STRANGE BUT TRUE- Revelations: Phone conversations tell all


Q. How well can people tell your age from hearing your voice over the phone? What else are you broadcasting? –A. G. Bell

A. Listeners can guess age accurately to within about a decade, says Indiana University speech and hearing scientist Moya L. Andrews. That is, they couldn't peg a speaker at exactly 34, but between 30 and 40. But there are red herrings. For males, voice frequency starts high in youth and drops steadily until the late 40s, then swings back up in senescence, says David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. For females, pitch is stable through middle age, then drops. He swings up, she down, and at some point in the aging process, phone gender mistakes become common.

If you want to hide your age, avoid digital audiotape recorders– too true to the signal, says Utah State's Kim Corbin-Lewis. Some people sound even older than they are, so for them bad phone machines and lines may camouflage.

Other telltale acoustic aspects have to do with body size. Bigger bodies tend to issue lower pitch. Health and vitality can affect voice volume and tone. Even height is somehow evident. So striking are these, notes Columbia researcher Robert Krauss, that sampled auditors of live voices could guess speaker height to within three inches, and weight about as accurately as others could from a photo.

Q. Identify the manner of execution that could vary from seemingly swift and minimally painful to protracted and gruesome. Not for the faint of heart. –O. BinLaden

A. Beheading, says New Scientist magazine. The height of decapitation technology was of course the guillotine, officially adopted by the French government in 1792 and promoted as one of the more humane ways of execution. Maybe so, but only if the executioner was skilled, his blade swift, and the condemned sat still. At times, onlookers were aghast at the nearly instantaneous speed of death. Still, consciousness would linger briefly, with a 1991 study of rats showing it takes nearly 3 seconds for the brain to consume the oxygen from the blood in the head. The equivalent figure for humans has been estimated at 7 seconds.

Various macabre historical reports from post-revolutionary France cited movement of the eyes and mouth for 15-30 seconds after the blade struck, though these may have been post-mortem twitches and reflexes.

But many of the condemned were not "lucky" enough to go by way of the guillotine. For Mary Queen of Scots in 1587, it took the axe man three attempts and he had to finish with a knife. In 1541, the Countess of Salisbury, Margaret Pole, was dragged to the block at the Tower of London but she refused to lay her head down. 

"The inexperienced axe man made a gash in her shoulder rather than her neck. According to some reports, she leapt from the block and was chased by the executioner, who struck 11 times before she died."

Q. Were you born not in the '50s, the '60s, the '70s but in the "Noughties"? –J. Caesar   

A. Not unless you're a precocious column reader, as "the Noughties" is the slightly humorous British reference to the decade from 2000 to 2009. "Nought" designates zero or nothing. Unlike "the Twenties" or "the Sixties," the 2000s have no universally accepted name, though many have been tried out by various media, says The aughties (aught also means zero), double-aughts, nils and nillies, 2Ks, ozies, Twenty-Os, zeroes, double zeroes, ohs, double ohs, and oh-ohs. Of course, "simply saying 'the 2000s' can cause confusion, since this could refer to the entire 21st century– or even the entire millennium."

The problem was handled rather differently at the start of the 20th century, when the decade reference in Britain was to the Edwardian era (King Edward VII) or elsewhere to "the turn of the century" or "the early years of the century."

Q. Butt your head into this one, if you will: What sport and sports engineering debate have introduced such terminology as "unpredictable trajectory," "equilibrium combination," "pentagonal dodecahedron" and "rhombic triacontahedron"? –D. Beckham  

A. These describe some of the many facets of soccer ball design, says Science magazine. After goaltenders at the 2006 soccer World Cup in Germany complained that the latest ball design caused an "unpredictable trajectory," experts in polyhedra (many-sided objects) were consulted. One South African prof came up with an equilibrium combination of 12 panels of a pentagonal dodecahedron and 30 panels of a rhombic triacontahedron. The more panels, the more spherical the ball, and the closer it is to a perfect sphere, the smoother its trajectory. Because the 2006 ball moved more like a nervous knuckler in baseball, improvement is paramount, said one physicist. Yet at this point, the soccer ball's many facets are still being debated as the 2010 World Cup in South Africa draws nearer.

Q. From an energy standpoint, your brain is a) a highly efficient economizer b) a hog c) well worth its "operating fee." –J. Jane

A. It's all of these, of course, with its hungry neurons and synapses eating up only 12 watts of power, less than needed to run your refrigerator light, say Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang in Welcome to Your Brain. Over the course of a day, this amounts to roughly the energy contained in a large banana. Still, in a sense, your brain is hoggish because while it's only 3 percent of body weight, it consumes one-sixth (17 percent) of the body's energy output. But snacking more won't help. Most of your brain's energy costs go into maintenance, i.e., keeping you ready to think by preserving the electric field across each neuron's membrane to facilitate communication with other neurons

"The added cost of thinking is barely noticeable. Look at it this way: You're already paying to support your brain, so you might as well use it."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at