STRANGE BUT TRUE- Drat! Odious rodents survive everything


Q. What fascinating facts do Liza Lentini and David Mouzon write in Discover magazine about one of mankind's greatest plagues? –P. Piper

A: There are 56 known species, including browns and blacks of various shades, their teeth growing 4-6 inches per year– at least they would if not constantly worn down from gnawing on pipes, cement, brick, wood, bones for dinner. A female can mate 500 times in a six-hour period, and a pair of browns could produce 2,000 descendants in a year if unchecked. Flush one down the toilet, and it can tread water for three days and survive, or it could fall 50 feet and land uninjured. 

Its favorite city eats are scrambled eggs, macaroni and cheese, cooked corn. Absent these, its own feces will do in a pinch for nutritional value. Killing one or many was popular sport for man and dog in 19th-century London, with one 13-pound bull terrier doing in 100 in 5 1/2 minutes. 

"Drats" has nothing to do with them, being a short form of "od rat," a euphemism for "God rot," a sort of profanity. Owing to their skill at stowing away on ships, this creature, identified as an anagram and palindrome of "star," enjoys nearly worldwide distribution. 

Q. From how high up might a dropped baseball be caught by someone down below? –G. Bagby

A. In 1908, a couple of major league catchers nabbed baseballs tossed from atop the 555-foot Washington Monument, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Thirty years later, Cleveland Indians catchers Frankie Pytlak and Hank Helf waited beneath Cleveland's Terminal Tower as balls were dropped from 700 feet up (213 meters). They wore steel helmets for protection as the balls reached an estimated 140 mph (225 km/hr).

Helf caught the first ball, claiming there was nothing to it, but the next five for Pytlak went astray. One bounded up to the 13th floor and was fielded by a police sergeant after its third bounce. "On the sixth try, Pytlak made his catch and shared the record," Walker writes.

In 1939, Joe Sprinz of the San Francisco Baseball Club tried to catch a ball dropped from a blimp 800 feet or more up; on the fifth try, he gloved one, but the impact drove hand, mitt, and ball into his face, fracturing his jaw in 12 places, breaking five teeth and knocking him unconscious– and he dropped the ball.

More ludicrous was a 1916 toss from an airplane at 400 feet by Brooklyn Dodgers trainer Frank Kelly. He pretended to launch one toward manager Wilbert Robinson below, though in reality he had substituted a red grapefruit. 

"When the fruit exploded on impact, its red contents drenched Robinson," Walker reports. "He cried, 'It broke me open! I'm covered with blood.'"

Q. What bizarre sight might a climber see from atop a high mountain? –A. Lowe

A. Serious mountain climbers have long known that thin air and reduced oxygen to the brain can bring on acute mountain sickness at altitudes above 2500 meters (8000 feet), say Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang in Welcome to Your Brain. At these heights, they write, "Mountaineers report perceiving unseen companions, seeing light emanating from themselves or others, seeing a second body like their own, and suddenly feeling emotions like fear."

Neural structures in and near the temporal and parietal lobes of the cortex can be affected, triggering seizures that elicit intense religious experiences, such as feeling that one is in heaven or in the presence of a Supreme Being. Generally, such visions are associated not only with mountains–Moses encountering a voice from a burning bush on Mount Sinai– but with other remote areas such as deserts where environmental conditions and stresses are extreme. 

Q. What's the most common cinematic sci-fi error– unsound science, you might say– to which Stanley Kubrick's classic is the quiet exception? –Hal

A. Outer space noise. Sound waves require a medium through which to travel, such as air or water, points out Adam Weiner in Don't Try This at Home: The Physics of Hollywood Movies. Sound cannot propagate through a vacuum, and therefore even a supernova explosion in space would make no sound, never mind spaceships whizzing around. 

In the 1977 Star Wars, the evil empire develops a death star capable of destroying an entire planet with a single high-energy beam. Numerous exciting space battles ensue, and in every one of them, the noise is deafening, as the ships emit whizzing, screeching and whirring sounds. This same blunder occurs in movies like Star Trek, Galaxy Quest, Starship Troopers, but Star Wars surely ranks as the consistently loudest. Only the beautiful exception of 2001: A Space Odyssey portrays the silence of space as it really is.

A space battle occurring in complete silence would be not only more accurate but more exciting than the usual fare, suggests Weiner. "Imagine the dramatic tension between the absolute silence of space juxtaposed with the deafening chaos inside an embattled space cruiser," he writes. "That's a scene I would love to see."

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