features of depression are "very similar" in humans and dogs. The key differences with the new drug are dosage reformulation and an added beef flavor. But Mills stresses that no responsible vet would rely solely on drug therapy, ignoring the behavioral inputs to the problem.

Q. What's the "Donald Duck gas" that can get a laugh at times but all too often winds up being the prankster's last laugh?

A. Helium, which when inhaled into the vocal tract creates an air-helium mixture where the speed of sound jumps from maybe 340 meters per second in just air up to 900 mps, says Jearl Walker in "The Flying Circus of Physics." Now on comes the Disney duck as the higher frequencies of oscillation of the vocal folds result in the distinctive voice sounds. The danger here is obvious: You can live only if you breathe oxygen, but if you foolishly fill your lungs with helium, you can no longer breathe in air. As the oxygen level in your blood drops, you might not be able to get the helium back out and the air back in fast enough to avoid suffocating or your brain undergoing oxygen starvation. "We all have to die someday, but this is really stupid way to do it."

Q. Why is it that "Time flies when you're having fun" and "A watched pot never boils"?

A. Brain resources for paying attention to anything are limited, so when you're really engrossed in an enjoyable activity, you can't think much about the passage of time, says Jay Ingram in "The Velocity of Honey." So you're fooled into thinking that less time has passed. Of course when you're thinking of nothing but time, it expands, as with the watched pot. An irony about a fast, fun time is that when you think back on it, memory will actually make it seem longer than it was. Another time oddity is the "tourist illusion." When you travel by car to a place you've never been before, then come back the same route, the trip out always seems to take much longer, probably due to anticipation and suspense.

Get a fever and your biological clocks may go crazy: Once when biochemist Hudson Hoagland's wife was bedridden with a fever of 40C (104 F), she sent him on an errand to the drugstore. Though he was gone only 20 minutes, she insisted it was much longer. Ever the scientist, Hoagland put her to the test, asking her to judge the passage of a minute by counting off the seconds. The higher her fever, the faster her count. Apparently during his errand, her clock had "ticked over more than usual."

Q. Romance aside, could you really get a kick out of sleeping with certain people?

A. Yes, literally, if your bedpartner suffers from "nocturnal myoclonus." These are night kickers, usually older males, says Dr. J. Allan Hobson in "Sleep." They may experience sufficient leg jerks to feel fatigued in the morning without ever fully waking up. But their spouse or partner may be thumped awake plenty.

More striking yet is "REM (for rapid eye movements) sleep behavior disorder," where the usual inhibitor that keeps a person from acting out dreams goes awry. For unknown reasons, this affects mostly males starting in their early 50s. "While dreaming of driving a car, the sleeper may move his arms as though turning the wheel. Or if he is playing football in a dream, he may run across the bedroom and tackle a chest of drawers. The dreamer may end up injuring himself -or his bedpartner should they happen to be in the way!"

Q. Crime history buffs, can you recount a few of the "fractured" forensics behind the still unsolved Jack the Ripper serial killer case of 1888?

A. Start with the utterly botched investigation. The five mutilated victims, found within a half-mile radius, were all "ladies of the night," and lack of funding and training for support staff led to evidence being treated unscientifically, says E.J. Wagner in "The Science of Sherlock Holmes." For example, the corpse of Mary Ann Nichols - usually considered the first victim - was only superficially examined by a physician before mortuary workers (actually inmates from a workhouse) stripped the body. They had made no notes, labeled no evidence, and had only vague recollections afterward. Said the coroner, "It appears the mortuary-keeper is subject to fits, and neither his memory nor statements are reliable."

Then there were the highly touted bloodhounds brought to London to be put on the killer's trail. At one point, the "Times" of London reported that somehow the dogs had disappeared. Oddly, while the public believed them to be roaming free, the Ripper murders stopped, and only after it was announced the dogs were back in their kennel did the murders resume.

And what about "Jack"? Not far from the murder scene and some 20 years earlier, a young Constance Kent - whose mother had a history of mental illness - had confessed to the brutal stabbing death of her half-brother. Released from prison at age 41, she possessed some medical skill as a midwife and was sporadically attracted to religion. There are no available facts as to where she went or how she lived, says Wagner. Still, "as it was just three years before the Ripper murders and the Ripper was believed to be a knife wielder with some medical knowledge, it is tempting to speculate about a connection...."

Q. A head for numbers is one thing, but if you're in Papua New Guinea speaking the endangered language of Kobon, what's the significance of this sequence of body parts: little finger, ring finger, middle finger, forefinger, thumb, wrist, forearm, inside elbow, bicep, shoulder?

A. Words for numbers in Kobon have to do with the human anatomy, so listed above are the numbers 1 to 10, says linguist K. David Harrison in "When Languages Die" ("New Scientist" magazine). To count higher than 10, you count the collarbone and the hollow at the base of the throat and then right down the other side all the way to 23. You can count to 46 by counting back the other way and even higher by starting over and doing it all again, making 61 "hand turn around second time go back biceps other side."

Q. It's pretty robust stuff in that it never spoils - never ever. It's also a handy thing to have around, even on a battlefield: During WWII, it was used to treat wounds of soldiers because of its moisture-attracting and -absorbing nature, making it a valuable healing agent. It also lent its name to that old European custom of newlyweds consuming a daily cup of fermented mead for a month. So enamored of the product are its industrious creators that upon discovering a mother lode of its ingredients, they do a "dance" to alert their co-workers, a circle dance to say the source is close by, a waggle dance to say they'll need to fly farther out from home. Then they get wings a-whirring and make a beeline at 15 mph or more. So what's this buzz all about?

A. The honey of honeybees and how sweet it is, quite fitting for the word "honeymoon" with its original drink of choice being fermented honey (mead), as described by Liza Lentini in "Discover" magazine.

Q. Pizza misers, how do you divide a pie to make sure everyone is satisfied in having gotten a fair share? Two eaters is easy: One cuts the pie in half, the other selects a piece first. But what about for three?

A. That's tougher: If the cutter picks last and gets shortchanged, tough luck. But what if the second chooser gets shortchanged because the cutter carelessly forms one big piece and two smaller ones. That's not fair!

Mathematicians to the rescue: Person A cuts the pie

into three sectors, next B identifies the piece that looks largest to her/him and trims it down to equal the second largest piece. Then C takes a piece first. Now B selects, under the stipulation s/he must take the piece s/he trimmed down if C didn't take it. A gets the remaining piece.

Got that? To divvy up B's trimmings, repeat the same procedure. Hope your pizza's not cold by now.

(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)

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