STRANGE BUT TRUE- Indestructible: Very little fazes cockroaches


Q. Cockroaches are a hardy breed, going back to the time of the dinosaurs. How much punishment can one take? –F. Kafka

A. That's what Jason Maron, then a Caltech student in theoretical astrophysics, looked at in a novel series of "cockroach survivability" experiments:

 1. Expose to vacuum: Roach agitates violently as the air is removed, then is still. Vacuum is applied for 10 minutes. Upon return of the air, roach comes slowly back to life, appearing normal after two minutes.

 2. Dunk in water: After 10-minute submersion, roach revives. No max dunk time yet established.

 3. Dunk in hydrochloric acid: Dies in 30 seconds.

 4. Apply air pressure of 20 atmospheres (300 pounds per square inch!): No visible effect.

 5. Freeze in liquid nitrogen: The roach chills out for good. Minimum survivable temperature yet undetermined.

 6. Place in 100-degree celsius (212 F.) oven: Takes a while, but then its goose is cooked.

 7. Microwave: No effect after one minute.

 8. Explosion: Roach barely one centimeter away from an exploding M-80 survives.

 9. Radiation: Roach unfazed by prolonged exposure to X-ray beam from 40 kW rotating anode source; human flesh so exposed is completely inviable after one second.

10. Crush between shoe and floor: About 29 Newtons (6.5 pounds) of force is required to squash the exoskeleton, known scientifically as the "crush point."

Q. In American football, why does the quarterback generally try to "rifle" the ball to the pass receiver? –J. Unitas

A. "Rifling" is a firearm's term that refers to the spiral grooves along the bore's interior to impart spin to the bullet, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. The quarterback tries to do the same with the football, which acts like a gyroscope in maintaining its orientation and flying smoothly instead of tumbling. Now the ball will travel farther, and with strong enough spin will gradually "nose down" as its passes through its arced trajectory, making it easier for the receiver to make the catch. Failure to spin the ball properly could result in a wobbly pass– or even an end-over-end "duck"– shorter and trickier to grab hold of. 

When a punter (kicker) puts spin on the ball, usually the intent is to get it to travel farther and also to increase "hang time" so the punter's team can get down field before the ball comes down.

As for the spinning bullet, if one is aimed directly upward, it will sometimes maintain its stability throughout the flight, returning base-first to the ground. Although usually not lethal, the bullet could still injure someone. If it tumbles while falling, it will come in much slower than its muzzle speed, lessening the chance of injury. "Still, if someone near you starts shooting in the air," Walker says, "you best hide instead of standing in the open in admiration."

Q. You might think boiling an egg would be pretty much standard around the world. Think again. –F. Leghorn

A. The science of high-altitude cooking is well known to residents of more mountainous regions like Colorado where atmospheric pressure affects water-boiling temperature, says Goran Grimvall in Brainteaser Physics. Try to boil eggs atop Mount Everest (29,028 ft.), where water boils at about 72 degrees C (162 F) instead of 100 C (212 F) at sea level, and you better keep a book handy. 

Egg proteins change their structure at about 63-66 C, first in the whites, then in the yolk. Even at 85 C (185 F), it takes half an hour to get a 3-minute egg. That's a plenty big factor, based on about 160 millibars atmospheric pressure difference from, say, New York to Denver. By comparison, the difference between a low-pressure stormy day and a high-pressure day is less than about 50 millibars, so you don't need to check the weather before setting the egg-timer.

Q. We don't advocate this because it's unethical, or worse, you could wind up on Boot Hill. But let's say you

want to deal yourself all four aces in a deck of cards, surreptitiously, of course... –W. B. Hickok

A. You'll need to practice up on your "perfect shuffle," where you cut the pack exactly in half and then interleave the cards one after the other, says Persi Diaconis in New Scientist magazine. Magicians are able to do this, so why not you? Now if you can set the deck with all four aces on top and shuffle it perfectly, the aces will be every second card. Shuffle it again, and they'll be every fourth card. 

"If I were a crooked gambler and dealt four hands, I'd get the aces," says Diaconis. "Gamblers have been writing about what they can and can't do with a perfect shuffle for 300 years."

Actually, there are two kinds of perfect shuffle: you can keep the original top card or place it second from the top– called "out" and "in" shuffles. With the right sequence of these, you can put the top card anywhere you want. As it turns out, eight out-shuffles in a row will bring a deck back to where it started, but it takes 52 in-shuffles to do the same. "That's the kind of thing that makes the mathematician and magician in me rather happy," Diaconis adds.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at