STRANGE BUT TRUE- Use your head: Take groceries home a new way


Q. You don't see women or men carrying home supermarket groceries balanced on their heads, but if they did, who would pull off this feat with the least effort? –A. Jamima

A. You Western shoppers can step aside, because some Kenyan women (and in other cultures) have so mastered the art of head-carrying they can balance and transport loads up to 20 percent of their body weight– or a 25-pound bag of potatoes for a 125-pound woman– without having to breathe heavily or exert any extra effort, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. Biomechanics is their secret, with the carrier's center of mass moving in a rhythmic up-down fashion, and her weight shifting from foot to foot, much like the motions of a unicyclist.      

All of this may require no more effort than carrying no load at all, presumably because the load causes the women to shift potential energy to kinetic energy more efficiently. Without carrying anything, these elite load-bearers walk a lot less efficiently but still more than, say, European or American women.

Q. How much (or how little) does it take to turn on a turkey? Or, how wacky can the quest for knowledge get? –G. Obbler

A. Martin Schein and Edgar Hale of Pennsylvania State University soon discovered that amorous male turkeys are far from fussy, reports Alex Boese in Elephants on Acid and Other Bizarre Experiments. First, the researchers presented male turkeys with lifelike models of females, and the males definitely were interested. Next they disassembled the model piece by piece– tail, feet, wings– until only a head remained. Still, the males were keen; in fact, they preferred a head on a stick to a headless body.

Next question was how minimal they could make the head before it failed as a turn-on: It turned out that a freshly severed head worked best, followed by a dried-out male head, then a two-year-old "discolored withered and hard" female head. Last place went to a plain balsa wood head, though even that one worked.  

"Before we humans snicker at the predilections of turkeys," says Boese, "we should recall the case of Thomas Granger, the teenage boy who in 1642 became one of the first people to be executed in Puritan New England. His crime? He had physical relations with a turkey.

Q. What's driving the fascinating new field of "roboethics," i.e., how to govern the behavior of robots? –J. Johnson

A. In his sci-fi story "Runaround," Isaac Asimov postulated his Three Laws of Robotics: 1. Robots should not harm human beings 2. Robots must obey orders 3. A robot must protect its own existence (so long as this doesn't conflict with the first two laws). Truly, bots are everywhere, from assembly lines to assistants for the aged to military aides ... prompting governments to wrestle with roboethical considerations, says Robert Sawyer in Science magazine. This is not only because robots are being used to kill people (unmanned airborne drones locate and drop bombs on individuals, as in Iraq) but also because some look and act like humans (Honda's Asimo can even dance).

Recently, South Korea established a Robot Ethics Charter, and the European Robotics Research Network set standards of robot "safety, security, privacy, traceability, identifiability." Japan, with its aging population, foresees robot caregivers in many homes and has issued policies for how they should behave and be treated.

We're not quite to the point in the story where a police officer gets a fully robotic partner or a human marries a robot. But already in the U.S., a Michigan jury awarded the family of the first human ever killed by a robot (accidentally, in 1979) a $10 million settlement, up to that point the largest personal-injury award in the state's history.

Q. Buried deep in your living room carpet, hidden amid the thick fibers like clans of forest tribesmen, are legions of dust mites, too small to be seen with the naked eye. What day of the week is most eventful for them? –T. Platts-Mills

A. Vacuuming day. Suddenly comes a big wind, sweeping them upward, the dead and living alike, says David Bodanis in The Secret House. First to go are the babies, holding on eight-leggedly for all they're worth. Then the adults follow. "It sounds horrendous, but we're not mites."

Most of the upswept population land safely in the piles of cushioning dust inside the cleaner's bag. "Nor is this just ordinary sneeze-producing and forget-about-it dust. Sucked up in the house, this dust has a terrific number of human skin flakes in it, and skin flakes are the favorite food of these mites. They have landed in dust mite heaven."

Feeding most of the time and copulating the rest, whole generations come of age inside the bag, with a few days enough to bring a juvenile to puberty. The next great event is the emptying of the bag, when a goodly number escape back into the house, many landing on the new alien terrain of the kitchen floor while others ride air currents for an hour or more back to their original homeland, the living room carpet, thus closing the loop on a mite of history.

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