STRANGE BUT TRUE- Enlightened: Did lamps spark a revolution?


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. As you read this, you can appreciate the inventions of the printing press (15th century) and eyeglasses (13th or 14th century) as bulwarks of scholarship. How did the (18th century) invention of a lamp help spread the written word to the masses, and just maybe spark a class revolution? –K. Marx

A. The bright Argand oil lamp, invented by Swiss chemist Francois Ami Argand in 1783, had a hollow adjustable wick for better air flow and an enclosing glass "chimney," and made night reading and lifelong learning accessible to the common folk, says Sidney Perkowitz in Empire of Light: A History of Discovery in Science and Art. Culturally, the new lamp's brilliant flame was perhaps as stunning then as lasers are now, and lit up the night, including in Paris where the great glitter of the Palais Royale epitomized the new nightlife, and where cheek-by-jowl contact between the social castes exacerbated tensions in the days before the French Revolution.

Q. When it comes to friendship, do "birds of a feather flock together" or does complementarity rule, with the depressed drawn to happy-go-luckies, etc.? –J.J. Audubon

A. Forget fraternal opposites. Depressed people feel annoyed by those exuding bubbly cheerfulness; optimists are more likely to attract each other. In general, we like others who not only think the way we do, with similar attitudes and beliefs, but who act as we do as well, says David Myers in Social Psychology.

Subtle mimicry fosters fondness: when others nod their head along with us and echo our thoughts, we feel a rapport; when we're with a friend, we're more apt to shake a foot or touch our face when he or she does. Surprisingly, restaurant servers who mimic their customers by even just repeating their order receive higher tips.   

In a revealing study of college-age daters, the desire to find a similar mate far outweighed the desire to find a beautiful one: Attractives sought out attractives, of course, but the rich were most interested in those with money, family-oriented types looked for the family-oriented. Surely, we've all noticed this upon discovering a soul mate who likes the same music, the same activities, even the same foods.

Indeed, as we spend time with someone, an "attitude-alignment" tends to occur. And if this sort of bonding fails us, as a last resort there's the "false-consensus effect," or a tendency to automatically assume that those we like share our views.

Q. Is romance pretty much the same the world over, or is this "crazy thing called love" a work of time and place, culturally concocted? –F. Mercury

A. Something like romantic love seems to exist in all cultures, says Creighton University philosopher Richard J. White. The ancient Egyptians, Hebrews, and Persians all had their own love poetry, and in ancient Athens, love between an older (male) lover and younger (male) beloved was described in rapturous tones.

But not every society seems to approve. The early Christians, like St. Augustine, worried that deep involvement with another person would take away from the love of God. And likewise in the society portrayed in Romeo and Juliet, romantic love is viewed as dangerous and a threat to the established order.

About 200 or so years ago, however, in the days of Keats, Byron, Shelley, et al., romantic love started to become the massively popular phenomenon it is today. "Now, there's the common idea that a life without amour is a life that's wasted. It wasn't always that way, and maybe in years to come romantic love will become less important."

Q. Home from school, your kid takes a bread stick and bites off bits of it until its length just reaches from linoleum line to linoleum line running parallel across the kitchen floor. Then she starts dropping the stick randomly, again and again. Sometimes it lands across a line and sometimes it doesn't. She keeps a tally of the two. What's the little "smart aleck" up to? –M. Pythagoras

A. Same thing as 18th-century French scientist Georges Louis Leclerc Comte de Buffon, also done with a bread stick, say Edward Burger and Michael Starbird in The Heart of Mathematics. She takes the total number of drops, divides this by the number of line "hits," then multiplies by 2.

After dropping the stick 1100 times, she's quite proud of the answer she comes up with: 3.14. She explains to you that this is a good way to approximate the mathematical value of pi.

You can visit websites and watch computers simulate this with thousands of virtual drops, yielding pi to several decimal places. When the English scientist Fox did 1100 actual drops in 1864, he got a value of 3.1419– not bad since 3.14159... is the correct figure.

Q. Ants with a built-in "pedometer"? Can you guess the clever way scientists figured this one out? –C. Bicolor

A. Knowing that Saharan desert ants can't follow an odor trail because the chemicals quickly fade in the heat, Harold Wolf of the University of Ulm, Germany, wondered how the insects found their way back to the nest from a food source, says New Scientist Magazine. Could they somehow estimate distance by keeping track of their number of steps?

So Wolf's team removed about one mm from the tips of some ants' legs while adding one mm stilts (made of lightweight bristles) to the legs of others. These were all ants that had just visited a familiar food site. Upshot: The ants on stilts typically went about 50 percent farther than the normal distance, then began pacing back and forth looking for home; the ants with shortened legs paced back and forth, apparently lost, after traveling only 50 percent of the way back.

Wolf concluded that "the ants indeed have some sort of internal system that keeps track of the steps taken and gets reset on returning to the nest." Next up: Any ant speedometers out there?

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.

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