STRANGE BUT TRUE- Pat him? Like poker players, dogs have a tell


DRAWING BY DEBORAH DERR McCLINTOCK

Q. Next time you come face-to-face with an unfamiliar dog wagging its tail, could you determine whether to reach out to pet it or step back?– L. Helmsley

A. Check the tail-wag bias, advises Michael Shermer in Scientific American magazine. If the wagging tail leans toward the dog's right, you're safe; to the dog's left, don't move.

Italian neuroscientists and veterinarians at the University of Bari tested 30 mixed-breed dogs encountering four stimuli: their owner, an unfamiliar person, a cat, and an unfamiliar dominant dog. Owners elicited a strong right-wag bias, other people and the cat triggered a slight right wag, the dog a strong left.

Apparently, since the left brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa, the nerve signals cross the body's midline and cause a more rightward wag when the dog's left brain is experiencing a positive emotion. Birds, fish, and frogs show similar left-brain/right-brain differences in approach/avoidance behavior.

Q. It's called "the Fermi paradox," and the deeper humankind looks into it, the more profound its implications become. As Arthur C. Clarke once pointed out, the question must have an answer, one way or other, and either way, it will be equally amazing. In fact, if we ever learn the answer, it will cause the most dramatic shift in the status of our human species that has ever occurred in history. What is this famous question? –A. C. Clarke

A. Nobel-prize winning physicist Enrico Fermi posed this during a 1950 discussion with other scientists about extraterrestrial intelligence: If alien civilizations really are as common as it seems they ought to be, "Where is everybody?" Partly the answer to this means thinking about what a grown-up civilization might do, says Jeffrey Bennett in Beyond UFOS. Though we've never yet met one, Bennett explains, I have a pretty good idea what we humans must do to become one: We must grow and grow in wisdom because only if we learn to find solutions to worldly problems such as global warming, poverty, disease, terrorism and war– and only if we do all of this together– can we stay around long enough to gain the necessary knowledge and technology to reach outward to embrace "what lies beyond." If we can do this, "the possibilities that await us are infinite."

Q. RADAR you know about, but who or what has used SOFAR, and what does the acronym stand for?–R. O'Reilly

A. A fascinating feature of ocean water is that it transmits sound at widely varying speeds, depending on depth and temperature, says Mark Denny in "How the Oceans Work." These variables create a region of minimal sound speed, the so-called SOFAR channel for "sound fixing and ranging." This "oceanic sound pipe" is located 600-1200 meters below the ocean's surface, where it can go to work on a whale's cry, causing it to stay at that depth and to travel thousands of kilometers and still be heard.

Actually, SOFAR is a term of the U.S. Navy. If a pilot had to ditch his plane at sea, he would lower a small explosive into the channel and detonate it. The sound could then be picked up by remote hydrophones and the pilot's location determined. The Navy also used the channel to monitor foreign activity. "During the cold war, the Navy submerged hydrophones in the SOFAR channel off the California coast and was able to listen to the sounds made by the propellers of ships leaving Vladivostok Harbor in Russia." 

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

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