STRANGE BUT TRUE- Savage breasts: Music's great therapeutic power


Q. Just what could be music's strongest ways of moving all of us, even when we may not wish to be moved? –B. Dylan

A. A musical species we humans are, with music occupying more areas of the brain than language does, says Oliver Sacks in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. One 42-year-old man– after being struck by lightning– was suddenly inspired to become a pianist. To people with a condition termed "amusia," a symphony can sound like the clattering of pots and pans. To some, a catchy tune unstoppably takes them into hours of mental replay. For others, musical hallucinations assault them night and day.

Yet for far more people, music goes not wrong but powerfully right. Sacks once worked with victims of sleeping sickness, unable to move; yet they would come alive to music and dance and sing, only to retreat to their frozen state once the music stopped (from psychologist Frances Rauscher). Some stroke victims lose the ability to speak– unless music empowers their mind and tongue. In cases where minds are ravaged by Alzheimer's or amnesia, music can calm and organize memories. One man suffered such severe brain damage he could not respond to his children nor recall anything more than 10 seconds after it happened, yet he could conduct an entire symphony! 

Remarkably, music "may have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions."

Q. In extremis, how much could a chocoholic "stomach"? Pet owners, pay heed! –A. Taylor

A. It has been calculated that a human could theoretically eat about 110 pounds of the candy before

facing poisoning from theobromine, an ingredient chemically related to caffeine, says New Scientist magazine. 

However, not so your dog or cat: It's been said that a mere 240 grams (about one-half pound) of dark chocolate contains enough methylxanthines to kill a 40-kilogram (90-pound) canine. "Veterinary journals are peppered with stories of dogs, cats, parrots, foxes, badgers and other animals dropping dead after finding chocolate or being fed it by well-meaning humans," the article says.

"Theobroma cacao" is Greek for "food of the gods," and for millennia, people have been safely enjoying the beans of the cacao plant. Apparently we are able to metabolize the theobromine rapidly enough to avoid poisoning. But coyotes, like dogs, are sensitive enough that chocolate has been investigated as a way of controlling coyote populations, those dreaded attackers of livestock herds. 

Q. What if just for fun you drew an artful picture of a classic, teardrop-shaped raindrop for your kid, but then to your surprise, she announced that she's taking weather science in school and set out to evaluate the accuracy of your drawing. Would you make the grade? –P. Michaels

A. Not likely, since you've depicted the common but erroneous shape seen in countless children's books, drawings everywhere, even on the Weather Channel. Actually, says Pennsylvania State University's Alistair B. Fraser, real raindrops bear scant resemblance to the popular cartoon

fantasy. Instead, very small drops are spheres, larger ones look a bit like a hamburger bun, still larger ones develop a big depression in their bottom and form a sort of bag shape. This is because the bigger, housefly-sized drops fall faster– maybe 20 mph– so the air pressure on the bottom causes the depression to grow explosively until the distended drop breaks apart into many smaller, spherical drops. 

Now you know, and you can only hope that your sensitive, compassionate daughter doesn't rain too heavily on your grade parade.

Q. Imagine advanced aliens 65 million light years distant aiming a superpowerful telescope Earthward. What do they see? Dinosaurs as they were 65 million years ago, or just a blue spot? –D. Scott 

A. It is true that the light arriving right now at a planet 65 million light years away left Earth 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs were still around, says Clemson astrophysicist Bradley Meyer. This means a large enough telescope would, in principle, be able to see them.   

However, it is mind boggling to realize how large that telescope would have to be. The resolution of a telescope– how well it can distinguish two points from a given distance– is proportional to the diameter of its mirror.

The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has fantastic resolution: If it were sitting in New York City, it could see and distinguish two fireflies 1 meter (3.3 feet) apart in San Francisco!

But even with that resolution, HST can't resolve in much detail individual stars in a galaxy 65 million light years away, far less can it see planets, says Meyer. To see the Earth from that distance would require a telescope with a mirror some 13 billion times bigger in diameter than HST (42 times the diameter of the Moon's orbit around the Earth). And to see dinosaurs would require a telescope roughly 40 light-years in diameter!

Q. It's the largest organ of the body, a little over 20 pounds for a 150-pound person. It fends off microbes and functions as a body thermostat as its blood vessels constrict or dilate. A single square centimeter contains some 200 nerve endings, 100 sweat glands, 15 oil glands, 10 hairs, 2 cold receptors and 25 pressure-sensing receptors. What's this busy body part? –S. Burton

A. Skin, says Sandra S. Gottfried in Biology Today. Basically, we're all bags of bones and water, and our skin's the bag.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at