STRANGE BUT TRUE- Iced down: Be careful opening that cold bottle!


Q. If I put a bottle of beer in the freezer (for a little too long), when I take it out, the beer is still liquid until I pop the cap, whereupon the stuff begins to freeze and ooze out of the bottle. Why the sudden phase transition? I know if I leave the bottle in far too long the beer will freeze with the cap on. –H. Simpson

A. Depending on its alcohol content, beer will freeze at 2-10 degrees colder than water, so it freezes slower, which is why you can usually remember to take it out before solidification– unless you've had one too many!– say Alan Benesi and Bernie O'Hare of Penn State. If the beer is right around freezing, the sudden pressure decrease upon uncapping is drastic enough to drop it below its freezing point. So you end up with a beer ice cube that keeps frothing as the carbon dioxide gas escapes. Recall that ice melts under pressure just as the pressure in the capped bottle helps keep the drink in the liquid state. Beers and cheers!

Q. For an odd sports fact, do the world's teams tend to field an odd or even number of players? But please don't ask why. –D. Scott

A. Generally the best-known team sports field an odd number of players such as 11 for cricket, 11 for field hockey, 13 for rugby league, and 15 for rugby union, say Rob Eastaway and John Haigh in How to Take a Penalty: The Hidden Mathematics of Sport. Odd too are the three major American sports of basketball with 5, baseball 9, football 11. Many of the world's smaller sports also fit, as 15 for hurling and Gaelic football (down from 21 in the early days), 11 for bandy and speedball, 7 for netball, water polo, kabaddi and handball. Of course, exceptions do occur:

There have to be an even number of oars in a boat or it would tend to go around in circles (though the presence of a cox ensures the number becomes odd again); polo uses 4 on a team, volleyball and ice hockey 6. 

The first team sport to choose the popular 11 seems to have been cricket, in 1835. Many of the earliest association football clubs were cricket offshoots, and so 11 on a team. Soon afterward the number crossed the Atlantic, with Yale introducing 11-on-a-side football. Thus American football's 11 probably had its roots in cricket. 

Q. Are doctors at the stage yet where they can measure you with a medical instrument to tell how happy you are? –D. Aller

A. Electromyography can detect electrical signals of certain facial muscles, such as those that furrow the frowning brows or that pull the mouth into a smile, says Harvard's Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness. Physiography allows quantification of electrodermal, respiratory, and cardiac activity that change with strong emotions. Electroencephalography, positron emission tomography (PET scans), and MRI measure electrical activity and blood flow in different brain regions such as the left or right prefrontal cortex signaling positive or negative emotions. "Even a clock can be a useful device because startled people tend to blink more slowly when feeling happy compared to when fearful or anxious."

So "measure you" is right. Alas, all these measurings don't mean a thing individually since there is one and only one observer stationed at the critical point of view: you have to report how you're feeling right now. At this stage of psychological science, the "view from the inside" is the only true view there is.

Q. Would you rather have 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8 x 9 dollars, or 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 dollars? –B. Gates

A. The question may seem ridiculous since both products are obviously the same. Yet when psychologists showed the first series to test subjects, they guessed an average of 500; for the reverse, 4,200. Both woefully underestimate the real answer of 362,880, say Tom Stafford and Matt Webb in Mind Hacks: Tips & Tools for Using Your Brain. Why the difference? Psychologists say we tend to "anchor" on the first number of a series. So when the first number is a small 1, the guesses are smaller; the initial 9 prompts larger estimates. The "anchoring gambit" also explains why donation solicitors will suggest you give $50, $20, $10, or $5, rather than $5, $10, $20, or $50. And it probably underlies the common practice of pricing things at $9.99, for example; although this price is only 1 cent below $10, it feels closer to $9 because that's the anchor triggered by the price tag. Irrelevant anchoring is just one of numbers' many slipperinesses and "helps explain why people so often try to con us with them," the writers say.

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