STRANGE BUT TRUE- Space virus: Sneeze drops fly upward


Q. When an astronaut sneezes in deep space, what's in the droplets that wouldn't be there back at home? –J. Glenn

A. Viruses, in a much higher count than normal even though there are no other signs of infection, says Nigel Calder in Magic Universe. On the Apollo Moon missions, astronauts showed reduced numbers of protective white blood cells. In various tests, T-cells altered their internal structure within 30 seconds of the onset of weightlessness.

"The force of gravity is somehow involved in the functioning of the immune system," Calder says. Cosmonauts on the Russian Mir space station had test toxins painted on their skin and developed rashes they wouldn't have on Earth. It takes about two weeks for the immune system to return to normal back on the ground.

The key puzzle is to separate the effects of weightlessness from those of general space travel stressors, such as close physical confinement, freewheeling body clocks, radiation. Says Switzerland's Augusto Cogoli, "It's really quite urgent to get to the bottom of this for long space journeys because there are no hospitals on Mars."

Q. Tired of your astrological sign? Is there anything you can do about it? –R. Brezney

A. Actually, due to constantly shifting stars and constellations, your sign may not be what you think it is! Picture planet Earth like a spinning top, whose axis from pole to pole today points (Northern hemisphere) at the North Star, Polaris, say Georges Charpak and Henri Broch in Debunked! But due to gravitational effects of the Sun and Moon on our planet's equatorial bulge, plus other factors, the axis "precesses" slowly, taking 25,790 years to go around completely. At that point, the North Star will again be Polaris, but 12,000 years from now it will be Vega.

Since the zodiac was first developed by the Sumerians 4000 years ago, the constellations have moved 30+ degrees, says Suzanne Traub-Metlay of Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In fact, since the astronomical constellations, fixed in 1930 by the International Astronomical Union, are different sizes than astrological constellations, some people's birth signs are off by as many as two constellations!

Newspaper horoscopes still use the old Greek names, conveniently ignoring Ophiochus, the Snake Wrestler, a constellation for 2000 years and the 13th sign. Yet serious Western astrologers use the Vedic (India) technique of realigning their work to actual star positions and decouple their star charts from old calendars, says Traub-Metlay. So if you astrology buffs haven't already done so, you might consider going Vedic for a change.

Q. What's the strange biological "afterlife" of a dead whale at sea? –C. Ahab

A. When the carcass sinks to the seabed, called a "whale fall," soon the mobile scavengers show up– sleeper sharks, hagfish, and king crabs, that can take 10 years or more to complete the stripping (for a 160-ton blue whale), says Graham Lawton in New Scientist, citing marine biologist Craig Smith. Then come the smaller creatures, going for the blubber-drenched sediment first. But their real target is the bones: a whale skeleton can be up to 20 tons, and 60 percent fat by weight!
"Exposed whale bones quickly become covered in a writhing mass of lipid-slurping worms, snails, clams, and limpets," says Lawton.

Next flourish the anaerobic bacteria that help sustain a complex community of "sulphide lovers"– crustaceans, mussels, etc. A typical whale skeleton in this third stage harbors 185 species, and this stage may go on for 100 years. A large blue whale's skull is four meters long and two meters in diameter, with huge stores of lipids.

Nothing else at this depth could sustain an entire ecosystem for decades. Some 70,000 great whales die/year, estimate Smith and colleagues, with 850,000 active whale falls at any given time, and with more than 400 species found at whale falls alone. Lots more species will be found–"It's a big ocean!"

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com, coauthors of "Can a Guy Get Pregnant? Scientific Answers to Everyday (and Not-So- Everyday) Questions," from Pi Press).
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