STRANGE BUT TRUE- Deadly reflection

Q: As a kid, did you ever stoop to frying ants to a crisp using a magnifying glass held up to focus the sun's rays? Remember the feeling of perverse power?

A: We know of no such antics on the part of the famous Greek scientist Archimedes, but historians tell of the time he used the same principle to help his home city of Syracuse beat back an attack by a Roman fleet, circa 214 B.C. 

Supposedly, he had Greek soldiers stand along the shore and hold up their shields to reflect sunlight onto each approaching ship. The concentrated energy of the many shields would then set the vessel aflame. Thus, one by one, was the Roman fleet destroyed and the city saved.

Could this actually have happened?

In The Flying Circus of Physics, Cleveland State University's Jearl Walker recounts how in 1973 a Greek engineer put Archimedes' "death ray" to the test. He located 70 large flat mirrors (each about 5 feet by 3 feet) and had soldiers hold them at angles to focus the sun's image on a rowboat about 160 feet offshore. "Once the soldiers properly aimed the mirrors, the rowboat began to

burn within a few seconds, eventually being engulfed in flames."


Q: In the climactic scene of the 1976 movie remake, King Kong falls from atop a New York skyscraper and lies dying in the street below, where Jessica Lange bids him a tearful goodbye. How is his demise wholly unrealistic from a "falling bodies" standpoint?

A: A creature as big as Kong, falling from such a great height, should have hit not with bone-crunching force but body-splattering force, says biologist and anatomist Michael LaBarbera of the University of Chicago. "Pink mush would have covered the streets of Manhattan." 

While small creatures easily survive long falls because air resistance slows them greatly, big ones get, quite literally, creamed. This led to the common strategy during medieval sieges of taking the dead body of a horse, letting it ripen a few days in the sun, then catapulting it over the walls of the besieged town.

"On impact, the carcass would indeed splash, spreading contagion throughout."


Q: Where's one truly startling place babies have been known to cry?

A:  In utero, just before they're born.  Cases of "vagitus uterinus" are extremely rare, sounding like a whimper, bleat, howl or yelp coming from the womb, reports Head magazine of the United Kingdom. "People who have heard it describe the experience as unforgettable, and one of the most eerie imaginable."

"I have witnessed it for a few brief seconds at cesarean section just prior to delivery," says obstetrician William Scorza, of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.  For audible fetal crying in utero to occur, the amniotic membrane must be ruptured and air must have

access to the uterine cavity and thus the fetal lungs.

Maternal-fetal medicine expert Christopher Glantz, of the University of Rochester Medical Center, searched the literature and found over 100 cases going as far back as 1546. "It has been suggested fetal crying was noted in the Middle Ages," he says, "but attendants might have been afraid to report this for fear of religious persecution."

Even today, mentions are scarce, and Glantz says he found " no reported cases since 1973."  Probably the absence of recent reports reflects a healthy decline in intrauterine manipulations during delivery, such as displacing the head upwards when breaking the water bag, or using high forceps, or reaching up into the uterus to pull down the fetus. "Without these," Glantz explains, "air would not enter the uterine cavity, and the fetus could not audibly cry."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com

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