STRANGE BUT TRUE- Tall stack: How unlikely is that lottery win


Q. Let's say you've played your share of lotteries in the past but have gotten tired of losing. Now your daughter is infatuated with a game called MongaMillions, with a 1-in- 100-million chance of winning, and has started sinking in plenty of her hard-earned bucks. How might you use a "guesstimate gambit" to help her break her habit?

A. To make her gamble more graphic to her, you set out to compute the height of a stack of all possible tickets, assuming there are in fact 100 million different ones, say Lawrence Weinstein and John Adam in Guesstimation: Solving the World's Problems on the Back of a Cocktail Napkin.

While it's hard to gauge the thickness of a single lottery ticket, try instead for the thickness of a packet of 52 tickets, which is close to that of a pack of 52 playing cards, or about 1 cm. This would put the thickness of one ticket at about .0002 meter. Next multiply .0002 times 100,000,000 tickets and you get roughly 20 kilometers, or 15 miles.

 If stacked vertically, these tickets would be twice the height of Mt. Everest or twice as high as jumbo jets fly. As will be manifestly clear to your dear daughter, "the chance of pulling the single winning ticket from that 15-mile-high stack is pretty small."

Q. It's said that "money won't buy happiness." But what if you spend it in just the right way?

A. As people increase their wealth, they often pour their money into pursuits that have little effect on lasting happiness, such as purchasing costly consumer goods, say psychologist Elizabeth Dunn et al in Science magazine. Ironically, the potential for money to boost happiness may be subverted by the very kinds of things that thinking about money promotes. The mere thought of having more makes people less likely to help acquaintances, to donate to charity, or to spend time with others– all things strongly associated with life satisfaction.

 "Prosocial" is the operative word here, though, sadly, the majority of people underestimate the powers of generosity to reward the giver. So pass along the message from the researchers: How people spend their money is as important as how much money they have. The old adage "it's better to give" seems to be literally true.

Q. "I'm not an X, but I play one on TV." "X is the new Y." "If Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, imagine how many words X have for Y." "Snowclone is the new cliche." Come again? What's this all about?

A. They're actually all "snowclones," a term coined by economist Glen Whitman, who was punning on the syrup-flavored shaved ice snowcone, says Paul McFedries in IEEE Spectrum magazine. The original formulaic format followed the Eskimo snow statement above. Never mind that the major premise is false– Eskimos have no more words for snow than anyone else– this cultural cliche was born.

 By now, scores of snowclones are firmly entrenched in mainstream culture:

 * "I'm not an X but I play one on TV" spun off from a cough-syrup ad some 20 years ago where an actor said, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV"

 * "X? We don't need no stinking X!" from the 1935 book The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, popularized in Mel Brooks' 1974 comedy Blazing Saddles: "Badges? We don't need no stinking badges!"

 * "X and Y and Z, oh my!" from the 1939 film version of "The Wizard of Oz": "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"

 * "X is the new Y," the idea being that some new thing X has become more popular than the older thing Y, such as the current "green is the new black," "40 is the new 30" or "Snowclone is the new cliche."

 For even more, visit the Snowclones Database.

Q. Compared to a long-distance runner, what is a sprinter's stock in trade?

A. The sprinter needs plenty of muscle for acceleration while the runner needs a big heart for aerobic endurance, says University of Leeds zoologist R. McNeill Alexander in The Human Machine. The men's world record mean speed for 100 meters is around 10 meters/second, close to that for 200 meters but down to 6 meters/second for 10,000 meters. In short races, much of the energy comes from processes that don't immediately need oxygen, so any oxygen debt can be repaid later. But it's more pay-as-you- go with strong heart and lungs for distance runners.

 Good thing lions aren't in competition here, for although human sprinters get off the line as fast–10 meters per second per second, faster than a car– the lion can push the accelerator longer.

Q. It stands 100 feet taller than Niagara Falls, weighs as much as 1,500 midsize cars, and was already 2,000 years old when Columbus set sail. It is still alive and growing. What is it?

A. A sequoia tree named the "General Sherman," located in the Giant Grove of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park in California. A seedling around the time of the Roman Empire, it is now the largest plant on Earth, report Neil Campbell, et al, in "Biology: Concepts and Connections."

 Sequoias were cut down during the heyday of lumbering last century, when a single tree yielded prime boards sufficient for about 50 houses.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at