STRANGE BUT TRUE- Love eclipsed: Moonless months rare


Q. "I'll marry you on a month without a full moon, and no sooner," your sweetie says. She knows her heart and she knows her astronomy. So what's she trying to tell you? –E. Taylor

A. This woman seems to want a Valentine's Day wedding since the only month with no full moon is February, with its 28 or 29 (leap year) days, says Suzanne Traub-Metlay of Colorado's Fiske Planetarium at Boulder. Yet a full cycle of lunar phases is 29.5 days. Most recently in 1999, January had two full moons, February had none, and March also had two. The second full moon in a month is a "blue moon," and while this is supposed to be rare, it occurs on average once every 2.7 years. A February without a full moon is much rarer– every 19 years or so.

So your elusive sweetie has set her wedding for February 2018. (How deep is your love?) What if her infant niece wants to wait for the next one– in 2037? That depends on where she lives, says Traub-Metlay. Since date and time are arbitrarily set by human guidelines like the International Date Line, a full moon on February 28 in Canada could be March 1 in Australia. If she lives in North America, the patient niece may need to postpone her nuptials to 2066.

Looks like those wedding bells might be destined for a little lunar eclipse.

Q. There are some roaring big numbers out there, such as the "talking number," "the Coney Island number" and the "Ice Age number." Yet these are petty pikers before a googol (not google) or googolplex. Can you size these up? –L. Cohen

A. The first is the number of words spoken by humans since the dawn of time, estimated at 10,000,000,000,000,000 (10^16), including all baby talk, love songs, congressional debates– roughly equal to the number of words printed since the Gutenberg Bible appeared, says Clifford A. Pickover in The Mathematics of Oz. The Coney Island number is the number of grains of sand on that beach (10^20), the Ice Age number is how many snow crystals formed the Ice Age (10^30).

For a superbig science number, try 10^79, the total of electrons, protons, and neutrons in the Universe. All big, yes, but not even close to a googol (10^100), and far less than a googolplex (10^10^100–1 followed by a googol zeros). As you know, there is no biggest number, since you can just add zeros to fatten any number, as many as the imagination can imagine.  

Q. There's a distinctive taste common to mushrooms, sea tangle, cheese, tomatoes, asparagus, and meats, but that's neither sweet nor sour nor bitter nor salty– the Classic Four. Can you name this "fifth basic taste"? –C. Papayanis

A. Looking for this mystery ingredient, Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University took a huge quantity of "broth" made from kombu (a type of seaweed found in traditional Japanese cuisine) and extracted from it crystals of glutamic acid, as reported on He called the taste "umami," which roughly translates into "wonderful taste."

It differs from the other basic tastes in that it doesn't seem to impart a particular quality, but rather appears to interact with other taste stimuli to enhance a food's overall flavor, says Leslie J. Stein of the Monell Chemical Senses Center. This unique sensory experience comes from glutamate, an amino acid found throughout the human body and in protein-containing foods. Umami elicits a sensation described as brothy, full-bodied, meaty, savory. 

Foods such as meat, fish, peas, tomatoes, cheese, and others naturally contain glutamate and have this fifth taste. Also, glutamic acid is the most abundant amino acid in mother's milk and may be an important taste for babies.

Q. Can mathematics help you find a mate? –W. Hunting

A. Don't discount it. In his book Innumeracy, John Allen Paulos offers an unusual strategy based on probability theory. You know you can date around too little, forever after wondering if you found the best person. Or you can play the field perhaps too much, then one day realize you long ago turned your back on your very best relationship.

To steer between these two extremes, Paulos suggests, date about a third of the total number of prospects that you guess would ultimately come your way, then marry the next "heartthrob"– the person who tops all those sampled so far.

If, say, 30 looks to be your number of potential hot prospects, then your magic number is 10. So after the first 10, latch on to the next person who tops all of these.

By Paulos' calculation, you'll wind up with your all-time possible best match more than a third of the time, plus second- or third-best much of the rest. And if your No. 1 prospect turned out to be in that first sampled 10 and passed over? Then at some point you'll need to abandon strategy and go with any port in the storm– or wind up crying a river.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at